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Card Index: City as a Palimpsest

How to read the '(inter)text' of urban places

ISTOCK // undefined Eucalyp from flaticon.com

Any cultural landscape is a narrative or a story. A big, modern city with its multiple contesting meanings and social practices, an ongoing dialogue of different eras, and physical spaces coexisting with imaginary ones can be compared to a complex, multi-layered text. A recent paper by Ivan Mitin, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Urban and Regional Development, portrays the big city as an enormous, continuously updated manuscript.

Cities are sometimes metaphorically described as a palimpsest. What does that mean?

palimpsest refers to an ancient manuscript on parchment or papyrus on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. A city landscape is similar to palimpsest in that one can see traces of the past showing through more recent elements. Thus, a big city can be compared to a multi-layered text accommodating a polyphony of meanings, eras, actors, and practices.

Traditionally, this metaphor has been used in studies of history or architecture to emphasize that a certain place — such as a city or its part, e.g., a district or a street — is characterized by coexistence of material elements originating from different historical periods. This approach focuses on transformation of cultural landscapes over time. But a broader understanding is also possible, where the palimpsest metaphor refers to a polyphony and multiplicity of functions and visions, spatial representations and interpretations of a big city.

So a big city is an intertext of sorts?

Right. According to prominent French philosopher and semiotician Roland Barthes, any text is 'a new tissue of past citations' and therefore 'any text is an intertext' in which 'the texts of the previous and surrounding culture' are present 'in more or less recognizable forms.' In this sense, a city is indeed intertextual.

When and how was the metaphor of palimpsest first used to describe a city?

American geographer Donald William Meinig was perhaps the first to apply the metaphor in a broader sense back in the 1970s. He refers to a cultural landscape as 'at once a panorama, a composition, a palimpsest, a microcosm [...] in every prospect there can be more and more that meets the eye.' This description reflects the complexity of a cultural landscape and ushers the concept of its intertextuality. It was during the cultural turn in the 1970s — when the new subdiscipline of cultural (humanitarian) geography emerged at the intersection of geography and cultural studies, history, anthropology, philology, art history, and geopolitics — that the palimpsest metaphor developed into a conceptual model of a place.

Place or space?

It's about place. To clarify: place is defined in Anglo-American humanistic geography as a meaningful piece of space. According to one formula, 'Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning.' Here is another definition: 'To make a place is to surround a locality with human meanings.' A city is a place which we endow with meanings associated with certain human emotions. A place is something that people live in and identify with. Thus, the palimpsest metaphor is linked to the concept of a place as a multitude of coexisting realities created by the impact of different human cultures on the landscape.

Who is the author of this approach in cultural geography?

American researcher Richard H. Schein. He believes that viewing the landscape as a palimpsest makes it possible to describe 'erasure and overwriting and the coexistence of several different scripts, implying not just different historical eras, but several historical and contemporary actors as well.' In other words, Schein extrapolates the palimpsest metaphor to all interpretations of cultural landscape, determined not only by history but also by different 'readings' of a place by social, ethnic, religious or professional groups. Based on their own identity, spatial experience, imagination, emotions and other factors, people 'decode' and interpret landscapes in one way or another.

The result must be a hodgepodge of meanings, right?

Not quite so. Rather, according to UK geographer Mike Crang, contemporary landscape can be described as ‘the sum of erasures, accretions, anomalies and redundancies over time.' Indeed, reading a landscape as a text can be a challenge. As noted by American researcher Peirce F. Lewis, landscapes can be 'messy and disorganized, like a book with pages missing, torn and smudged.' He also likens landscapes to books whose copies have been 'edited and re-edited by people with illegible handwriting.'

Are landscape renewals associated with a change in values?

Quite often, they are. Slovenian researcher Mimi Urbanc and her co-authors find the fact that some landscape elements in post-socialist cities have remained while some others have been destroyed to reflect a major value change. What is considered valuable remains, and what is not valued disappears, although 'value systems keep changing, too.' According to Urbanc and her colleagues, 'Landscape is thus a collection of inscriptions by all formations, where one can still recognize the signs of different time periods.' Thus, the palimpsest model is consistent with the concept of multi-layered post-socialist urban landscapes often described as exaggerated, outdated, opposed or 'imposed'. The reading of such a palimpsest 'is more like a process of multifocal, and often ambiguous, communication than an act of linear understanding.'

Is there a way to describe this multitude of voices in geographical terms?

The 20th century saw numerous debates over different approaches to geographical descriptions. Essentially, these were debates on how each layer of a place as a palimpsest is constructed. Ongoing discussions both in Russia and the West focused on complex geographical characteristics and regional descriptions. The methodology developed by the founder of the Soviet school of economic geography Nikolay Baransky was consonant with the approach proposed by American geographer John F. Hart, who argued that encyclopaedic descriptions of places are not always appropriate. According to Hart, good regional geography should be organized 'around the dominant theme of each region,’ which will vary from region to region. A geographer 'should give pride of place in each region to its most important or significant features.' This approach makes it possible to (re)construct the unique image of a place by highlighting its most prominent characteristics.

Would you say that the image of a place is created by imagination being superimposed on objective reality?

Absolutely. As shown by cognitive psychology, imagination plays an essential role in our perception of space. According to Ulric Neisser, 'at each moment the perceiver is constructing anticipations of certain kinds of information that enable him [or her] to accept it as it becomes available.' Neisser's 'anticipatory schemata' direct the exploration of available information and are essentially the image of a place arising in the mind when reality is unavailable for perception.

Is it true that the image of a place can be shaped by experience, learning, imagination and memory?

This idea was proposed by American researcher David Lowenthal and inspired subsequent interpretations of geographical imagination — e.g., by British geographer Derek Gregory — and of human impact on cultural landscape. There is also critical geography that promotes a rather radical perspective on cities. According to French geographer Yves Lacoste, imaginary space is a function of dominant power images imposed on society by the media (which, of course, went against the popular ideas of people's emotional ties to cultural landscapes). Such 'artificial' spatial representations, according to Lacoste, are a source of conflict — rivalries for territory — and a determining factor in the development of material landscapes. In other words, the French academic challenges the palimpsest model. Why would we want multiple images of the same place if they are nothing but reflections of externally imposed dominant images?

Are there other approaches to multi-level interpretation of landscapes?

Yes. Henri Lefebvre proposed three levels of analysis, encompassing the physical (actual), mental (imagined) and lived (social) spaces. As already mentioned, the cultural turn caused geographers to shift from studying the first space, i.e., material cultural landscapes, to exploring the second space, which critical geography considers to be a function of dominant power images. As for the third space, it was defined by Lefebvre as 'the space directly lived, <...> the space of inhabitants and users,' a 'real-and-imagined' space we live in. Incidentally, the third space is particularly relevant to the palimpsest model as it involves the practices of inhabiting a space as well as representations. Thus, philosopher and sociologist Lefebvre suggests to geographers that every society produces its own space.

In what way can societies produce their own spaces?

According to Lefebvre, the 20th-century industrial society/space has been replaced by 'completely urbanized' society and space. While the former is seen as centrally planned and characterized by imposed homogeneity (hence Lacoste's ideas of dominant images of a place), this is not how a 'completely urbanized' space works. The latter is created by its many active inhabitants. 'During this new period differences are known and recognized, mastered, conceived and signified,' according to Lefebvre. 'Urban space-time <...> appears as a differential, each place and each moment existing only within a whole, through the contrasts and oppositions.' This space appears complex, multifaceted and polyphonic, giving a new meaning to the concept of place as a palimpsest. This new space also embraces numerous social practices and experiences of inhabiting it.

How can the concept of palimpsest contribute to regional governance?

First, by emphasizing the uniqueness of each place, city and region, and the needs of its inhabitants. Cultural geography can support innovative governance practices such as area marketing and branding by providing a cultural interpretation of a certain place's various aspects, from a cultural paradigm to space-inhabiting practices. A place brand is understood as a 'multidimensional construct, consisting of functional, emotional, relational and strategic elements that collectively generate a unique set of associations with the place in the public mind,' This is entirely consistent with the palimpsest model.

Geocultural branding is a concept that has emerged over the last decade. It means that place branding, in addition to attracting external audiences, should support local residents' identities and local patriotism. Once again, the palimpsest model that brings out the various meanings of a place could serve as a good reference.



Study author:
Ivan Mitin, Associate Professor, Faculty of Urban and Regional Development / Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism; Course Instructor, 'Urban Cultural Landscape'
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 28, 2022