Space v Place in Seamus Heaney and Ian Sinclair Poetry, 1st class degree essay, 3000 words


‘How do any two of the texts/writers from the unit negotiate any one of the following concerns: a: belief (atheism, occultism as well as religion); b: space vs place; c: myth; d: modernity; e: conflict.’


I will focus on the concern of space vs place in relation to Ian Sinclair and Seamus Heaney. Firstly, I will look at definitions of space and place from the work of De Certeau and post-colonial theorist Paul Carter. I then want to focus on Ian Sinclair’s latest text, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2009) where he produces a ‘documentary fiction’ of Hackney in East London. I will argue that Sinclair’s writing draws on Situationist practices to present an alternative writing of space resistant to dominant narratives of development in the area, but can’t ultimately be separated from processes he is inevitably part of. Heaney, in a different way, attempts to write a space between cultures, but is implicated in processes of mythology, which determine space in both a poetic and political sense.


Paul Carter investigates the distinction between space and place in his proposals for a form of ‘Spatial History’. For Carter, the act of naming in a colonial situation is of vital importance:


Rewritten and repeated, [the place name] serves as a point of departure. But…the name is also the result of erasure: It also symbolizes the Imperial project of permanent possession through dispossession.

(Carter 1995: 375)


In other words, the act of naming the colonized country functions, from the perspective of the colonizers, as a new beginning for a new land. On the other hand, in order to do this, it has to erase and repress indigenous history. Such processes are evident in much colonial/post-colonial literature. The image of the “blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to gloriously dream over” (Conrad 1994: 12) in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for example, shows how areas of Africa not yet conquered by the colonizers are presented as empty spaces, in wait of new names and new histories, granted no definitions of their own. For Carter:


By the act of place-naming, space is transformed symbolically into a place, that is, a space with a history. (Carter 1995: 377)


Space then, according to his definition, is the ‘blank space’ of Conrad’s Africa, later transformed by colonizers into a ‘place’ through narratives and rituals of legitimation such as history and the act of naming itself. Space is uncoded and place is overlaid with ideological codings. Carter’s definitions do have some problems. It is difficult to propose the concept of ‘space’ outside of language or representation for example. It does however, provide some language for discussing negotiations, contestations and redefinitions of place, from particular perspectives, for particular ends.


De Certeau adopts a different but related distinction. For him:


A place is the order in accord with which elements are distributed in relations of coexistence. It thus excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location. A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. (De Certeau 1994: 14)


A ‘place’ is the rational, geometric or ideal form of space. ‘Space’ on the other hand is the action of using a place, an experience of place, or a “practiced place” (19):


A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. (17)


For De Certeau, the city is a text and those walking through it are its writers, composing a narrative through their journeys. While the city is planned functionally, as a geometric or geographically defined place, alternative narratives of space, or “another spatiality” (93) provide an alternative way of theorizing it:


A migrational or metaphorical city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city. (93)


Carter’s and De Certeau’s definitions of space and place can be read productively together. Carter’s analysis operates as ideological critique, revealing how processes of defining ‘place’, are always based on the erasure of other histories and the maintenance of legitimating fictions to sustain and naturalise discourses of progress or rationality. De Certeau’s analysis on the other hand, suggests how practices can actively and productively challenge the imposed rationality of ‘places’ by composing new narratives of ‘space’ through fragments of everyday experience. The Situationist’s definition of the derive as an aimless drift through the city, “exercise in territorial reconnaissance or interpretation of the urban text” (Kaufmann and Goodman 1997: 64), politicizes this act directly. To drift becomes a way to resist the spectacular reduction of everything to the market, opening up subjectivity to new and unseen dimensions, “the liberation of man from material cares” (Marcus1989: 172).


Ian Sinclair’s latest work is an investigation of the streets of Hackney, East London where he has lived and worked for the last forty years. It can be read in terms of developments of Situationist practice, countering the transformation of space according to market forces with seemingly aimless walks, structured however into coherent narrative form. A contested site, the borough of Hackney is currently an area in a state of rapid transition, being redeveloped, remarketed and redefined as the place for the 2012 London Olympics. According to Carter’s definition, such rebranding of Hackney can operate as a form of erasure of rich histories in the area already. Sinclair’s narratives, on the other hand, operate as a reclaiming or redetermination of space through his walks, and focus on what is excluded from the dominant narrative of gentrification. It starts:


We are the rubbish. Outmoded and unrequired. Dumped on wet pavings and left there for weeks, in the expectation of becoming art objects, a baleful warning. Nobody pays me to do this. It is my own choice, to identify with detritus in a place that has declared war on unconvinced recyclers while erecting expensive memorials to the absence of memory. This is a borough that has dedicated itself to obliterating the meaning of shame. (Sinclair 2009: 7)


Sinclair’s identification with rubbish and detritus recalls De Certeau’s focus on the “waste products of a functionalist administration” (De Certeau 1984: 94). The narrative of linear progress imposed by regeneration schemes upon the streets of Hackney can be challenged by a focus on what is excluded from such a process, most visually and viscerally the rubbish left behind, which operates, as De Certeau proposes, as a “re-emergence of the element that the urbanistic project excluded” (95). Such details of everyday life act as a counterbalance to the ideals of rational planning. The narrative voice slips between ‘we’ and ‘I’ suggesting an erosion of identity as well as the plurality of those cast aside by modernity. Sinclair’s own rejection of commercialism, ‘nobody pays me to do this’ has no place in the proposed narratives for the borough, dedicated as it is to forgetting. By identifying with rubbish, he shows that it may only be useless waste from a certain perspective. Its hope here is ‘becoming art objects’, suggesting a recuperation back into a commercial system of which it stands, as in the way De Certeau suggests, “progress allows an increasing number of these waste products to be reintroduced into administrative circuits” (94).


Sinclair’s proposal is also different however from De Certeau, rubbish as art object may well re-enter a commercial system, but the potential is left open here that it may do so differently, as “reconstituted damage” (Sinclair 2009:8), establishing a different network of forms and connections that those imposed by the structure from which it has been abandoned, and so challenging that structure itself. The rubbish here takes on a quality related to ‘the allegorical ruin’ as defined by Walter Benjamin and taken up by Craig Owens, “Here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape, ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay” (Owens 2003: 1025). While challenging the linearity of progress with a narrative of decay, these objects also offer the potential to be redefined in different narratives, suggesting modes of escape from the history they represent. Ruins acts as a motif throughout Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. They are “formed into..votive presences..adapted, graciously, to where they are” (Sinclair 2009: 8), or defining images of an area “that nobody had any good reason, as yet, to demolish” (12), hovering between past and future determinations and so acting as a rebuke to incorporations into any one narrative of place.


On one hand in the text, there is a lack of hope, ‘expectation’ suggests that most rubbish will not become art, and will continue to lie for more weeks. On the other hand, however, that same ‘expectation’ does provide hope in the form of potential for that abandoned from a system to articulate an alternative future. This suggests a way of reading Sinclair’s strategy. From his walks and narrations in the city, he amasses fragments, which may continue to, metaphorically, lie unused for weeks, but still however retain the potential to haunt and redefine space through the very histories left behind by other definitions of place. These fragments are often represented in lists, “Plane trees old enough to appear in sepia postcards. Coming home at the end of an afternoon walk. Councils of sleek crows. Magpies imitating road drills” (Sinclair 2009: 7). Reading the short sentences produces a stuttering, forcing a slow trawl through amassing images. This gives them the quality of stacked memories or objects, agglomerating at a different pace or different direction from the sleek narratives proposed elsewhere, the sanitized image of the ‘I Love Hackney’ logo covering the borough proposed by the council for example, or the regulation of cycling in sites designated as having “metropolitan importance” (20). Such marketing campaigns and media representations, vital in constructions of place, are satirized by Sinclair throughout:


They need a business plan, a sponsor. They have not been rebranded by the council as a ‘negative youth affiliation’. Nobody puts them on television without a cellophane carpet of flowers. (11)


As rebuke to the reduction of place to slogan, he constructs an excessive style, where narratives of fiction, fantasy, subjectivity and historical reference mingle into a more multi-layered notion of place:


Preoccupied, contained in the dream of a place, my harmless excursion, one walk fading into the footprints of the last, ruptures. (10)


There will always be gaps, or ruptures, in official definitions of place, to allow other narratives to slip in. Sinclair’s loops, repetitions and retracings, “keep on saying it until someone pays you attention” (13) become his way to performatively sketch out the identity of the place he describes, producing it through the act of walking and framing it as narrative.


Sinclair’s redefinitions of place could be seen as romanticisation, based on nostalgia for a lost past and glamorization of the everyday. The position of the artist as someone who has the authority to reconfigure everyday rubbish into aesthetic experience is assumed in his opening paragraph and not problematised.  He is always quick to counterbalance this tendency however with representations of crime or violence which resists glamorization, “the viscous slime that ran down my collar wasn’t brain-matter, just past its sell-by yolk” (12).  Another criticism of his work is how he can maintain a position outside of or counter to official narratives of place, when he is very much a part of the re-marketing of an area dotted with bookshops decked out with Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire in their windows.  As Alex Murray has written, Sinclair has, “to some extent been reincorporated by that very form of cultural appropriation that he has written against over the past thirty years” (Murray 2007:170). It is interesting in this context how this operates specifically spatially. Sinclair recently gave a tour and lecture as part of the Art Bus organized by Sketch in London to introduce art collectors to local galleries. Sinclair took the bus to a site in Hackney Wick where the Olympic redevelopment is at its most visible. Here he took the bus to a squat and pointed out some graffiti made by residents as a sign that ‘authentic’ art and reclaiming of space still existed at the borderzones of commercialization. The squat residents, unhappy to be defined in such a way, called the police to report the bus tour as trespassers. This incident illustrates not only how psychogeographical tours of zones of contested territory have become as marketable as the dominant narratives of place they attempt to challenge, but also how those romanticized by such idealizing of authenticity and origins do not always fit so neatly into the psychogeographer’s narrative when given the opportunity to have a voice or voices of their own.


Not oblivious to the ironies of his work, Sinclair shows self-awareness and self-reflexivity throughout Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, “a man, a couple of years short of sixty, reverting to jungle-law slapstick. Idiotic. Insane. Unless it becomes part of a book” (Sinclair 2009: 11). It is the constant drawing attention to the process of constructing myths for the area that shows awareness of his own implications in the mythologisation of the area as a whole. He still retains however, the belief in the potential of writing to renegotiate and challenge definitions of place, actively producing space throughout his movements.


This awareness of the position of the writer in relation to narratives of space and place is also important in the work of Seamus Heaney. In ‘England’s Difficulty’ he describes himself as “a double agent” who “reported back to nobody” (Heaney 1998: 43). This positioning of himself between cultures, with split allegiances, allows for a different perspective than the immersed viewpoint of Sinclair’s work. Instead, Heaney occupies a position of standing back, attempting to look from a critical distance at constructions of space and place and their political and poetic legitimations. In ‘Act of Union’, Heaney makes an analogy between Imperial and sexual conquest as a narrative for the production of the place of Ireland. This is achieved initially from a bird’s eye view perspective. Ireland is personified as a woman, “your back is a firm line of Eastern coast / And arms and legs are thrown / Beyond your gradual hills” (74). If Sinclair’s position is that of De Certeau’s walkers, who write the city without being able to read it, composing a story of ‘other’ fragments (De Certeau 1984: 93), then Heaney’s image suggests the voyeurism De Certeau reads into the position of looking down on the city:


When he goes up there, he leaves behind the mass…His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance..It allows one to read [the city], to be a solar eye, looking down like a God. (92)


Heaney’s position as ‘double agent’ offers the potential to be part of both cultures while being part of neither, granting him the power to look down on them from above. De Certeau relates this voyeuristic desire to the lust to escape the chaos of the everyday, “the exaltation of a scopic and Gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more” (92). In Heaney’s poetry however, it soon becomes clear that such desire can never be satisfied as he is always implicated in the conflicts he described. In ‘Act of Union’, the ‘I’ of the poet plays the role of Colonial rapist, “ And I am still imperially / Male, leaving you with the pain” (Heaney 1988: 74). In ‘Making Strange’ the figure of the poet is shown, “stood between” two voices (154), emphasizing the connection of language and the voice to discourses of identity and history. One represents the rural traditions of Heaney’s past, “unshorn and bewildered” (154) and the other the urban sophistication of “traveled intelligence”. The poet takes up a “cunning middle voice” (154) as:


I found myself driving the stranger


through my own country, adept

at dialect, reciting  my pride

in all that I knew, that began to make strange

at that same recitation. (154-155)


The poet’s position, driving the urban personification through the country, in order to define a narrative of space, is very different from Sinclair’s. His movement here is one of escape and then return to a familiar land, ‘my own country’, and its traditions of language and dialect that he is still able to recite. However, what is emphasized here is the loss of connection to his roots. Although he can recite dialect, it becomes strange even as he speaks it. The poet is trapped. He can never stand outside of land and the traditions and mythologies which define it. He will always have a connection to it, yet be distant from it at the same time, and Heaney’s mythopoeiac strategies, where he mixes existing myths with his own fictions and fantasies, as in ‘Sweeney Redivius’ for example, can be seen as a way of attempting to negotiate a language for this constant process of hybridization. In ‘Punishment’, the poet is described as a voyeur, but an “artful voyeur” (72), another image, like that of “conniving” in the same poem, or the “cunning” of making strange, that suggest an ambivalence about clever artificiality and the moulding of nature into form. The act of writing itself, as a mode of, in Carter’s definition, turning space into place, is foregrounded in Heaney.


Space and place can never be effectively separated. While dominant cultural discourses, whether of colonialism, or of commercial development, are constantly defining place, attempting to erase previous histories, traces of those repressed histories always remain. Writers have played the role of walkers, framing alternative spaces through the narrative of their travels, which are then recaptured as part of other determinations of places. Space and place, as Heaney’s movement in ‘Making Strange’ suggests, are in a constant process of becoming, involved in complex networks of negotiation in relation to other discourses such as Nation, Identity or History. Both Ian Sinclair and Seamus Heaney use writing as a way of investigating these processes. Sinclair draws on Situationist discourses but is more self-aware about his own implication in the contemporary form of the society of the spectacle. Heaney uses the place-defining forces of mythology as a mode of relating his own identity to the post-colonial relationship between Britain and Ireland.





Carter, P. (1995) ‘Spatial History’, in B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths & H. Tiffin Eds. The Post Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 375-377.


Conrad, J. (1994) Heart of Darkness, London: Penguin.


De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans. S. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Heaney, S. (1988) New Selected Poems 1966-1987 . London: Faber.


Kaufman, V. and Goodman, J. (1997) ‘Angels of Purity’, October Vol. 79. Guy Debord and the Internationale Situationniste (Winter, 1997). 49-68.


Marcus, G. (1989) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. London: Picador


Murray, A. (2007) Recalling London: Literature and History in the Work of Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair. London: Continuum.


Owens, C. (2003) ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, in C. Harrison & P. Wood Eds. Art in Theory 1900-2000:An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.1025-1032


Sinclair, I. (2009) Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. London: Hamish Hamilton.