A long time ago, our ancestors selected certain sounds from the diverse range of impressions that the human vocal tract is capable of producing, and agreed upon to attach meanings to those sounds, thereby creating language in a process that is still not yet fully understood today. In a similar way, we as individuals and as a society do not wander aimlessly about the places we live and move in everyday. We define spaces, we attach significance to certain areas of our world, and I think this activity will only intensify in an increasingly crowded, modern world.
Perhaps the most obvious and most-commonly defined space that comes to mind is the home. There is no shortage of instances in popular literature and culture that pay homage to this most comfortable and most valued of places. At the end of struggles and pain and sacrifices, there will always be a warm home full of love that the protagonist can return to. The movie Apocalypto, after all the scenes of horror and action-adventure, can be thought of simply as a man’s prolonged journey home. Superman, or Kal-el, was brought to Earth because of the destruction of his home planet. “The World is Our Playground and We Will Always Be Home,” according to the band Up dharma Down.
There is no universal definition for any space, however, and conflicts can arise when some try to impose their definition on others. For example, look at the school. Traditional teachers may view the classroom as a strict workplace, a space where discipline must be maintained in order to instill the same on students and create an environment fit for the official, authoritative definition of classrooms: spaces for the intellectual development of children. But take the children’s point of view and ask yourself: when you look back and think about the school you grew up in, is it really the rigor of the learning experience that you remember first? No, we are more likely to recall those features and episodes that gave us deeply emotional experiences. For many people, for many kids, the school is not a place of education as much as it is a place of socialization. It is a place to interact with peers outside of home. Maybe this conflict of definitions of the same space is what leads to confrontations between strict teachers and insubordinate students. They are two people acting in the same space with two different expectations. The school is the second home indeed, but just how comfortable one should get in this secondary home is subject to negotiation (in an amicable manner or otherwise).
Another space with conflicted definitions, and this is particularly relevant to Philippine society, is the mall. The commercial mall was a point of harsh cultural criticism years ago at the height of expansion of some retailing corporations, but the talk has died down even as corporations continue to build malls at an unsettling rate. The problem, of course, is that these malls are taking over traditional public spaces as venues for social gathering, replacing the neutral environment of parks and plazas with one that is saturated with commercialism. Perhaps it is not problematic at all for many, but some are asking, are these spaces any good for ‘discourse’? Are they legitimate symbols of economic progress, or are they mere distractions from the project of genuine development?
This reminds me of a classical topic that touches upon the idea of spaces in a beautiful way: rhetoric. Contemporary orators have devices and gadgets to aid them in delivering their speeches, but before the advent of these technologies, rhetoric taught public speakers to use spaces to help them memorize their declamations. These rhetoricians would practice in the very stage from which they will deliver their speech, moving from spot to spot while associating key points of their addresses to specific locations. When the time comes to speak to the live audience, they will take the same movements, and the previously associated sections of their orations will naturally come back to them—the space reinforces the message.
What do the spaces we frequent tell us about the messages we like to hear?
Thankfully, from another topic of rhetoric, argumentation, we learn that definitions are negotiable. He who controls the definition, controls the debate, though we all have the power to redefine our spaces.
Maybe those who frequent malls are not the mindless consumerists some make them out to be. Maybe they are there out of necessity, defining the space as a place to rest, giving and taking just enough to equip themselves for the other spaces where they exert their real and important work. We should recognize the new commercial spaces that promote art, culture and heritage as much as they sell goods and services.
Maybe traditional teachers are a dying breed, and indeed we are now seeing calls to reform entire educational systems to encourage empathy, turning them into truly comfortable second homes while keeping them as spaces for intellectual development.
Maybe spaces are just as arbitrary as language, and while we have to agree upon some meanings, we are allowed to create some variant definitions.