Foregrounding spatiality as primary dimension of textuality – Fellows’ seminar by James Ocita

19 June 2023

The final seminar of the first semester featured James Ocita with a paper entitled, ‘Textual Spatialisation: Signification and the problem of representation’.  Ocita is a STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow from the 2018 cohort, in his final residency, and a lecturer at the Department of Literature at Makerere University.

His STIAS project, entitled ‘Postcolonial Western Indian Ocean Novel: Space, Mobility and Subjectivities’, interrogates the interconnections among spatiality, textuality and subjectivities, and how the shift from the designation of space as cartographic act to its conceptualisation as cognitive act enables us to revisit theorisations of postcolonial spatiality and decode how various ideas of space function metonymically or metaphorically as abstractions of subjectivities in ways that reveal multiple structures of subordination and domination.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow James Ocita
Textual spatialisation

For his seminar, Ocita foregrounded textual spatialisation, probing closely the problem of discursive representation and its implications for meaning-making processes. While noting that his project explores the broader and better-known idea of space making, his seminar sought more specifically to provide the theoretical basis for what he described as textual spatialisation. As a dimension of textuality, spatialisation, he pointed out, entails three related functionalities: as an aesthetic and ideological structure of representation, and as a cognitive apparatus that facilitates the signification process.

The basis of textual spatialisation is what Ocita described as the ontological primacy of spatiality. He explained this from important works by cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff, Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier, among others, who underscored how space functions as a more basic dimension of experience than time. This, he maintained, is at the simplest level evident in our drawing on it as source domains in metaphorical formulations of time via spatial descriptors such as ‘long’, ‘near’, ‘ahead’, etc.

Ocita noted that these metaphors which have become clichés “are so common that we seldom consciously think of them as metaphorical at all, i.e. in the sense that in human cognition, we invariably process them by projecting essentially spatial notions – length, proximity, orientation, etc., as in the cases above – onto our perceptions of time, with space featuring as source domains – concrete and more clearly perceived – and time emerging as target domains – abstract and less clearer to the mind.”

In a similar manner, Ocita contends that not only do authors draw on the human predilection for the spatial when they construct textual worlds and their existents or spatial objects. But even more importantly, readers recognise the same owing to their concreteness and the fact that their minds are naturally drawn to the pictorial. Spatial brackets or frames, such as those detailing physical settings – analogous to exposures captured by camera lenses – constitute inseparable parts of readers’ experience of the text.

Ocita introduced the idea of mental spaces, contending that cognition generally and interpretation specifically are dependent on readers’ capacity to identify patterns, changes, differences, implications, etc., as part of the process of constructing significance.

A methodology of reading

He sought to advance what he described as a methodology of reading that “foregrounds spatiality counterintuitively as the primary dimension of textuality”. The methodology that Ocita has in view explores the boundary between the text and context as the site of the (re-)production of meaning.

“From that site,” Ocita maintained, “reading is neither a passive re-tracing of a pre-given textual meaning nor merely a seductive encounter with an autonomous, self-contained text before which the reader is powerless. Reading, rather, unfolds as a creative-cum-communication process through which significance emerges as a negotiated outcome with the author, the text and the reader structured as equally important textual entities.” He was particularly keen on making a case for how what he, after the French narratologist and poststructural theorist, Roland Barthes, calls “the writerly text”, positions the reader as a co-producer of meaning.

Ocita was critical of what he described as a materialist view of the text which he linked to the idea of textual autonomy, i.e. the text as a bounded, self-contained system of meaning. He argued, for instance, for the idea of the cognitive text, which necessarily exists outside the text and which readers carry with them long after the experience of reading. He further identified this idea of prior, independent, parallel or abstract existence of performative texts, versions of translated texts, and those with multiple adaptations.

He insisted that texts, written and performative ones alike, “invariably retain their identity or some stable elements despite the flux of contextual or creative variables that attend their reproduction and circulation”.

Ocita views text within the broader framework of cultural theory as a signifying system that extends beyond the realm of language. “Texts, he noted, “are now widely recognised as including any intentional and representational codes, compositions and cultural objects such as paintings, sculptures, memorials, emblems, cultural artefacts, etc.”

Insisting that the text should be understood not as the product of language, but as a semiotic system that merely mimics language, he links most of the limitations in our ideas about the text to its linguistic underpinning.

Aesthetic representation

Turning to aesthetic representation, Ocita indicated that the world and our place in it and almost everything we know, think, or remember is a form of representation and all cultural systems are representational. He highlighted that our earliest codification of experience and knowledge systems that have been increasingly ghettoised in academic disciplines have all been representational.

He indicated that the earliest of these representational practices across most cultures and civilisations have invariably been artistic. The aesthetic representation, he pointed out, is part of that long history of representation.

He noted that genre is particularly important to our understanding of the way the aesthetic organises experience, regulates the production of textual worlds, invests formal features into meanings they would not otherwise have carried, and positions the reader as co-producer of meaning.

In his thinking about the aesthetic, Ocita stressed that the subject of discourse is representation. This understanding enjoins us to think carefully about the manner – as opposed to the content of discursive representation.

He argued that the notions of space and time represented in discourse are just illusions of their actual world counterpart. “So the argument I advance … is that the concatenation of events in narrative discourse, while manifestly temporal, is at its core essentially spatial.”

Ocita maintained that in narrative discourse the spotlight of representation is simply an activated discourse space. “The idea of activation reminds us of the other simultaneously occurring chronotopic sequences that must remain latent as discourse spotlights successions of states and moments, one frozen slate at a time. The discursive spotlight may for aesthetic effects return or skip to – that is, activate – at subsequent or prior points any or several of the latent chronotopic sequences as … flashbacks or … flash-forward.”

Ocita concluded that if these slates are essentially stases simply given the illusion of dynamism, then it is essential to analyse how representation implicates spatialisation and the (re-)production of meaning.


Photograph: Ignus Dreyer

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