Feng Shui with Dr. Anna Markovic Plestovic


Concepts of Geography and Feng Shui



 „Places have longer existence than people. People come and go, immigrate and emigrate, live and die, in places that have longer histories than those of people's occupancies or people's lives.” (Lewis J., Kelman I., 2010)


The unusual topics of this research calls for some explanation. The exploration of the applicability of Feng Shui in the field of geography originated not from the knowledge and research of geographical theory and methodology, but from a ten-year long practice and continuous research of Feng Shui. This practice evolved from evaluation, interpretation and harmonization of individual spaces to the realization of impact that the symbolic, structural and functional aspects of space have on the patterns of organization and functioning of larger roups of people, as well as on the values they entertain. During the analysis of one of the most complex scenes of that practice, the City Hall of Subotica, significant structural, functional and symbolic features appeared, that seemed to be very characteristic not only for the building itself, but described the internal qualities of the institutions – organizational patterns, modus operandi, internal relations and decision-making – of self-government (which occupies the building).


The same patterns carried an impressive resemblance to the patterns characteristic of the local society, as manifested in the social perception of space, choices of values, decisions, realizations, local prejudices and commonplaces. The original objective of the research thus should have been to establish the impact that the spatial structure of the City Hall has on the space and society of the city. During the research into the spatial and social changes of the city through time, a recursive, decisively geometrical pattern appeared, that led to the conclusion that the building is not the source, but rather the end-result of these patterns.
It became obvious that the local society is not reflecting the spatial structures of the City Hall, adversely, it seemed more likely that the building is the materialization of the local set of values and organizational patterns of the local society (as shaped by the place). Therefore, the objective of the research has shifted from the societal impacts of the building, and has broadened to become an experiment to discover and interpret the patterns defining the place. In this sense, the place is perceived as a complex natural-social system existing simultaneously at mutually interacting and intertwining physical and abstract levels. Since this notion of place can be considered primarily geographical, the research had also adopted a eographical, rather than architectural perspective. The system of Feng Shui seemed appropriate to conduct such an experiment, despite its usual applications in the west as interior decoration, because by origin and tradition, Feng Shui as a science observing, evaluating, interpreting and prognosticating the interactions of space and society, can be treated as equivalent to geography. In such capacity, Feng Shui had its important role in
governance, strategic planning and spatial development (or the historical equivalent of it) during the Chinese history.


The methods, rules and terminology of Feng Shui, and its logic that compresses complex non-linear intra- and interdimensional interrelations, values and phenomena into symbols and the meaning-relating geometry of symbolical relations, could be perceived as “magical” from the viewpoint of western science, but overcoming the terminological peculiarities and differences, the logic of the complexity theory, widely adopted in the western science can be discovered in it. “Complexity theory has also been adopted by cultural geographers as an analogical and metaphorical tool: as the 'cultural turn' emphasized the importance of difference, contingency and context, so the various concepts, models and terms within mathematical complexity theory provided useful language and metaphors with which to examine space and society. Within human geography, this use of complexity theory outnumbers the mathematical applications. A well developed example is provided by Urry's study of 'global complexity' (Urry, 2003), in which complexity is used to link together local and global, the emergence of global 'order' from regional 'disorder', the role of feedbacks and path dependence in how regions engage with global society, and the challenge for how social theory is constructed.” (R.J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, M.
Watts, eds., 2000, p 106.).


The basic line of concordance between geography and Feng Shui is that both are investigating the phenomenon of the place in its most complex sense.Despite the expectations implied by the ideology of globalization, the social and spatial reality and relevance of the place has not diminished. On the contrary, due to the inequalities and asymmetries (re)created by the globalizing economy and society, more and more attention is drawn to the place in geography itself as well as in other social sciences, in order to offer an explanation for persistent appearance of spatial inequalities. Lately, in attempts to explain the inequalities, he intangible assets, the locally-bound effects and interactions play a growingly important role. (B. Dettori, E. Marrocu, R. Paci, 2009.; B.R. Smith, C.E. Stevens 2009; T. Zick, 2005.).


The contemporary currents of social geography, and within it, of the cultural geography discuss the concept of place and its importance from various angles. The strain that focuses on the perception of space approaches the place as the meaning-conferring frame of perceiving the collective-cultural and individual-experiential identities, wherefrom this strain explores the meanings contained in the place through its representations in literature, painting, etc. (Cosgrove and others). Starting from place as meaning-filled, another stream of research (Cresswell and others) sees place as expression of the relations of social order/disorder or proper/improper as contained in social and cultural rules that makes the spatial relations and distributions within the place the identityrelated determinants of belonging or exclusion.


The also human perception-based postmodern approach to place and space, as suggested by E. Soja, treats the space (and place) as a socially constructed (perceived, conceived and lived) entity. Based on that, he distinguishes three layers of spatiality. The perceived space (Firstspace) consists mainly of concrete spatial forms, things that can be empirically mapped, but at the same time it contains the social construction of these forms as contained in human activity, results behavior and experience, as well, as the complex spatial organizations of ocial practices. The conceived space (Secondspace) is space constructed in mental or cognitive forms. Conceived space is expressed in systems of "intellectually worked out" signs and symbols, in which the representations of power and ideology are located. The lived space (Thirdspace) is the space of actual social and spatial practices that overwrites the physical space making symbolic use of its objects. It tends to be expressed through a system of nonverbal symbols and signs. According to Soja, this space contains the physical and mental spaces of the perceived space and the conceived space, but extends well beyond them in scope, substance, and meaning.


Another attempt to understand the place as a complex entity is based on the non-representational theory (N.J. Thrift, K. Hetherington), and sees the place as a process of immanence, as an “already ongoing assemblance” of geographically associated, ontologically co-constitutive elements and relationships. According to this approach, the cultural geography should surpass theoretizing on representations and interpretation through the human subject, and focus on actual practices taking place at the locale, to examine what the human and non-human agens “does”, and the influence the re-production and change of real occurences and processes exert to meaning and through that, to the occurrence and existence of interpretation. Thrift suggests that the focusing of attention to real, individual
appearances and occurrences could relieve the insensitivity to individuality of the theory-based research. (R.J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt, M. Watts, ed., 2000).


The need to explain the underlying mechanisms of creation, or more likely re-creation of inequalities had also called for a more complex approach in modern economic geography that explores the concept of place as an entity affecting the local appearances and the possibilities of spatial “rootedness” of the global processes. Following the “cultural turn” that took place in the economic geography during the `90-es, the research into spatiality of the economy has overstepped the limits of investigating exclusively the quantitatively accessible
aspects of economy. The “relational turn” of economic geography is concerned with estab-lishing the reasons, rules and ways of re-creation of a “power” that can not be linked directly to the economic subjects, networks, hierarchies nor social structures, but exists and flows through the continually reshaping network of horizontal and vertical power-relations, and manifests in different forms, mo-dels and levels of development, depending on local or regional relational assets it is coming upon on its course. Thus, the spatial differences of
economic deve-lopment are defined by such non-economic characteristics as local rules, reflexive knowledge, contexts, sets of values, etc. These factors are affecting the possibilities of groundedness and embeddedness of global processes.


Of the less recent complex notions of place and space, the time-geography concept of Thorsten Hägerstrand, dating back to the `60-ies seems to reactualize, though not so much in the field of geography as in the field of management studies, where the budgetary logic of treating time and space, and the concept of constraints of human actions has a certain appealing quality for exploration of mechanisms of relation-building and in modeling of the
economic, organizational and social results of embeddedness. (B.R. Smith, C.E. Stevens, 2009.).


The paradigm of Feng Shui, contrary to the bipolar and therefore distinguishing western scientific paradigm, is circular, and therefore can be considered unifying, wherefrom it is unsusceptible to the difference between the being and the consciousness, and therefrom to unsurpassable gap between the materialism and idealism so overwhelmingly present in the western philosophy and consequently in western science. On this discourse, Feng Shui interprets the being and the consciousness within the same complex system as the static and dynamic aspects of phenomena, in which the two aspects are mixed in different proportions according to the essential nature of every phenomenon. The circular paradigm does not contain the notions of “endpoints” and does not differentiate between the immanent categories of western philosophy belonging either to “being” or to the “consciousness” (physics-metaphysics, environment-man, place-space, etc.). The absence of this differentiation in the philosophy and space perception of Feng Shui allows for all the above mentioned geographical concepts to be present simultaneously: it breaks down the space and society to its constituent elements, regardless of the scale and layer where the element comes from, interprets these elements according to their assigned symbolic value, and simultaneously interprets the interrelations of these elements, and in this approach every place can be considered space at the same time, the symbols equally encompass the physical space and its perceptions, and the perceived space with its physical and mental dimensions, as well, as the interactions of all these. In a simplifying manner of speech it might be said that he Feng Shui analyses the locus-specific appearance of Soja`s Thirdspace in a non-representational approach.


Even though, the Feng Shui can not be considered a postmodern approach, given that the symbolic interpretation of real phenomena is not based on the individual perception, but on the accumulation and integration of individual observations and interpretation during two and a half millennia that formed into an absolute (universally human) philosophical frame. The deconstruction of real elements is essentially abstraction and resyntetization, since the Feng Shui aims to reveal the totality of experience and influence, and as such, it lacks the postmodern individual indecisiveness, the presumption of á priori fragmentarity of cognition.


The concept of “power” conceived in the relational turn of economic geography as unbound to economic actors, networks, social structures and hierarchies, existent only in flow, and its
supposed behavior reminds very much of the concept of Qi in Feng Shui, and the description of workings of Qi/Form relation, (so far) without the cosmogonic aspects of the latter.


On the other hand the abstraction process of Feng Shui, that does not make difference in values and priorities among the elements of being, nor even between elements of being and of consciousness, exposes this applied philosophy to the accusation of belonging to environmental determinist line of thought, or even of being a practice of magic rather then philosophy, since it apparently holds the influences of the physical surrounding more important, than the influences of the human agens. Nevertheless, this cannot be considered equal to environmental determinism, since this system does not function in mutually exclusive man vs. environment or idea vs. matter dualities, but analyses the complex system
integrating the human and non-human aspects. Within this system, differentiation is made between dynamic and static phenomena. Measured on the scale of time, the elements of the physical surrounding can be considered the static, long-lasting and slowly transforming elements that exert the same influence over a long time1, while the man, as physical, social, intellectual and spiritual being, along with other fast-changing phenomena can be considered the dynamic component of the system, influenced in its movement by the restraints posed by the statical elements of the system. Therefore, the Feng Shui analysis starts with mapping the restraining frame, and advances towards the evaluation of actions of dynamic component within this system.


The above mentioned concepts of social geography basically have no doubt that the physical surrounding has a great influence on organization of production in the society at the place, through which it influences the mode of using the space, the ways of life, which comes down to influencing the organization patterns of the society, the behavioral patterns and systems of values. It is just the synthetic qualification not distinguishing man from all other existence, which provokes this criticism. However, neither positioning the apllied philosophical system of Feng Shui in relation to the theoretical framework of geographical science, nor the etailed comparation of it to geographical schools of thought, theories and fields of research, can be done in present work, since it should require a long and detailed detour into philosophies and cultural history, as well as an also detailed comparation of the eastern and western world views shaping the respective scientific paradigms.


In this research I have not compared the results of the different fields of geography, but was making an attempt to reveal the combinations and interactions of the results and observations of various fields, the way they organize into a palpable, living and functioning social-spatial individualization of the place, in order to contest the philosophy of Feng Shui as a basis for developing geographical methods, the need for which, in order to gain a more complete picture of phenomena, was pointed out by Hägerstrand. He called for developing methods of geographical research that: “...are more advanced than the structural formulae of the chemist, and probably closer akin to the score of a composer. The purpose must be to `freeze` the events into graphical pattern, or more likely into chains of symbols, thus converting them into a convenient form which can be viewed from various angles and which do not elude the observer while he is analyzing the message. More penetrating analysis comes after these patterns have been established, and here mathematics and statistics are surely ready to help.” (T. Hägerstrand, 1973., p 77)


To this end, based on the already available data sources, the existing literature on the locale and the personal knowledge of the place, I have used the system of spatial interrelations of the philosophy of Feng Shui to establish whether, and to which extent is it appropriate to condense the complex placespecific social-spatial interaction system, poetically referred to as genius loci, or in other words the system of local restrictions that shape the appearances of global processes in locus, the local socio-spatial differentia specifica. Such a system, in case of its being functional and applicable, should enable the convergence of worldviews and better understanding of social organization. The already ongoing scientific researches of other disciplines into the philosophy of Feng Shui are all based on the possibility of exploration of different paradigms that is opened by the need of developing a complex, metaphoric approach that could treat and model the space-society relation from a system sciences angle.


Still, of the contemporary currents in geography, the reception of the postmodern and the theories of more recent origin is very weak in Hungary, and in Eastern Europe, but supposedly it can be said about every scientific discipline that defines itself as objective, for in those disciplines the methodologies based on interpretations are per definitionem unacceptable due to the necessarily individualistic character of such methods. It is understandable, considering that the postmodern worldview as defined and evolved in the west can be interpreted as a social answer to the individuality- and community-destroying mechanisms of western consumerist societies. In Eastern Europe, those mechanisms have not reached the level of intensity needed to prepare grounds for the dispersion and widespread acceptance of such answer.


Therefore the postmodern approach in Eastern Europe is more characteristic to the explicitly individualistic fields, such as architecture, literature and visual arts, while the society (and hence the system of research grants) focuses on the development of the western economic and social mechanisms, hoping to catch up with the more developed parts of the continent, but at the same time narrowing by it the fields of researches for objective sciences. These restrictions are even more likely to affect geography, given that in the reality the spatial development policies are restricted in their possibilities by the system of EU funding. This system of grants and subsidies as defined on the  system of values of the western part of the continent is not necessarily correspondent to the realities of the eastern part of the continent, but limits the possibility of revealing local realities to very narrow margins. That is the most
plausible reason for investing very little attention (and financing) to the researches of the place as a complex entity regarding its complex internal system of possible realization-limiting restraints and the place-specific social consensus of values that shape this restraints, regardless that these questions are deemed increasingly important in the western scientific world.


Still, Enyedi claims that: "Long-term competitive position of a region is determined by three factors: natural resources, geographic location and human resources. These factors are modified very slowly, so the resulting inequalities also persist. In practice, of these three elements, only the human element is able to change, therefore the regional differences in developmental processes and the different realizations of the same concepts in different places can be assigned to geographic differences of human resources. The knowledge pool
and the system of values by which the society of a region can be characterized is able to transform, to accept new values only very slowly. Therefrom, the bigger the divergence of the imported categories from the regional system of values, less is the probability of reception, and the the creation of various conflicts more likely. " (Enyedi Gy., 1996.).


From this angle, the very desire to “catch up” should stimulate the researches aimed to discover the capacities of the places, the systems of internal barriers within the places and the possibilities for altering those conditions. Consistently with the military-strategic roots of Feng Shui and the practical origin of this research I could argue that the rationale of contesting the Feng Shui philosophy that treats space and society as a holistic complex system, is the possibility of establishing better connections between the strategical and tactical levels of spatial and social planning (using the already existing pools of data), since the better understanding of local restrictions enables feasible strategic choices.


Spatial and Feng Shui analysis: case of Subotica city

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