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Space Invaders

Travel to exotic locations tends to upset one’s sense of ‘personal space’. It’s not that other cultures have no sense of personal space, just that their definitions are different. But what does ‘personal space’ mean? People are ready to accept that something called ‘personal space’ exists, and it’s not surprising when people try to define it in (meta)physical terms – energy, force fields and the like. While invisible to the naked eye, people can always tell when their space is invaded, however defined. Just because it’s invisible does not mean it doesn’t exist.

But how personal is this personal space? One could argue that the acceptance of personal space is simultaneously an acceptance of interpersonal space – one is defined in relation to the other. Is it not the case that personal space is interpersonal space? Personal space only manifests itself in contact with others. The question remains whether or not personal space exists outside the relational world, or at least can be understood separate from this context. The fact that cultural variations occur indicate that space is negotiable based on local norms and practices. It is also a space that is contested, physically, culturally and emotionally.

Jessica Benjamin has recently explored this relationship between personal and interpersonal space, in her development of the concept of the ‘shared third’, developed in the context of psychotherapeutic settings:

This expanded relational perspective includes the awareness of multiple self-parts that
create different dyadic pairings within the same relationship and a view of intersubjectivity that emphasizes not just the fact of mutual influence but the consciousness that there is a bi-directional dance between patient and analyst that each person registers differently – a cocreated dance governed by what we call the third.

This division by thirds of the available space may be too much of a throwback to cartesianism, a conception of intersubjectivity in which the relational only encroaches on
the middle third. Granted, this may be a limited reading of Benjamin’s work, which takes great care to explore emotional space. But it does beg the question of how the thirds relate to each other. It also begs the question as to what exactly is in the shared third? This is a complex and difficult question to answer, but it should be taken as given that the content of Dirty Looks will be there or thereabouts.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.