How Robert Rowland Smith reveals space within us for others
Happyplaces stories (video)
Finding a space to talk about space is easy. Finding a space in London where you can talk about space and film it, seems te be quite difficult. That first happened with Nicole Yershon, and again with Robert. We met at my hotel, asked the staff permission to film in a corner of the lobby. No. At the fourth stop things seemed to be okay, until the staff saw that it was a sincere camera. No… Robert asked what my schedule was and we agreed that I would come to his home in Greenwich the next day, on my way to City airport. The fun thing was though that with each attempt we developed our approach to try to persuade the staff to almost perfection, until was not. But we had good fun though. I asked Robert if he could prepare some thoughts for the next day in a way that he would inspire other philosophers to quote him, because almost all philosophers seem to quote other philosophers to look smarter themselves. He took on the challenge.
I’d like to talk about this idea of space. I guess most of the time when we think about space, the word ‘space’, two things come to mind. At least in English. Space as in space travel, landing on Mars. But that’s not what I’m going to be talking about. Although, strangely enough, I’m going to talk about constellations. I will come back to that in a second. The other way in which we talk about space is of course space as in three-dimensional space. How we move around in it, how we inhabit it, what it is: the extension of physical matter that allows us to move in. I often think of what Kant, the German philosopher says about time. He says that time doesn’t exist. It is just the form in which we experience the world. I don’t think you can really say that about space. Space probably does exist. I don’t think it is an illusion. There is a reality to it, even though in a sense it is about the separation out of objects. So space is what takes place between things, as well as including them. Those are the two ways we generally think about space. Space as in astronauts and space as in physical space.
The inner camera: ‘khora’
I want to talk a little bit instead about inner space, the space inside us. Space not just in our heads because I want to talk a little bit more than about the mind or the psyche or the unconscious or whatever it might be. I want to talk about the inner camera. I’m talking to a camera, and ‘camera’ means room. So I want to talk about the inner room, the inner space, the camera we have inside us. And in particular, I’m thinking of appropriating and rudely violating a beautiful ancient Greek concept, which is that of ‘khora’. Which broadly speaking can be translated as ‘space’ in English. There are other translations, but broadly speaking that’s the notion of space.
I think this notion of space as ‘khora’ is important because it is that place inside us, in our psyches, that allows us to hold other people within it. (…) It is a bit more connected to something like empathy, but I think it is even more radical than that.
I think this notion of space as khora is important because it is that place inside us, in our psyches, that allows us to hold other people within it. Most classically we have, for example, a memory. You had lunch with somebody, and after the lunch, you can still think about the person you had lunch with. Because there is a space in your psyche where you are holding that person as if the camera in your mind is holding images of that person. So we have a kind of inner space that we call the memory which is populated by all sorts of people, things and events. We’re quite familiar I think with inner space as memory, and indeed as imagination. Which is, if you like, the memory of things that haven’t happened or potential for things that might still happen. Memory and imagination are cousins in this psychic topography. They’re both spaces in which people real and unreal come and go and appear. Dreams are at the intersection between memory and imagination — they occupy this inner space within the mind where people, things and objects come and go. We already have a familiar notion of what is to have a space within us. As I say, in particular through the notion of memory, we’re familiar with inner space.
A more radical kind of empathy
What I want to talk about though in term of this Greek concept of khora which I’m appropriating for today is a bit more connected to something like empathy, but I think it is even more radical than that. Just for the sake of definition, I think first of all that there is a distinction between empathy and sympathy. I believe there is also something beyond empathy which I really want to focus on in the notion of khora and connected back to constellations. The distinction that I make between sympathy and empathy is as follows: when you sympathise with somebody — let’s say they had a bad day — and you say to them: ‘I’m sorry to hear that’, you are being sympathetic. In the sense that you are showing that you have a feeling that they will recognise. Sympathy is also a Greek word for that matter, it means ‘feeling with’. ‘Sym’ means ‘together’, ‘pathy’ comes from ‘pathos’ which means ‘feeling’. So you’re feeling with somebody else. But in a way, it is just a sort of social convention. Like, you had a bad day at work, and I say: ‘I’m really sorry to hear that.’ Sympathy doesn’t go much further than that.
Sympathy means ‘feeling with’. In a way, it is just a sort of social convention. Like, you had a bad day at work, and I say: ‘I’m really sorry to hear that.’ Sympathy doesn’t go much further than that.
I think empathy does go a little bit further, because empathy, in my definition at least, arises when the other person’s bad experience or indeed good experience is one we can relate to because we’ve had it ourselves. So empathy is really predicated on us recollecting an experience that we have had, that is in our view pretty much analogous or identical to the experience of the person we’re talking to. So empathy is like something that resonates with you with something that is already there, that the person in front of you has recently experienced. Sympathy is a bit more social, a bit more detached, a bit more formulaic. Empathy I think is about this summoning up this experience you’ve had which has been invoked by the experience that is being related to you by the person you’re speaking to. So that’s sympathy and empathy. They’re both, in a sense, are held in a space within us, but the notion of khora is much stranger altogether. It is a way of holding the other person inside us in a way that is not necessarily activating feelings of our own, but in a way in which we are holding them in our psyches, while they have their own experience. This might sound a bit weird, so let me explain a little bit more about what I mean by this.
Empathy is something that resonates with you, where you can relate to, because we’ve had it ourselves. It is predicated on us recollecting an experience that we have had, that is in our view pretty much analogous or identical to the experience of the person we’re talking to.
Opening up the space for the other within us
Coming on to this notion of constellations, I’ve mentioned space in the beginning, but this has nothing to do with astrological space. Constellations is a practice just becoming more familiar now, of working with people in a group to illuminate or reveal the constellation of their own psyche; what’s going on in their mind, their head, their inner world. Constellations more in the sense of configurations of elements, and nothing actually to do with the stars except in that sense of a configuration. We use the word ‘constellations’ in English for something that has a sort of modern inflexion in German and Germany, under the title of ‘Ausstellung’, which just means a set-up.
The notion of khora is much stranger altogether. It is a way of holding the other person inside us in a way that is not necessarily activating feelings of our own, but in a way in which we are holding them in our psyches, while they have their own experience.
What happens in constellations: a group of people will come together, often they’ll sit in a circle. There will be one person with an issue of some kind. They’ll describe the issue and use the people around the room to embody or represent different aspects of that issue, manifesting their inner space. It sounds a bit like roleplay if you have never done it before, but it is almost anything but role play. I’d say role play is more like empathy as I have just defined it. Role play is kind of when you are asked to play a role, and through empathy, you are summoning up experiences you’ve had which you think would apply to the person or role you are now inhabiting. So role-playing for me is an empathetic or empathic suit of activities. This happens again and again in constellations, I’ve seen it hundreds of times: when you are asked to act as a representative in somebody’s constellation, say you’re representing somebody’s uncle or brother or boss, whatever it might be. As soon as you enter the constellation and are called into the drama as it were, then you begin immediately to pick up on the characteristics, the behaviour, the feelings, the sentiments of the person whom you are representing. Which sounds probably completely mad if you have never done it, but if you have done it then you recognise how swift and accurate this ability that anybody has to embody other people is. It just comes upon us without any study, preparation, without any effort of empathy, sympathy or even any effort of imagination. You simply have to stand in the space, and the space in that configuration, in that constellation, seems to allow that representative to embody the person that they are representing.
Which sounds probably completely mad if you have never done it, but if you have constellations before then you recognise how swift and accurate this ability that anybody has to embody other people is. It just comes upon us without any study, preparation, without any effort of empathy, sympathy or even any effort of imagination. It simply happens.
Holding space for the other
So what is going on there? Perfectly ordinary people are doing this again and again and again. They find themselves in a situation where they are feeling the feelings, embodying the experience of people they’ve never met or heard of. It is pretty peculiar. My account of how this happens, and there are lots of accounts, most of them speculative really including this one, is as follows. It says that within us not only do we have a space that we consider ours; my space within myself is my mind, my memories, my imagination and so on, all those things we’re more conventionally familiar with, that is my inner space. But I’d say, at the same time we also have another space within us, which I would use this Greek word for, the khora, which is that part of us which is capable of holding like a vessel the experience of people we do not know. The people we do not know do not even have to be living people we do not know, it can be people from the past. Dead people. It can be people who passed away, even a long time ago. And, once we’re called into the space, the space has a way, we don’t quite know how, of letting the khora know — this inner space within us — that it is now time to hold, to support, to act as a vehicle of this other unknown person. So, the khora is that in us, which is a space for the other, to put it into slightly more philosophical terms.
We carry space within us of two radically different kinds. One is, as it were self-space — identity space, my space, personal space which is principally that of the memory and the imagination. It’s the mind where we identify with, the thoughts that are contained within it. But then there is that secondary, possibly primary space which I call the khora which suggest we are always open at any moment to become active with them.
There is a French philosopher where I’m very interested in called Jacques Derrida who talks about the otherness we all carry within us. Of course, he belongs to a long tradition of thinking about ‘otherness’, or to use the more technical word ‘alterity’. And Derrida goes as far as to say: actually the other precedes us’; we are the other before we are even ourselves. Be that as it may, that might sound too philosophical, but the experience of being in a constellation and representing others is one can have on a semantic, that is a body or physical level, without necessarily having to credit that theory of the other at all. It simply happens. That says to me something interesting about who we are as individuals. We carry space within us of two radically different kinds. One is, as it were self-space — identity space, my space, personal space which is principally that of the memory and the imagination. It’s the mind where we identify with, the thoughts that are contained within it. But then there is that secondary, possibly primary space which I call the khora which suggest we are always open at any moment to become active with them. And it is tempting to say spirit, but I don’t want to get to peculiar about this or too melodramatic, but with the spirit, with the soul, with the experience, with the reality perhaps of people whom we do not know. And that suggests that our closure of finite nature of human beings, which is so promulgated and celebrated, particularly in The West when we talk about the individual and the self, individualism and self-interest and so on, may not be the be-all and end-all. Although we concentrate so heavily on that, the notion of a finite self and a desiccate closed identity that in fact, it would be truer to say that we are open on at least one side not to aye another, one other identity, to an alter ego or a shadow or whatever it might be. But to potentially an infinite number of people, things, animals and so on.
We have a space within us capable of taking others on board. And I say that it is in principle infinite because in my experience there is nothing I’ve seen that cannot be manifested or represented in this way by us. Which suggests in turn that there is a radical openness of the human being to the other. And that there is, on one side of us at least, no boundary across space or time towards or with regard to all the other phenomena that we are potentially aware of.
Boundless radical openness and knowing
We have a space within us capable of taking those on board. And I say that it is in principle infinite because in my experience there is nothing I’ve seen that cannot be manifested or represented in this way by us. Which suggests in turn that there is a radical openness of the human being to the other. And that there is, on one side of us at least, no boundary across space or time towards or with regard to all the other phenomena that we are potentially aware of. Which is an extraordinary thought if you think about it. It connects a little bit I suppose with Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious that we share this pool or reservoir of images and experiences and can draw upon those at any moment, particularly in dreams Jung talks about. But actually, this notion of the khora goes even further than what Jung was even talking about. It seems to have no boundary to it and suggests that our capacity for resonance with the other has no bounds at all. Whether that means we’re more connected to other people or nor, I don’t know. Whether it means we’re in sympathy or empathy with other people at heart, I don’t know. Whether it means we all derive from the same original source or substance beyond what we know about, deriving from the original source or substance either through genetics and evolution, I also don’t know. But that we have this capacity seems to me to be extraordinary, perhaps suggests also a condition in which the limits on our knowledge really begin to dissolve.
This notion of the khora goes even further than what Jung was even talking about. It seems to have no boundary to it and suggests that our capacity for resonance with the other has no bounds at all.
Everything is in principle knowable to us
sWhat we can know through this khora function or process, skill, capability or attitude that we have, is such that everything is in principle knowable to us on this other side of ourselves. It is not the self which is limited, cognitive, memory based and all the rest of it. It’s a form or radical knowing I suppose that comes to us the through us when we inhabit this space what some people call ‘the field’ and so on. It’s a space with no boundaries to it in some senses. Although I call it a space within us, in a certain sense it is a space that rests on the edge of us; it is not something that we can contain because it is too large. I think it is in principle at least infinite. We have the experience of the khora within us when we are open to the other in this quite radical way which we can do in constellations. But I think the experience of it is one that shows us in a way that that space within us is not one that we ourselves contain but is rather activated at our limit in some way.
That’s my theory of the khora, it is not space as we understand it in terms of the heavens. It is not space as we understand it architecturally or in a landscape, or in a room. It’s a form of inner space but different from the imagination or memory. It’s a space that opens to the other but opens in a, I would suggest, at least in an infinite way and gives us a glimpse of what a completely new way of knowing might be.