From the Series: Topology as Method
During fieldwork with Muslim speakers of the Śḥerēt language in Dhofar, Oman, I learned to hang back behind anyone I was with when crossing a threshold into accessible space, whether in exiting a car, crossing onto a patio, or entering a house. Accessibility here does not refer to a specific relation between one person and another, rather it entails a space for actual and possible encounters, such as a gathering of guests and hosts or even the area outside a car that has just pulled up to a house. Moving into an ongoing interaction, or a potential space for encounter, particularly in the context of hospitality, both men and women could claim to feel xizzet (exposed). Responding to this physical sensation of being accessible meant altering their conduct in the interaction: how they spoke, their self-presentation, and where they moved and sat in the space. In crossing a threshold into a room, out of a car, onto a patio, and through a hallway, they would ask me: “don’t you feel xizzet?” and instruct me to hang back. This was not the enforcement of a rule, but rather a reminder. Feeling discomfort in certain encounters is a sign that co-presence entails not only an interaction order, but an ethical struggle around the vicissitudes of being present to a space of social relations and responsible to judgment in another space and time as a question of submission to God and belief in the day of judgment.
My interlocutors practice and instruct a discernment about subjective entanglement with social others. Their concern is not for modesty as a function of vision, or shame in the eyes of another (gender and reputation play complicated but not deterministic roles). It is a concern about the multiple dimensions of exposure that inhere in the immersiveness of co-presence, staged and amplified by the interactional and built configurations of hospitality that mark Dhofari domestic life. Being accessible requires tempering investment in the reactions, impressions, desires, and judgments belonging to the social in light of Divine judgment and infinite potential for mercy.
In that sense, the way one appears and conducts oneself becomes not only an issue of norm, identity, or social reputation, but an ethical question of the space between selves and others. This is why it is important to think in terms of relations of contiguity, rather than other geometries such as figure and ground, or subjectification and objectification. This notion of accessibility requires a discernment about positions to an encounter that are at once co-extensive and adjacent: participation, attenuated as space.
Relations of contiguity are not like categorical inclusion, or position with respect to a boundary, but rather are a distribution of how co-extensive parts of a continuous space are next to each other. Such continuity that admits differentiation without grade or scale is difficult to envision, though it is formalized in the notion of a topological space (Poincaré 1963). Topologies are defined as collections of open (unscaled) sub-regions that are themselves subsets of a region of the whole space. This means that no possible nested or overlapping part of the space can
contain only one point: no area of the house is “front” or “back” by virtue of a distinct or fixed location. A point is only locatable through open regions that enclose it and some other points, in its contiguity to other parts of the space. Thus, contiguity is not subsumed by metrics for the distance between distinct locations, but rather encloses multiple dimensions of nearness and farness within a continuous topology. This space of contiguity is neither extrinsically mapped nor projected from a subject position but is a space that fundamentally is shared. Location to contiguity defines qualities and quantities of accessibility to all other parts of the space.
Co-presence in the Dhofar mountains is marked by a concern about these dimensions of accessibility—shaped by conduct and self-presentation—as exposure to engagement with others. Rather than seeing a room, an interactional frame, or a seating arrangement as either a map of given scale, or a phenomenological projection from a single perspective, thinking in terms of contiguity allows for the examination of how interaction is spatialized, not how it projects or constitutes places.
When the difference between walking behind, in front, or beside someone can be registered within a single frame as ways to enter an encounter together, then being behind becomes legible as an act attenuating mutual access in a space of encounter. Rather than see hanging back as indicative of sequence or hierarchy, it is meaningful and effective in recognition of the fact of contiguity in co-presence and as a discerning operation on that contiguity. The balance that co-presence demands between exposure and engagement is registered in the quality of contiguous relations between people and positions that are both distinct and co-extensive insofar as they are differentially “next to” each other.
In the very mitigation of co-presence as contiguity lies a recognition that there is a locus of judgment and of awareness that lies outside the scene of contiguity. Only so many people can walk through a door at once, and though many factors (gender, age, politeness, personal preference, and incipient whim) can describe who is in front and who is behind in particular crossings, there is no jockeying for position or hierarchy of virtue, nor does the back consign the front to damnation. This complex undecidability and individual locus of significance through the bodily sensation of xizzet suggests that the meaning of such an order does not terminate in a discoverable realm of social facts. The spatialization of discernment about co-presence shows the contemplative (repeated yet undecided) nature of the ethical practice of sociality wherein a self is both present to a space of social relations and should seek to contemplate the Divine truth, concretized in the day of judgment, that is behind and after these apparent contiguities.
Poincaré, Henri. 1963. “Why Space Has Three Dimensions.” In Mathematics and Science: Last Essays, 25–44. Translated by John W. Bolduc. New York: Dover. Originally published in 1913.