Thursday, 13 October 2011

What is 'Depth'?

The title of my thesis is one of many things about my work which I do not yet fully understand.
It is 'The Depth Structure of a London High Street: A Study in Urban Order'. On Tuesday I was required to give a four-minute presentation of my research project, and I realised that I have not yet defined the word 'depth', although I have a good sense of what it means, I need to be able to explain it and define it, so I am not sloppy in my writing and thinking. It is an essential term when one is trying to be an urbanist (Google definition of 'urbanist' is: An advocate of, or expert in city planning):

There are so many ways in which the definitions of 'depth' below are apt. They capture the essence of what depth means when used in reference to the city, but none of them refer to the city, or to any of the structures which comprise urbanity [‘the quality or state of being urban’, but where ‘urban’ is used as Lefevbre uses it in The Urban Revolution, ie. all of society is now urban, it all exists with reference to the city and city-based global economies, even if it does not actually exist within the spatial bounds of a particular city]. defines depth like this:


a dimension taken through an object or body of material,usually downward from an upper surface, horizontallyinward from an outer surface, or from top to bottom ofsomething regarded as one of several layers.
the quality of being deep; deepness.
complexity or obscurity, as of a subject: a question of great depth.
gravity; seriousness.
emotional profundity: the depth of someone's feelings.
intensity, as of silence, color, etc.
lowness of tonal pitch: the depth of a voice.
the amount of knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, insightfeeling, etc., present in a person's mind or evident either insome product of the mind, as a learned paper, argument,work of artetc., or in the person's behavior.
a high degree of such knowledge, insight, etc.
Often, depths. a deep part or place: from the depths of the ocean.
an unfathomable space; abyss: the depth of time.
Sometimes, depths. the farthest, innermost, or extremepart or state: the depth of space; the depths of the forest;the depths of despair.
Usually, depths. a low intellectual or moral condition: Howcould he sink to such depths?
the part of greatest intensity, as of night or winter.
Sports the strength of a team in terms of the number andquality of its substitute players: With no depth in the infield, an injury to any of the regulars would be costly.

At its simplest level (and by definition, depth has many levels), it is  a dimension taken through a city or body of buildings, from one point to another either vertically or horizontally. This dimension is physical, a measurement of things which exist in the world and can be touched and seen. So, for example, the depth of the block adjacent to the high street is its dimension from front to back, and its layered composition, such as: shop front; rear of shop; yard; garden, kitchen, living room, front garden, street.

The dictionary definition of ‘depth’ includes references to seriousness; emotional profundity and intensity, (as of silence, colour, etc.): eg. the depth of someone’s feelings, and to the lowness of a voice. Thus, the word depth is a metaphor; it was born of a physical experience in the world (a dimension through space, an object or a body of objects). But it can also be used to represent ideas that also have this quality. So, the structures that comprise urbanity have a ‘depth’, which refers to their complexity and obscurity, their many layers and to their interconnectedness in all dimensions. These structures are manifold, just a few examples are: economy, society, legislation and government.

However, depth also refers to the unknown and the unknowable, usually as ‘depths’ eg. the depths of the ocean, or to an unfathomable space or abyss, eg. the depths of time. So, by definition, the depth structure of the city is, to some extent, always unknowable. It is impossible to fully know everything about the economy, society, legislation etc. in the medium of words, or in one human mind, or in a diagram or image or essay. This knowledge as a whole exists only in situ, ie. The depth structure of the city IS the city itself. So the praxis of the city, and an interpretation of this, is the way to access depth.

The depths are also the farthest, innermost or extreme part or state, eg. the depths of the forest; the depths of despair. Certainly not unheard of would be a phrase such as the depths of the slum, or the depths of the ghetto, usually referring to a tangle of city and people where undesirable and frightening things take place (which also picks up the definition of ‘depths’ as a low intellectual or moral condition). This relates back to the unknowable nature of depth, and the depths of the city would be a place where there are layers and layers of physical and non-physical structures all collide and mesh and mutually change and affect one another in a complicated multi-dimensional way.

Finally, depth also refers to the amount of knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, insight, feeling etc. present in a person’s mind or evident in some product of the mind, such as an essay or artwork, or the city itself, the product of collective minds. There is knowledge, insight and wisdom required to try and comprehend the depths of the city, and at the same time knowledge, wisdom and insight have created it, and continue to create it. It is also a jointly imagined reality that everyone who moves through it participates in – the complex social, economic, historical rules, values, and systems which do not have a physical shape are a product of the collective. 

1 comment:

  1. I like this. I don't know whether this will become a part of your thesis, or will serve as a sort of clarificatory meditation which is helping to make your approach clearer. But in either case I think it would be helpful to pursue some of these lines of thought a bit further. In particular, I thought about two further questions you might want to ask:

    First: When, and why, are these elements of 'depth' necessary, and when are they just local (historical, geographical, social, cultural) contingencies, perhaps masquerading as necessities? Can it cast any light on things to ask whether urban studies *must* have depth of the sort you describe? I'm thinking here particularly of the point about unknowability, which seems complex and fertile. Sure, our social sciences will never be perfect, so there'll always be some unknowable things (just because our theories aren't good enough, or we can't get the information). But of course we can try to understand more or less of it. And the reasons for how much we seek to make the city transparent - that is, to gather lots of information about how it works - is probably something that *seems* like a merely theoretical question, but is actually tinged with a lot of normative political assumptions. Some of those will be defensible and progressive. For example, perhaps we don't think it's appropriate to design cities which function only if everyone is constantly under surveillance because we think that privacy and non-domination are important components of citizens living happy and autonomous lives. On the other hand, some of the normative motivations for depth will be more questionable. For example, it's a familiar conservative delaying tactic to say 'We can't try to put in place any progressive change here because we just don't know enough!'. I guess it might be fruitful then to ask not just how deep the city - or how deep urban studies - actually is, as though there's a fixed fact of the matter about it, but also to ask how much depth we should want there to be.

    Second: what are the connections between these elements of depth? It's fascinating, in light of your initial instincts about what you wanted to say concerning the relationship between high streets and their secondary residential streets, that the word applies both to the physical distance from the shop-fronts of the high street, and also has connotations of dark, undesirable, frightening, unintelligible spaces and ideas. It's almost as though the way we think about the language of the city encodes the way in which high streets turn their backs on their surrounding spaces. I don't know if there's any mileage here, but it struck me as interesting.