“Literature is cultural space par excellence,” I thought when I bravely signed up for the advanced Davis Center seminar, whose title comprised such amorphous terms as “culture,” “space,” and “mapping.” Only the last of these sounded somewhat ominous to me, an aspiring literary scholar with no background in design or cartography, for it announced unambiguously that I would have to cross over into the exotic terrain of digital humanities. Finding myself in uncharted waters, I observed what I had believed to be my fixed orienting points of “culture” and “space” growing hazier and changing shape. And after the intrepid navigator in me was back on familiar ground, I realized that home—the space of literature—looked different, too. Much like the protagonist of Nabokov’s “A Guide to Berlin” (my object of study and mapping), I discerned new, previously unnoticed, features in the familiar landscape. 

Now that I reflect on the practice of “mapping cultural space,” after my year-long journey through the lands of interdisciplinarity and interdiscursivity, I think I can say that, albeit modified, my intuition about “literature as a form of cultural space” was not entirely incorrect. Cultural space and space in/of literature share a number of characteristics that make mapping both a challenge. Both are rooted in the interaction between real and imaginary/imagined geography, and to a certain extent, both can be conceptualized as existing in, or occupying a “virtual,” in-between space that has some degree of referentiality to geospace and to material places, but is reducible neither to points, lines, or polygons nor to physical infrastructure. Both literary space and cultural space transcend, rather than create borders, and yet both tend to be defined by their (dis)association with geo-socio-political entities, ideologies, (non)official power structures, or institutions, even as both can—and often do—subvert those boundaries.       

My understanding of literary space—the main object of my analysis—has been enriched by our collective expedition into the vast realm of cultural space. I was both surprised and gratified to see that my project “A Guide to Nabokov’s ‘A Guide to Berlin’”—done at a very small scale geographically (Berlin), chronologically (the 1920s), and textually (a single short story)—allowed me to explore some of the big questions with which we grappled in our discussions. How is cultural space constructed? How is it experienced? How is it (re)produced, represented in fiction? These are the questions that resonated with me as I embarked on my journey of exploring an anonymous Russian émigré’s experience of—and interaction with—the quotidian space of the 1920s Berlin in Nabokov’s story. 

From the cognitive map of the web of our project trajectories, three thematic nodes emerge, where my small-scale project intersects with others:

1. Role of the “Other”

Émigrés—and foreigners in general—actively participate in the processes of production, consumption, and representation of space. 

Having crossed geographical and cultural boundaries, émigrés make an effort to preserve their culture and can be seen as (re)constructing their cultural space outside of their homelands by “carving” out spaces for the diaspora in their adopted land (e.g. “Europe’s Russian Colonies”), and/or by establishing “virtual” networks (e.g. “Reading Kultura”). They also participate in and often reflect on the native cultural space of their new homeland, thus contributing to how it is conceptualized and imagined both within and outside its borders. As a result of such over-crossing and “contamination,” a new cultural space can be produced, and/or a hybrid place with visible traces of several cultures (e.g. “Salonika”).

Foreigners are engaged, above all, in “reading,” experiencing existing space, but images and representations of places from a foreigner’s perspective also influence and contribute to the constitution, perception, and interpretation of space (e.g. “Where East Begins”), even as experience can challenge such representations.    

2. Material Space/Place

The question of material space (architecture, infrastructure, “places,” sites, landmarks, transportation, etc.) is the main focus of several projects in our group, but I did not expect it to be relevant to my exploration of Berlin city space in Nabokov’s short story, only to find out that it plays an important, even if tangential, role in my project—connected most of all to an individual’s experience, use, and movement through physical space. (“Reichsautobahn” project can serve as a nice complement to Nabokov’s reflections on the streetcar, and to the theme of the tension between public, official production of space and private experience of that space.)   

3. Space-Time

Even in its synchronic dimension, cultural space—perhaps more so than any other—is necessarily dynamic, insofar as it exists in time, is produced (constructed) over time, conceptualized in relation to time, and experienced through time. Oriented towards the future, it keeps looking back to the past, operating through the dual process of remembering and forgetting. Physical space itself can be shaped as much by the notion of its future as of its past, and for an individual, a place is always a process, as meanings are negotiated, created by movement through space in time.