Thesis Statement: In a world dominated by the homogenized place, the non-place offers a space to escape the rationalization of every day life.
The Condemnation of Place
The average American may now find his life somewhat alienating. He lives in a community segregated by income and resulting class, works in a building built as some modernist derivation of a rectangle, and spends much of his time traversing between the two in his car, alone. Wherever he finds himself, he seems to be out of scale with the world around him, a world designed to be traveled via car. And so he submits to a dependence on his automobile along with other means of mechanization to navigate the avenues of his life (Kunstler, 1993).
Such is the difficulty of the modern American. And in an attempt to justify the wait, the dependence on externalities, he must rationalize his actions and his way of life. The difficulty begins when the material to be rationalized, is not rational in occurrence with reasoning he accepts.
This presents a proverbial House-of-Cards effect on the self. If he was to identify the rational which reasoning he does not accept, he may begin to unravel the fabric of his livelihood, his work and domestic life, and the foundations he has built his life upon. It is really not a question of “would”, for most of us would find that the majority of our rational is an effect of agreement based on survival rather than actual agreement based on understood reasoning. The question is rather: Will he find enough time between the mechanization of his rational world, to find the first thread to pull?
If there were a space where Man can unravel the fabric of his rationalization, it would be in a place free from the mechanisms that bind him to his accepted reality. This is a similar thought to the rationalization of drug use in 1960s counterculture. But where the counterculture sought to limit the restrictions of their milieu by means of elevated dopamine levels, an alternative approach relies on limiting the contextual implications of place, by entering into the ether of the physical realm.
Such a place would be a non-place, as described by Marc Auge:
“If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a place which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (Auge p 77)
” Place and non-place are rather like opposite polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed…But non-places are the real measure of our time… by totaling all the air, rail, and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called ‘means of transport’ (aircraft, trains, and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of communication…” (Auge p 79)
But where the rest of the description put forth in Auge’s work condemns the non-place for what they loose of an individual’s identity, I came to see the beauty of these spaces in relation to the entrapments of the modern place.
In talking to a friend about the subject of this paper, He stated that it was precisely the non-place that allowed him to reconnect with himself (and, I assume, his identity): the quiet car ride, waiting in the airport lounge area; it was these spaces where he felt disconnected from the exterior world in such a way that it facilitated connection with his inner-self, more-so than he felt possible in a place.
There are similarities between the non-place and the place: Both reek of homogeneity; both may be particularly bland in an aesthetic sense. In the modern suburb we find many objects that serve as a nod to historical reference, such as the styles of home architecture. In his book, Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler places much of the blame for the perceived “placeless-ness” of the suburb on historical references by architecture implemented in cheap method to give the home an appearance of historical significance, such as the Georgian-style of southern homes to the Greco-Roman style (Kunstler, p150). In such cases, we assign these architectural elements a symbolic agency, a representational meaning (Smith, p 132). Now meaningful, we rationalize these occurrences under a judgment of aesthetics, and in the process rationalize their faux connections into our lives. The non-place lacks such pretension in the sense that we do not assign its elements any agency. We deem their elements to not be “functionally important”, and in the process assign them no agency with reference to symbolism (Smith, p 144). In short, we demand the places where we build our lives to have authentic historical, geographical, and identity elements, but we demand none of these from the non-place.
Utilizing the non-place as a space to foster connection with our self would be to appropriate these spaces in the way the Situationists utilized irregular city layouts to encourage drift; crossing space as a means to engage in situations of emotional significance (Sadler, 1998).
The Paradox of the Non-place
While it may seem as though the environment of a non-place would have to be serene to foster such connections, the environment is typically anything but. In the cases of waiting areas for transportation, the volume of people in the vicinity may be overwhelming, and the levels of sound from passing vehicles deafening. The levels of visual noise, most notably in the form of commercial advertising, may be completely saturated. And personal privacy is at a significantly lower level than one would find in their home. Yet here, submitted to the conformity of the space, we find a sense of freedom. Perhaps a freedom to be uniform. Such thought does not bode well for the American concept of freedom as an extremely individualized and almost decadent behavior. AugÃ¨ finds here, we submit to the mechanization of conformity:
“…A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver…he tastes for a while…the passives joys of identity loss, and the more active pleasure of role-playing…the passenger through non-places retrieves his identity only t Customs, at the tollbooth, at the checkout counter” (AugÃ¨, p 103)
So we find ourselves lost in the milieu of the non-place but in a significantly intrusive environment. I suspect if the same conditions existed in the home, the place, he might object and refuse to go along accordingly. The paradox is, in essence, that in addition to assigning its elements no agency in symbolism, in the non-place we also assume no ownership (control) for the conditions of our surroundings. Finding ourselves powerless to change or be held responsible for them, we submit to their existence.
Extending the definition of the non-place
The physical definition of a non-place is very broad, and I suspect many avenues of escapism or fantasy might be qualified as the non-place, some not being physical places at all: digital networks, telephone calls, text messaging. All of these things provide a framework of rules (implied as boundaries, just as the physical place provides walls), and allow for a transaction to occur, a dialog, for some form of business to occur in, and in a sense establish a loose place for the exchange. While we may not think of the landscape of a telephone call or text message, we have imagined the landscape of the Internet. The radio and the pop-songs it plays may also continue on this pattern, establishing a base of rules (musical repetition, rhythm and tempo) and facilitate a transaction (receiving the music, lyrics). For all of these, there is a sense of leaving in the cessation of the task. And in this sense, they have created a place, and in it’s lack of definition, a non-place.
Through a loss of identity, or temporary lack of reference to symbolism, the non-place provides a place to escape the agency of place. Through observation of the non-place, we can realize the constrictions of place. We also see a shift in what we deem acceptable in terms of aesthetics of environment. Additionally, we may see elements of non-place in any space were we conduct a transaction by a set of rules.
However, one must wonder about implications of the non-place on society. While short-term identity loss may be fine for a passenger, I am interested in the long-term effects on daily life. Relief may begin to parallel fantasy. Digital environments may provide a space where both place and non-place exist simultaneously, sometimes within the same domain of each other, where the definitions of history, identity, and geography are blurred by the relativism inherent in a digital system. Are the virtual worlds of Second Life, or of a video game, a non-place? And further, are the actions taken within a non-place, a truer action of actor than those taken in a place, with relevance to what we desire? And is the difference due to dissociation with identity, or rather, a lack of symbolic agency imposed by the place? As we merge our lives with the virtual landscape of digital technologies, it is these questions we must answer.
Auge, Marc. Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995.
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: the rise and decline of America’s man-made landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Sadler, Simon. The Situationalist City. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1998.
Smith, Ronald W. Bugni, Valerie. Symbolic Interaction Theory and Architecture. Symbolic Interaction , Vol. 29, Issue 2, pp. 123-155