Monday, 30 March 2009

Against Non-Places

Having dusted myself down from my hotel occupancy, I have now returned to the world only to find that the Marc Augé’s “seminal” book Non-Places has gone into a second edition. Have I been in hibernation that long? I suspect that this book has done more harm than good. On the one hand, it has spawned a kind of uncritical fetish for places that have become synonymous with “late modernity” – airports, transport terminals, supermarkets, Ikea, etc. One sees evidence of this at most conferences on space and place – digressive, ill-thought excursions into the “enigma” of the hallway. As soon as the mystification becomes kitsch, all critical engagement is given over to an aesthetic pandering of the urban landscape.

True, I have spent most of the last few years thinking about these places myself. But by beginning with the independence of the human body, I have attempted to retain a distance from any preformed, cognitive assessment of place. After all, it is the body that has the final world on our experience of place. What is problematic about Augé’s argument (and influence) is the uncritical implication that some places give themselves over to certain modes of embodiment and temporality simply by dint of their cultural status. So, the result is that that airport, for example, becomes emblematic of the “human condition.” This is all wrong. As David Kolb has argued in his mostly excellent book, Sprawling Places, "place" ought to be a neutral term, with no need for an evaluative dissection. In my terms, place must retain its original anonymity in the face of human colonisation.

But there’s worse to come. Augé’s spurious division between place and non-place has the undesirable effect of producing a pre-emptive nostalgia for airports, train terminals, etc. Consider this rather saccharine “review” in the Guardian by PD Smith: “anthropologist Marc Augé's book is a haunting analysis of modern life and in particular those homogenised "non-places" where we spend so much of our time.” Key here is the inclusion of “haunting.” If the analysis is to be “haunting,” then it would have to involve the idea of something coming-to-light in the non-places. This would mean that the airport gains the distinction of being structurally parallel to something like the Hegelian spirit. A “haunting” is a very compelling, seductive notion. Hauntings confer depth on places, where depth is otherwise refused. But a haunting can also be seen as a human value laden on anonymity and the death of presence. If we are to talk about being “haunted” by non-places, then it is surely in terms of being haunted by an occult operation of the human subject elevating the world to a certain privileged status.

There is more. For PD Smith, non-places “exist beyond history, relations and the game of identity.” As “beyond,” Smith reinforces the idea that non-places are somehow transcendental to a normative conception as to how places ought to be. This is a shame. Whether or not airports challenge the formation of personal and public identity is a good question to ask. But the question does entail the idea that “place” and “identity” are somehow left behind in the wake of non-places, fragmented and ruined. The experience of boredom in the departure lounge does not undermine identity any more than the experience of boredom in the house does.

But the worst is saved for the last: “The forces of globalisation and urbanisation are creating ever more of these Ballardian non-places, symptoms of a Muzak-filled supermodernity in which ‘people are always, and never, at home.’” Actually, Ballard who is one of the very few writers not to prescribe an evaluative attachment to Shpperton, the suburban landscape he has focused upon. Rather, Ballard’s writing exemplify the original strangeness of place in its raw phenomenality, such that what arises is something more like the fluid materiality of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “flesh” (one need only think here of Ballard’s genuinely haunting story “The Enormous Space” to see how divisions in place are ultimately at the mercy of the benevolent pathology of the human body).