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).

Sunday, 15 March 2009

My hand went unconscious

My hand went unconscious. I lost feeling under the table, as a cold freeze set in. I can only describe it as a kind of vertigo experienced in the palm of my hand. And then a kind of stiffing occurred. Borderline panic, white lights, and a gripping of the nearest physical surface. I have been here before. It was during early 2008 that my hand first became the site of an internal dispute, the nature of which I have yet to discern. Indeed, the reprisal of this oceanic movement in my hand confirms my belief that the body’s anxieties unfold temporally in such a way that cognitive apprehension falls to the background.

Back then, however, I had a good reason for this partial lapse in consciousness. Forced—against my nature—to inhabit the social world, I found myself in a series of melancholy meetings with strangers. There was London Zoo, Gordon’s Wine Bar, the National Gallery, Holland Park, a flower market, Brick Lane, and a few more. Of those meetings, though, my hand reached a precise crippling point one night in Covent Garden with an artist. We sat in a large bar. Her face was attentive, her eyes keen, and she expressed interest in phenomenology. I liked her description of it as “slowing time down” and found the rocking motion of her head appealing, as I reported on Bachelard’s notion of oneirism. But the lights were harsh in this region of London, and the cluster of human beings around me was causing my hand to dispatch itself from the rest of my body, as though it was making a leap for the exit before I was. Nevertheless, I seized the legs of the oak table while feeling motion sickness tear through me. She retained her smile, the strawberry beers remained in place. But although holding ground, I had soon resigned myself to the existential dis-ease murmuring in my left hand. Despite giving her a copy of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side, I knew I’d never see her again, and worse still the book. Soon after, I left and was instantly eased by the low light of the street lamps and the anonymity of the world.

Those where eerie days. Inhabiting someone else’s house, I also inhabited these other pockets of alien worlds, with their fluorescent lightening and breezy climates. One afternoon, I arranged to meet an actress in the atrium of a hotel. We both looked out onto the rain and the sea. I gripped a faux marble pillar next to me, and asked to take her picture. She sat uncomfortably, aware that my motive was less a celebration of a cherished moment and more an attempt at seizing a moment of dysfunction. I arranged things clinically and took the shot. Sometime later, when my hand had re-inserted itself into my body, I returned to the spot and relived the moment from the mirroring perspective.