Thursday, August 4, 2011

Being nowhere (21 Jan 2010)

In his 1995 book Non-Places, anthropologist Marc Augé assesses the places fostered by globalized consumerism, the milieu of what he calls "supermodernity":
If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.... Supermodernity produces non-places.... A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, chantey-towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral, offers the anthropologist (and others) a new object, whose unprecedented dimensions might usefully be measured before we start wondering to what sort of gaze it may amenable.

Devoid of their own identity, nonplaces are basically those completely commercialized spaces in which we can project any identity we want -- places where history and class and hierarchy seem to be suspended, and the individual can self-fashion freely through the unbounded consumption of information (available to all), the democratization of travel (though everywhere we can go and feel comfortable is increasingly the same -- merely other nonplaces), and the exercise of consumer choice (among goods that are only superficially different, as they all are reducible to the code of identity signification). Nonplaces cut us off from the idea of history, or presents anything with a history as a product, a tool for our own identity making. Augé writes, "In Western societies, at least, the individual wants to be a world in himself; he intends to interpret the information delivered to him by himself and for himself."

Nonplaces are places that are entirely instrumental to economic exchange, or places that are marketed to us as experiences. Airports and malls and supermarkets are all paradigmatic examples, though the "spaces" of the internet -- particularly the Facebook Wall -- are quickly becoming the most important nonplaces. There, personal identity itself becomes a nonplace. It has no history, only a grammar. In other words, we can recombine elements endlessly to posit new identities, all of which are catalogued, none of which stick.
Never before have individual histories been so explicitly affected by collective history, but never before, either, have the reference points for collective identification been so unstable. The individual production of meaning is thus more necessary than ever.

Augé's contention is that social life can't happen in non-places; we can only revel in our own isolation, which we experience as convenience. A corollary: The more we embrace convenience as a positive value, for its own sake, the more we transform places into nonplaces. Social networks are ironically named, it turns out, as they eviscerate the social and replace it with starkly delineated instrumental interactions between individual agents.

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