In Defense of the Non-Place

In Defense of the Non-Place


I’ve taken to going for walks through industrial Brooklyn, departing after dinner, wandering around semi-aimlessly. My roommate refers to this ritual of mine as my “angst hour,” and it’s true that my walks bear close resemblance to a newly licensed teenager stealing away to a vacant parking lot, glaring at the fluorescent street lamps, taking a drag of a cigarette from an illegally purchased pack of Marlboro Golds. Like a teenager, I am in search of an aesthetic experience that is not beautiful, per se, but reflects and elevates my interiority. Unlike a teenager, I am not driven by the desire to “get” anywhere or “leave” anything behind; freedom is not my preeminent aim. What I seek is arguably far more embarrassing than a place to brood in solitude and entertain fantasies of escape: I seek the sublime enclosed within banality; I seek a hidden form of secular revelation.

I find these places at random and often never see them again—not necessarily because they have disappeared but because something has shifted in their alchemic makeup, effectively reverting back to the realm of the ordinary. I may encounter one while looking through the windows of a listed retail property: barren but illuminated, pillars punctuating the vast expanse of white chipped walls, revealing layered textures and color gradients. Or while waiting for the J train above ground early in the morning: the sun refracted by the windows, splitting shadows upon the long and narrow platform, aligning with the train’s churning momentum. Other places, too: an old schoolroom on a weekend, all the wooden chairs piled like Jenga blocks in the corner; the unoccupied moving walkway at JFK in the dead of the afternoon; the railing circling the eighth floor of Bobst, providing a grated, dizzying view of the art deco style tile floors.

Aside from the fact that they are all located in my city of residence, New York, what unifies these places? They tend to be vacant or, at least, sparsely populated. They tend also to be public spaces or, if not, places where strangers gather or have gathered or will gather. A sense of absence and defamiliarization permeates. These vague, qualified descriptions hardly coalesce into a tenable set of criteria. That’s precisely the point. More than anything else, these places are bound by the subjective basis of their existences. While they are not mere figments of my imagination, I animate them through my particular perception. Perhaps, then, these places are not places at all.

It turns out that “non-place” is a pre-existing theoretical concept. I happened upon the term through a Tumblr post (the nucleus of online intellectual life), which referenced French anthropologist Marc Augé’s 1992 text, Non-places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Augé, for his part, reinscribed “non-place” from the—also French—scholar Michel de Certeau, who arrived at his odd, new synthesis through an exercise in negative dialectics: if a place is to be conceived of as “an assembly of elements coexisting in a certain order” and a space as “animation of these places by the motion of a moving body,” then “a ‘non-place’ alludes to a sort of negative equality of place, an absence of the place from itself, caused by the name it has been given.”1 The non-place, then, lacks coherence; it is set forth as a place, given a name in order to signify its function, but “cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity.”2 Its aesthetics signal a failed attempt to naturalize the artificial. Elements like elevator music and fluorescent lighting scrub the comfort and particularity of a traditional place, offering haphazard gestures towards familiarity and fixity. It is a space masquerading as a place.

Augé resituates this alienating phenomenon within the context of—alienating—contemporary life. Motorways, hotel rooms, airports, and malls—all fall into the category of non-places. These public spaces are typified by their transience and lack of specificity—direct products of global capitalism. In order to pinpoint the anthropological dimension of postmodernity, Augé proffers the term “supermodernity,” characterized by “the three figures of excess: overabundance of events, spatial overabundance and the individualization of references.”3 Non-places are symptomatic of this tri-pronged model of excess.

Academic lexicon aside, the experience he theorizes—occupying a “non-place” within “supermodernity”—is readily apparent to anyone living within the Western world today. (Perhaps his theory was more startling in 1992; certainly, a lot has changed since then.) When staying in a Marriott in Los Angeles, one gets the sense that they may as well be in Topeka or Cincinnati, and so forth. Serving designated functions, non-places prioritize efficiency at the expense of “character,” or, the integration of places that came before it. The ahistorical non-places obstruct, too, the individual’s sense of self-continuity. The nights spent in Marriott hotels throughout a lifetime blur together, congealing into a flat horizon; the conference in ’08 merges with the family reunion in ’13 and the beach vacation in ’03.

While individual identity is effectively eliminated, identification is integral to the constitution of non-places. Proof of identity, trackable by the state, is a prerequisite for most forms of transit and for some big-ticket forms of consumption. Augé claims that the usurpation of personal identity by shadowy corporate and state entities contains its own peculiar pleasure: “[S]ubjected to a gentle form of possession, to which he surrenders himself with more or less talent or conviction, he tastes for a while—like anyone who is possessed—the passive joys of identity-loss, and the more active pleasure of role-playing.”4 The “identity-loss” here can perhaps be better understood as “identity-reduction.” Within the indifferent hands of  apparatuses designed to facilitate transactions, an individual’s personhood is reduced to a list of impersonal descriptors: Female, forty-seven, blonde hair, green eyes, U.S. citizen, no criminal record. Stripped of substance, lacking even the concern with personality granted to the stock character,  individuals become existentially anonymous. This is liberating in a certain way—a reprieve from the dramas of the personal. But it is a disquieting liberation, with dissociative effects: a forty-seven-year-old American woman traveling to a foreign country watching herself, through the lens of strangers, perform as a forty-seven-year-old American woman. Perhaps ironically, perhaps intuitively, the rise of mobility and security has coincided with the decline of existential freedom and depth.

Augé’s non-place, then, is an insidious phantom force, in conflict with the human spirit. He conceives of it as a socioeconomic mechanism that generates self-alienation en masse. I accept Augé’s non-place, and I believe it accurately diagnoses a problem worth serious consideration. I, too, bemoan the homogenizing effects of globalization. I, too, long for the resurrection of local character, of culture.

But Augé’s non-place is not my non-place. My non-place approximates his in many respects—its subjective nature, dependent upon an individual’s experience of depersonalization; its non-exclusivity, accessible to people of varying economic status and geographic location; its propensity to crop up in large and empty urban spaces, materializing as a void—but it is not confined within his conception. I aim to reimagine the non-place, extending it beyond the logic of socioeconomics. Ultimately, I aim to make a case for its aesthetic value, which I believe offers, if not precisely a spiritual experience, then a close approximation of one.

Early on in this essay, I described my experience of a non-place as both banal and sublime. Sublime banality. As with any paradox, the two conflicting terms must be reconsidered and reworked. Language and meaning must couple and uncouple in a coquettish but orderly fashion, like a ball in a Jane Austen novel.

For many, the “sublime” instinctually evokes jagged cliffs merging with crashing waves or ominous clouds hanging over a luscious forest or an opening in the sky with the light of heaven shining down upon a vast valley. It may also evoke Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) or Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, or Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps instead, “sublime” evokes the iconic ’90s ska-punk band of the same name. Last example aside, the aesthetic category is often associated with Romanticism and its dramatic artistic output. The era’s preference for emotion over reason, nature over industry, and individualism over collectivism lent itself to an influx in philosophical work dedicated to aesthetics. Kant, Burke, Schopenhauer, and Hegel all wrote at length about the branch of philosophy—granting special attention to the sublime.

I will briefly address Kant’s understanding of the sublime, delineated in Critique of Judgment, as his theory has proven to be the most enduring as well as—I believe—the most convincing. He approaches the sublime by way of distinction, contrasting the aesthetic with the beautiful. Unlike the beautiful, Kant asserts, the sublime is not concerned with form but is instead boundless; it must overwhelm, destabilizing faculties of judgment. To this point, he divides the sublime into two categories: “mathematical,” in which size overwhelms, and “dynamical,” in which force overwhelms.5 This business of overwhelming raises a dilemma for Kant, given that his central thesis in the text contends that all nature serves a purpose for our judgment. The sublime’s effect of overpowering (incapacitating) our judgment, then, does not hold up to this previous claim. He resolves this apparent contradiction by insisting “that in the sublime experience, what is properly sublime and the object of respect should be the idea of reason, rather than nature.”6 Namely, what overwhelms is in fact the idea of absolute totality (mathematical) and absolute freedom (dynamical). The object itself is not threatening, rather we deem it worthy of fear due to the challenges it imposes upon our reason. While our sensibilities may not be able to grasp extreme magnitude or force, our reason can intervene on behalf of our sensibilities. It is our capacity to reckon with extreme magnitude or force (our “supersensible vocation”), then, that deserves our awe. In an ironic twist, Kant’s conception of the sublime suggests the triumph of man over nature: The sublime resides within us.7

If this is the case, then the object which we perceive to be sublime is, arguably, arbitrary—or, at least, malleable. In theory, the qualities which cause us to judge an encounter as “sublime” need not be limited to magnitude and force. In theory, any quality encountered in an aesthetic experience that challenges our reasoning faculties could qualify. Through this line of—wait for it—reasoning, I propose that the sublime may materialize in distinctly unextraordinary locations. Perhaps “overwhelmed” should be substituted with the more precise descriptor, “bewilderment.” Hence: “sublime banality,” which accounts for the feeling of being bewildered by the quotidian.

Augé’s non-places certainly exemplify this phenomenon. The homogenous malls, airports, and hotel rooms he identifies are by definition quotidian, and yet they frequently unsettle their transient visitors, disconnecting them from a stable ontological state. The key difference from Kant’s sublime here is that the bewildered individual does not know what exactly it is that unsettles them; that the scale of a mountain overwhelms us is self-evident, but the unsettling quality of the hotel corridor is opaquer. (Is it the vacuity? The ever-present smooth jazz emanating from an unknown source? The heavy mood lighting? A combination of all three?) While the learned person may attribute his feeling to the creeping, flattening effect of globalization, he would be missing a key component of the flattening maneuver: the ambiguous aesthetic experience that mediates between the fact of globalization and the individual.

Perhaps the bewilderment lasts throughout the entire duration of a visitor’s time within a non-place; perhaps it arises in a flash, triggered by the presentation of a particular assemblage of elements. Augé doesn’t specify on this account. I tend to think that the less the emotional response is concentrated—tethered to a particular moment—the more subdued the sense of bewilderment—the more the bewilderment slips into low-level dread, à la walking around the mall.

Therein resides the greatest point of departure between my interpretation of non-places and Augé’s. There is nothing enrichening about the low-level dread that a mall or airport instills, enclosing the ambient feeling like a Ziplock bag. But encounters that truly bewilder are enriching. They affect the individual viscerally and thoroughly. They yield a depersonalization devoid of alienation. They unmoor the individual from their fixed perception of the world, revealing the slippery futility of attachments.

In an essay on bewilderment, poet Fanny Howe upholds the state as “a poetics and an ethics.”8 Howe describes the motion of bewilderment as “rushing backwards and forwards within an irreconcilable set of imperatives,” bringing one to the edge of comprehension; what was taken as truth becomes undone.9 It is within this circular, errant movement that the truth of existence lays: in contradiction and ephemerality. Bewilderment acknowledges the elusive nature of existential stability, following “a complete collapse of reference and reconcilability.”10 This can be distressing, but it is also revelatory, opening up new forms of being: “I am a victim of constantly shifting positions, with every one of those positions stunned by bewilderment—is it here, is it here, is it there?—and by the desire to shuck the awful attributes of my own personality. To toss the drek.”11

So, bewilderment facilitates a temporary ego-death, an ego-demise. I propose that it is the corresponding emotional response to sublime banality. The signifiers of the non-place are empty to the people who move through it; they gesture not towards people but to the algorithmic “average person.” Therein lies the tragedy of optimization: in an attempt to relate to all, they relate to none. The whole is not equal to the mean of its parts. The melancholy of the non-place moves me, bespeaking the gaps in relation inherent within existence. So, Augé theorizes the non-place as the aesthetic manifestation of a socioeconomic system marked by material precarity. I theorize the non-place as the aesthetic manifestation of existential precarity. The two are by no means mutually exclusive, and at times, I experience a non-place that embodies both a material and existential dimension of bewilderment.

This doubled meaning of the non-place evokes Simone Weil, the Catholic mystic and committed Marxist (albeit, she eschewed easy categorization, skeptical of any hegemonic mode of thought, formulating an idiosyncratic philosophy instead). She critiqued her fellow Marxists for being insufficiently materialist and emphasized the importance of rootedness, yet she utterly disavowed any worldly attachments. I imagine her as a philosopher of bewilderment, riddled with contradiction as her work is. A particular passage in Gravity and Grace about the void seems to encapsulate the full potential of the non-place: “Man only escapes from the laws of this world in lightning flashes. Instants when everything stands still, instants of contemplation, of pure intuition, of mental void, or acceptance of the moral void. It is through such instants that he is capable of the supernatural.”12 An immeasurable unit of time, the instant—fitting for an experience that severely challenges reason. But string enough instances together, and a philosophy of bewilderment coheres.

  1. Marc Augé, “The Near and the Elsewhere,” in Non-places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, translated by John Howe (London and New York: Verso, 1992), 80.
  2. Augé, “The Near and the Elsewhere,” 77-8.
  3. Augé, “The Near and the Elsewhere,” 109.
  4. Augé, “The Near and the Elsewhere,” 103.
  5. Immanuel Kant, “Analytic of the Sublime,” in Critique of Judgment, edited by Nicholas Walker, translated by James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 78.
  6. Kant, “Analytic of the Sublime,” 77.
  7. Kant, “Analytic of the Sublime,” 90.
  8. Fanny Howe, “Bewilderment,” in The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 5.
  9. Howe, “Bewilderment,” 5.
  10. Howe, “Bewilderment,” 8.
  11. Howe, “Bewilderment,” 11.
  12. Simone Weil, “To Accept the Void,” Gravity and Grace, trans. Emma Crawford and Mario von der Rur (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002), 11.
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