Non-Places

non-places

Marc Augé is a French anthropologist who, in many ways, is typical of continental social scientists in that he spends the majority of Non-Places providing a deep theoretical justification for his research, carefully situating it in particular strains of anthropology and place/space studies. Although his impenetrability is not quite on the level of Derrida, Augé spends a big chunk of the book establishing his work in the context of other anthropological explorations of place and space.

Mercifully, he compartmentalises the book so if you don’t want to engage with Lévi-Strauss, Mauss and Merleau-Ponty then you can skip through to the chapter where he expounds on the concept of non-places, which makes perfect sense in isolation. Non-places are:

the ones we inhabit when we are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or sitting in an airport lounge, waiting for the next flight.

Other non-places might include supermarkets, hotels, the tax office or dental surgeries—spaces which we may spend time in but which we ultimately pass through without paying much attention to what surrounds us—the architecture, the interior design—and ultimately don’t form a meaningful bond with, like we would our own home or a grand cathedral. They are places we don’t consider important enough to regard as actual places.

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which can not be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.

Why are these places not afforded any significance? Augé posits that:

There is no room there for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. What reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment. Since non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time. […] They are lived through in the present.

Augé’s concept of non-places is extremely useful in turning our eyes onto the things which are important in our lives but taken as a given—they’re there and we never question how they came to be or how the way they present themselves impacts us in certain ways. He prefigures an interest in mundane aspects of urban life which has always existed but seemed to crystallise in the late 1990s. The book almost seems like a call to action, inviting us to cast a critical gaze at such places, something we are no strangers to at Metal and Dust.

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