Postcards from a PhD
A few years ago circumstance found me in charge of a coach load of international students bound for Stratford-upon-Avon. After a couple of hours on the M1 we pulled into a service station and the excitement was tangible, far more so than when we actually reached the birthplace of Shakespeare where many people seemed overwhelmed and unsure how to proceed. In the twenty or so minutes we spent at the services I watched as they gleefully took advantage of their freedom, returning to the coach laden with all manner of snacks and novelty items. Their enthusiasm for this peculiar outpost of British consumerism wasn’t completely alien to me, stopping at the motorway services was always my highlight of car journeys to London as a child, yet I still found the incident somewhat bemusing. It was with this experience in the back of my mind that I read Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity by Marc Augé.
Augé suggests that the distinction between places and non-places derives from the opposition between place and space, the word ‘place’ specifically connoting a history, things happening, taking place. Anthropological place therefore is tied up with a multiplicity of individual identities, histories, of local references, unformulated rules of living. Non-places, conversely, create the identities of those using them. Augé suggests “a person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants” and that “the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it”. This is exemplified by how non-places instruct one on how to use them, what one can and can’t do and where and when are clearly signposted, they are abstract places we read as opposed to see.
Returning to the students visiting the motorway services, one can suggest that their response to this non-place was based on their ability to instinctively read the environment. Non-places such as service stations, airports and supermarkets are designed to be universal, using them doesn’t require a priori knowledge of rules and customs to have ones needs met, they are spaces formed in relation to certain ends.
Augé’s explanation for the emergence of non-places is rooted in the idea of supermodernity, which shares many similarities with Gilles Lipovetsky’s theory of hypermodernity. Augé attributes supermodernity to three figures of excess in modern society; an overabundance of events, spatial surfeit and the individualisation of references, i.e. the rise of the individual. Like the idea of hypermodernity, the overabundance of events is grounded in the notion that we are living in a period of accelerated history, that far from living in an age that lacks meaning we are gripped by an intense desire to constantly give the present meaning, to create spectacles. This is where Augé’s work is closest to my area of interest. He suggests where Modernity is in essence a mingling of the old an new, as in a town where church spires and factory towers share the skyline, Supermodernity makes the old into a specific spectacle, presenting it as curiosity. Thinking back to that trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, a town which has wilfully modelled itself into an olde England theme park, it’s a very persuasive argument.