Non-Places and the End of Travel

Travel Books: Frank Bures on airports, Dubai and Marc Augé's "Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity"

06.23.09 | 10:14 AM ET

iStockPhoto

It seems kind of strange now, but a while back, before airports became the fortresses they are today, I used to visit them occasionally to read and write. I’m not sure what drew me to them—something about the energy, or the equality, or the possibility of the place. You could start on one side of the world, step over a threshold, and in a few hours, begin a totally different life. I loved that feeling of being at the doorway to everywhere.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that according to French thinker and anthropologist Marc Augé, I wasn’t really in any place at all. At least that’s the central theme of his book, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, which was recently reissued by Verso Books. In it, Augé laments the rise of spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere. 

For Augé, these spaces seem to signal the end of borders, of locality, and of the old sense of identity rooted in place and time. The non-places are devoid of relationships and have “no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.”

The reissue of Auge’s work gives us a chance to dig in a little deeper into what it means to be in a “non-place,” a phrase used earlier by American city planner Melvin Webber, who wrote an influential paper in 1965 called “The Urban Place and the Non-Place Urban Realm.” But for Webber, the non-place was just great.

In contrast to Augé’s Gallic pessimism, Webber channeled the spirit of his age and country. He shared that great post-war sense that everything was possible, and that the city was a blank slate on which we could write our dreams. Those dreams, as Webber saw it, were of non-places where we were free to be who we wanted, free to do what we wanted and free to go where we wanted, regardless of where we lived, or who we were, or what town we came from.

Such were the joys of modernism, and they were so appealing that today the world is filled with non-places floating above land and history. Dubai is a great example, a place where the tales of the desert are locked in the pavement under the supermalls and theme parks and skyscrapers. This was something that deeply disturbed Wilfred Thesiger, who complained as early as 1959 that the place was finished, and that true discovery was no longer possible there.

This sentiment runs through Augé’s “Non-Places” as he expounds on the alienating ubiquity of such places. Unfortunately, he is his own worst enemy. Most of the book is a curious mix of anecdote, theory and allusion. It suffers from a lack of specifics and often feels like a collection of ramblings. But the phrase “non-places” is creeping into the lexicon, because it taps directly into a fear we all have: That the world is becoming ever more homogenized and globalized, and soon it won’t matter where we go because the world will consist only of non-places. As Paul Theroux wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, the “contraction of space on a shrinking planet suggests a time, not far off, when there will be no remoteness: nowhere to become lost, nothing to be discovered, no escape, no palpable concept of distance, no peculiarity of dress—frightening thoughts for a traveler.”

This same opinion has been echoed by other great writers from Eric Newby to Paul Fussell to Evelyn Waugh, Italo Calvino and Claude Lévi-Strauss. I tend to think they saw the world change just a little too much in their time and that their fear is overblown, if not just plain wrong.

There are plenty of places to go where there are no McDonald’s or megamalls. But they are not always easy to get to or safe (and never have been). And while the world is certainly changing, it has always changed. If you can’t embrace that change, and see both the good and bad of it, why not stay home, because to really see the new world, tired old eyes won’t do. As George Saunders pointed out in his classic essay on Dubai, you can’t be afraid to be confused. That confusion, that openness, is the key to the one thing that makes the world worth seeing: wonder. When you let that die, your time has passed.

There may be no more easy discoveries. There may be no more cheap epiphanies. But that doesn’t mean that discoveries and epiphanies are no longer possible, if you’re willing to look a little deeper. Not long ago, I pulled into a typical strip mall in a town in Wisconsin, where I found a little Cambodian grocery store. As I checked out, I noticed the woman behind the counter had a picture of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. When I asked her about it, she told me that if a Cambodian tries to look at it, he can’t see it, because it was stolen from their country, and it won’t be visible until it’s back home.

True or not, I never cease to be amazed by a world where you encounter magical jade statues in the middle of the Midwest; a world where “places” may not be quite what they used to be, but where they aren’t nothing at all, either. Ours is a world that’s always changing, and what Augé and the travel cranks seem not to grasp is that this, too, will pass. Borders will be torn down. Others will go up. Identities will disappear. Others will take their place. Languages will die. Others will arise. The non-places of today are the places of tomorrow. And until then, those of us who love the world will keep on passing through non-places to reach the places beyond.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


25 Comments for Non-Places and the End of Travel

Madi 06.23.09 | 11:45 AM ET

I agree with you that people should keep an open mind when questioning the modernity of our world today.
On a tangent, because cultural identity is hybrid in and of itself, maybe it’s true that change is inevitable. But the important thing, I think, is that we realize it’s happening (modernity creating these non-places in which the outside-world is almost forgotten), and at least try to preserve as much of the cultural heritage of places and of people as possible. We don’t want to lose every trace of cultural wealth that has survived millenias. The more time we spend in these “non-places” (by the way, I too feel that excitement when I’m in an airport), the more we lose touch with genuine experience and discovery. They are detaching, disconnecting us from the “ordinary” lifestyle.  And because they are expanding, it’s important that we don’t forget how flavorful the sweets of the outside of these non-places are.

Lindsey 06.23.09 | 7:55 PM ET

Thank you for theses thoughts.

Especially today :)

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 06.24.09 | 11:42 AM ET

Very interesting.  I never thought of airports and shopping malls as being “non-spaces.”  If we are so concerned with “non-spaces” then WE must change.  People could ban together to halt the bulldozing of our forests so another shopping mall can go be constructed.  We could preserve our historical buildings, artworks, statues, etc…instead of tossing them aside.  We ALL have a choice.

Man creates his own reality.  If he doesn’t like the one he has then it’s up to HIM to change it.  Yes, change is inevitable.  You can either embrace it or complain about it.  Either way it will happen.  The question is, what type of change will take place?

Jean - OurExplorer Tour Guide 06.30.09 | 10:20 AM ET

Somewhat reminded me of “Neither here, nor there”. Airport is often the first place of a new place, and the last place in the different location. Yet, they share the modernity in some similar ways.

Anne Sheehan 07.04.09 | 2:17 AM ET

Actually, Singapore airport is a little slice of traveller heaven.  If this is a non-space, bring it on!

Dave Hilditch 07.04.09 | 1:37 PM ET

Thanks for this piece.  Of course, some sort of change in the nature of places—and likewise in the way we perceive and inhabit places—is inevitable.  This is a truism.  But let’s not mystify this process of change by thinking of it as inevitably progressive. And let’s not forgot that “place-change” is an economic, cultural and political process, and that no *specific* changes are necessary or inevitable. That whatever changes is underwritten by people making decisions, motivated by interests, situated in a political and economic context, where some have more power than others.  Let’s not forget these changes affect people differentially.  – frequently benefitting a few at the expense of many.  Yes, we have to adapt post hoc, and it behooves us to be open to the “goods” offered by new places and to new possibilities as they emerge.  Auge, Theroux et al. merely remind us that such changes also close off possibilities and valuable ways of being—that change has costs.  My sense is that we spend way too little imagining these very real costs concretely prior to the development of the strip mall or the impersonal “non-place” airport.

Caryl Hamer 07.04.09 | 6:02 PM ET

Thank you for echoing my own thoughts. When my husband died - some ten years ago now - I found airports the most companionable of places . You could eat, sleep, read, find people to talk to and space to just sit and read, write or contemplate the world to when you wanted to be alone. Singapore Airport in particular was a place I could have happily live in, Athens (which has hopefully changed since I was last there - a good few years ago now) was not.

John 07.04.09 | 6:54 PM ET

Alas, the modern airport is no longer a sleek, bustling haven of contemplation conducive to reading and writing.  The omnipresent flat screen tv blairing details of the sordid lives of this or that disposible celebrity, not to mention the newer, democratic class of traveler that is glued to that screen, have wiped out that form idling.

M Cope 07.05.09 | 2:51 AM ET

As Douglas Adams had it, “There is no language on earth in which the phrase “as pretty as an airport” occurs.

Patrick Michael Gunkel 07.05.09 | 7:22 AM ET

• MERE POINTS AND MERE INFINITIES

A dimensionless planet Earth — a ubiquitous, dullard’s homogeneity — is certainly not far away.  Those who are blind to this are blind to history, to the subjective and objective hugeness of our past.  Ninety billion people lived in that past, but had vast isolated branches to differentiate on.  The difficulty of encompassing our globe made it stupendous beyond imagining, and subjectively a kind of infinity.  Something analogous to the Universe itself, which, for the present moment at least, has retained its sublime — but unknown and mysterious — heterogeneity, thanks, ironically, to the confining speed of light and of the order of 10^23 planets to proliferate Chance into a realm of fantasy and garden-like disconnection.  And every bet would say that beyond our picayune cosmos there are types of cosmoses — types of substance and becoming and unbecoming — that not 1 of our own minds could ever guess, even in the highest fit of madness.

— Patrick Michael Gunkel (Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.A.)

Richard 07.05.09 | 9:45 AM ET

I thought the conclusion of this article rather glib. Modernity now appears to be driven by market values. Just as we have huge factories making millions of things, we have rent factories called shopping malls. They have one purpose, to generate money and there is no space for the idiosyncratic and the local. We live in houses built in large numbers on tracts of land bought in bulk. Variation is incompatible with the need to make homes in large numbers. Connecting the malls and suburbs are bland link roads and motorways, built to internationally agreed and nigh-on immutable standards. Lastly, our work takes place these days in office parks, which are also rent-collection machines or at the least, equivalent to tract housing. Traditional culture is not owned by anyone so there is no money in it. When did you last see an ad campaign for tweed jackets or native headgear or Irish brogues? Corporations decide our clothing and our music. So, there you have it, the non-place of space and of culture. I rather think that the little nuggets of the local and idiosyncratic are living on borrowed time, and the author´s contentment with an ethnic store buried inside some bland mall is baffling. Shouldn´t we expect more than this?

Charles 07.05.09 | 9:14 PM ET

The whole thrust of modern technological culture is toward non-placeness and uniformity. Businesses feel that to be located in any one specific place is to be seen as old-fashioned. Often, trying to find the actual physical location—the address— of a business on its web page is next to impossible - it doesn’t want to be identified that way. It exists in electronic, virtual space more than in real space. It is much more fungible to be located nowhere and everywhere, as if local space has been superseded by a non-specific universal space, powered by the web, Mastercard and Visa.

Eutychus 07.05.09 | 11:20 PM ET

Frank Bures seems to be a modern day Candide. I’ll go out on a limb here and choose to join ranks with Paul Theroux, Eric Newby, Paul Fussell, Evelyn Waugh, Italo Calvino and Claude Lévi-Strauss. I am not sure whether it is blind courage or sheer arrogance that compels Bures to contradict such brilliant company, but either way I find this article rather shortsighted and dim.

Frank Bures 07.06.09 | 6:53 AM ET

Eutychus:  It is, perhaps, some unique combination of sheer arrogance and blind courage that compelled me to write this article, not to mention a terrible book.  However, the point here is not a matter off deferring to the brilliance of these thinkers, who in some ways are just as lacking in imagination as yourself.  Every generation laments change in the world, and it’s all too common to mistake a new regime for no regime.  When Rome was sacked, it probably seemed like the end of the world, yet Rome stands today.  When the Library of Alexandria burned, it changed history, but history went on.  I’m simply making an effort to take a longer view, and to avoid the trap of thinking our era (or the one just past) is some peak from which decline will inevitably follow. You can call that arrogance, but I feel like it’s something closer to humility.  The future, after all, is built on the ashes of the present.

Panduka Dasanayake 07.06.09 | 6:48 PM ET

“Well-said,” to Frank Bures, both for your comments on Auge`‘s notion of ‘non-spaces,’ and for your response to Eutychus.  I’d also say “well-done,” to Eutychus for prompting this response by your opinion.  If I be permitted to allude to Buddhist philosophy and as how I’ve seen it so far, there is the invariable feature of change or ‘aniccha,’ that every conditioned and component thing on earth is subject to.  From this perspective, ‘change,’ IS ‘the only constant.’  But in ‘change,’ there is also the unlimited potential for human creativity and intelligence to blossom forth, hopefully, to make life a little bit more convenient or facile to others or the multitude.  This is the premise on which all modernity, or for that matter, all of what passes on from one time to the other rests on for their validity.  This is the crux of what Frank Bures alludes to as ‘humility’ in accepting that ‘the future, after all, is built on the ashes of the present.’  In this humility we accept the reality that all conditioned phenomena is transient.  Period.  But,we also have to live out each existence as well as we can, to move from understanding this reality to realizing it, in a liberating sense. 

In this ‘living,’ we have a choice every single moment.  One can exercise this ‘choice,’ to view a culture and an age with a narrowness of mind as ‘our culture,’ and ‘theirs,’ or, see the universals in a ‘human culture,’ and an ‘humane age.’  Limiting ourselves to only the 20th century, at the end of the ‘first world war,’ there grew the ‘League of Nations,’ which was designed to end such armed conflict and promote a new world order and peace.  Not long after, there came the ‘second world war’ which saw brutality as never before, and at its conclusion, we designed the ‘UNO,’ as a rallying point for a ‘new world order and peace.’  With all of the vast strides the UN system was able to make in helping ease human trauma and suffering in many spheres, and with all of its weaknesses, the underlying causes of conflict and human-induced suffering on fellow-beings have not ended! 

Back to individual choice, whether as a person, a people, organizations, communities, governments, countries, or regions, and even hopefully, one world!  Each one of us can choose to see ourselves as the centre of being, or see us as part of universal being.  One can choose to see the universality of change and the possibility of continued existence on chosen conditions, and work towards enabling the best conditions to manifest, or see the myopic ‘our culture and place,’ and ignore the vast potential of universal collaboration, and the goodness that it can bring to the multitudes.

In the latter choice, we miss out on a whole world of possibilites, ranging from the arts to real socio-economic benefits, and miss out on taking this ‘longer-term’ view of life which can be a real education.  In the longer-term, we are able to see how one person and their culture is ‘limited,’ to one lifetime.  Whether one believes in rebirth or not, there is no denying that ‘consciousness’ moves on, changing and changing.  So the consciousness of one existence and being gets transformed to another, and what makes it possible is the universals of being, that we choose to deny in our myopia.  As alluded to by Frank Bures in the thoughts of Melvin Webber, we can also choose to see the endless possibilities of the borderless world.  The longer we deny ourselves the vision of the goodness of a borderless world, the longer we keep denying the truth of the borderless human consciousness that keeps evolving, the longer shall we be in conflict within ourselves and deny ourselves the peace that we can find in this very existence itself.  And more, in making the better choice, we can leave the world a little better that how we found it!

Panduka Dasanayake 07.07.09 | 10:48 PM ET

Please correct the last sentence in the above comment to read: ‘And more, in making the better choice, we can leave the world a little better than how we found it.’
Thanks
PD

john 07.07.09 | 11:01 PM ET

The scientific advances of the past 100 years simply have no historical precedent. To say plus ca change, and that every generation has prophesied the end of culture is to miss the point. The technological magic (black magic) born of the last century has progressively changed everything for the worse at a speed and on a scope that could never have been foreseen. As the world is shrunken and homogenized through corporate proliferation aided by evermore pervasive and speedy information technology, cultures rooted in millenia of innovation informed by local customs and slow trade are steadily disappearing worldwide and like the dodo, when their gone, their gone. The future in vanguard is seen here, in the US, typified by numbingly vacant discourse, soulless architecture, unbridled narcissism, and undernourished minds. Its oblivious thinking to hold out hope for a world that will possess even an essence of the variety, beauty, and richness known since neolithic times up until its 20th century decline.

Frank Bures 07.08.09 | 10:08 AM ET

John:  Changed everything for the worse?  You can’t be serious.  I have a suggestion: Turn off your TV.  Turn off radio. Shut down your computer. Get out of the 24 hour news cycle.  Pick up a book.  (Candide?)  Go to a park.  Read a little. Relax. Then think about these things:  penicillin, space travel, Indian food buffets, ipods, intercity ground travel, dark matter, narrative museums, summer blockbusters, Hubble, the shrinking ozone hole, camping equipment, ants and other superorganisms, and so on.  I don’t mean to be flippant, but science has brought us many things, good, bad and indifferent.  I do not think we are necessarily in the end times (see my previous comment) and I personally have no desire to go back to 1909 to live. There are plenty of problems in the world that need fixing, but to say everything is worse than it’s ever been seems to me naive and sad.

Panduka Dasanayake 07.08.09 | 7:10 PM ET

Many thanks Frank for your response to John, and thanks John for your comments.  Frank touches on two key mediattive subject s here - 1) finding the time daily to get out of not only the 24hr news cycle, but the very 24 hour routine that we call life and to find a little space and time to think of particularly nothing, but to observe, listen to and be aware of your bodily processes and the environment around you; and 2)  that science (or the progression or evolution of the world as we see) has brought us many things, good, bad and indifferent. 

These three words are key to understanding and being aware of our very feelings with which we perceive ourselves and the world around us - they are either good/ pleasant/ accepatable; bad/unpleasant/unacceptable; or simply indifferent/equanimous.  Equanimity or that perfectly balanced mind with which one does not judge but simply accepts all, accommodates all, and maintains a beautiful harmoy, means a big step in spiritual progress.  In other terms, these three words good, bad and indifferent (or equanimous) describes the challenge we have in the choices we make in each moment. 

The point that I’d like to share is that depending on which word best describes our choice in a given moment, we reap a result that corresponds with ‘good, bad or indifferent,’ and we go on making perceptions based on that result as the new cause, and so on.  When we start seeing this process, and how it governs us, some of us start seeing the need to be free of this judgmental process and see that there is, as Frank has pointed out, good, bad and the indifferent all around us and based on the choice/s we make of how we see something, we reap results in correspondence with that particular choice.  Period.  Seeing this is like the magical jade statue that Frank alluded to, and the undeniable truth he states in the final para - all that changes will also surely pass - the events and places that are in focus now, become non-events and non-places tomorrow, ad infinitum. May all beings be well.

h 07.09.09 | 2:06 PM ET

i would like to help expanding Mr Bures’ list of undeniable advances that progress during the last century has brought upon us: 
A-bomb, religious fanaticism, global hunger, genocide, global warming, tv dinners and summer blockbusters, amongst others.

We need the full list if we are really trying to understand where we are, and for that matter, where we are going

Certainly progress has always been there, but do you really believe that the extent of the consequences is comparable now and 2000 years ago? Would the repercussions today of the fall of, for instance, the USA, be something comparable in your eyes with the fall of Rome?
Burying our happy heads in a sandbox littered with shiny iPods and camping equipment won’t do much on the way to facing the real challenges and perhaps fixing some of them.

Non-places exist. So do, probably as a result, Non-people.
You just need to look beyond your iPod screen, it’s all there.

Frank Bures 07.10.09 | 1:23 PM ET

Sorry,  [removing earbuds] what was that?

John 07.11.09 | 4:34 PM ET

Since you brought it up, I do read. Good stuff, like the Russians, Proust, James, Hardy, Conrad, Sterne, Fielding, Dante, the Greeks and Romans, and lets not forget our Boethius and Augustine. Now I’ll go out on a limb and say you’ve never cracked the spine of a volume of Proust or Gibbon.  Ad hominen aside, the point was that the past centuries technological advances were sui generis and, thus far, their overall effect has been largely pernicious.

Peter 07.12.09 | 1:48 AM ET

I think that this books was great. Wasnt it?
Pete

Frank Bures 07.12.09 | 3:03 PM ET

You’re right, Pete, we do seem to have gotten off topic, and I see it could drag on like this forever. But at the risk of belaboring the point, I’d like to clarify for John, who seems to have missed it in both the piece and the comments. I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t read, John. Sorry if you took it that way.  Rather I was suggesting that you get out and clear some of the negativity from your head. There are many things to despair about in this world. No need to list them—they’re listed above, and they’re in the news all the time.  If that’s your game, you’re welcome to it.  But where science, technology and perhaps globalization are concerned, Bacon said it best: “Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced.” Science looks for the abilily to produce a desired effect. To assume all those effects have been bad assumes humans (or the existence of humans) to be bad.  I don’t share that view. As human power grows, the effects, both good and bad, are maginfied. And while not all change is progress, a non-ideological survey of those effects will, I think, find different kinds. I write this on a computer powered by nuclear fission.  I’ve also read Hersey’s Hiroshima.  You see what you are looking for, and I prefer look for both, and to try to hold them in my mind at the same time.

Okay, I’m done.

Residential Properties on Rent in noida 07.16.09 | 1:44 AM ET

Nice Post. does anyone know if there is a legal way I can display this content on my own website- Many thanks

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.