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

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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.