Places and non-places - a conversation with Marc Augé

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Q. The popularity of the term "non-place," in contrast with "place," has resulted, among other things, in misuses of concepts that you have described as anthropological hypotheses. The excessive attention and amplification has not always been helpful in terms of the clarity of your message. There have been oversimplifications, and such misuses as considering "places" as good and "non-places" as bad. Perhaps this would be an opportune time, fifteen years after your book was first published in France by the publisher Seuil, to update the definition, to prevent further misuse of the term. ...

 

 

A. I have done my best to provide a description of places that can put us in contact with a social structure, because there is a very close, consubstantial link between space and social organization. At the same time, because I noticed the proliferation, in the contemporary world, of spaces in which no lasting social relations are established (transit spaces, spaces people pass through), I suggested calling those spaces non-places to suggest that in those contexts there were a total absence of symbolic ties, and evident social deficits.

 

Q. It's quite a leap to shift focus from anthropological research into so-called primitive nations such as the Ivory Coast, Togo, and Algeria, to an anthropology of advanced societies. One problem is that in the anthropology of phenomena that are, so to speak, "at our front doorstep," anybody feels they have the right to state his own opinion, and therefore to twist and deform the content of the analyses that you have produced on places and non-places in years of study and research.

 

A. I never considered my transition to studying our big cities as a break with the earlier work I did; rather, I saw it as a natural progression. The analysis of places and non-places constituted a major point of reference in an attempt to analyze spaces that are characteristic of the contemporary world. With other colleagues, I undertook a sort of "return trip" from Africa to Europe, because even though we continued our work in Africa and Latin America, at the beginning of the Nineties we began to become aware, as ethnologists, of the processes that are now referred to as globalization. I was a member of a generation that lived through this transition, and I believe that if the term non-place found an audience, it was largely because it corresponded to something that had been in the air for some time, but which had not yet found a proper name or, if it had been named by some authors, had failed to stir the attention or understanding that we managed to obtain. A certain number of people found inspiration in the notion, because it communicated things that were significant for them. It was clear and evident for architects, painters, musicians, and for painters for instance, expecially experimental ones. The other side of the coin is that when this word began to spread, a number of people began to confer upon our hypotheses the meanings they wanted to give to it. I believe that already in the little book, Non-Places (original French title, Non-Lieux, 1992; English edition, Verso, 1995, trans. By John Howe), I attempted to specify and nuance matters, and I was repeatedly drawn back to certain concepts. There are two points that I would like to hammer down. For me, place has never been an empirical notion. Anything can become a place, every space can be one, if in one manner or another encounters take place there that create social ties. A space can be either a place or a non-place, or a place for some and not for others. One classic case is the airport, which is a very different case for someone who works there regularly, with colleagues and relationships, and someone who passes through once only, or by chance. The second point is that in the sometime nostalgic visions that we have of the past, we tend to consider the new as something that twists the nature of what existed before. And so place is good because we meet people and we establish relationships there, while the non-place is bad because there everyone is a stranger to everyone else. That was not and is not my intention. It is necessary to attempt to  characterize whatever is new in the contemporary world and, in my opinion, what is new is a change of setting, a shift in references, which implies that spaces are no longer perceived in the same way. Non-places could be seen, approaching them from another vantage point, as the heirs to everything that has created discomfort or annoyance in the history of human spaces. However, when reflecting upon the meaning of travel, we should consider that this negative definition of the non-place rules out the possibility of adventure. Encounters often take place in a space that is not yet symbolized, which cannot prescribe social relations; in a nonplace the notion of the unknown, the mysterious appears. Knights errant, the Knights of the Round Table, in the stories handed down to us from the Middle Ages, set off in search of adventure. Fine: setting off in search of adventure means going somewhere where you know no one else. If I come back to the narrow definition that I gave of non-place at the beginning, then we have to say that adventure takes place in a non-place. I could continue with this, and sing the praises of the non-place, but this too would be misleading, because, quite sincerely, I never employed this notion with ny reference to a system of values. [....]

(On The Move, Skira 2008, p. 126 e ss.)