In an endlessly fascinating essay – Non-places: an introduction to super modernity – Marc Augé contrasts anthropological place (any space bearing the inscriptions of the social bond or collective history, such as churches, market places and town halls) with non-places. Described as spaces of circulation, consumption and communication, they are the places we inhabit when we “are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or siting in an airport waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille” (Augé, p.77).
As a reasonably regular traveller, the airport as non-place strikes a distinct and suitably muzak tinged chord. For Augé, one of the characteristic features of non-places is their ability to dislocate identity. So let’s consider our arrival at Heathrow departures. It is not our intelligence, our wit, our skill to strip a motor engine, paint a watercolour or craft a 50 metre cross-field pass that ensures our safe transit via the various contractual crossing points that confront us: check-in desk, security, passport control, final airline check before boarding the plane.
Such negotiation is only ensured by reducing our identity to its essence. A passport (bearing a photo, a number, a code) that then secures us a secondary identity: the boarding pass. Picking up Augé’s argument, the traveller is “relieved of his usual determinants” (Augé, p.83). He assumes a temporary identity yet one that echoes those of other travellers. We respond to the “same code as others…the same messages…the same entreaties” – proceed to gate 4, rows 5-8 boarding now. It is a state of both “solitude and similitude”.
This reduction in identity relates to Victor Turner’s analysis of the liminal stage in rites of passage. The neophytes undergoing this transition are reduced to nothing – they are stripped of their property, insignia, rank and kinship position. There is “nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows” (Turner, pp. 98-99). So, maybe a non-place is also a liminal place. Or, as Kociatkiewicz and Kostera note, a “transitional space” – the space “waiting for liminality to happen” (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.7).
This highlights a further feature of non-places. Augé observes that the relative anonymity afforded by the temporary identity assumed in non-places can be felt as a liberation. For Augé, this is a negative liberation consisting merely of the power to refrain from making decisions, to submit to order and control. Yet maybe there is genuine liberation here. The liminality described by Turner is not only a condition of ambiguity and paradox; but also one of growth and transformation. For there are some – myself included – who experience the anonymity of the airport as conducive to thought, reflection, insight. I find them stimulating places to work – freed from the the everyday, the burden of multiple identities and responsibility. The mind relaxes and opens itself to possibilities. So, perhaps heretically, non-places are not merely spaces of circulation, communication and consumption but refuge also to another ‘C’; that of creativity.
Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.
Kociatkiewicz, J., Kostera, K, (2011) ‘Transitional Space’, Tamara Journal for Critical Organisation Inquiry, 9(3-4), pp. 7-9.
Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.