The concept of places may be change at different time periods and in face of different uses in social, cultural or political context. In this conceptual analysis, two different concepts of “place” shall be compared. The first was defined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé in 1995. The second has been conceived in 2007 by the scholars Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg. In turn, the semantic meaning, the authors’ intentions in defining the concept as such and the context of the definition of place shall be presented.
To define the concept of place in a setting of supermodernity, Augé firstly presents its definition during modernity, as it has been elaborated by Michel de Certeau. The latter proposes a definition of place as the contrary of space. He describes space as a “frequented place” (p. 79). Consequently, place can be seen as an empty geographical landmark (e.g. a street, ibid) which is yet to be filled with life (cf. p. 81).
Augé, on the other hand, uses a notion of place which already contains the sense of “anthropological place” with language and movement in it (ibid). Place, he asserts, “can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity” (p. 77). Accordingly, the specificity of a place makes it a reference point and source of identification for citizens living in the vicinity. Augé’s concept of place is clearly charged with emotion and memory. Opposed to a place, according to Augé, is the concept of a non-place (p. 79). This is described as a “space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity” (p. 77-8) and is thus devoid of emotion and memory.
Augé introduces new concepts for place and non-place as symptoms for a shift from modernity to supermodernity. In this, he opposes Certeau’s previous views of modernity as the “interweaving of old and new” (p. 110). Supermodernity, in his eyes, does not incorporate elements of the old into the new; it rather leaves the old in its original state and turns it into an attraction. In other words, a place will change around its old components, leave them unique and make them special, not attempt to change them and fit them into its new shape.
Augé further asserts that – in contrary to Certeau’s view – it is supermodernity which creates non-places (p. 78). For Certeau, a non-place essentially is a place with a name (p. 85). By attributing a qualifying description to a place, the place is categorized and thereby deprives the visitor of the chance to see it in its pure form. He will instead view it through the goggles of his previous knowledge and man-made information which force him to adapt a predefined description rather than to judge the place himself. Augé disconnects the definition of a non-place from the level that presupposes identification with the place, be it perceived as pure or not. As supermodernity constructs places anew without incorporating former identity, he asserts that these places become non-places: In them, social interactions and emotional attachment fail and give way to individualism (p. 111). As an example, he names a supermarket which is devoid of local identity and might be constructed in any place of the world. This “space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude” (p. 103). The only reference point from which the individual can derive identification is the fact that the non-place puts all customers in the same position; if not privileged by shopping in a home arena of local identity, the individual will at least be equal to everybody else (p. 106).
According to Emer O’Beirne (2006), Augé conceived the concept of the non-place in response to a “contemporary crisis in social relations and consequently in the construction of individual identities through such relations”. Martin Albrow (1997) accordingly states that, due to the effects of globalization, local communities in cities vanished more and more and were replaced by overlapping “sociospheres” of the citizens. These sociospheres were their networks with correspondents within the district, the town, the country and even world-wide. The sociospheres of the citizens existed one next to another without much interference; everybody lived in his own individual sphere, making a local community and local places obsolete as a source of identification. The need for an analysis of the remaining places where individuals might interact and constitute a common feeling of belongingness was thus more given than ever.
Varnelis & Friedberg (2007) introduce a new concept of place and take Augé’s definition of place and a non-place as a starting point for their analysis. They restate his idea that “places are filled with individual identities, language, references, unformulated rules, [while] non-places are spaces of solitary individuality.” (p. 3). In non-places such as airplanes or a highway, the individual identity, according to Augé, is lost. In consequence, for Augé “our era is increasingly dominated by non-place, our existence doomed to solitude” (p. 4).
Varnelis & Friedberg henceforth assert that “Augé’s solitary non-places seem like an artifact of the past” (p. 17). They believe that, aided by electronic communication devices, individuals have the choice to be solitary or to find themselves in a community. The key distinction is that for Augé a place was merely material, while Varnelis & Friedberg propose a definition of a place as a material or virtual location (p. 4). On the one hand, the individual can be part of a material place like a café. On the other hand, by recourse to an internet connection, a cell phone or simply a GPS system, he can simultaneously catapult himself onto various other virtual places (ibid). The definition of place can be derived here as a material or virtual location where individuals interact and thus where there is a community.
In their essay, Varnelis & Friedberg primarily clarify Augé’s concept of place. They agree with his definition of places as “locations in which individuals with distinct identities form human relationships” (p.3). Only they assert that, with the rise of electronic communication, human relationships need not merely be formed on a face-to-face basis. Varnelis & Friedberg give myriad examples for the new places. Connection may happen by telephone through voice interaction, by SMS or an Instant Messaging program through mere exchange of text messages (p. 6). It may also not involve interpersonal communication at all, as in the case of a driver who becomes part of a global network by switching on his GPS system (p. 15). He thus participates in a community of connected drivers, even though he may drive in silence.
However, Varnelis & Friedberg also inform the reader about the dangers of the new conception of places. While the electronic networks offer a comfortable and safe connection to virtual communities (p. 6), they also represent a threat to privacy. A Radio Frequency Identification Tag (RFID), for example, can track down a person quickly and subject them to unwanted observation (p. 16). Thus, although the virtual place gives the individual the freedom of either belonging to it or not, it restrains his liberty by giving his safe position away to others.
Varnelis & Friedberg react to an underlying social trend toward more individualism, which has also been remarked by Augé. In this sense, the importance of community and affiliations to the local sphere are in decline, as has been outlined. In exchange, contemporary society uses electronic communication as a new way of belonging to a community. For young people especially, the virtual world can be used as a refuge: Networking games can provide them with the confidence they aspire to have in the real world. Virtual places, in other words, assume a more and more important position in people’s daily lives and with regard to their social interactions. Thus it can be useful to review Augé’s concept of places as the “locations in which individuals . . . form human relationships” (p.3) and identity, and to give the notion of place a more contemporary definition.
Both Augé’s and Varnelis & Friedberg’s definition of place may be seen as a reaction to the contemporary changes in social relations and the way they are maintained. Place, according to both definitions, is still a stabilizing factor for the identity of the individual. However, the place itself is viewed as a stable material location on the one hand, and a shifting and currently redefined network in virtual or real life on the other hand (cf. Varnelis & Friedberg, 2007, p. 3).
Although I can see the reasons for incorporating a virtual dimension into the concept of place, Varnelis & Friedberg’s definition does not appeal to me. Place, as defined by Thomas F. Gieryn (2000), has physicality, it is “stuff” (p. 465). In this sense, place can be a meeting point where individuals indeed form social relations. It can be charged with emotions and memories, as suggested by Augé. However, it is also essentially a “compilation of things or objects at some particular spot in the universe” (Gieryn, 2000, p. 465) with unique local characteristics. Thus a snow-covered mountain in the distance can be a place, distinguishing those in the vicinity from those who live on the flat countryside. In my view, this shapes individuals to a greater extent than the means by which they maintain a set of virtual networks. A laptop computer and a cell phone, in my opinion, do not add to the individual’s identity in the same way as a natural landmark or a rural community. As a result of these arguments, I am led to follow Augé’s definition of a place, which to me is a greater source for identification than Varnelis & Friedberg’s.
Augé, M. (1995). Non-places. Introduction to an anthropology of super modernity. London / New York: Verso, pp. 75-115.
Varnelis, K., & Friedberg, A. (2007). Networked place. In Networked publics (K. Varnelis, Ed.). Retrieved from http://networkedpublics.org/book/place
O'Beirne, E. (2006). Mapping the non-lieu in Marc Auge's writings. Forum for modern Language Studies, 42(1), 38-50.
Gieryn, T. F. (2000). A Space for Place in Sociology. Annual Review for Sociology, 2000, 26: 463-96.