Negative Creep

I wrote briefly about the first RSA panel I attended last Saturday. Each time I try to engage with these things, I get increasingly recursive. Most roads lead to nowhere. Doublespeak bothers me. Creating new words when there are perfectly good old ones to use also bothers me. Several papers at the conference gestured at Mark Augé. When I asked questions, Gregory Ulmer was also cited as a fountainhead for these “non” concepts. The general thrust (obviously lacking nuance) of this first panel, and the second-to-last one I attended on Monday with papers by Collin Brooke, Daniel Smith, Jeff Rice, and Jodie Nicotra was that ideas like “nonplace” and the overthrow of any static relationship (i.e. subject/object, observer/event) must inevitably be productive. In short, they offered a “negative” definition of production bracketing or excluding standard notions of topoi or considerations of place. Another phrasing might be: Never assume the position.

I remarked before about the exclamation of “non-sense” from the crowd at the first panel, but it is hard to ignore it when so many smart people choose to invoke this stuff. I looked at the books, and started to wonder if I needed to read them. Thankfully, I found a nicely explicated article on Augé’s “nonspace” written by Torill Mortensen. The article has helped me land in a place I can understand—the crucial passage is this:

"If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place." (p. 77-78)

Not only is this the worst kind of logical fallacy, it also sets impossible conditions for fulfillment. It’s poetic yes, but it is also utter nonsense. The example given for a “non-place” is usually the airport. Because such spaces (or cyberspaces like portals) are transitional, they are seen as being somehow extracted from the normal flow of time and space. This seems more than a little absurd. Airports are emphatically historical. Catch Me If You Can might be referenced as frequently as Lost in Translation if we wanted to emphasize the sort of trust these spaces engender rather than the sense of dislocation. The idea of a “nonplace” as a point of transition where we lose our notions of identity and self has limited explanatory power (to me at least). Besides, the only domain outside of historical consideration (following St. Augustine) is God’s point of view. An airport, a Starbucks, or any of the other examples invoked, may disorient, but they do not lack an “indexical” (relational) function simply because we do not invest ourselves there. In the terminal case, this amplifies its potential for indexicality because if we are a subject passing through it towards a destination, the terminal is ultimately an empty index of that travel. That is, if we are there for the normal reasons. If not, why would we care? Being trapped in the terminal is neither a fond fantasy, nor a particularly interesting case, outside of the movies.

In short, if there is no place to stand, how can we occupy a position from which we can speak? I’m very confused by all this. It isn't because I don't understand what these people are saying (as far as I can tell), but rather because these theories seem dreadfully negative and empty.


June 1, 2006 11:55 PM


jeff said:

Right. Or read Auge's Non-Places. Short book. But very powerful. Much has to do with the ways connections and relationships occur within space - and the ways the non-place (the airport, the Starbucks, the franchise) work against these types of connections and encounters.

Good meeting you at RSA.