An anthropological concept, which is a marker of supermodernity and impersonality What do hotels, airports, and shopping malls have in common? These metropolitan motifs are inorganic spaces that confer a uniform identity on individuals based on their consumption patterns. One is always a ‘diner’, ‘passenger’ or ‘customer’ here. These artificial spaces are what French anthropologist Marc Augé refers to as ‘non-places’.
In his seminal work Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992), Augé identifies non-places as temporary spaces that thrive under capitalism which include holiday resorts, hotel chains and supermarkets. On the other hand, spaces such as refugee camps, shanty houses and torn-down settlements that proliferate under inhumane conditions can also be considered non-places. Located at the intersection of human relations, they are spaces of transience, marked by impermanence and anonymity.
Non-places are tied intrinsically to supermodernity, a late-capitalist phenomenon that is characterised by an excess of information, space, and events. Augé’s hypothesis is that the condition of supermodernity generates non-places that do not qualify as ‘places’ owing to their ahistorical and impersonal nature. He argues that the burgeoning of non-places leads to an alteration of awareness, where surroundings are only perceived in a partial and distorted manner.
What separates non-places from places? The term ‘place’ is understood in the symbolised sense, or as an anthropological place, and is often used in association with an event, a myth, or history. This contrast between the symbolized place and the non-symbolised space produces the fundamental difference between place and non-place, where the former is symbolised, and the latter is not. While places are historical, relational and associated with identity, non-places are constituted by spaces that do not concern themselves with history and identity.
Places and non-places are separated by another key difference. Places are formed by individual identities through shared language, local references and know-hows. Non-places, however, homogenize identities or confer temporary identities.
Further, non-places exist in relation to specific ends, such as transport, commerce and leisure. By ordaining the relations that individuals have with space, non-places enforce a contractual nature on the association between space and the individual. The identity of an individual (as a ‘customer’, ‘passenger’, or ‘user’) is created and subsequently erased upon the individual entering and leaving the non-place.
The association between the non-place and the individual is often mediated by words, where non-places exist in relation to words that evoke them. For instance, it is possible to evoke the idea of a holiday through the words ‘beach’, ‘resort’, or ‘cruise’. Similarly, the memory of non- places such as airports may be summoned by the instructional (‘Check-in’) or prohibitive language (‘No Smoking’, ‘No Flammable Liquids’) they deploy to address individuals.
The transactional nature of the language that is used in non-places in turn defines the relationship between the individuals that inhabit the non-place. Augé cites the example of a billing counter at a supermarket, where the interactions between the customer and cashier are characterised by silence. The customer hands the cashier a credit card which is checked and swiped, leaving little room for conversation. Instead of communicating with one another, the cashier and customer engage more with the card machine, which instructs them to ‘Insert Card’ or ‘Remove Card’, or informs them that ‘Card is faulty’.
The language used here also governs the relationship between each customer in the supermarket. By addressing them simultaneously and indiscriminately, the supermarket fashions an ‘average person’ who is absorbed into the shared identity of a ‘customer’.
This creation of shared identities further subjects individuals in the non-place to a lonely contractuality, leading to what Augé refers to as ‘ordeals of solitude’. This phenomenon is less evident in places, where the generation of social relations is organic.
Are non-places nothing more than a play of text? While any phenomenon is affected by several determinants, Augé believes that non-places hold an attraction that is inversely proportional to tradition and territorial affinity. This is evident in the scores of cars that line highways and toll gates on weekends and overbooked resorts and vacation homes during the holidays. Yet, it cannot be denied that it is the individual who is at the centre of this concept — it is the image of the individual that gives meaning to the non-place, while also being capable of undoing it in the future.
As the world contemplates a return to pre-COVID norms, the focus on non-places has intensified.
Despite social distancing norms and bio-bubbles that may have altered our interaction with space during the pandemic, non-places continue to remain germane in defining the relationship between space and the individual. Their growing presence today provides an experience that is a rare combination of solitary individuality and non-human mediation between individuals. These ahistorical experiences have become an inseparable component of social existence.
French anthropologist Marc Augé identifies non-places as temporary spaces that thrive under capitalism which include holiday resorts, hotel chains and supermarkets as well as spaces such as refugee camps and torn-down settlements that proliferate under inhumane conditions.
Non-places homogenise identities or confer temporary identities. They exist in relation to specific ends, such as transport and commerce. Non-places enforce a contractual nature on the association between space and the individual.
As the world contemplates a return to pre-COVID norms, the focus on non-places has intensified. Their growing presence today provides an experience that is a rare combination of solitary individuality and non-human mediation between individuals.