Spots, non-spots, places, non-places, events, non-events

Tim Leanse invited me on his new show on KCHUNG Radio, Pacific Gravity, to talk about “Spots and Zones.” I’ll embed the audio here when KCHUNG finishes moving their archive, but also riff for a minute in the meantime.

Parker Ito and I were once talking about skate-sensibilities. He mentioned being underwhelmed with the current focus on “spots” in skateboarding. Skaters give names to well-known spots (certain stairs, banks, gaps, rails, schools) surrounding them with mystique and using them to measure their heroes: the Rincon Big Four, Leap of Faith, Embarcadero. A skater may never have been to California, but they’re still very aware of its holy skate topography. Still to this day, I’ll be walking through Koreatown, stop mid-phonecall, and ogle at an incline that Guy Mariano frontside ollied in Video Days. However, the fetishization of spots, as Parker was saying, gets old fast. It becomes too standardizing, or primarily about bigness. He said that he was more interested in “non-spots,” and I agreed.

Required Viewing on Non-Spot Skating.

Non-spots are more interesting to skate and see skated because they, much like Marc Augé’s “non-places,” have yet to be fully solved or symbolized. They’re still open and perplexing. Spots can be cool— “skate, run, chill, skate, run, chill,” as Stevie Williams once said about Love Park— but overemphasizing them dampens the thrill of re-imagination. Spots also make it easier to bust and control what is an otherwise very fluid, vulpine activity. Better than circling around one certain spot, like moths around a bug zapper, would be adopting a skate-strategy of shifting terrain and unbroken circulation. This has been my thing for the last few years: non-stop and non-spot. Security hears clicks, pops, and grinds but before they’re outside, you and your crew have already vanished. Stay on circuit all day, never loiter long enough to register, and stick to weird “unskateable” skate-puzzles that will probably never be bothered again. This non-spot/non-stop strategy easily extends outside of skateboarding.

I love non-spots, and I love non-events (points in time rather than space that are not overly-solved and overly-symbolized). People often act as though non-events and non-spots are awkward for socializing and interrelations; I always find them to be far better. I make of them what I want. I can let the features of non-spots speak to me and suggest new, nameless activities. The anomy (the void of social or normative rules and expectations) of non-spots and non-events lets me get looser and dial into a realer frequency with the faces around me. People aren’t as distracted and automatistic.

Non-spot (1), Nashville, TN

What is a real spot anyway? Or a real event? Let’s think of examples: attractions, festivals, art fairs, openings, bars, venues, parties. There’s music and people; a crowd and a din. What’s actually happening though? Plug your ears for a sec and watch everyone individually. Most people are just sitting there, bullshitting, nodding their heads. Or an art opening?— people talking while looking past each other, hoping for a conversational partner upgrade. Most “events” are, in a sense, just loud, crowded non-events with the consolation prize of social capital. Spots and events are usually so over-symbolized — fixed, nomic, hyped— that nothing new or exciting can actually happen. Of course, this depends on what you count as “doing something.” What does it mean to “do something?”

What about non-spots then? What would be an example of a non-spot?
—The parking lots of stripmalls are pretty non-spotty, especially at night, especially in the suburbs…Shoe Carnival by midnight, where I used to study in Durham.
—The area under the kitchen table (and most kid-magnets).
—The highway median and spaces trapped by the highway cloverleaf of the exit and on ramps— or really most tiny pieces of “leftover” green areas that are neither nature nor culture— quasi-nature, weird places created for drainage or flowerbeds.
—Pieces of yard without an obvious owner.
—Places that you would only hang out in while you’re on acid (compare with kid-magnets)
—Anywhere within the academicorporate areas of Research Triangle in North Carolina (all corporate parks).
— Century City, in Los Angeles (here is a post I wrote elsewhere on Century City, the Dark Crystal)
— Or, as the French anthropologist Marc Augé points out in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, a lot of the meantime and left-over places (or non-places) involved with transit: bus stations, airports, train platforms— as well as non-places overlooked due to their task-orientations: supermarkets and waiting rooms, places where you’d bide rather than spend your time.

Non-Spot (2). Los Angeles, CA

My take on “non-spots” is somewhat different than Augé’s “non-places.” For Augé, the non-places of transit (like airports and bus stations) are emblematic. He thinks of non-places more often like relays within the systems of contemporary life and as an opposing term to what he calls “anthropological place”— where soil and society are legibly unified. I think of non-spots as being more unsystematized, overlooked, and undervalued— and far less functionally defined than Augé’s non-places (he imagines being reduced to your ticket-number in a waiting room; I imagine hanging out in a waiting room just for the fun of it). Nevertheless, Augé’s book is required reading for those fixated on the transformation of everyday life: in both his anthropology or ethnology of contemporaneity and his valuation of the here, near, now, today, moving, and overlooked. Transformations of the everyday require an antsy outlook in which the everyday— the here, near, now, today, moving, and overlooked— is every bit as ready for meaning-making and meaningful-doings as privileged spaces and arenas… an outlook in which hype is understood as misdirection or ideology… in which the “elsewhere” and “over there” of overly-symbolized events and locales are no better and no excuse.

Fischli and Weiss, 800 Airports

Augé is doing his part to dismantle the picture of anthropology as a non-problematic, “supposedly identical We” surveying an exotic Other and Elsewhere— or even dismantling how we conceive the we-other, here-elsewhere relation. I’m totally on board for this: neither the self-identical nor the wholly other. Even while introducing the distinction between places and non-places, he simultaneously breaches holes in his own distinctions, as I’d like to do. This often leads to seeming contradictions, as when Augé ends his book wondering whether his work leads to an “ethnology of solitude”— a phrase that nicely describes my midnights in the vicinity of closed Yogurtlands and furniture stores in Pasadena. What am I studying when I look into the store windows with everyone gone and all the rest of the world asleep? Both familiar and strange, just-me and not-me, place and non-place. Everything seen in a half-reflection. A suspended weirdness especially noticeable in late-nite Los Angeles.

Augé sees non-places as on the rise with a “supermodernity”— a modernity characterized by an overabundance of events and places, an overabundance “which can be properly appreciated only by bearing in mind both our overabundant information and the growing tangle of interdependences in what some already call the ‘world system’.” People like to repeat that the “world has gotten smaller.” However, this is an illusion, or a delusion. The world is no smaller than it ever was. It only seems that way if you discount all the space and places in between… if you only count capitals, celebrities, trade routes, main streets, icons, and dismiss everything else as overlookable, fly-over, unremarkable— that is, if you dismiss 99% of the world. To really know a place, to meet and bond with a person, to acculturate to contours— this can’t be sped up or compressed. You can tell yourself that “I’ve seen it all,” in order to feel more cosmopolitan or over-it, but you’ll be lying.

Hitch-hiking really opened my eyes to the infinite density of space.

Look closer and the hard lines between spots and non-spots, places and non-places, event and non-event, increasingly blur, as Augé admits. Proclaimed spots and places— highlights like capitals and boulevards— will invent or wave around something really iconic, a token-object or token ritual to give it placeness or eventness: a Blarney Stone to kiss, a Seine to cross holding hands, an unmissable art-party. After experiencing a few of them though, patterns emerge. Everything loses its eventness and placeness, and blends more and more into a featureless, transnational nothing or nowhere in spite of itself (as Augé ironically also characterizes “non-places”). Place becomes non-place. “’This is me in front of the Parthenon,’you will say later, forgetting that when the photo was taken you were wondering what on earth you were doing there” (84). Before long you discover that the prime locations can be interesting, but they are often of a weaker character than all the bumfuck, in-between places that you hurried through. In those non-places, the accents were stronger, differences stiffer, behaviors stranger, experiences more unsettling. Place is a mirage. It is, as Augé says, an invention.

You then notice non-place becoming place— taking on meaning, weight, character. It can begin with what Augé calls the “paradox of non-place”— “a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a ‘passing stranger’) can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service, big stores or hotel chains.” (this, on p. 106). Last year, before leaving for Los Angeles, my girlfriend and I were wondering where to spend our last days together. Rather than Philadelphia, where we had been for the month, I opted for Bensalem, Pennsylvania— a township sitting atop Philadelphia, remarkable in its non-placeness. It was ideal. There was nothing “to do.” Nowhere “to go.” Free of these obligations, we could indulge in our togetherness and creative liberties. The hotel became our home. The landscape— well, the stripmall autoscape— invited us. The corporate parks in disrepair cinderella-ed into private paradises.

Bensalem— also the name of the mythical island in Francis Bacon’s Nova Atlantis.

The Research Triangle Park, in North Carolina, is even more of a case. Here, the generic becomes so acute that it takes on singular, almost mystical qualities. What would we call this? The Generic Sublime? The whole area is an architectural adaptation of the pharmaceutical aesthetic (“pharmaesthetics”)— which I love since my dad’s a doctor; I grew up surrounded by the free pens, pads, coffee mugs, toys, and swag offered by their representatives. It feels like home. Every once in a while, a gang of us from Chapel Hill would drive over and loiter, trying to solve the mystery, and occasionally be asked to leave the premises. Research Triangle is, after all, a willful non-place, a open-secret lab of the military-industrial complex that wishes to remain off the map. Its picnic benches and ponds are only decoy.

Research Triangle

It’s apparent then: placeness and non-placeness, spottiness and non-spottiness are anything but fixed characteristics of a location. They are our work or division, historical and constructed, part of what Lefebvre calls the “production of space,” at once mental and physical. The question is: why this distinction?

The answer, I suspect, is much for the same reason that we need celebrity in a populous world. Augé is right: the world is abundant. It’s also bogglingly complex. Both too abundant and too complex for the individual mind. In order to make some partial sense of this complexity and abundance, we have to sacrifice most of the details. These places, people, and events becomes iconic and indexical, and everything else negligible. We cannot possibly get a personable sense of six billion people, but we’ll feel closer to the throng if we filter them through a few familiar faces: movie stars, world leaders, Olympiads. Likewise with History: we shave down the hydra-like complexity of world history to a few battles and kings “warring against Oblivion,” as Thomas Carlyle claimed, but for the sake of mental economy and sense-making narrativization.

When men and women passed their entire lives in the vicinity of one village, every point in space could become a place, properly speaking.. Everything— this log, that bend in the river, this face-shaped rock, that neighbor with one eye— could have a starring role in the narrative. As travel expanded our world well beyond our ability to retain and digest it all, we had to backburner most of it… demote it to non-placeness… or try to catalog it through photos, postcards and refrigerator magnets. As Augé’s remarks about abundance and meaning in supermodernity:

“What is new is not that the world lacks meaning, or has little meaning, or less than it used to have; it is that we seem to feel an explicit and intense daily need to give it meaning: to give meaning to the world, not just some village or lineage. This need to give a meaning to the present, if not the past, is the price we pay for the overabundance of events corresponding to a situation we could call ‘supermodern’ to express its essential quality: Excess” (29).

I don’t read Augé’s non-places as arising from a loss of meaning, as some do; I read the rise of non-places more as meaningful adaptation. Or, in the vein of Michel De Certeau, non-places and non-spots provide wiggle room for our own networks, narrativizations and symbolizations, rather than ones inherited from ancestors or grown from the soil. Besides, I certainly still have my own meccas, my own holy topoi, as witnessed by my recent pilgrimage to the City Museum in St. Louis.

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