Place and Mobility
January 8, 2016 § 7 Comments
I’m reading a bit about theories of place right now. And I’m struck by geographers who bemoan the mobility of the world we live, as it degrades place in their eyes. It makes our connections to place inauthentic and not real. We spend all this time in what they call un-places: airports, highways, trains, cars, waiting rooms. And we move around, we travel, we relocate. All of this, they say, is degrading the idea of place, which is a location we are attached to and inhabit in an authentic manner.
I see where these kinds of geographers come from. I have spent a fair amount of my adult life in un-places. I have moved around a lot. In my adult life, I have lived in Vancouver, Ottawa, Vancouver again, Ottawa again, Montreal, Western Massachusetts, Boston, and now, Alabama. If I were to count the number of flats I have called home, I would probably get dizzy.
And yet, I have a strong connection to place. I am writing this in my living room, which is the room I occupy the most (at least whilst awake and conscious) in my home. It is my favourite room and it is carefully curated to make it a comfortable, inviting place for me. It is indeed a place. And yet, I have only lived here for six months. In fact, today is six months sine I moved into this house. I have a similar connection to the small college town I live in. And the same goes for my university campus.
So am I different than the people these geographers imagine flitting about the world in all these un-places, experiencing inauthentic connections to their locales? Am I fooled into an inauthentic connection to my places? I don’t think so. And I think I am like most people. Place can be a transferrable idea, it can be mobile. Our place is not necessarily sterile. It seems to me that a lot of these geographers are also overlooking the things that make a place a place: our belongings, our personal relationships to those who surround us, or own selves and our orientation to the world.
Sure, place is mobile in our world, but that does not mean that place is becoming irrelevant as these geographers seem to be saying. Rather, it means that place is mobile. Place is by nature a mutable space. Someone else called this house home before me. This house has been here since 1948. But that doesn’t mean that this is any less a place to me.
I can understand why geographers think we have a thinner connection to place; people simply don’t remain in one place for so long a time as they once did. On the other hand, that’s a trade-off: we get to see and experience more places.
I suppose one way to look at chain stores and restaurants is that they are a compromise between being in new places and old ones at the same time. You’re somewhere else, but still it’s a familiar environment.
That’s the crux of their complaint, and I get it: the homogenization (or Americaniczation) of culture flattens everything. Take my home town: Montreal is losing its soul through the advent of American chains, it’s becoming just like any other city. But it’s still Montreal, it’s not Boston. And we take place with us, as is obvious with my living room. But scholars are, of course, very good at being melodramatic.
Wendell Berry, in one of his essays, refers to Wallace Stegner’s division of humanity into two kinds, “boomers” and “stickers”. (Life is a Miracle, Counterpoint 2000, p.131) Don’t know whether you are familiar with Wendell Berry, but he (and Stegner before him) knows something of the history of settlement and movement in this country.
I read Berry in undergrad, in an American lit class. I can’t remember which one we read, though, it was the early 90s. But. I use literature a fair amount when I teach history, so perhaps I should go back and take a look. Thanks!
Interesting points. Culture does have a part to play in flattening perspectives, experiences and even relationships. It is possible to travel and live in many places while maintaining connections to specific places that go back several generations. That is the experience for many indigenous cultures. The key difference seems to be the layers of memory and stories that connect not only to the physical but to imagined space.
I have long been fascinated by aboriginal claims and relationships to place and the land. From my perspective, as an outsider, I think this is best encapsulated in Keith Basso’s book, _Wisdom Sits in Places_, about the Pima of New Mexico. But, we are all attached to place, I am attached to my home town, even though I am so far away from it. And while I do think a homogenized (read: American) culture is flattening out localities in many ways, I think we still maintain those connections to place, no matter what. Thanks for reading!
I agree and thank you for your reflections. Right now, today, I have three places I call home. Two in New Jersey and one in Kentucky. I actually have habitations in each place. I also have an office in which I spend a lot of time. I very much appreciate your thoughts on the mobility of place. I think of Abraham of the Bible and of how he traveled about. I also think of Jesus who had no place to be born, although, obviously, he was born in a place. In these terms, I also think of the Biblical words of Jesus that talk of heaven as a place. As Wittenstein would point out, what or where is no place. The negation of the positive as in ” no place” is unintelligible therefore it must be stated as a positive although in terms of quantum Phyics the “place” may be a negative and therefore a “no place.”