An Entirely Parenthetical Discussion of Place, From No Place in Particular

A Critique of Marc Auge’s Analysis of Place and Non-Place

The power of poetry is not that it has the ability to render the true beautiful, but rather that it can seemingly render the beautiful true, even when its object is decidedly “ugly.”  Thus, one should always be wary of academic appropriations of poetic texts, which presuppose the veracity (or even sagacity) of a poet’s words by mistakenly accepting aesthetics in place of analysis.  This method of approach implies a certain un-poetic naïveté, which evinces not only a deafness to tone, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre in question, as well as of the intentions of its practitioners.

The poet is not, nor has he/she ever been, interested in matters of truth and/or fact as such – their common trade is that of fabrication, with the exception of a certain style of self-referential psychological sentimentalizing poetry that has, in the main, given the entire genre a bad name, and well-neigh threatens a millennia-old tradition with immanent extinction.  The fruit of their specific form of fabrication is that the implied conditional clause that lay hidden within all verse, combined with the mnemonic articulation of highly specific words in metered time, results in either a false memory of a better time/place, or the projective evocation of a potential future.  In other words, whether the poem in question is Wordsworth’s Prelude, Eliot’s Wasteland, or Dante’s Inferno, its ultimate origin is utopia – or no-place.

The only thing more egregious than the misappropriation of poetry is the fragmentary misappropriation of poetry, as if, in the finely woven fabric that constitutes a poem, a single line can stand metonymic study for the entire stanza.  More often than not, the elisions in this kind of appropriation tell more than that which has been included as evidence in support of this or that argument.  Thus, when an anthropologist, like Marc Auge, appropriates only one line from Baudelaire’s Paysage, to support his hypothesis concerning place and non-place, it should cause the reader pause and compel him/her to ask, not whether or not Auge’s reading of this line is accurate, but rather what is being elided in order to make this line support Auge’s reading of it.


I would, to compose my eclogues[1] chastely,/Lie down close to the sky like an astrologer,/And, near the church towers, listen while I dream/To their solemn anthems borne to me by the wind./My chin cupped in both hands, high up in my garret[2]/I shall see the workshops where they chatter and sing,/The chimneys, the belfries, those masts of the city,/And the skies that make one dream of eternity.[3]

If, as Auge suggests, the latter part of this stanza is the establishment of a position, representing the definition of a perspective, it reflects neither the evacuation of all particulars, nor the reduction of the environment to a system of coordinates that Auge seems to imply.  This is the condensed space of poetic economy, which functions at once metaphorically and metonymically – belfries become masts, stationary signifiers of place (the cities whose skylines are marked by the jutting towers of Gothic cathedrals) and of position, (the implied hierarchy of heaven over earth, or God over humanity, and the prominence of religion, here equated with that of industry, or at least of the chimneys of tenement houses), become the dynamic (unstable) signifiers of space as extension, not as non-place – the system shifts from one of coordinates to one of relationships, which brings the mythical and historical into direct relationship with the temporal/local, it is the creation of new space through the conflation of disparate spaces; a synthesis of physical and mental places.

In other words, this is the associative space of the poetic imagination, which works along an axis that describes cultural depth, informing simple things (like belfries and chimneys) with mythical weight.  It is a way of thinking space whose fundamental fulcrum is not evacuation, but condensation – the form of the eclogue (first line) becomes a reference to both the Iliad and the Aneaid, via Vergil, whose “Eclogues” gave final form to the type; the masts evoked by the spires and chimneys of the town become the Greek vessels conducting Agamemnon’s army to the gates of Troy, city of Aeneas, father of Rome, home to Vergil, to capture Paris; Paris itself, a physical entity and a mythic place, becomes a part of all myths evolving out of the first poems of Western civilization – pastoral Paris, Paris of industrial perdition, Paris of parking lots – Paris is nothing more nor less than the recursive discourse on Paris, a figment of the imagination complemented by corporeal conditions that never, truly, equate with the mythic weight of its ephemeral inverse.

It is important that the final image evoked in this stanza is one of travel, yet equally important is the final destination of this journey.  If the first stanza is the establishment of a certain highly determined poetic space, then the second stanza addresses the diachronic experience of that space in time (represented here by seasonal shifts).  It is through this experience of place in time that the underlying dialogue of the eclogue takes place, not as a process of narration, but rather as a reflection on narrative, marked, perhaps most tellingly, by an almost commonplace – if somewhat mockingly so – series of pastoral descriptions:

Then I shall dream of pale blue horizons, gardens,/Fountains weeping into alabaster basins,/Of kisses, of birds singing morning and evening,/And all that is most childlike in the Idyll.

“Childlike” could just as well be replaced by idiotic, and the Idyll represents the pastoral portrait that Baudelaire has both created and to which he is now referring, as if to break the illusion of his original descriptive excursus.  Thus, the dialogue that is occurring is between the narrative “empirical” conditions under which the poet struggles in the squalid conditions of his miserable “mansarde” and the narrative ephemera of his incomplete escape into the pastoral described in the Idyll inserted into the center of the poem, and then exposed, in a manner not too different from that employed by Brecht to frustrate the illusion of the theatre, and draw attention to theatrical conventions.

In the terms of Auge’s analysis of place and non-place, Baudelaire’s journey never begins, or if it does, it follows an undeniably circular route, beginning and ending, as it does in essentially the same place.  This is not to say that such circumnavigation is not revelatory, for it acknowledges what Auge would probably call a “place,” but that “place,” when viewed from within the conventions established in the poem becomes even more of a non-place than that from which it is being viewed.  Everything is reduced to narrative and narrative conventions – we are all conditioned, then, by our relationship to the Lacanian Other, and the symbolic universe that forever separates “us” from the “authenticity” of “placedness.”

Thus, Auge fails in his attempt to use a fundamentally symbolic universe to describe what is essentially a phenomenological hope – his bifurcation of space into place and non-place masks the anxiety of disconnection implied in his abnegation of narrative space, and his attempt to separate it from “anthropological/phenomenological” space.  Implicit within this bifurcation are hierarchies that re-establish certain norms that had been either subverted or questioned by groups like the Situationists, as well as by Gilles Deleuze in his development of “nomadology.”

Travel, travelers, and places of arrival and egress thus tend to become his primary targets, manifestations of what he calls the supermodernist, which threatens to exacerbate contemporary spatial instabilities through the creation of a series of ambiguous connections.  Auge uses the syntax (represented here by transit infrastructures) of contemporary connectivity to draw attention to what he perceives as a threat to the fundamental grammar of “being,” with all of its conventional and national connotations left in place.  However, the discursive non-places that Auge creates through description have already been appropriated to legitimate their transformation from non-places into anthropological places, exhibiting the same kind of historical and ritualistic traits seen in the places to which these newly inaugurated places serve as conduits.

This is because of the implied hierarchical inversion enacted in the poem that Auge cites in his description of non-places – the sublimation of all spaces within a narrative matrix that views both the airport and the Eifel tower as equally semiotic creations, and equally generative of new sign systems that are, inevitably self-referential and recursive.  However, if Auge’s theoretical places and non places are parts of a larger cultural narrative that implies the ritual of journey, as well as places of departure and arrival, and the foci of all three, then their displacement/disjuncture into the purely discursive metaspace of narrative has incredible consequences for theories of Locative media that are founded on this duality.

For example, the ability to leave a digital mark on space becomes redundant given all of the cultural and physical markers already imbedded into places, including gum, architectural symbolism, rubbish, graffiti, history, and personal association through spatial proximity, etc.  Most of these things are already considered more of a nuisance than a benefit as it stands, so why would digital marking/inscription of the physical environment be any different, and/or more desirable?  Perhaps the problem is that proponents of Locative Media, like Kazys Vernelis, attempt to situate the ephemera of digital environments in physical spaces, thus inadvertently giving preference to the latter over the former, and denying the unique locative possibilities inherent in digital space once it is no longer considered an ancillary condition, but rather as a complementary coequal of “anthropological” space, if not as an independent space worthy of its own consideration.

In other words, the realm of digital media is not a “non place,” it is a place in which certain demographics already spend more of their waking life than they do in “meatspace.”  Furthermore, it is precisely because of the linked nature of both places that we are already seeing shifting migration patterns based on internet connectivity and other equally interesting “phenomenon” that might lead one to the conclusion that, instead of maintaining its subservient role to “anthropological” places and the infrastructures they employ, digital “space” is actually transforming the latter in ways that don’t require the kind of labeling used and theorized by proponents of Locative Media Art.  If these two spaces are to be integrated, the model for such integration should not (and cannot) be one that preferences one over the other – the overlay, that implies an original and a supplementary entity is not the model to follow, rather each space needs to be understood and addressed on its own terms for any fruitful hybrid to be developed.

[1] “Eclogues” refers to a tradition of pastoral poetry having its roots in Vergil.  The basic form of an eclogue is that of a dialogue between two shepherds – thus in this line, Baudelaire is not only evoking a tradition of poetry that represents an escape from the city (and which often focuses on the social and physical ills of the urban environment, either thematically – as in the works of the English romantics, or through contraposition), but also utilizes more than one speaker – in other words the poem should be viewed in terms of a dialogue, not a monologue.  This was a technique frequently employed in early astrological treatises, like Galileo’s “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” as well as numerous other popular scientific treatises designed for general education.

This may be supported by B.’s specific mention of an “astrologer” in the second line of the poem.  To “lie down close to” seems to refer to “knowing,” perhaps in the Biblical sense, of proximity, familiarity and intimacy, if not also in the generative sense of propagating (either knowledge, or, in this case dreams, for B. never claims to be an “astrologer,” but simply announces the wish to be “like one” based on proximately to the sky – itself a possible homo-erotic image, since in most creation myths the sky is represented as a male force, while the earth is represented as a female agency).  The mythical connotations of this reading are reinforced in the next line, which specifically cites the mystical agency of “church bells,” while also situating the poet in relation both to the physical presences of these bells, the sound of which he hears borne upon the wind’s back, but also metaphysically, as a non-participant in the “passion” of the “solemn hymns” of the church.  They mark little more than the rhythmic “white noise,” required for B.’s somnolent excursus.

[2] “Chin cupped… garret,” are perhaps conventional signs of the “dreamy” poet, lost in contemplation, transported to a theoretical “non-place” that, like Spinoza’s God, is simultaneously thought and created through the poetic agency.  “Garret,” situates the poet physically, socially and economically – physically, it is an attic room, usually situated beneath a steeply pitched ceiling (something more apparent in the original, where B. describes his place as, “du haut de ma mansarde,” Mansard referring to a type of steeply pitched hip roof popular in Second Empire France); economically, this kind of room would have been relatively inexpensive, but also proportionally uncomfortable and socially uncouth, setting B. specifically in a Bohemian tradition.

[3] This is the second half of the line appropriated by Auge for his analysis of non-places, the first part of which is cited above.  What we find here is not a non-place, but rather a highly constructed sense of place built up through the layering of information, description and detail.  The Mansard roof is both a generality, referring to a type of apartment that situates the poem socially and economically, and a specific point of orientation governing the rest of the stanza.  B.’s view is similar to that described by de Certeau in his Walking in the City; it is the view from above.  The belfries and chimneys about which Auge makes so much bother represent a vantage point, a landscape descriptive, not of the conflation of village and town (and the eventual replacement of the former by the latter – or by suburbs, which maintain their own frightening logic of isolation), but of the poet’s physical orientation in space.

This orientation at once creates the kind of distancing (isolation) described by Auge, while at the same time creating a system of “cosmic” connectedness through the media of the wind, which carries, not just the sounds of hymnal church bells, but also the voices and songs of workers to the poet’s garret.  If the poet is isolated, it is an isolation that takes place amongst others, and is defined here, by the specific perspective adopted by the poet (it is thus self-imposed), and evocative of the “sub specie eternitatis” vantage-point of de Certeau’s visitor to the twin-towers.  This is then combined with the image of masts, the “masts of the city” with their connotations of travel, of mythic journeys, of the Odyssey and the Argonauts, or Queen Mab, or Endymion’s cave.  All of this is then encompassed in the eternal (endless) sky that extends beyond the horizon and defines an unknown region that transcends the poet’s (or sailors’) ken.

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