Symbolic and Structural Approaches to Place

Marc Augé

From Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London & New York: Verso Books, 1995

See: The Terminal website

There is a reason that most people try to spend as little time as possible in airports. At their most innocuous, airports are profoundly neutral environments. Every element of their design the dull fluorescent glow, the long indistinguishable corridors, the recirculated air is intended to diffuse and defuse emotion. But airports are also places of coercion, of order enforced not just by security personnel but by the wonderfully named Tensabarriers, those modular post-and-strap building blocks of the two archetypal airport configurations, the queue and the blockade. And by design, airports afford almost no privacy. Nearly every task of daily life eating, dozing, hugging, talking, arguing must be performed in public.

Notwithstanding the presence of first-class lounges, airports are pretty egalitarian places, much more so than the outside world. We passengers are all reduced to the same class of obedient toddlers. Don't go there. Don't tell jokes. Take off your shoes. Take off your belt. Walk through the scanner. Hold out your arms. Ever mindful of the threat of terrorism, we understand, in a vague way, that this is all For Our Own Good. Hence the oddly bland, bovine expressions on travelers' faces.

Andy Newman, NY Times review of The Terminal, June 13, 2004

Central Question: How does someone, when doing anthropological research, situate the individual? That is, how do we use theoretical approaches which tend to generalize (that is, tend to put us in categories), and still account for individual action and existence?

Not only do we tend to generalize, but we also tend not to take into account our own places as researchers or questioners. Ethnography is the process of finding a common place, but that common place is itself an invention:

[The] place common to the ethnologist and its indigenous inhabitants is in one sense (the sense of the Latin word invenire) an invention: it has been discovered by those who claim it as their own...A reality certainly lies at the origin of this double invention, and provides its raw material and its object. But it may also give rise to fantasies and illusions: the indigenous fantasy of a society anchored since time immemorial in the permanence of an intact soil outside which nothing is really understandable; the ethnologist's illusion of a society so transparent to itself that it is fully expressed in the most trivial of its usages, in any one of its institutions, and in the total personality of each of its members.

Marc Augé, "Anthropological Place" in Non-Places, 43-44.

Augé tells us what anthropological place is:

It would be wrong to overlook the element of reality that underlies the indigenous fantasy and the ethnological illusion: the organization of space and the founding of places, inside a given social group, comprise one of the stakes and one of the modalities of collective and individual practice. Collectivities (or those who direct them), like their individual members, need to think simultaneously about identity and relations; and to this end, they need to symbolize the components of shared identity (shared by the whole of a group), particular identity (of a given group or individual in relation to others), and singular identity (what makes the individual or group of individuals different from any other). . .

We will reserve the term 'anthropological place' for this concrete and symbolic construction of space, which could not of itself allow for the vicissitudes and contradictions of social life, but which serves as a reference for all those it assigns to a position, however humble and modest. Moreover, it is because all anthropology is anthropology of other people's anthropology that place - anthropological place - is a principle of meaning for the people who live in it, and also a principle of intelligibility for the person who observes it.


These places have at least three characteristics in common. They want to be - people want them to be - places of identity, of relations and of history. The layout of the house, the rules of residence, the zoning of the village, placements of altars, configuration of public open spaces, land distribution, correspond for every individual to a system of possibilities, prescriptions and interdicts whose content is both spatial and social. To be born is to be born in a place, to be 'assigned to residence.'

Non-Places, 50-53.

So, these places of identity, relations, and history make identity possible, both that of the group and that of the individual. They come to pass in terms of their tensions (this place is mine, while that place is not; this is the right place for that object, that is not). They are also symbolic - we invest these places with markers which both tell us what is "in" and what is "out", and also create those distinctions.

Marc Augé argues that we have lost place in the modern age, because we have lost the symbolic ability to create place, in the sense outlined above:

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. The hypothesis advanced here is that supermodernity produces non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of 'places of memory', and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position. A world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shantytowns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitue of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral, offers the anthropologist (and others) a new object...

Non-Places 77-78

So, non-place is symbolically empty, in the sense that Augé has outlined. This does not mean that these spaces are not understandable in any way. The airport is comprehensible, but it does not allow any of the construction of place that makes the airport accessible as a site of human life

Augé is clear that non-place, like place, is never pure. In other words, it is not that the airport
cannot ever be a place, but that to the extent it becomes a place, it ceases being an airport. It may be a place of residence (for someone using its nooks and crannies as a place to live), or a place of work, and in that sense it may hold symbolic meaning.

Augé uses
travel or tourism as a good example of non-place:

Space, as frequentation of places rather than a place, stems in effect from a double movement: the traveller's movement, of course, but also a parallel movement of the landscapes which he catches only in partial glimpses, a series of "snapshots" piled hurriedly into his memory and, literally, recomposed in the account of gives of them, the sequencing of slides in the commentary he imposes on his entourage when he returns. Travel...constructs a fictional relationship between gaze and landscape. And while we use the word "space" to describe the frequentation of places which specifically defines the journey, we should still remember that there are spaces in which the individual feels himself to be a spectator without paying much attention to the spectacle. As if the position of the spectator were the essence of the spectacle, as if basically the spectator in the position of a spectator were his own spectacle.

A lot of tourism leaflets suggest this deflection, this reversal of the gaze, by offering the would-be traveller advance images of curious or contemplative faces, solitary or in groups, gazing across infinite oceans, scanning ranges of snow-capped mountains or wondrous urban skylines: his own image in a word, his anticipated image, which speaks only about him but carries another name (Tahiti, Alpe d'Huez, New York). The traveller's space may thus be the archetype of non-place.

Non-Places 85-86

The same is true of driving:

France's well-designed autoroutes reveal landscapes somewhat reminiscent of aerial views, very different from the ones seen by travellers on the old national and departmental main roads. They represent, as it were, a change from intimist cinema to the big sky of Westerns. But it is the texts planted along the wayside that tell us about the landscape and make its secret beauties explicit. Main roads no longer pass through towns, but lists of their notable features - and, indeed, a whole commentary - appears on big signboards nearby. In a sense the traveller is absolved of the need to stop or even look. ... The landscape keeps its distance, but its natural or architectural details give rise to a text, sometimes supplanted by a schematic plan when it appears that the passing traveller is not really in a position to see the remarkable feature drawn to his attention, and thus has to derive what pleasure he can from the mere knowledge of its proximity.

Motorway travel is thus doubly remarkable: it avoids, for functional reasons, all the principal places to which it takes us; and it makes comments on them. Service stations add to this information, adopting an increasingly aggressive role as centres of regional culture, selling a range of local goods with a few maps and guidebooks that might be useful to anyone who is thinking of stopping. Of course the fact that most of those who pass by do not stop; but they may pass again, every summer or several times a year, so that an abstract space, one they have regular occasion to read rather than see, can become strangely familiar to them over time; much as other, richer people get used to the orchid-seller at Bangkok airport, or the duty-free shop at Roissy I.

Non-Places 96-98

A third example: the supermarket and banking system:

The customer wanders round in silence, reading labels, weighs fruit and vegetables on a machine that gives the price along with the weight; then hands his credit card to a young woman as silent as himself - anyway, not very chatty - who runs each article past a sensor of a decoding machine before checking the validity of the customer's credit card.

There is a more direct but even more silent dialogue between the cardholder and the cash dispenser: he inserts the card, then reads the instructions on its screen, generally encouraging in tone but sometimes including phrases ("Card faulty", "Please withdraw your card", "Read instructions carefully") that call him sternly to order. All the remarks that emanate from our roads and commercial centres, from the streetcorner sites of the vanguard of the banking system ("Thank you for your custom", "Bon voyage", "We apologize for any inconvenience") are addressed simultaneously and indiscriminately to each and any of us: they fabricate the "average man", defined as the user of the road, retail or banking system.

"Anthropological place" is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living know-how; non-place creates the shared identity of passengers, customers or Sunday drivers. No doubt the relative anonymity that goes with this temporary identity can even be felt as a liberation, by people who, for a time, have only to keep in line, go where they are told, check their appearance. As soon as his passport or identity card has been checked, the passenger for the next flight, freed from the weight of his luggage and everyday responsibilities, rushes into the "duty free" space; not so much, perhaps, in order to buy at the best prices as to experience the reality of his momentary availability, his unchallengeable position as a passenger in the process of departing.

Non-Places 99-101

So, to generalize about non-place:

Clearly the word 'non-place' designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces.

Non-Places 94

And what of the subtitle of the book? What is supermodernity?

It now becomes clear what distinguishes supermodernity from modernity ... Supermodernity is not all there is to the contemporary. In the modernity of Baudelairean landscape, on the other hand, everything is combined, everything holds together: the spires and chimneys are the "masts of the city". What is seen by the spectator of modernity is the interweaving of old and new.

Supermodernity, though, makes the old (history) into a specific spectacle, as it does with all exoticism and all local particularity. History and exoticism play the same role in it as the "quotations" in a written text: a status superbly expressed in travel agency catalogues. In the non-places of supermodernity, there is always a specific position (in the window, on a poster, to the right of the aircraft, on the left of the motorway) for "curiosities" presented as such ... But they play no part in any synthesis, they are not integrated with anything; they simply bear witness, during a journey, to the coexistence of distinct individualities, perceived as equivalent and unconnected.

Since non-places are the space of supermodernity, supermodernity cannot aspire to the same ambitions as modernity. When individuals come together, they engender the social and organize places. But the space of supermodernity is inhabited by this contradiction: it deals only with individuals (customers, passengers, users, listeners), but they are identified (name, occupation, place of birth, address) only by entering or leaving.

Since non-places are the space of supermodernity, this paradox has to be explained: it seems that the social game is being played elsewhere than in the forward posts of contemporaneity. It is in the manner of immense parentheses that non-places daily receive increasing numbers of individuals. And they are the particular target of all those whose passion for retaining or conquering territory drives them to terrorism. Airports and aircraft, big stores and railway stations have always been a favoured target for attacks (to say nothing of car bombs); doubtless for reasons of efficiency, if that is the right word. But another reason might be that, in a more or less confused way, those pursuing new socializations and localizations can see non-places only as a negation of their ideal. The non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.

Non-Places 110-111