Whilst researching Philip-Lorca diCorsia I came across the concept of supermodernity and non-places. Ëlisabeth Couturier (1) believes that diCorsia’s photographs explore the environment of a uniform universe, stereotypical zones in which we play out essentially artificial lives crossing paths with other people without noticing them; spaces that the French anthropologist Marc Augé (2) described as non-places created by what he calls supermodernity.
Augé argues that humans inhabit two distinct types of environments; anthropological spaces and non-places. The anthropological space is meaningful to its occupants; familiar, localised and organic with its own history and an evolved culture; for example a village where its inhabitants recognise each other as individuals and supporting a strong sense of community. Anthropological spaces have recognisable and distinct characteristics that differentiate them from superficially similar places; locations that can be easily read as permanent habitats where people believe they belong.
Non-places, on the other hand, are typically, what Peter Merriman (3), describes as “ubiquitous spaces of temporary dwelling” that individuals inhabit without forming any connection. We remain detached as we pass through non-places and even when we linger we remain emotionally disconnected from the environment. In the developed world we are surrounded by such places; shopping centres, supermarkets, airports, railway stations, chain hotels and restaurants, motorways, theme parks, car-parks, non-functional green spaces like roundabouts and the empty paved spaces designed into commercial developments. It is central to Augé’s analysis that the non-place is not integrated with any early places and our relationship with the space is “fleeting, temporary and ephemeral”. (2)
Once we look at the examples of non-places we can quickly identify their shared characteristics; people pass through by necessity, usually ignoring the other temporary inhabitants they find there; their relationship with the non-place is mediated by signs, screens and text; ATMs and card readers, the arrivals and departure board, iPads and smart phones, advertising hoardings, piped television and music, shop signs, message gantries on motorways, road signs and so forth. Less obviously Augé recognises what he calls cyberspace as a non-place and once we explore that idea it opens up another whole world of meaningless, soulless and ubiquitous places including social media, email and computer games. These non-places can be grouped together as places of circulation, communication and consumption where we are isolated despite being part of a crowd, coexisting without connecting.
Globalisation and urbanisation are facets of what Augé calls supermodernity, a process that proliferates these non-places which we inhabit without ever feeling at home. Supermodernity is characterised by three categories of “excess”; an excess of time which he sees as our exposure to a continual flow of information, in multiple and simultaneous streams that accelerates history to the point where the major events of today’s news are forgotten tomorrow. These fast flowing and multi-various streams of information and images and our permanent interconnectivity by phone, text, email and transmitted images has the effect of shrinking the world and creating what he paradoxically calls an excess of space which in turn forces the individual, who is the receiver of data from a myriad of sources, but who never really connects to the transmitters, into becoming a witness rather than a participant; a state that he describes as an excess of individuality.
The unique fabric of the urban landscape is being standardised on a global scale, the local high street with a localised or regionalised character is disappearing and replaced with matching rows of soulless fashion chains selling cheap, imported, disposable clothing. Air-conditioned, musak-filled shopping centres vie with each other to become “destination” malls housing the same chain shops, restaurants, cafés and bars as the next town, the next city and the next country. We travel from one country to another through homogenous airports to sleep in chain hotels, buying the same tasteless coffee from android-like assistants branded as experts by international chains who confuse quantity with quality.
Hans Eijkelboom (4) describes this loss of individuality very effectively in People of the Twenty First Century where individuals are converted, not just into types, but into types who have conformed to dress codes to such a degree that their individual identities are subsumed by fashion and cultural trends. His unknowing models are no longer seen as individuals as by seeking a personal style they have become identikit mannequins.
Augé’s essay is observational rather than critical but at the heart of his argument non-places create “neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude”, the individual becomes a statistical component of the non-place, a traveller in the airport, foot-fall in the shopping centre, a tourist at the theme park or driver on the motorway. As the spaces around us become increasingly homogenised we lose our identity and never feel at home.
In Heads Philip-Lorca diCorcia isolates individuals as they transit busy streets, their expressions are typically closed, thoughtful, detached as they weave their way between many others, disconnected from both their surroundings and their fellow travellers.
(1) Couturier, Elisabeth (2011) Talk About Contemporary Photography (English language edition 2012) Paris: Flammarion
(4) Eijkelboom, Hans (2014) People of the Twenty First Century. London: Phaidon
(2) Augé, Marc (1992) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Translated by John Howe) (accessed at the University of Buffalo 16.2.16) – http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~jread2/Auge%20Non%20places.pdf
(3) Merriman, Peter (2009) Exploring Supermodernity: Marc Augé in Context(s) (accessed at Academia 16.2.16) – https://www.academia.edu/1206011/Marc_Auge_on_Space_Place_and_Non-Places