I am a City Boy: Relationships Between Places, Non-Places and Identity

Picture of By Justin Yeung

By Justin Yeung

Spaces are places for being, platforms for human interaction. Spaces are so crucial that you build your identity through experiences with the place, be it an emotional attachment or an actual dependence on a place. One type of emotional attachment is when you say, “I am a city boy”, you construct the self-identity with the aid of a space, by integrating the space where you live or what you love. 

Places and humans 

Vigorous yet vague, space is not merely a substance you can observe. You experience it. In De Certeau’s terms, “space is composed of intersections of mobile elements”. We, with time variables, are the mobile elements, the moving substances which intersect and coincide. These intersections are called the practiced places. We should be careful while reading the works of different modernists, as they all have distinct definitions of places and spaces. Here I take De Certeau’s definition of “a space is a practiced place”. To put it plainly, a space is where human interactions undergo. Then, naturally, a place is solely a meaningless integration and combination of physical fragments and materials. Users of the place, turn a geometrical space into a practiced place, where people act in accordance with the affordability of the space.  

Spaces, thus, are created for purpose; for the good of people with the consideration of time.

Urban planners, geographers and architects have long realized the importance of spaces in an urban setting. In Amsterdam’s structural vision 2040, green space, accessibility, sustainability, economy, social services and housing are considered the pillars of future spaces in the formation of the city. Spaces, thus, are created for purpose; for the good of people with the consideration of time. But is this vision possible, in the era of hypermodernity?   

Non-place – The Deprivation of Anthropological Places 

De Certeau’s idea of place and space relates very closely to Marc Augé’s distinguishment of place and non-place, a place where people cannot attach to or construct their identity with. The users of a non-place simply remain unknown without human interaction in an anthropological sense. Though we must not be confused by the fact that the definitions of place are near-opposite from De Certeau and Auge.

Texts and words hint at what non-places are, they are the signifiers of imaginary worlds and objects. Words offer so much room for imagination. Let’s say, “the West” and “the East”, the words themselves provide a constructed reality for the people who have never been to the West, or the East. Consequently, texts are the mediator of humans and their environments. Non-places can merely be a geometrical space but not a social and anthropological place.   

Words and texts now do not only create images but also, to some extent, define our inhabitation of non-places. Per Augé, we inhabit a non-space when we are “driving down the motorway” or “sitting in an airport lounge waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille”.

We recognize here, not quite surprisingly, that the settlement in non-spaces is predetermined, an action instructed by words and texts (i.e. instructions for use). Be it prescriptive, prohibitive, or informative.  

In ultramodern societies, we are no more than a uniform identity that is created by words, the instructions for use.

Being in a non-place establishes no interaction with humans, but only with signs, ideograms, or institutions. You may wonder: what is the problem? The issue lies within the “invasion of space by text”, the deprivation of an organically social place for human interactions. The anonymity of an individual is analogous to the dispossession of identity. In ultramodern societies, we are no more than a uniform identity that is created by words, the instructions for use. In these non-places, supermarkets, airports, or motorways, we all lose our identities as we are molded into, in Auge’s words, similitude and solitude.  

Ambiguity of non-places 

Temporary identity loss, however, does not seem to be an acute problem for Auge. An individual may enjoy the “passive joys of identity-loss” and “the more active pleasure of role-playing”. He or she possesses as much as others, they all share the singularity of actions and identity. 

The city is ultimately nothing but a non-place. 

Even more confusing is the difficulty of distinguishing places and non-places from each other. Going back to the statement of “I am a city boy”, what is behind the construction of such an identity? It can be the emotional attachment to physical sites, a skyline, or a well-developed metro system in your city. In contrast, it can be the cultural meaning of extreme population density or the prevailing intangible Slash culture. How about the residents of suburbs who are just commuting and passing by your city after work? They, most probably, are simply text-worshipping clones. The city is ultimately nothing but a non-place. 

Capsule Hotel
Source: Denys Nevozhai

The subjectivity of non-places is inevitable. Checking in and out a capsule hotel in Japan may be a non-place for backpacking travelers, yet not so much for the Salarymen (サラリーマン, sararīman) who are trying to escape from their spouses. It is their place, an identity-constructing site for the Salarymen. 

Human interactions in non-places 

Undeniably, we do lose our sociality in non-places. Human interactions become non-existent in these symbols-driven spaces. If De Certeau’s practiced places are Auge’s places, no social actions are practiced in non-places. 

Hypermodernity lays heavy emphasis on individual references and subjectivity. Subjectivity provides a new perspective to places and non-places: distinct perspectives from a backpack traveler from Europe and a Salaryman in Japan. Hence, the absence of human interactions may not necessarily manufacture a non-place. The so-called introverts’ paradise, Ichiran Ramen, provides virtually no human contact. Can it be interpreted as a non-place? That depends.  

Deciphering non-places and puzzling out the issues of subjectivity remain the jobs of modern anthropologists. One important point is that, regardless of the unclarity of non-places, we should always aim for a better environment for human beings considering the time variable, in order to fulfill an underlying desire for human interaction and prevent the homogenization of identity that is aggravated by words, texts and the expansion of non-spaces. 


Cover: Chris Forsyth

Edited by: Anna Rauxloh

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