Non-Places and the Enfeeblement of Rhetoric in Supermodernity.

Grant Boswell

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997

About the Author
Table of Contents

The concept of place has always figured prominently in rhetoric. In the earliest scrolls an argument that could be adapted and used for another speech was referred to as a place (topos). We see an example of this in the early pages of Plato's Phaedrus where Phaedrus is memorizing a speech by Lysias and is concentrating on the place where the arguments are made concerning the non-lover's petition (230e-234c). Likewise some scholars believe that Gorgias' model speech praising Helen of Troy was used for just such purposes. The speech is a defense of Helen's adultery and advances several arguments in her behalf. Such a speech could be adapted by the defendant in an adultery trial. This same concept of place is still widely used today in classical philosophy. Arguments regarding the most famous place in Plato's work on, say, the nature of dialectic would be referred to as the classic place (locus classicus).

In Aristotle's Rhetoric, place takes on a metonymical sense. Aristotle defines three types of places: general places, specific places, and formal places (1358a, 1359b-1363b, 1397a-1400b). Aristotle's notion of place therefore turns the notion of topos from a place in a specific text to the same forms of argument found in several different texts. These forms can then be adapted and used according to the rhetorical purpose at hand. By the time of Cicero, the notion of commonplace included an argument or a place from a well known text that was commonly used for a specific purpose, usually to arouse some emotional response. The use of spousal abuse in the Simpson trial is an example drawn from the cultural text of this kind of commonplace.

Not only is the concept of place very prominent in rhetoric, it is central to Western discourse generally. Schroeder argues that space is the key concept of Western philosophical discourse: "Since the time of its Mediterranean inception, Western philosophy has essentially presented itself as a philosophy of the center. This notion, questioned in various degrees by European thinkers from Hegel to Derrida . . . , concerns itself most profoundly with the concept of spatiality" (9). In order for something to be recognized as knowable, it has to make its way from periphery to center (Blount 16-23), and thus what is knowable and therefore meaningful has its place: "meaning is understood in terms of knowing the place of things, of objects and entities, in the given order of the cosmos" (Schroeder 22).

Thus the relation of place to discourse is one of familiarity and knowledge; one knows and therefore can speak about what is familiar in the place one occupies. This relation is called "rhetorical territory" by Descombes. "Where is the character at home? . . . The character is at home when he is at ease in the rhetoric of the people with whom he shares life." (qtd. in Auge 108). Home is the familiar place from which one speaks to one's neighbors about what they share in common because they occupy common places. The question then becomes what happens to discourse when the concept of place as the familiar place one knows and lives in changes?

Auge has argued that the concept of place in supermodernity differs essentially from place in modernity. He defines modernity, following Baudelaire, as that which integrates the new and the old such that both become familiar in the same space (Auge 92-3, Harvey 10). Supermodernity, in contrast, is characterized by its excesses. Auge names three such excesses in supermodernity. In contrast to accounts of postmodernity in which there is a general "collapse of an idea of progress" (30), in supermodernity there is an "acceleration of history" that results, not in meaninglessness, but in the excess of meaningful events. This excess of historical significance, rather than leaving us complacent, "makes us even more avid for meaning" (29). Moreover, supermodernity accelerates the transformation of space. Virilio argues that the acceleration of history actually makes possible the transformation of space in what he calls the "shrinking effect" (42). Referring to this phenomenon, Virilio quotes French physicist Chappes on the telegraph, "The best response to journalists who think France is too spread out to form a republic is to install the telegraph. The telegraph shrinks distances and in a way joins an entire, huge population into a single point (39-40). Similarly, Auge argues that by making remote distances and places accessible to us by travel or by electronic media, supermodernity compresses space, changing the scale of things such that the world can fit into one's vacation or living room (31-32). Thus supermodernity works on the principle of "spatial overabundance" (32) in which the unfamiliarity and expanse of space is compressed into the familiarity and knowability of place. This compression results in excessive possibilities for assimilating spatial overabundance as knowledge within one's home, one's rhetorical territory, because the home becomes the focal point into which knowledge from all over the world is funneled. The third excess of supermodernity is the individual's response to the other two excesses (36-7).

These excesses have created new concepts of place in supermodernity by creating conditions that nullify or suspend the modernist notion of place. In modernity place is familiar, knowable, and common. Place is semiologically sealed against the excess of meaning because the tribe in its tribal places is semiologically homogeneous: it occupies a "universe of meaning, of which the individuals and groups inside [its signifying spaces] are just an expression, defining themselves in terms of the same criteria, the same values and the same interpretation procedures" (Auge 33). In these places everything and everyone is known and recognized as belonging; everything has its place.

In modernity one's identity, relations with others, and sense of time are all functions of place. One does not get an identity from an origin so much as from the place one is born into; "To be born is to be born into a place, to be assigned to a residence" in which one is at home (Auge 53). One's identity is solidified by traversing the familiar place and assimilating all the institutionalized signs that designate the place of social order as the common place (51). In addition, relations are formed by a common occupancy that is established linguistically in a discursive exchange of recognizable entities within the shared space (54, 77). As Levinas argues, the basis of the social relation is language as a gift-giving to another so the sign and referent can be held in common to solidify the relation (Totality and Infinity 72-77). He remarks, "To speak is to make the world common, to create commonplaces. Language does not refer to the generality of concepts, but lays the foundations for a possession in common" (76). Moreover, one marks the passage of time in monuments that enshrine the familiar with continuity in memory. Auge notes,"The social space bristles with monuments--imposing stone buildings, discreet mud shrines--which may not be directly functional but give every individual the justified feeling that, for the most part, they pre-existed him and will survive him" (60). Thus individual identity, social relations, and the sense of time are all functions of place in modernity (44-72), and thereby place becomes the means by which individuals recognize themselves and others and locate themselves among objects and in time.

In supermodernity a new kind of place emerges that is neither a familiar, semiotically encoded place nor a generalized, non-symbolized space. Auge reasons "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" (77-8). Supermodernity is characterized by non-places. These non-places, such as freeways, airports, malls, and supermarkets, do not supplant places in supermodernity so much as connect them or overlay them (79). They are places in which identity, relations, and history are only marginally significant.

In supermodernity "the traveler's space may thus be the archetype of non-place" (86) because the traveler passes through places to a destiny without taking notice of the placedness, or locality, of the place. That is, a traveler in an airport, on an airplane, or on the freeway passes through or passes by places--places that are in fact places to the residents--without experiencing them as places. The traveler's experience is reduced to a textually mediated substitute, a sign or billboard indicating that somewhere is a place with historical or cultural significance if one were to stop and actually traverse its socially encoded space. Instead supermodernity bypasses places en route to elsewhere (86).

Within the non-places of supermodernity the identity of the individual is never an issue. The individual is the same as every other individual in the same non-place, but the identity of the individual is only at issue when the individual enters or leaves the non-place by showing a form of ID such as a passport or driver's license (102). In non-places individuals are reduced to "solitude and similitude" (103). Because there is little individual identity in non-places, social relations are minimal, and the passage of time is not marked by monuments of any personal significance. Thus non-places minimize the familiar, the known, the recognizable; they suspend identity, relations, and history. But most indicative of non-places is the fact that there is no familiar face. In a place, even an unknown face is familiar in terms of its neediness. The other approaches and enjoins and obligates us to respond by his/ her proximity. This approach and proximity of the face of the other is the basis of the social relation and of identitiy established therein through discourse (Levinas 72-7, 187-97).

In supermodernity, however, one confronts only generalized texts ("Take your seat," "Please stay to the right," "Milford next three exits," "Checks accepted with guarantee card"). These faceless texts address no one in particular because in the non-place there is no individual identity to speak of. One may encounter persons in non-places, but they do not approach with any injunction. Instead, they represent an agency or institution from which one receives only information, instruction, or prohibition (Auge 96-100). These persons are intermediaries of the institutions they represent and have the function of heading off the approach of the other such that proximity, and therefore familiarity, is impossible because they, like the general texts, speak to the "average" person rather than to the one (Auge 100).

Since one's rhetorical territory is based in one's identity as resident of a place, in discourse about the familiarity of place with others who share occupancy, and in the passage of time marked by monuments, the rhetoric possible within supermodernity can only be an enfeebled one. In Descombes' characterization, one's rhetorical territory is where one engages in making a "plea, accusation, eulogy, censure, recommendation, warning, and so on" in ways that are easily accessible to others in the same place (qtd. in Auge 108). In supermodernity, however, one never inhabits this kind of rhetorical territory because "in the world of supermodernity people are always, and never, at home" (109). In supermodernity the modes of rhetoric must be reduced to banalities and generalities and institutionalized textualities because non-places hold in abeyance the rhetorical territory wherein the familiar and known occur and the other can approach as one having an identity, a shared residency, and a history. Non-places in supermodernity enfeeble rhetorical territories because the discourse of non-places addresses no one in particular.

Works Cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Auge, Marc. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso, 1995.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. R. Hackforth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

Schroeder, Brian. Altared Ground: Levinas, History, and Violence. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Virilio, Paul. The Art of the Motor. Trans. Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Copyright © Enculturation 1997

Home | Contents 1:1 | Editors | Issues
About | Submissions | Subscribe | Copyright | Review | Links