Friday, September 6, 2013

Home and Place: Your Place or Mine?

I love this on-going conversation about Home and Place - it keeps my mind flowing as I learn new ideas and perspectives from others.  In this piece, Todd Mei discusses "place" as it relates to our identity, our sense of belonging, our lineage, and our future plans.  The challenge is to reflect on "place" as an idea that extends beyond geography and location.  I get this.  In fact, it's one of the reasons I started this blog - to explore personal identity and write narratives about the very questions Todd poses here.  Enjoy this fine tuned piece that gives perspective on how and why people "inhabit" a place.  

Your Place or Mine?
        We tend to think of place in terms of places, or specific geographical locations. But do we ever think of place as a general concept we use to make sense of not only where we are physically but how we see ourselves—our identity, our sense of belonging, our lineage, our future plans?
         There has been much explored in recent philosophy on the concept of place, with the majority of it discussing how we, particularly in the West, have tended to forget its significance. So what exactly have we forgotten? Typical for philosophy, the answer is not easy to state in a few words. Rarely is it straightforward. But in the short space I have, I think it worthwhile discussing one aspect of what these philosophers of place raise, and that is how place is fundamental to understanding who one is. In a word, they refer to this as “habitation.” Habitation is essentially the way a local community of people dwell in a place according to conventions and customs which take into account relations to the whole of things. This whole includes nature, other people in the same place, other people who are strangers (non-local), a sense of boundary, a sense of what is sacred (and profane), and so on. In this regard, to inhabit a place is to live according to habits deemed appropriate for living with others.
Why is reflecting on place worthwhile? Because I think there are certain pressures in our modern life that encourage us either to forget about this relation to place—and therefore to forget about the fundamental way we come to understand ourselves—or to ignore place in our everyday routines. I will mention one example of this in closing.
                  If it is true, as I said at the outset, that we primarily think of place in terms of geographical locations, then the common way of thinking of oneself as “coming from” a place seems a bit odd. We do not merely come from a geographical place: “I am from Orange, California.” Rather, it seems fairer to say that in speaking of a place of origin, one is referring not just to geography but a specific kind of lifestyle, culture, or . . . habitation. Perhaps this seems a truism. I would not deny this, but what is obviously true in one sense may still have much significance which is not so obvious. What might be hidden in this respect is how a specific place forms our relation to everything else. Buildings and scapes are the most explicit expression of place. Consider how a cityscape dominated by the car often results in a place not intended for the pedestrian. Where I grew up, the local hills were steep, yet access to these hills was primarily by car and not foot or even bicycle. So instead of having gradual switchbacks, the roads shot straight up the hillside. What kind of customs and habits develop from such cityscapes? And are these profoundly different from, say, the European-styled city in which a car is not only not necessary but largely a nuisance?
                  I think we often try to explain such differences in terms of cultural relativity—London is culturally different from Los Angeles. I am not dismissing this explanation, but what I want to show is that such differences are not due to varying cultures but rather how cultures vary because of the way they are tied fundamentally to the way their place of origin is inhabited, in the sense I mentioned earlier. Take for instance the practice of the ownership of property. It is a “habit” (or convention) that is specific to and determined by place. Nomadic tribes often have no sense of private property of land in perpetuity, and where one finds conventions of ownership in the customs of indigenous people, they are often qualified by a specific ethical relation to nature and to other people meant to curb or prevent the kinds of oligopolies common today.
                  So even if what I have described is a truism, I still think one can ask whether or not we notice this relation to place actively when we go about our day-to-day lives and especially when we go to foreign places.
I want now to turn to an example of how we tend to forget this relation, and though it may smack of technophobia, I do not intend it as a criticism of technology. Given the use of mobile communication devices, we tend to reduce place to an intermediate location “on the way” to somewhere else. We text on trains, in cars, while walking, even while talking to others. So while such devices facilitate communication in remarkable ways, this facilitation encourages the forgetting of place—of where we are in that moment when we use those devices. “This” street is now any street; it is any street because it is merely a length of asphalt and concrete on which I can text a friend. It is well known that other types of technology encourage this type of forgetting, as when a Sat Nav enables us to get to a destination but without any real, conscious awareness of how we do so on the physical land, that is, through places.
                  But maybe this is all trivial compared to what seems to really matter to us? Perhaps it is, but of course it may only seem so because we have little regard for place. One of the consequences of this lack of regard may be an inability to think of relations with outsiders in a more hospitable way. Place might then become the locus through which I can greet another person, make myself available to him or her. My own sense is that this would add a very human dimension to what we term multicultural relations. Of course, this is easier said than done. But at the same time, such saying is not empty. For something to be possible, it must also be said since this saying is an essential way of inhabiting place.

Todd Mei is an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Dundee, in Scotland.  He climbs and windsurfs occasionally, has a penchant for bourbon and gin martinis, and endeavors to keep one-finger, one arm pull ups as a staple of his maintenance workouts.  Check out Todd's other piece on this blog:  "Stereotypes and Race: China is Here." 


  1. Excellent topic, Todd; thanks to Vera for opening this topic, one of my very favorites. Growing up in L.A. and being biracial with a strange name and cultural habits (compared to my placemates), I can relate to the importance of place in shaping behavior. This phenomena is covered well in Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs and Steel', especially the role landscape and natural resources have in shaping human interaction both cooperative and antagonistic.

    My view is different on the technology effect though. What the mobile tech 'movement' has done minimizes the effect of place in a way that actually breaks down place barriers... for example, if a drug dealer (sorry I'm from L.A.) can sell his wares throughout a discontinuous region via mobile order-taking and delivery, the defense of boundaries or even awareness of neighborhood rivals becomes less important. Could this describe the ever-lessening crime stats in the city despite frozen budgets and a widening gap between haves/have-nots? Historically that situation would definitely result in higher theft, gang warfare and criminal activity.
    Also, mobile technology allows us each to get to know an area much more quickly and through the lenses of many other citizen occupants, whether visitor or local. Yelp, or other peer-reviewed apps, allow a loaded glimpse into the local culture that would take years to accumulate for an individual not app-equipped. Remember Lonely Planet guides? Who uses them any more? (I've heard they are doing OK still but the printed guides are destined for complete digitization and continuous updating by readers, ala Yelp).
    So my read is that technology of the mobile type actually quickens the awareness of what happens in a place, and also brings people together in ways historically difficult or impossible. This is the power behind movements like the Arab Spring or the anti-BPA plastic phenom that have literally built and crushed regimes and companies. I say take your Tech out for a walk and really learn about your place!

  2. Capt Granite,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Yes, very good points about mobile technology.

    The effects and benefits of mobile devices are things I am well aware (given the prevalence of debate in the philosophy of technology). I would not deny the kind of facilitation such things bring about. I would nonetheless raise some questions as to what is actually occurring when we use these devices. I think it’s a rather complex affair given that we tend to have certain things in mind which these devices enable—such as mobility, apparent nearness of places and perspectives otherwise distance, availability of information and contact with others. I think if one looks closer, one finds that these devices don’t provide mobility, nearness, and availability per se, but forms of these, or at least ideas of these. For example, I am not sure that having access to an exotic place through mobile devices is actually contacting or experiencing that place. One needs to consider how being “in a place” is mediated differently than viewing a place through an app. What is it that goes unnoticed when we think we are experiencing a place through a mobile device?

    Such questions are difficult to come by since the form of the technology often excludes such questioning by virtue of providing some kind of facilitation of another end. So things and information may be communicated more readily, but this communication, by virtue of being massively disseminated, may only push the question/problem of place further along. It seems that in the drug example you refer to, problems of turf, rather than being locally decided in person, may take the form of confrontation through mobile media (messages and threats via youtube, for example). Of course, this does not marginalize the importance of place, for such confrontations involve inevitably the idea that what really makes media threats credible, in this instance at least, is violence in person or that violence can come back to affect “your place.”