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."