The Power of Place

I, for one, constantly underestimate the power of place. Despite my rigorous proclamations about the materiality of life, I instinctively imagine myself as somehow floating above it: when I change environments, I imagine I'm not changing.

But we are fundamentally enmeshed with our place, with where we find ourselves. And these places are deeply enmeshed with us. Space is not a neutral background on which we lay our chairs, rugs, bodies, lives. Space — place — is not the stage upon which our lives play. Space is part of the play, and an integral part at that.

As a perhaps odd aside on that, this is one reason I really love the Pirates of the Caribbean films: with each new film, a piece of the presumed background becomes an active player in the action — the boat is alive, the water is alive. Which is to say, the action doesn't take place on the ship or on the water; it takes place with the ship, with the water.

I was recently in the town I grew up in. I realized that while there I avoid certain places, those places where so much of my youth happened. This time, I went to what I consider the epicenter of said activity. Just approaching it, my body began to hum, my heart beat. I sat in the spot I'd sat a thousand times — a spot where kisses and drinks and drugs and loves long gone all took place.

And all of a sudden, I found myself davening — rocking back and forth as if in Jewish prayer — and soon tears were rolling down my face. And you might say that it's the memories that were the cause. But what is a memory? Where is a memory? I'll tell you: my memories are not solely in my head. They are in this place, part of this place.

And now I find myself moving, leaving a neighborhood I've lived in for over 19 years. I walk those streets I once roamed so freely and they quite literally transform my 41 year old, bald self into a 25 year old jewfroed wonder boy. And now that I'm leaving, I am overwhelmed, as if breaking out of a cocoon — only, instead of a butterfly, I'll just be a bald 41 year old hebe living alone in the middle of nowhere.

But what's surprising is that I am constantly surprised by the penetrating depth, the profound resonance, of the emotion I feel. I mean, of course I should be emotional about it. After all, we live with space, with place — and it lives with us. And yet.

To move is not just to transform one's environment; it is, necessarily, to transform oneself. But we have no ritual to mark this transformation; we talk about it in terms of getting good rent, a cool view. the hassles of moving a couch.

But we tend not to talk about the mourning, and all that that entails.


drwatson said...

I think about place a lot, especially as it relates to our increasing existence in virtual environments. I find that it is difficult to become seriously concerned about what is happening to our bodies and our ways of worlding, without one's comments getting reduced to some form of ludditism.

(I find the internet to be wonderful, but I tend to use it as a means of engagement at least as much as I use it as a means of distraction. There is certainly nothing wrong with distraction, but there is something wrong with a culture that is constantly distracted.)

And when talking about the body and digital experience, often conversations drift to discussions about American laziness or something like that. That's neither interesting nor correct, in my view. What is happening to our bodies is much more complicated, particularly as our bodies in part are determined constantly by where and when they are bodying-forth.

I find that I miss the intonation of voice more today, something that would have been quite difficult to miss even in the very recent past. Certainly all writing has tone and volume, but the text message loses something in the range of possible volumes; it is often (though not always) either monotone or screaming.

I wonder if the same kind of nostalgia you are referring to w/r/t actual space is going to be experienced years from now when I got to some website that I have long stopped checking. I have a hard time imagining that.

I was recently teaching the story "Entropy" by Thomas Pynchon to my students at the community college I work. One of Pynchon's chief concerns was that in an age that is so unlocalized differences were becoming smaller and smaller. Somewhere along the lines pop-culture started blurring with marketing. So we all sort of exist in this no-place together, which can be great, but without also existing in the physical world with similar gusto and engagement I think we're going to all need to go back and read Derrida and Foucault talk about the ends of man, which was only fun when it was hyperbolic.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes yes: I've argued that capitalism has become an information economy which not only has no need for the body, it disdains the body — its desires and inefficiencies.

It seemingly shares a disdain for the physical with Christianity. But in fact they couldn't be farther apart. Christianity knew the body was a center of intense desire and longing; repression could yield a kind of power. But capitalism wants to eliminate the body all together. Hence, they are breeding us into non-physical beings. Or dead ones.

Your note on rereading Foucault and Derrida is hilarious, and keen.


drwatson said...

What I started thinking about after reading your comment was in Fight Club when Tyler Durden says something like "Our war is a spiritual war," suggesting that God or not, our problems have more to do with our orientation/disposition than anything else.

Then I started thinking about how it's so hard to get outside of the capitalist system - it coopts all dissent it can't squash. So to be exposed to Fight Club's critique of materialism I have to drive to the theatre, buy popcorn, watch previews, and so forth. (I love all of those things, to be clear. However, if one more preview gets replaced by a fucking car commercial or a National Guard ad, I'm all for total revolt.)

Or, even better is the film Wall-E, which also needs to convince kids to convince their parents to take them to the theatre and be passive, while passive entertainment is critiqued. And of course later they can buy WallE action figures or whatever.

Again, I don't really have too much of a problem with that either, it's just noteworthy that the system of capital can suck up even the most sincere spiritual critique. (I'm not suggesting WallE was such a critique - while I loved the beginning of that film, it did start to feel like an Apple commercial at a certain point.) Even though that's not a particularly profound point, it always freaks me out when I think about it. It feels like a Kafka novel, where, try as you might, every door just opens in the wrong direction.

@PierreDDN said...

My grand father lived allmost all his life in the same house, and was happy. it, with the time, truly become part of his body. When you are used to move from neighborhood to neigborhood, city from city, you accept a changement which is not may be so natural. And nostalgia strongly experienced is may be the expression of that.

About disdain of body by christianity, it makes no doubt, it may explain the unbalanced and excessive mysticism. But the communion, the moment in the catholic mess when you eat the body of the christ, is a transaction. The symbol of the body of the christ is given to give the soul in back, the mind, the "holly spirit".
So may be the christian tradition is less interesting that the deep meaning of the communion, which can be seen as the contrary of the eludation of the body.


Vlad said...

but what about moving with the time... we can compare ourselves from "today" to ourselves from the "past" and the environment just........... it's like we've told to do that... like "when you see the place where you were a child - you should do some kind of ritual like to stop..start remeberting the past, then compare your present life to the past...say how happy you were as a child and go away :)" --- why should we all do this? :)) why we can't experience it like it's a totally new place? not even "new" just a some place :)

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Vlad: My point is this: place IS memory. Place is of time, just as we are. And we go with these places, forging memory together, forging life together. Of course, a place is also "new." And certain places are more powerful than others.

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