Monday, November 24, 2014

Passages (3)

Self-made passage

Passages in the sense of non-places as I have discussed them in my last blogs are a modern phenomenon. In pre-modern times they hardly existed, if they existed at all. The reason is that they do not come into being in a natural way as a consequence of the daily contacts of men with each other but they are planned. Passages are consciously made in order to deal with the growing number of people that want to do the same thing and in order to steer people gently where the planners want to have them and in the way the planners have determined. That’s why passages are a typical phenomenon of mass society. To give an example, in the past roads led from town to town, from village to village and from village to town. Even if they were planned – which they often weren’t – they were built because you had to be there. Because you wanted to be there for going to the market. Because you wanted to be there for it was the administrative centre of your region. These roads went also through little villages, for every village was a kind of centre of its environs. However, in modern times habits of people have changed. They go to destinations far away and don’t stop in intermediate regional centres any longer, or at least most people don’t. Most want to go elsewhere: to their work, to holiday places far away, to business centres. These are often no longer in the towns and villages in the actual sense but in the suburbs and outskirts. Therefore most travellers want to pass the towns and villages and so the planners have created passages, which they call “highways”. But highways don’t connect places as such. They often begin and end somewhere near an important town or otherwise on the town’s edge. In order to direct the drivers to and from these mainroads the planners have provided highways with approach roads and exits and they have created feeder roads that connect the towns and village with them. In this way towns and villages have become nothing but names on road signs for most drivers on the highways, even in case a highway happens to pass through a certain town. I have often been geographically in Paris for the Autoroute from the Netherlands to the south passes through this town. Nevertheless I have seldom really been there, for usually I don’t turned off.
Passages are a manner of directing people. Planners don’t want to have drivers unnecessarily through the towns, so they lead them past them, as we have seen. This is only one example of how planning is used for directing people in the way wished by planners and how passages are instruments of planning used that way. Nevertheless, it often happens that people don’t obey. Drivers try to go to their destinations by short cuts. Pedestrians don’t follow the footpaths but make their own paths through the fields. You take a book or laptop with you so that you can put your time in a waiting room or train to good use. Generally passages cannot be avoided, but people are often more creative than planners are.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Passages (2)

In my last blog I talked about passages. Marc Augé, who has written an analysis of such places, calls them “non-lieux” – non-places, which expresses even better what they are: places that are nothing for you. You are just there because you cannot avoid them. You simply have to pass through them for one reason or another. And if you could avoid them, like the shops on an airfield, you are there because you have to fill your time anyway, be it by shopping or be it by waiting in the room near the gate till your airplane departs.
According to Augé, non-places have three characteristics. First, when you are there, you have no identity. Nobody cares who you are. It’s true, on an airfield you have to show your passport when you enter the space for flight passengers. But once you are there, you are anonymous. Nobody will miss you when you disappear. Nobody will take notice of you. For the others you are a non-person. Compare this with an opposite case, like a family party in a hotel or restaurant. If you would suddenly leave without saying goodbye, people will miss you. If you don’t come without notice, people will miss you, too.
The second characteristic of a non-place is that the people present have no relations with each other. They just are there. You don’t talk with the others. Usually you also don’t greet them when you enter or take a seat. Actually you try to ignore the others. Think here again of the case of a family party, where those present are just there for meeting each other. They are there for entering and maintaining relations.
Third, a non-place or passage has no history. A church where a wedding ceremony takes place may have been used for that already since centuries and that may be a reason having your wedding in this church. But if the waiting room in front of the gate on the airfield or the parking place along the highway would be closed tomorrow, nobody would give it any attention with the exception of those who work there and there is a good chance that even they would not shed tears.
In short, we can say that passages or “non-lieux” are meaningless places, or rather they do not have a meaning as such but they get their meaning from what they connect. However, as Augé stresses, non-places, and also its opposite, namely “places”, hardly exist in a pure form. They are the extremes of a sliding scale.
I think that the existence of non-places, pure or less pure, says a lot of the kind of persons we are, the more so, if ones realizes that non-places or passages are a rather new phenomenon. Maybe there has always been a kind of non-places as long as man exists, although I doubt it, but in its omnipresence it is a modern phenomenon. It is a characteristic of mass society and a characteristic of mass man. In order to survive in this mass society man must be able to ignore a lot of what is happening around him or her and of what is present there, including other men. When we want to do some typical things of this mass society, like travelling, we must be able to disregard much of what is around us. We must be able to go a substantial part of the paths we follow in an insensitive way – insensitive to what others are and do. If we shouldn’t, we should never reach the end of any path we had chosen to follow; we shouldn’t reach any goal or destination or only a few at most; and we should become overburdened with the occupations and sorrows of others. In modern mass society we have no choice but screening ourselves off mentally and becoming indifferent. And society has no choice but making non-places in order to cope with the mass. That’s how we have become and how we now are.

Monday, November 10, 2014


It’s a kind of places that every traveller knows. Also when you are not travelling, you’ll certainly often have gone through them: passages. You cannot avoid them, although you would rather stay there as short as possible for passages are usually annoying and boring and sometimes even lugubrious. It does not need to be so, however, and some are even pleasant in a way.
Passages connect places that are meaningful for you. You leave home and go to your work. Then you have to travel before you are there, so you spend some time in the bus or tram or train and at a bus stop or tram stop or in a railway station. Most of what you do there is waiting and being moved, which is also a kind of waiting, namely a waiting till you are “there”. You try to kill your time – by reading or with your smartphone. You don’t know the other travellers around you, although maybe you have seen them already many times. And they don’t know you. You don’t talk to them. Often you even don’t greet them. You are also not interested in the type of vehicle you are travelling with, as long as it brings you quickly where you want to be.
It’s basically the same when you travel with your own car, although some people can tell a lot about its properties. Then you are even physically separated from your fellow-travellers by the structure of your car, which is a cage you have put yourself in. The public transport has been replaced by your private transport moving on the road or highway. For air travellers the story is also more or less the same.
When thinking of passages some typical sites you pass on your trips and travels come first to the mind: Railway stations; a parking place on the highway where you take a rest before driving on; the place where you have to wait on the airport before being allowed to pass the gate to the plane. They include also the spaces with restaurants and shops on airfields, for usually you are there only because you are on the way and not because you want to buy something or want to eat outdoors. These are some striking examples of passages, indeed, but if you think a bit about it, you’ll find many more, often of different types. They are certainly not limited to travelling. To mention a few: The waiting room of a doctor, tunnels, corridors in all their meanings, shops, warehouses, hotels. Passages are everywhere. Some sites usually function as passages but need not always be so. For instance: A hotel is often a place where you stay in function of going somewhere else. But maybe you celebrate your wedding there. Then it is rather a destination then a passage. Generally a passage does not have a meaning of its own, but derives it from being a kind of connection.

Monday, November 03, 2014

“Do like the others and become yourself”

Everybody is unique or so he or she thinks. In view of this it is a bit strange that we want to be like the others who are in our reference groups, or at least that we don’t want to be too different from them. A recent study has shown again that just the marginal members of a group stress that they belong to it while the more central group members – who are known as such –  don’t feel the need to do so. This is especially the case if the group one wants to belong to has a higher status or cultural value, for then it enhances your self-esteem and your prestige.
The case just indicated is an instance of trying to make yourself unique by presenting yourself as being the same as others. Just because you are like your significant others you are something special and, for example, if you are a businessperson it’s worth to use just your services. In a reverse way it is this idea that is employed as a trick in advertisements promoting the use or sale of the services or products of this or that company: “Buy our ... and be different/unique” is a kind of slogan everybody knows. And because most of us want to be different (although not too much, but anyway just a little bit) and want to have or show a bit of his or her own (but again not too much), we follow the slogan and buy the unique .... (fill in: clothes, smart phone or what you like), not realizing that millions of people think so and do so. The result is that we become unique with the millions. “Do like the others and become yourself” as Marc Augé expresses this idea in a different context. And isn’t just this what we want? For actually most of us feel themselves most at ease in the herd and feel themselves uncomfortable when leaving it.
But really unique is one who does like herself and invents her own way, or at least a little bit and as long as it goes, of course.
Sources: and Marc Augé, Non-Lieux, Paris: Seuil, 1992; p. 133.