Monday, June 27, 2016

On the fringes of society


Some time ago I wrote a few blogs about what I called “passages”, which I described as a kind of non-places where you have to spend some time when being between a past destination (the place you left) and a future destination (where you want to go). They are non-places since you don’t do there a special activity, with the exception of passing, of course. You come to a passage with the intention to leave it as soon as possible. For society as a whole passages may be important, if they are ways to move on people as a smooth as possible. Therefore they are often large and wide (highways), provided with time tables (railway stations) or with signs that lead you into the right direction. In other words, passages are often constructed as passages. But for the users they are places they want to ignore, forget and pass through as quickly as they can. Seen that way they are pointless and that’s why the French anthropologist Marc Augé called them non-places.
Passages did not always exist. They belong especially to the modern age. Of course, also in the past people had to go from one place to another, but the roads and places a person had to go through usually had a different meaning for the passer-by, also because pre-modern man had a different time perspective, a different pace of life and different kinds of relationship towards other people, including strangers. Passages are a modern phenomenon, albeit one that gradually developed. It’s not so that we can say that in the 19th century they suddenly were there and that before that time they didn’t exist.
Passages are a kind of marginal phenomena in the sense that they don’t belong to what life stands for. We don’t long for them; we don’t strive for being there. They just came to exist and only when the unorderly way of their existence became a problem, they were constructed, for nobody likes to drive a car on a sandy road – unless as a sport –  or to get into a traffic-jam. Although being marginal, passages had a function and in that sense we can call them functional marginal phenomena or even, with a contradiction in terms, essential marginal phenomena.
Such marginal phenomena that developed into functional marginal phenomena or even became important are not exceptional in modern society. Especially since the 19th century – and maybe somewhat earlier – modernization brought into being a lot of them, as the Dutch historian Auke van der Woud has shown so well in his book on the New Man. To mention a few (I have added also examples of my own): Shop windows; coffee houses and street cafés; souvenir shops; monuments that were more than just for the glorification of emperors, generals and battle victories; lampposts and kilometer markers  – and some kilometer markers are used as little monuments, like those along the Voie Sacrée, the Holy Road that played such an important role in the Battle of Verdun for transporting troops and materiel –. These are only a few of those “marginal” phenomena. Look around and you’ll see more of them than you had ever thought. Most people don’t see them as such, as special modern phenomena, for they think that they are eternal, and they are only on the fringe of their attention or even outside their attention. Nevertheless, some are hardly marginal any longer, and that’s why I just used inverted commas when writing the word. Man and society are changing, as ever, and certainly in this age in which leisure but also public emotions have become increasingly important people have developed another view on what is meaningful in life. Even so, many such phenomena seem to be on the outer edge of life. They are what everybody knows to exist but nobody sees since nobody looks. However, they would miss them, if they weren’t any longer there.

Source: Auke van der Woud, De nieuwe mens. De culturele revolutie in Nederland rond 1900. Amsterdam: Prometheus-Bert Bakker, 2015.

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