Sunday, June 07, 2009


Those of us aesthetes who view the passing of the visible industrial economy with regret, and who long for an authenticity of appearance based on manufacturing and innovative, modern design, are inclined to view this English culture as a bizarre and damaging anachronism, but if so, it is not an unsuccessful one.

- Robinson in Space (Patrick Keiller, 1997)

Marc Auge defines a non-place in relation to a place. A place is distinct in space and time. We can draw a map of it, and we know its location in relation to other places. It has boundaries (which may be more or less fixed), meeting places (landmarks, monuments, places of worship or commerce or leisure), routes and passages which cut across it and connect one meeting place to another. We can learn its history (which may be more or less factual, more or less mythical) by talking to the people who live and work in it, by referring to its monuments and street names, by noting the subtle, gradual changes which happen to it over time. A place has permanence, from which residents and visitors derive meaning and purpose: it has existed for longer than we can remember, and will outlive any memory of us. It seems as though it may be eternal.

A non-place is not distinct in space and time. Even when we can locate it on such and such a day, or such and such a place (a service station near the Watford Gap, or the air-conditioned lobby of a luxury Singapore hotel), its spatio-temporal location is nevertheless meaningless. It has nothing distinct – no boundaries, no history, no sense of permanence.

We live, Auge writes, in a world:

where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions (hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps, shanty-towns threatened with demolition or doomed to festering longevity); where a dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces is developing; where the habitué of supermarkets, slot machines and credit cards communicates wordlessly, through gestures, with an abstract, unmediated commerce; a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and ephemeral.

- Marc Auge, Non-places: an introduction to supermodernity (1995)

Where the place is formed of events, myths and history, there is no room for history in the non-place: “what reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment.” It is a result of the excess of time and space that is characteristic of the globalised world, of the world becoming a network which facilitates circulation – of people, information, capital. We can access events wherever they happen in the world as they happen. Each day, news rolls – is there more news, are there more noteworthy events, more incidents of global import, than yesterday? We cannot say – the constant replacement of one news headline with another, means we can never concentrate on, or remember, more than a finite number of items. Each day passes with the same accelerated time.

The excess of space can be explained in a similar way – the world has become accessible (and therefore smaller), but we realise we cannot hope to access any of it in a meaningful sense (thus making it almost infinitely large). For Auge, travelling defines the non-place. Advertisements for holidays present the viewer with an idealised image of himself swimming in the sea, or investigating an ancient ruin, or volunteering with locals. Holiday publicity, Auge argues, depicts the non-place par excellence because the image derives its meaning not from the location being advertised, but from how it makes a spectacle of the spectator, and confers glamour onto him. (The power of the aspirational image over the specifics of place were demonstrated beautifully recently, when the tourist board of the landlocked Canadian province of Alberta used a picture of the Northumbrian coastline on their publicity. A spokesperson explained that "this represents Albertans' concern for the future of the world. There's no attempt to make people think that the place pictured is Alberta.")

Upon arrival at the airport, the tourist passes through the various security checks, and “as soon as his passport or identity card has been checked, the passenger ... freed from the weight of his luggage and everyday responsibilities, rushes into the ‘duty-free’ space; not so much, perhaps, in order to buy at the best prices as to experience the reality of his momentary availability, his unchallengeable position as a passenger in the process of departing.” The passenger, in proving his identity, willingly surrenders it. He has proved his innocence and earned the right to anonymity within the non-world.

Even when he arrives at his destination, he still seeks out the non-space: “a foreigner lost in a country he does not know can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains.”

Robinson in Space is a melancholy inventory of such non-places: Caversham Park’s World Monitoring Service receivers, nanotechnology parks near Horsell Common, Heathrow Airport, Felixstowe and the ports of the Thames Estuary, privatised docks at Sheerness, a Beefeater hotel under construction near Cowley, Campsfield House (a detention centre for asylum seekers), the M3 at Twyford Down, the Tescos at Dorchester (“with fountains worthy of Versailles”), the Morrisons depot at Wakefield 41...

It explains and attempts to resolve the "problem of England", a country which, by the dilapidated Major years, had replaced manufacturing exports with exports of services and “intermediate products.” It is a film about industrial, social and aesthetic decline, even though the years which it depicts were economic boom-times.

On 4th September 1995, Robinson and his companion arrive in Liverpool. At this time, more traffic passed through Liverpool's port than at any time in history. It acted as the major hub for trade with the United States, was the most profitable port in the UK, and the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company was ranked 253rd in the FTSE 500 index. And yet, the port is a hive of inactivity: its waterfronts are derelict, its city impoverished, and its spaces devoid of people. “If Liverpool as a city is not what is was a hundred years ago,” Keiller explains in his footnotes to the film, “this is not because its port traffic has declined, but because, like so much other economic activity, a port does not occupy space in the way that it used to.”

The containerisation of traffic (see also here for a visit to the container city of Southampton), the automation and “flexibility” of labour, the rapid transport links (via the Channel Tunnel) to Europe and beyond, has turned ports into transitional spaces which briefly pause the circulation of goods and services. The old Merseyside warehouses have been replaced by dormitories for trucks bound for distribution centres located at motorway junctions near Warrington and Wakefield. These centres now dominate the motorway. While signs inform the driver or passenger of the presence of nearby historic monuments or local points of interest, there is no suggestion that these places should be visited. These signs encourage us to acknowledge their existence, but they are rarely seen from the seat of a car. They are reduced to pure signifiers, and our eyes are instead drawn to

the windowless sheds of the logistics industry, road construction, spiky mobile phone aerials, a proliferation of new fencing of various types, security guards, police helicopters and cameras, new prisons, agribusiness, UK and US military bases, mysterious research and training centres, ‘independent’ schools, eerie commuter villages, rural poverty and the country houses of rich and powerful men of unrestrained habits [...] visible features of a landscape in which the suggestion of cruelty is never very far away.

These non-places, and the conditions which create them, impact upon the way people live and work by dividing them and erasing their status or consciousness as workers:

Despite having shed the majority of its workforce, the Liverpool port’s attitude to its remaining dockers has been extremely aggressive. In September 1995, two weeks after telling Lloyd’s List that it had the most productive workforce in Europe, the MDHC’s sacking of 329 of its 500 remaining dockers was triggered by their refusal to cross a picket line in support of fellow employees of a contract labour firm. The subsequent strike attracted international support. On January 26th 1998, the dockers voted to accept the Mersey Dock and Harbour Company’s offer of a £28,000 pay-off for each worker and ended the dispute. It seemed that, for the company, the issue was not money or specific working practices, but a concerted attempt to rid the port of any memory of its culture and traditions. As at the new Thamesport container terminal on the Medway, which its management says is ‘not a port’, these are seen as impediments to development and, unlike the physical structures on the waterfront, have been cleared away.

And yet, Thamesport is undoubtedly a port. Its landscape may have changed and the human labour which drives it may have become much less secure - most merchant seaman live in a deterritorialised world, travelling between one country and another, never getting enough shore leave even to visit a place properly. But for all the talk of a world dominated by finance and telecommunications, ports - in the UK, Europe, Africa and, most visibly, Asia - and the trade which they facilitate are central to the global economy. All history, culture and tradition has been deleted from them, but they remain the basis of the present and of the future.


Anonymous cosmopolitanscum said...

Great stuff. Fascinating to learn that in 1995 Liverpool was still such a busy port and successful business. Why on earth does Thamesport deny that it is a port?

10:13 AM  
Blogger paddington said...

I think because it's a place of such rapid transit, where people and goods never hang around long enough to see the port, it's not considered to be a traditional port. And that Keiller quote at the end probably explains it too: the words "port" and "dock" are too associated with militant workers. Inventing an euphemism to describe it is presumably easier than continuing with such troublesome, archaic descriptions!

8:00 PM  

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