Close Encounters with Placeness: Un-places

v.2.0

This three part essay is a revised and expanded version of my notes for a lecture and workshop with the same title I gave at last year's Occulture conference in Berlin.

It became centered around Randonauting but you may as well consider that a place-holder for many other kind of mindful ways of engagement with place. It has a meandering shape, covering a lot of thoughts I've had related to Spirit of Place or Placeness throughout the last years.

In this first part we will explore our relationship with place in general and the strange un-places in our minds. In the next part we will dig into synchronicities, contingency and divination, and in the final one we will look at deeper meanings of place and The Zone.

Close Encounters with Placeness

Randonauting is the art and practice of exploring places in your immediate surrounding solely determined by a random set of coordinates. Having conducted many such trips myself and read about other randonauts experiences it becomes evident that something extraordinary seems to happen in a psychological and often even para-psychological sense during these journeys.

The underlying theory of randonauting posits that it is a practice to 'break the own reality tunnel' and bring novelty into the own field of everyday perception:

imagine how many rules shape your routes and behaviour: logic, habits, social norms, life experience, cognitive biases, external factors that affect you according to the characteristics of your personality or are in a causal relationship with your behaviour and so on. All this together creates a causal viscosity, which we call the Stasis Field, the force that holds you in the Reality-Tunnel of your own.

This means that no matter what choices you make, and no matter how many variations on how your day may pass, there are always some places where you simply cannot be, because none of the chains of your decisions leads there.1

Since such places may be somewhere nearby, within reach of the comfort space of the stasis field, creating geographic coordinates randomly within the individual's immediate range opens up new possibilities for ideas and being.

Spirit of Place

Everyone who has ever been on vacation can probably relate to this. We often travel to other places to see 'something new' that inspires us and opens our horizon. On the other hand many people travel to the same places over and over again, because they 'like it there'. What is it that pulls us to places of novelty or places where we feel better than 'at home'?

It is likely the transformation of our state of awareness through the surrounding. In his book Becoming Animal anthropologist David Abram describes:

For each land has its own psyche, its own style of sentience, and hence to travel from Rome to Paris, or from Barcelona to Berlin, is to voyage from one state of mind to another, very different, state of mind. Even to journey by train from Manhattan to Boston, or simply to walk from one New England town to another, is to transform one's state of awareness.2

The reason why we are so intimately connected to place is simply rooted in our very bodily existence:

as animals we have bodies connected to the natural world, such that our consciousness and rationality are tied to our bodily orientations and interactions in and with our environment. Our embodiment is essential to who we are, and to what meaning is, and to our ability to draw rational inferences and be creative.3

Having a sense of oneself, as an individual embodied person, as a member of a society, as a self in relation to others is, in a sense strongly connected to having a sense of place. The Australian philosopher Jeff Malpas wrote a book about Place and Experience in which he pushes the idea of self and place further:

the significance of place should not be construed as just a contingent feature of human psychology or biology, but instead as rooted in the very structure that makes possible experience or thought of the sort that is exemplified in the human (though this is not to rule out the possibility that certain particular features of our response to place may be contingently based). The sense, then, in which identity is tied to place (and so to a spatio-temporal realm in which persons and things can be encountered and a world can be grasped) is not just the sense in which a sense of identity might be tied up with a certain ‘emotional reminiscence', but derives from the way in which the very character of subjectivity, in the general and the particular, and the very content of our thoughts and feelings, is necessarily dependent on the place and places within which we live and act.4

Jungle

It is easy to assume that the transformation of self when we are in novel places or places 'we like' happens as a mere psychological effect 'inside our heads' from 'not having to work' or 'being on holidays'. But by doing so we run into the very widespread fallacy of believing to exist in what another anthropologist, Tim Ingold, described as temporarily worldless suspension:

The idea that the world exists prior to the forms of life that come to occupy it, and hence that each of these life-forms is itself separately encoded in a context-free vehicle, a kind of free-floating capsule that can carry form from one site of occupation to another, is deeply entrenched in both biological and anthropological thought. In biology it appears as the doctrine of genetic preformation, according to which every organism may be specified, independently of the environmental context of its development, as a unique configuration of self-replicating elements (genes). [...] In anthropology, cultural information is made to play much the same role as is played by the genes in biology. Again, there is one set of specifications for the forms of life that are carried around – as it used to be said – ‘inside people's heads'. And there is another set for the environment, often identified with ‘nature' or ‘the physical world', upon which these forms are inscribed.5

As we will unpack in the following paragraphs, 'place' is not merely a coordinate on a map 'in our heads' or a fraction of space of 'the world out there' but a powerful ontological agent who determines who we are as individuals, society, a species, a world.

There is a classic Australian novel and a movie called Picnic at Hanging Rock that might illustrate in a better way what we are talking about. The story takes place on Valentine's Day in the year 1900 at Mount Diogenes, a distinctive geological formation in central Victoria, Australia that its aboriginal inhabitants call Ngannelong. The students of a girls' private school go on an excursion to the place to study and to have a picnic with their math teacher. After lunch they rest in the shade of the rocks and four of the girls ask permission to explore the area and take geological measurements. They climb higher and higher into the rocks and the atmosphere gets quite weird:

Spolier Alert: In the plot that follows we learn that the girls vanished, the school headmistress commits suicide and those who are left have been forever changed.

An intriguing interpretation of the story is that the protagonists are no longer 'British colonizers' but have now been altered into something else — they became 'Australians' - the foreign territory had not only been conquered by the colonizers. In a weird kind of feedback loop the place of the colony itself also creeped into and colonized the conquerors inner territory.

Placelessness

What the buttoned up and well dressed Victorians in the story suffered and what most of us are still suffering from is the dramatic disorientation following the wrecking of the classic Aristotelian worldview that left us with the infamous split between 'mind' and 'the world.' David Abram writes:

Psychological qualities once felt to be proper to the surrounding terrain—feeling-tones, moods, the animating spirits-of-place known to reside in particular wetlands or forests—all lost their home with the dissolution of the enclosing, wombish character of the pre-Copernican cosmos. For unlike quantities, qualities are fluid properties arising from the internal, felt relations between beings. Such feeling-tones now had no place in the physical world—itself newly conceived as a set of objects that had no internal relation to one another. Nature was beginning to be experienced as a pure exterior—a world of external, mechanical relationships: a world of quantities. It is only natural that psychological qualities fled from this open exteriority in the wake of the Copernican revolution, taking refuge in the private space now assumed to exist inside each individual.6

Of course it is always a bit too easy to point fingers and find someone to blame for such deep reaching paradigm shifts that leave humanity disoriented. Whether it is Descartes, or Kant, 'capitalism' or 'technocracy', doesn't really matter. In order to overcome this 'head-trauma' it is helpful to realize that we are indeed subject to it.

It is difficult, yet possible - as the practice of randonauting shows in a playful and simple way.

Fact is that almost all fields of science are built firmly upon the existence of a mind that is completely 'interior' and a world that is completely 'exterior.' Yet it is not only 'science' that sees reality in such a reductionist way, but also a lot of the modern 'spiritualities'. Again David Abram:

If much natural science of the last two centuries held itself aloof from the nature it studied, pondering the material world as though that world were a huge aggregate of inert objects and mechanical events, many new-age spiritualities simply abandon material nature entirely, inviting their adherents to focus their intuitions upon non-material energies and disincarnate beings assumed to operate in an a-physical dimension, pulling the strings of our apparent reality and arranging earthly events according to an order that lies elsewhere, behind the scenes. Commonly reckoned to be at odds with one another, conventional over-reductive science and most new-age spiritualities actually fortify one another in their detachment from the earth, one of them reducing sensible nature to an object with scant room for sentience and creativity, the other projecting all creativity into a supernatural dimension beyond all bodily ken.7

In the 1960 a neomarxist revolutionary named Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International (SI), invented a concept he called 'spectacle' to reveal and criticize the inescapable nature of capitalism in our modern world. In my opinion it also serves quite well to summarize our problem of metaphysical mindfuckery:

Spectacle is perhaps the major force in modern civilization: through selective, edited representation, the process of spectacle-making serves to reduce the vibrant, pluralistic, living richness of existence to a lifeless image which is then presented as reality. Spectacle serves to remove the "object" or "specimen" from its natural state of being itself into a state of separation ... Existence, which is a seamless continuum, is thereby represented as a disconnected assemblage of discrete and unrelated "objects" ... Spectacle is thereby a selfreferencing fiction, and like all such fictions, difficult to see for what it is. It is a closed loop that has, by accident and intention, created a specific self-perpetuating modus operandi.8

They Live

One practice that the SI encouraged to uncover the 'spectacle' was the 'dérive' - the act of aimless drifting through the urban landscape, being led solely by subjective stimuli from the surrounding architecture. By doing so the drifter would notice the omnipresent organizing power structures that urban planning had imposed upon the city dwellers, the logic of production and commerce ruling the architectural landscape. Drifters were encouraged to create their own psychogeographical maps of the city, breaking the imposed structures and re-territorialize them into representations that would harmonize the inner from the outer sense of place in a more integral way.

In the 21st century cities show no more resemblance to how they looked in the 1960s, so the 'dérives' are probably less suited to unveil and break out of imposed patterns. 'Empire' has shifted to more subtle cybernetic means of control focusing mainly on individualized stimulation of desires in either aestetically harmonized environments or distracting us from 'the world' altogether by luring us into the fully synthetic version of artificial desire stimulation behind the inescapable multitude of our screens.

Randonauting on the other hand, can be seen as a contemporary radical and revolutionary practice. It also suits the zeitgeist perfectly, because it lures the individual from within the confines of their portable screens 'out to the world'. It shifts the attention from the ever attention-seeking devices to the hidden magic that lies in the boring everyday world 'out there' right in front of our eyes.


Part 2


  1. Fatum Theory 

  2. Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Pantheon, 2010. EPUB Reference 17.11 

  3. Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. University of Chicago Press, 1990. pg xxxviii. 

  4. Malpas, Jeff E. Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography. Cambridge University Press, 1999. pg. 188 

  5. Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000. pg. 214 

  6. Abram, David. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Pantheon, 2010. EPUB Reference 17.68 

  7. Ibid. EPUB Reference 23.24 

  8. Pennick, Nigel. Anima Loci. NIDECK, 1993 

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