Weekly Wonderings – May 10th, 2021

Had an incredibly restful and relaxing weekend which is why the podcast isn’t out yet. That should be uploaded sometime later today. We decided to do some driving just to see some different scenery on Saturday, and it was a nice change of pace. I am certainly not on the same page as the news headlines I see talking about opening everything back up. It will be a good long while before I would be safe going anywhere there’s a large crowd in the United States. And honestly, once you find a comfortable mask, it’s not a huge burden to wear one. We have loved these from the Majority Report Store; the material is comfortable and stretchy. They don’t have the metal noseband piece but fit snug enough. I don’t worry about glasses fogging up. I’ve noted that my sinus infections, allergies, colds, etc., have been non-existent this year, which I attribute to this heightened level of safety. It’s been awfully nice.

Here’s this week’s eclectic Spotify playlist

Since I’ve been trying to regularly free-write as part of the DIY MFA materials I’ve been going through, I’ve noticed myself becoming more aware of my own stream of consciousness. As we were driving, crossing state lines, I noted the change in state highways. This led me to memories of being a kid in Illinois. I lived there until I was five, and I have what seem to be reasonably vivid memories about that time. I take into account that multiple studies have found our memories are incredibly faulty and often mash together unrelated instances. I do remember the feeling of college towns. My mom’s side of the family lived in the Champaign-Urbana area, and there is such a distinct feel to college towns like that. I guess it’s Midwestern colleges; specifically, I remember having the same sense passing through Indiana University’s campus in Bloomington. I don’t know what it is specifically, but there’s something about Midwestern college landscaping that appeals to some part of me. It’s undoubtedly one of those gut feelings that’s hard to articulate.

When I lived in Bellingham, WA, for a year, I really loved the Western Washington University campus. It was very different from Midwestern or Southeastern college campuses in that it was at the top of a large hill. There was a path branching off from the university’s center to a wooded path filled with conifers. That had a beautiful aesthetic that felt like even though you were in this relatively densely populated space, you were totally apart from it walking in those woods. Growing up and living in what is very much a non-place, you can feel the difference in those moments. 

Non-places are a concept brought to broader attention by French architect Marc Augé. These are places that are so insignificant in the thought behind their design you could say they don’t meet the anthropological definition of a “place.” An actual place is where individuals feel empowered in their identity and have social references to a shared culture. Pretty much anything can be a non-place if it does not meet those criteria for a person. However, the popular definition of non-place has come to mean things like desolate strip mall landscapes that look carbon copied from one area of the country to the next. There’s no sense of local identity or community in these places because the one in Sacramento looks identical to the one in Terre Haute or Chattanooga. I’m certainly nowhere close to having the depth of knowledge to engage in architectural discourse, but this is a concept that fascinates me. Some common non-places would be hotel rooms, airports, and shopping malls.

As my wife and I have been watching videos online about our planned destination for a new home this summer, we get such a different sense of architecture there than here. Here, the most densely populated spaces are the most non-place you can get. As you go into the rural areas, you start to see more of a sense of community identity. But on the main drag where all the major commerce occurs, there is no way of telling where in the nation this place is. It is a complete duplicate of so many other places. I can’t help but think this lack of identity in spaces people frequent daily doesn’t have some sort of psychic effect on them long term, carving away at their own sense of community and belonging. It’s funny how Eastern Bloc architecture gets critiqued by those looking through a Western capitalist lens as being harsh and cold. I can’t think of anything quite as cold as a five-mile stretch of road populated by nothing but fast food and big box stores. Soviet aesthetics were very overt in their purpose while the American capitalist designs feel insidious, desolation disguised as happiness just waiting to be bought. British theorist Mark Fisher sums it up pretty perfectly:

“Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

I think these elements of design merge right into Hypernormalisation as extrapolated on by Adam Curtis. Everyone has silently bowed their heads and accepted that nothing will fundamentally change. They are incapable of imagining a system outside of this one, and so they take the misery & suffering of this system. Seeing the same non-place if you can travel the country only reminds people that they cannot escape the system. I think we’ve all probably read about the phenomenon of Americans abroad who seek out familiar corporate brands (McDonald’s, Burger King) to ease the discomfort from being away from their non-place. When the United States invaded Iraq, some of the first organizations allowed into the country were fast-food chains, as if this system is a virus using the offensive capabilities of the United States to find fresh hosts where they can spread. 

I’m very curious to explore how it will feel to be in a place that actually has a sense of history and connection with the communities who live there. I fully suspect because I’ve been conditioned for so long and so expertly in American culture that I will experience false homesickness. It will just be the emotional part of my brain seeking comfort from the absence of identity in a non-space. Instead, I want to jump in headfirst and embrace the essence of this new place, learning to understand it and where best I can fit within its structure.

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