Philosophers have most of the noun-ground covered.  They go on about the nature of persons and things, but they don’t say nearly as much about places.  I know there’s good stuff in the philosophy of science about space and such, but that’s not what I’m after.  I wonder what makes a place the place that it is.

Places can mean something, something to all of us or only a few of us.  Places can be sacred too.  Maybe they have been so since at least homo habilis — even an elephant is hip to this sort of thing, so the story goes, in its own elephantine way.  We make pilgrimages to places, remember the dead in places, pray in places.  (Even atheists whisper in churches.)  Some places are just the opposite.  They have a profane vibe, a nasty resonance.  There are places in London where plague victims were buried in mass graves.  There are old battlefields.  Those places are still dead, and they can feel dead whether you know the history or not.  In addition to sacred and profance places are no doubt places of all sorts of other kinds.  Those two sorts just bubbled up first.

Places of public significance are matched by places that can matter only to you in the way that they do.  It’s neither sacred nor profane, but you can smile to yourself in a place where there used to be a tree that you climbed a long time ago.  The place is significant to you, whether the tree is still there or not.

Places can be about something, certainly.  Like words and pictures, a place can point beyond itself to something else entirely.  But the intentional wallop of a place is not all that makes that place the place that it is.  There’s something else, but I can’t get at it without going circular.  I want to say that a place is the place that it is because of what it’s like for us to be in it.  I know that’s no help at all, but I still think it might be true.

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  1. A few years ago I revisited the neighborhood and house I had grown up, along with my sister, both of us expecting some kind of Proustian epiphany after almost 40 years of absence. The house was the same; the same tree; the same school. Neither of us felt anything special. I must have missed school the day they taught the kids to feel the magic of places.

  2. A related phenomenon, I’ve found, is a Proustian (I suspect we’re gonna be doing that a lot in this discussion) nostalgia for pseudo-places. After a fond back-in-the-day conversation with friends, recently, I fired up my old copy of Quake 3: Arena, the first-person shooter game. I hadn’t even thought of the game for years, and it’s probably been 6-7 years since I last played it regularly. But as soon as I joined a server that was playing my old favorite level, and started running and jumping around the too-familiar architecture, I was overwhelmed by a familiar sense of “place.” It was deeply, powerfully immersive. And I hadn’t gone anywhere!

    Maybe this points to some sort of insight into the role of our cognitive perception in our understanding of place — that our actual GPS coordinates in meatspace are less important than the sensory data we’re perceiving at that particular moment on the spacetime continuum. Or maybe I’m just a big video game nerd. Either way, it was more than a little bit surprising… and fun, too. 😉

  3. The first thing that came to mind was the Beatles song “In My Life.” In it, places are most closely connected with “lovers and friends.” Themes in the song are change for ever and people who are still living and ones who have died and are associated with special moments in certain places. This song is very personal for me because it reminds me of a certain person. Places, too, are most definitely tied up with the memory of that person.

    This post also makes me think of places that are new. Old places are always becoming new (in addition to always becoming old), but some places are just plain new. How does one find one’s bearings? How long does it take? What factors affect the formation of the “concept” of the place? I’m sure a neuroscientist could explain how brain cells reach out and form new connections with one another, but that’s not the kind of explanation that I’m looking for. Representations must play a major part, as well as constructive projections. This is still largely uncharted territory for me at this point…

  4. Places provide the narrative substance and gravity that confer meaning on otherwise meaningless subjects; meaningful subjects in turn give rise to meaningful objects. A subject without a place is like a rudderless ghost ship floating nowhere, and thinking nothing – in other words, it doesn’t exist.

  5. When we were children we would wander over the fields at the bottom of our road to a place called Bluebell Wood. It always seemed a mysterious place, quiet dark in places with some large moss covered trees in the middle overhanging a deep looking pond. If some elves or fairies had popped out from behind the trees most of us would not be suprised. Some of the boys would try and hit them with a catapult no doubt.
    Now the Winter leaves that fell as a carpet for the Spring bluebells to grow through are no more -they built a Motorway service station over it. All that drops to the ground are discarded sandwich wrappers, cigarette ends, engine oil, plastic coffee cups. Perhaps the place carries its meaning because it is no more and has been replaced by something that has none of those qualities. Qualities which only we could endow it with. Yet that something is in a sense more real, for all can observe the items it contains and none would call it full of wonder. The odd Ferrari might park there and some would call that item a wonder, but of the place it vanishes and leaves only the debris and detritus behind.

  6. Interesting stuff. I know the usual thought here is that we bring value to places (man is the measure of all things, and all that). I suppose what I was getting at, badly, in the post is that maybe the causal direction isn’t what we think it is when it comes to the value of a place. It’s not us which flavours a place with value, but the place’s effects on us which make the place the place that it is. Thinking about it now, probably there’s causation back and forth and back again.

    I should add that I have no idea what to think about all this, which is why I brought it up.

    A friend mentioned some cognitive stuff about the survival advantage associated with places ‘feeling familiar’ — supposedly good for wandering hunter-gatherers. And maybe all these feelings and thoughts about place are just that module going haywire. (Hadn’t thought about it going haywire virtually, CJ, but that’s an excellent example.) As Evan says above, that’s not the explanation I’m after either.

  7. How about the associations one has with books, physical books? I sometimes reread books that I read 40 or even 45 years ago, the same physical book, and that is Proustian for me. I’m fascinated by my youthful handwriting; I wonder why I outlined certain passages with a much steadier hand that I now have or about my marginal notes. What’s more, books often used to contain the entire offering of the same publishing house in a list at the end, and that list is another source of wonder, reminding me of books I read that I had forgotten, of books that everyone once talked about and that no one now recalls. The books bring me back to the reader I once was, to the expectations with which I read at that time (it is so different to open an unknown variable called Nietzsche, an entirely mysterious figure of which one knows only the name and the reputation and to read Nietzsche, a figure about whom I have clear and definite opinions) and to the general intellectual climate in which I once read.

  8. State of mind is such a fluctuating phenomenon; so much so, that it’s near impossible to recapture the exact configuration at the time of first read. Those mental planes we create and that create us, are one-off visitations: we can’t revisit those places, nor they we. At best, we can recollect a recollection of a recollection of a recollection etc….that in no way represents the ‘real’ initial state. Places as mental states are forever fragmented, doomed to repetitive reconstruction; each evolution is slightly altered, occasionally eliciting a semblance of essential sameness, but ultimately lost to the experience of now.

  9. Life Laughs Onward; Hardy

    Rambling I looked for an old abode
    Where, years back, one had lived I knew;
    Its site a dwelling duly showed,
    But it was new.

    I went where, not so long ago,
    The sod had riven two breasts asunder;
    Daisies throve gaily there, as though
    No grave were under.

    I walked along a terrace where
    Loud children gambolled in the sun;
    The figure that had once sat there
    Was missed by none.

    Life laughed and moved on unsubdued,
    I saw that Old succumbed to Young:
    ‘Twas well. My too regretful mood
    Died on my tongue.

  10. Place is somewhere on the planet you associate yourself with or wonder about till you have been there.Some places remain etched in your memory and will get slowly erased if you went back after several years and change transforms it to something you cannot connect with as you had known.Some places change slowly and you still like them,while some others scare you with assault of modernity or decadence.I think one should look at the planet from above like a satellite and see if changes are severe.Imagine the changes that happened over these billions of years and how the planet from a flaming,frothing,steaming lump cooled and became what we enjoy and want to preserve.No more changes I want this place to be the lovely blue planet as it became.

  11. Worth a look | placeofsafety - pingback on April 22, 2012 at 8:07 am
  12. Today I was bored and decided to teach myself algebra and geometry. It all starts with some definitions. A ‘point’ is an ‘undefined term’, I found. A ‘point’ is a REFERENCE, that’s all. It’s about ‘a PLACE’, a ‘position’, says the book. It has no dimensions, and can’t be defined any further with the words we have. That’s why it’s ‘undefined’, we can know nothing else about it, at least not now. It’s NOT about the ‘point’ or the PLACE, it’s about US: we can’t extend our ‘knowledge’ any further, at least now, about what is a ‘point’. Or a PLACE.

    I started thinking: A PLACE implies physicality; a ‘position’,too, implies physicality, but it is in ‘reference’ to something. It CAN move, except that it (the position itself) will cease to exist if it moves. A PLACE, though, implies immovability because it is a location, and locations don’t move: ‘You left a hole in the PLACE where my heart was.’ The PLACE is still there, the ‘object’, heart, is not.

    As the Buddhist say, we think of ourselves ‘as earth’, ‘as within earth’ as ‘separate from earth’. We can assume a position within the PLACE, but we remain immobile while we are ‘in it’.

    Do we occupy a location on this planet? In nature? In this life? We are always ‘moving’ from one location to the other.

    Our bodies ARE PLACES too. What ‘position’ do we assume within it?

    PLACES are where ‘positions’ go to die, for we can’t hold still AT or in any place. When we die, we lose our ‘position’ in this place called life, for we ‘move’ and leave an empty ‘place’ in it.

    But, in the end, a PLACE is what we THINK of it: it is ‘us’, we are part of it, or we are outside of it.

    Wow. I NEVER thought I could be so BORING. Sorry, people.

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