by Cora Hermary
“There is no there there”, Gertrude Stein famously wrote of her inability to identify familiar places in the place once familiar to her. As gentrification erodes human places of architecture and community, ecocide destroys more-than-human places of wilderness and natural environment, and digitization obscures our sense of place, we may struggle to feel at home at home. Stein’s statement prompts us to wonder: what does it mean for there to be a “there there” at all?
How is the “thereness” of a place created, and how does it relate to our own “thereness”? How does our sense of place relate to our sense of presence? How are our relationships to places like our relationships to people? And can the digital world (the world you’re in now) afford us any sense of place?
In every moment we are present, we are present in a place. In our scientifically-oriented world, we often view the dimensions of our lives in terms of space and time—terms rooted in the physics of relativity. To riff on the language of cosmologist Max Tegmark, we might say that the vocabulary of space and time allows us an “outside view” of the dimensionality of the objective universe, but eclipses the “inside view” of the dimensionality of our subjective worlds. By introducing the concepts of place and presence, we can better articulate how space and time manifest in our subjective worlds and begin to explore these inner dimensions of ourselves.
Where the outer world has space and time, there our inner worlds create place and presence. Just as space and time are physically coupled as spacetime, temporality and spatiality are psychologically coupled in our perception. Neurological research indicates that, in the human brain, the hippocampus is responsible for both episodic memory and spatial navigation. Referring to our ability to remember our experiences as experiences, episodic memory connects us to previous experiences in time, while spatial memory connects us to previous navigations of space.
Thus is our sense of place intricately, exquisitely interwoven with our sense of presence; and not just our sense of our own presence, but our sense of the presence of others as well. The theory of place attachment in environmental psychology holds that we have attachment relationships to places just as we do to people. It has intellectual precedents in attachment theory, which holds that when we as children develop a “secure” attachment to a caregiver, our feelings of security in their presence stimulate exploratory behaviours; likewise, place attachment theory holds that when we are securely attached to a place, such as home, we feel safe within it and free to explore around it. In this way, we psychologically endow places with the protection of a caring guardian, thereby assuring ourselves of the safety to wander within them.
Place attachment has primordial origins in ancient Roman religion, when places were thought to each have a genius loci, a protective spirit (genius) over that place (loci); various mythological deities were revered and paid homage to as the geniuses of designated loci. Since then, its definition has evolved to encompass a more secular notion of the “spirit of a place”. Perhaps you’ve encountered such spirits in Vancouver when walking through Pacific Spirit Park, or along the seawall, surrounded by vivid land- and sea-scapes of mountain and ocean; or perhaps when confronting the history and gentrification of your local neighbourhood, or when passing by the Jimi Hendrix shrine in Strathcona (did you know he was a part-time Vancouverite?), a now-shuttered monument to his “old haunt”—which phrase, relatedly, refers to places repeatedly visited in the past, and connotes, through the supernatural suggestion of the word “haunt”, the spiritual aura of place. The etymology of “haunt” relates it to habituality, inhabitation, and dwelling (in its dual senses as a noun and a verb)—activities more normal than paranormal. To “haunt” a place is for it to become a home for our presence, a place for our spirit to dwell and to mingle with the other spirits of that place.
Our otherworldly language around place attachment evinces its mysteriousness. With reference to the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, environmental psychologist Maria Lewicka suggests that one key to demystifying our understanding of place attachment may be the field of phenomenology, which refers to the philosophical study of the underlying fabric of consciousness. For the phenomenologist, to be embodied is to be embedded in the world; as a preeminent phenomenologist, Merleau-Ponty articulated how our existences extend beyond the flesh of the body, and highlighted the intrinsic reciprocality of perception: when we touch the world, we leave our imprint on it, and the world, touching us back, leaves its imprint on us. It seems that, just as we become attached to places, they become attached to us. It may be this two-way attachment between a place and ourselves that allows us to experience the “thereness” of a “there”, a sense not only of our memories of a place, but of its memories of us.
As we live our lives, we leave behind traces that live on beyond ourselves and acquire a life of their own. Places familiar and unfamiliar can be sites of sublime contact with ourselves and others, such that even in the absence of life, we can still make subjective acquaintance with the presence of those who are no longer present: in the ethereal vitality of a ghost town, an abandoned building, an old graveyard or shrine. This hints, too, that even when we ourselves are gone, our presences will still be felt in the places we dwelt. For example, last year I moved into a house which had been a family’s home for over 20 years; as it hadn’t been redone, there were signs everywhere of their prior presence: marks on the walls documenting the growing heights of the children, scars on the floor and walls from chafing here and there, trifles lost and never recovered from cracks in the flooring. It took more than a month for me to feel that I had found a place there, and even then, I still felt I was sharing it with this bygone family.
However subjective, these felt presences can be integral to our intergenerational consciousness, granting us rare opportunities to connect with generations before us. A friend of mine recounted a recent encounter she had with her late grandmother when she paid respect to her crematory remains in a columbarium, a public place for storing funerary urns and for honouring those who rest there. She felt as if this were the one place where she could still speak to her, so to speak, beyond the grave; the placehood of the columbarium, rich with ritualism, uniquely afforded this solemn communion with her dear relative that she could not find anywhere else.
This unique affordance of the columbarium can prompt us to reflect on the connections that certain places afford, including connections with ourselves. Where else can, and do, we connect with others? In our increasingly online world, we find many places for connection with others relegated to virtual realms. But to what extent can the internet be considered a place? The digital world collects the events of every place into one: does this make it a place sui generis? Or, to invoke anthropologist Marc Augé, is it a “non-place”, a place where there can never be a “there there”?
Whatever the answer, it will be abundant with ramifications for today’s “digital natives”, a term invented in the early 2000s to refer to younger generations like myself who have grown up with the internet. This designation alone implies that people can be “native” to the digital world in the same way that someone can be native to a place, subtly equating the digital and physical worlds in their placeness. But regardless of whether the internet is a place or not, it is a place hitherto uninhabited by humankind, exclusive to recent generations. Even older generations grapple with this historical anomaly; indeed, the intergenerational discrepancy in digital literacy is one of many generational gaps. Fortunately, it may be one of the easier ones to solve: while the internet has only been culturally available since roughly the birth of the Millennial generation, research indicates that the foremost factor in the development of digital literacy is digital immersion, and our accelerating digitization could mean that the bridging of this generational gap is not as remote as it might seem.
As digitization advances, our digital world expands. While computers can simulate the auditory and the visual, they lack the overt spatiality of physical space that it seems spatial and episodic memory, as well as place attachment, all rely on. But virtual and augmented reality may be changing our sense of what the digital world can actually be. Is it possible that in these spatialized virtual spaces we might find virtual places too?
The reciprocal entwinement of place and presence provides a clue that virtual and augmented realities may not be substitutes for reality, but rather supplements to it. Although virtual reality might allow us to develop relationships to virtual spaces, our incapacity to fully embody ourselves in these spaces means that they can neither contain nor retain our presences in the way that real-world places do. It seems to me that our virtual spaces can neither nurture nor nourish us, precisely because they are an escape from the real places that can and do. Through the virtual spaces we create, we permit ourselves to be only in part, so that we might indulge the fantasy that we can be something other than what we are and avoid reckoning with the imperfection that constitutes the human condition, imperfection wherein resides our fleshiness, our mortality, and our needs—the needs that our attachments generously fulfill.
It is perhaps because we have as yet failed to create an enduring sense of reality within the virtual that virtual reality remains the perpetual object of such extensive and expensive research. Yet even as we immerse ourselves more into the digital world, our fundamental needs remain the same. As older generations find it more necessary to cross the digital generational gap, younger generations may therefore find it more prudent to cross the other way as well—back to the spacetime of the physical, where there is, indeed, a “there there”. Just look around you: you’re already there.
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Cora Hermary is a VACS 2021 intern for Project Terakoya. Cora graduated from UBC in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Systems (Philosophy), an interdisciplinary field blending philosophy with linguistics, psychology, and computer science. When she is not busy working for VACS, she spends her free time reading literature, writing poetry, playing music, coming up with stories, and exploring worlds of thought.