Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity

By politicalmediareview
August 12th, 2009

Augé, Marc. Trans. by John Howe. 
Verso (2008)
Reviewed by  Eric M. Buck, Ph.D.
Reprinted with Permission from Transformative Studies Institute 



First a comment on the title and some terms.  It is unfortunate that John Howe’s English title elides the term “anthropologie.” This small work, in three dense chapters, a prologue and matching epilogue, and a new (2008) introduction, constitutes not only a primer on the contemporary conditions under which radical and transformative action occurs, but also a view on recent anthropology debates over method, object, and its future. The conclusions about supermodernity are drawn within Augé’s position on the disciplinary debates.

Howe brings “surmodernité” into English as “supermodernity.”  I have also seen “hypermodernity” used to label the global culture to which this refers.  In any case, the reader is to understand this term only in relation to pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity. Though they are contemporaneous in reference, supermodernity differs from post-modernity.  Post-modernity is the “sensibility” of contemporary despair over the felt meaninglessness, the end of belief in progress (though this suspicion is not universal), and the loss of pre-modern notions of a hierarchically ordered cosmos (21). Post-modernity as dispositional sets up the observation point for seeing contemporary material conditions as “supermodernity” (30), the new human and global condition of “excess” or “overabundance” (24-5, 33, 88) of time or events (20-25), of space (25-29), and of identity or the “individualization of reference” (29, 30-32). Take the salient features of modern material reality, exaggerate them beyond the wildest dreams of the Futurists, and you have supermodernity. Post-modernity thus provides a perspective for undertaking an anthropology of contemporaneity. 

Given its disciplinary orientation the first chapter, “The Near and the Elsewhere”, requires a couple readings by non-anthropologists. Its structure is not obvious (though it is orderly in its discussion). Typical of so many French writers, Augé digresses briefly but frequently from his point without signaling his intent. But the persistent reader comes away with a useful view of mid-to-late twentieth century debates over anthropological and ethnological theory about method and object. Augé concludes that object takes priority over method, and on this basis he turns his attention to his own culture, supermodernity being the new, 21st century anthropological object. Method is not radically changed by this choice of object. It still differs in the same way from history as it always has: anthropology studies the present as this is lived by human beings, and always finds its object in a contemporary world. This means that the object of post-modern anthropology is still the “other”, but the contemporary other is found in the anthropologist’s own culture, not in an exotic one (15). In this change, the pre-modern and modern are not lost, however, but only buried under an ever-accumulating stock of raw materials (33). The “new objects … do not supersede the ones [the anthropologist] worked on earlier, but complicate them” (15). Object influences the procedures by which observation takes place, but method is always observational (16). As anthropological object, supermodernity provokes the possibility of “ethno-self-analysis”, a method Augé synthesizes partly from Freud (33). The participant-observer status of today’s anthropologists is only more ordinary, and accessed with less effort than was true for 19th and 20th century anthropologists. The newest object of 21st century anthropology is all around the researcher, who is still primarily western. The anthropologist no longer has to travel to and observe distant and exotic cultures. Her own will do. The elsewhere collapses onto the near.

In the second chapter, Augé circles around to a thematic of modern anthropology, namely that of place. What he calls “anthropological place” is the first point of connection between the previous generation of anthropologists and their objects, the indigenous peoples who bring place into being through their practices and then draw their identity and history (and their sense of time) from that place (35ff).  So important to earlier ethnologists were the notions of landscape, cultural identity, “total social facts,” (40), that these came to define, perhaps too dogmatically, the very practice of anthropology, and eventually to blind older anthropologists to the possibility of taking contemporaneity as their object. 

The first purpose of this section is to suggest that a radical difference intrudes between pre-modern and modern senses of place on the one hand, and post-modern senses of place on the other.  Post-modern sensibility has to contend with a new form of spatiality, namely “non-place”.  The second point is to contend that even non-place is a “concrete and symbolic construction of space” (42). But except for the trivial fact that non-places are all terrestrial for now, non-place has no location, while place does. Place correlates with a people, a history, and boundaries.  Outside any anthropological place is the other, eternity, and chaos, the disordered (which is, from the theoretical standpoint of anthropological theory, merely the differently ordered). Augé has discovered and disclosed that for contemporary people, outside today’s places is not chaos, but instead non-place. Places still exist in France (and the developed west generally), but more and more only as historical sites that highways bypass and therefore as texts to be read by the traveler.

Anthropological place is living space—Augé, true to his plan, uses recently living but rather dormant French villages as a primary contrast with non-places (52). Anthropological place belongs to a people and constitutes that people’s center (and the body becomes a center by analogy 50).  As such it is ambiguous (45), and resists a researcher’s exhaustive analysis, but the people of the place return to it and commemorate it in its stability.  It is homeland, it is village church, it is town center. 

Anthropological places still exist today but are buried a level or two under the cumulative changes brought about by highways, high-speed railroads, intermodal nodes, and airports, as well as historical markers on the roadside, historical guided tours, living museums (Sturbridge, MA or Shakertown, KY), and heritage towns and villages (Colonial Williamsburg, VA).  Certainly the former phenomena tend to destroy place, history, and identity, and the latter to preserve it, but to the extent that these two categories distinguish our age, as Augé thinks they do, the pre-modern world of places has been lost. Just as the raspberry must be destroyed to make raspberry preserves, so the preservation of places (in the US it is called Historic Preservation and there are professional degrees available in the area) depends on their previous destruction by another aspect of the same culture that would save them.  But recovery is impossible. Ash does not become wood again. 

Whereas “premodernity” retained its past fully in ceremonies and by identifying with a place, and “modernity” backgrounds its past, making it a “bass line” (quoting Starobinski, 61-62), supermodernity makes the past a plurality of highly constricted nodes in a commercial and transportation network.  The past in supermodernity is no one’s past.  It does not offer a seat of identity to people or peoples.  Instead, the past is for consumption through tourism, souvenirs, and trivia game shows.  Supermodernity is a world in which all aspects of life have been professionalized (birth, death, eating), packaged (whether as product or service), and sold to the descendants of people who formerly conducted their lives in naturally meaningful cycles. Having had such meaning denied them, post-moderns conduct their lives as a frenetic search for meaning, and the experience of this frenetic motion over the surface of the globe (read: comfort while traveling) is the latest commodity to be sold to them. As an anthropologist of the contemporary, Augé is fond of the Espace 2000 airline seat, a sign of “cosseted luxury” (3, 97), and a typical piece of equipment for using non-places. We see these supermodern artifacts on planes, in trains, on buses, in highway rest areas, in chain restaurants and coffee shops, in airport gate areas, and around shopping malls. The language used to market this furniture and these tools to those who build non-places is wholly concerned with making the post-modern comfortable while being displaced continuously over thousands of miles and repeatedly over a lifetime. 

In the last chapter, we learn—in details which might be boringly familiar to the reader in the first decade of the 21st century—what non-place is and how it constitutes the bulk of human experiencing today. Augé untangles usefully the critical trope of homogenization, thereby making it more useful to social critics, and he develops a notion of identity apropos of the times. In the textual saturation of public places—signs, billboards, logos, banners, magazines, brochures, product labels, digital traffic announcements—visual experience is largely the same everywhere.  Architecture and art (as he describes them in the new introduction) are no different. Towns and cities everywhere employ internationally renowned designers to give them a building or a brand that will identify them as a member in full of the city-world (making them a world-city) and will establish them as a distinct people: difference as mass-market commodity. For individuals this has resulted in a paradoxical pursuit: individuality, innocence and solitude which must be proven over and over using public, guilty, and cacophonous means.  Identity cards are available for every institutional and political affiliation: state ID cards, library cards, credit cards, passports, workplace ID and parking tags—all of which provide monitors the ability to track individuals into their deepest solitude. As the post-modern flees from commodified place to commodified place along endless channels of non-place,

what he is confronted with, finally, is an image of himself, but in truth it is a pretty strange image. The only face to be seen, the only voice to be heard, in the silent dialogue he holds with the landscape-text addressed to him along with others, are his own: the face and voice of a solitude made all the more baffling by the fact that it echoes millions of others. The passenger through non-place retrieves his identity only at Customs, at the tollbooth, at the checkout counter. Meanwhile, he obeys the same code as others, receives the same messages, responds to the same entreaties. The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude. (83)

[I]n the world of supermodernity, people are always, and never, at home. (87)

For Augé supermodernity’s three forms of excess are most fully expressed in non-places (88), but he seems sanguine about the “tangle” (86) of place and non-place. 20th century politics has been in part the practice of keeping them separate (90-92), denying one or the other pole. As a result, even revolutionary movements have attempted either to erase all boundaries (a universal humanity) or alternately to over-emphasize national and cultural distinctives (Balkanization everywhere). By itself, non-place is primarily economic (93). But we are living out an age of highly complex spatiality. Augé looks to the tangle of spatial types because, as Simon Critchley has suggested in a book that would make a good pairing with Augé’s, the spaces for free action are the interstices, the between spaces, the gaps, the leftovers. In supermodernity, these would be the unobserved intervals between places marked for historical tourist consumption and municipal boosterism on the one hand, and non-places administered by governments, corporations, and various security forces on the other hand. This takes both spatial and practical forms: spaces not inhabited or used, actions not undertaken. This means, I think, that the critical and radical task falls to those who, in resistance to the non-placification of supermodernity, are still haunted by place (91). Anti-globalization activists traveling the globe through non-places come to mind.

What I found puzzling in the otherwise helpful, new introduction is a change in terminology. “Supermodernity” is nowhere to found; it’s as though Augé gave up on the term (and perhaps this influenced the subtitle’s translation). It appears nowhere in the new section. In its place he now speaks simply of “the contemporary world.” It is a bland phrase, and perhaps Augé felt that the debate over identifying the distinguishing features of the contemporary world were over, and that he no longer needed to assist in defining it. Moreover, the philosophical terminology concerning “universal’ and “territorial,” has been displaced by the fashionable “global and local” (xi), and even the ugly “glocal” (due, I think, both to the regrettable morbidity of structuralism and to the intrusion of the populist language of activism). “Non-place” has morphed into “empirical non-place” (vii, xxii). I couldn’t discover the reason for this, and it remained unmotivated.  Last, the introduction picks up where the prologue and epilogue left off, that is, with the impact of supermodernity on experience. For this Augé employs the terms “city-world” and “world-city” (xii). The reader should understand the former as supermodernity itself, and the latter as concentrations of non-place.

Given the rise of urbanism, and theories of planning, perhaps this last terminological change was calculated to make the book appeal to a discipline which is decidedly anti-theoretical. City planning students are on the fast track to participating in what Foucault callsed “governmentality,” that contemporary disposition to survey, enumerate, measure, and discipline. This governmentality takes form as “technicist and voluntarist urbanization” (54). Planning students will be the ones whose activities shape the world-city, who hire the starchitects to homogenize/globalize localities (xv-xxii).  They should read this book. 

Without terminological continuity from the original text and its associated theoretical apparatus, the introduction reads much more like a cultural studies essay than like an anthropological treatise. It is easier going, but more superficial for all that. It makes me wonder: has the anthropological age come to a close for now? Is the 21st century so post-modern (and thankfully post-colonial) that even the uber-modernist (and still colonial) discipline of anthropology has no place? I remember as a philosophy graduate student hearing anthropology graduate students bemoaning the closing of the philosophical anthropology curtain. Nor is there a really critical anthropology, and perhaps Augé’s will not be seen as such by the deeply committed activist. Auge takes no principled stand. But the anthropologist David Graeber is doing his best to recover anthropology’s potential as a social critical discipline, and before him, Harold Barclay had carried out anthropological studies of peoples lacking government. The trick, I think, to expanding the critical potentials of anthropology is to deploy the work of people like Marc Augé to clarify what is perhaps too familiar to us, but which, if we cannot understand it, will lull us into thinking that direct action and transformative cooperation are of no use.

One last point: the original text lays out the theoretical terrain more than adequately, and in doing so exemplifies an important and exploitable aspect of supermodernity: its thoroughgoing textuality. Citing here Michel de Certeau’s provocative ideas on reading and place, to read Augé’s text will turn a merely commodified textual space into a de- and re-constructive theoretical place. The ‘Text,’ in its contemporary guise is rarely a place, but rather a line of passage or a consumable product. To read is no longer to dwell (if I may resort to Heidegger’s trope concerning architecture). To read today is to pass through and move on.  Just as supermodern traveling displaces one and sets one moving through a landscape filled with texts, and just as contemporary life is more defined by texts and thus by non-places, so it is difficult, as a post-modern reader, to stay with a text. The vertiginous speed of movement and change, the multiplication of consumer products and experiences induces a terrible, debilitating disorientation. A post-modern’s despair will not be alleviated by this book. It will, at least, confirm the social critic’s experience.  To read Augé’s book is to be given a slightly nauseating look at one’s world, and one could just pass through the book as through a non-place.  But it can also provide an analytic tool; the critical potential of Non-Places is discerned by enacting it that way. One will see the conditions of supermodernity more clearly, which is more unnerving. In order to enact this book as a place, read it twice, read it with others, assign it to students.  The gaps for critical resistance appear when we act.


Harold Barclay.  People without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy.  Kahn and Averill, 1982.

Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life. U. California Press, 1984.

Simon Critchley. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance.  Verso, 2007.

David Graeber.  Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.  Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004.

Eric M. Buck is co-editor of book reviews for Theory in Action, former assistant professor of philosophy, Montana State University at Billings; e-mail: .

DOI: 103798/tia.1937-0237.09018

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