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I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this guy Edward Relph, but in the realm of obscure and underappreciated theorists, he’s kind of a big deal. In his perpetual awesomeness he outlined what I would argue (with my limited knowledge of the subject) are the best, most concise, and most inclusive definitions of place and its boundary with placelessness. (I know this sounds ridiculous when said aloud, but that’s why I always read in my head.)
To get you up to speed on why he’s such a big deal, here is a wholly inadequate, obliquely-cut excerpt:
“Genius loci cannot be designed to order. It has to evolve, to be allowed to happen, to grow and change from the direct efforts of those who live and work in places and care about them…No matter how sophisticated technical knowledge may be, the understanding of others’ lives and problems will always be partial. Just as outsiders cannot feel their pain, so they cannot experience their sense of place. I believe, therefore, that it is impossible to make complete places in which other people can live. And, in a world dominated by international economic processes and global telecommunications, there can be no return to an environment of integrated and distinctive places.”
The book drones on for a few hundred pages before we get to the best part, the definition of “existential insideness,” which I’ll allow the kind people at www.chacha.com to define:
“The strongest sense of place experience is what Relph calls existential insideness—a situation of deep, unself-conscious immersion in place and the experience most people know when they are at home in their own community and region.”
By now I bet you’re wondering who cares. Well, now for the real reason I’m writing this post: after reading Relph’s discussion of experience, memory, and phenomenology, I felt both empowered and hollow. With my new understanding of what contributed to “placeness,” I wanted to go out into the world and find my own place of existential insideness. I found myself examining sights, sounds, and smells as invisible monuments, markers of locations I might inhabit as a true insider.
Then one day I came across a documentary (I think it was on the BBC) that introduced Erica Eiffel, a woman who’d truly found her place of existential insideness. Though I can’t say I envy her.
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