Can Urban ‘Non-Places’ be Meditative Alternatives to Nature?

Isabelle argues how the unreal surrealism of urban ‘non-places’ can be even more successful than nature in conveying a sense of self and purpose

The amplified footsteps and blankly blinking lights as one crosses an underpass; ‘noclipping’ through office mazes in virtual ‘Backrooms’; the walk back home, beside a deserted road, from a late-night study-sesh at the library.

Such places and experiences, riddled with a vague and uncanny sense of emptiness in the idea that they should be more occupied, fit under the popularly termed ‘liminal spaces’. French anthropologist Marc Auge developed his own theory of liminal spaces: “non-places”, ‘places’ which he felt have “neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude.” 

We can see this definition of non-places fit in with other structures like malls and train stations: the mall, although built to accommodate a mass of people, serves its primary function for shopping and consumerism; the train station, although likewise built to accommodate a mass of people, serves its primary function as an intermediate segue for travel and commute. The flashing of advertisements and sales, the heavy rush of a train, are almost deceiving: for when they fade, one is left in a blank(ly inspiring) non-place hallmarked by an air of consumption and transition, while being more devoid of communal, ceremonial, and sentimental purposes (at least compared with, say, a church or an apartment building).

A somewhat inspiringly melancholy and vacant train station; such train stations, particularly when vacant and gray as in this image, evoke a sense of unreality which can spur introspective reflections. Image: Isabelle Holloway.

Today, such liminal spaces are even more pronounced with the poly-perspectifying aspect of the ‘Information Age’ brought about by the ‘Internet’: for instance, various subcultures and music genres from the past, as in grunge or medieval european music, are able to be more easily recovered and recycled today. This arguably limits the degree of influence and recognition a certain decade now can bring in its retrospection, even if with every socio-cultural retrieval a slightly new influence may be brought to it (look no further than for “Medieval Music – ‘Hardcore’ Party Mix” on Youtube for such an example).

Whether the development of “generational fragments of non-time”, as English writer Mark Fisher puts such recyclings of the past brought about by the Internet, is a more positive or negative matter, is debatable. What is relevant here, however, is the fact that, certainly, having more access to information, and to the past more generally, as in a recipe for 17th century English ‘clowted’ cream or a makeup tutorial for Viking makeup, creates a more surreal age in the 21st century which almost seem to exist outside of time.

This added surrealness and unreality of today’s technological world is why we might begin to increasingly consider urban environments, with their non-spaces, as meditative, even with the undeniably soothing character of Nature’s cyclical and sensory-engaging omnipotence. 

Although, like many, nature still feels like the most peaceful environment for any kind of meditative practice, I still feel optimistic about the technologically surreal development taking ‘place’ in our era: with roughly half of the population currently living in urban areas at a rate of 55%, projected to reach 68% by 2050 according to United Nations, finding feasible, day-to-day moments to reflect will need to be found beyond just the tibetan-monk-thinking-on-a-hillside, or, in, maybe relevantly, sitting perched on a rock by the North Sea, and into more urban settings.

Thus, as much as I aspire to move to Alaska, change my name, get a pet moose, and harvest my own bark or something, living self-sustainably off the grid is actually not the most environmentally sustainable solution if everyone were to live in such a way: in fact, living collectively in an urban environment conserves more energy and resources. Therefore, finding more realistically attainable and common sources of ‘grounding’ through urban environments is, I think, a worthy meditative alternative to nature.

An illuminated gas station creates a striking contrast with the night; one cannot help but to feel that the surrounding darkness and blatant isolation of oneself establishes a sort of outer-space, simulatory experience when, implicitly, filling the gas tank of a car. Image: Unsplash.

So, what specifically can one think about when in such an urban non-place? Well, I suppose your own existence is a good place to start – though you should probably take care not to become so hyper-aware of your own existence that you literally dissociate into a psychosis and start, say, attempting to fly like one of those barking seagulls above the ocean (one can dream, I guess…)

Like in a mirror, we can gaze (not for too long…) at ourselves as we stand isolated in an ‘unreal’ place – hyperaware, perhaps, of the bag of crisps flitting along the road, or of the distant ‘vroom’ of a car (maybe they seem poor substitutions for the more lifeful beetle flitting along reeds, or of the distant roar of a river, but, unlike the details we experience in nature, there is, again, that surreal element rendered in certain man-made constructions). In this, we can more easily consider our place in the world in a place that seems as if it literally is out of this world, by asking questions like “How can I be more courageous?” or repeating affirmations like “I am grateful”.

I think then we can discover how to live the most fulfilling life – whether that involves leading a community effort and going clubbing, or adopting some cats and reading a book, finding ways to better the world within our own capacities is what I feel, ultimately, can be encouraged in urban non-places.





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