Two months ago I left london behind and moved to the harbour city of rotterdam. Waiting to take the room of my brother’s housemate, I decided to settle in a place down his road. When firstly visiting the place for a view, everything went quickly and efficiently. The landlady, a black middle-aged woman, provided me the necessary financial details and spent some time informing me how she kicked out the previous tenant for misbehavior, probably assuming that my young age was an indicator of similar trouble and rebellion. The caution was clear: behave or else! Within five minutes I decided to take the room, not because she was so persuasive (she wasn’t) but because the idea was that this arrangement would be temporary (3 months), so where I lived didn’t really matter. The next day the contract was signed, deposit and rent were paid, cash. Just like that I found a new place that I now share with three other people. One is a young french woman working at mcdonald’s. She moved here because of her partner and turned to the multinational fast food chain for work because no other jobs were available for her. She absolutely hates her work and fantasizes about quitting. The other is a young male student from the Dominican Republic who moved to the netherlands because his mother married a dutch man. The third housemate is a family member of the landlady. I do not know anything about him except that he makes sure that all rules and regulations are abided by all tenants. He is a tall, thin black man that has an obsession with hygiene, cleaning, order and security. One bread crumb, a single hair, one trace of a footprint and he will knock on your door or write an angry note to tell you off. That is him taking matters “lightly.” He is also not afraid of contacting the landlady to inform her of any perceived trespass committed.

This obsession with order and security is not particular to him alone. In fact, while he is certainly a potent agent in reproducing a strict and rigid order, his behavior is also symptomatic of the place that we inhabit. For instance, on the kitchen door a note informs all tenants that everything must remain spotless straight after using any common spaces and appliances. The washing machine also has a notice warning us that we can only use it between 12am and 6am during weekdays and all day on weekends—because it’s cheaper (yes, rent includes bills). The kitchen cupboard stores sparkling white dishes with as decoration the words “dinner plate”,  “breakfast plate”, “soup bowl” and “bowl” engraved according to the shape of the dish. Leaving the kitchen counter clean and spotless is also of high priority. When I once left a bag of fresh fruit and vegetables on the counter due to lack of space this was immediately removed and shoved in “my” shelve. It was clear that any trace of humanity, any sign of life must be ever effaced so as to maintain domestic order because, really, who knows what anarchy can be unleashed when a piece of fruit is allowed to dangle on the kitchen counter?

Basically, much like the omnipresence of security cameras and police forces cruising Orientalized immigrant neighborhoods and hyper-consumerist spaces here in Rotterdam, one is made to feel that your every move is constantly surveiled and controlled by norms, regulations, the gaze of the ‘other’, internal and external security, and lastly by the looming threat of getting kicked out. Tenants, like urban dwellers, are made to feel powerless, tense, paranoid and afraid. The existence of iron locks to secure each bedroom, akin to gated communities, are then also unsurprising. No one is your friend, everyone is a potential threat: keep away and stay vigilant. It’s the symbolic manifestation of pervasive urban anxiety, insecurity, socio-economic inequality, solitude and anonymity that is creeping into those spaces that are supposed to provide us refuge from the wild ‘public’. In this place, the absence of a living room as facilitator of socialization and casual interaction–not too different from today’s privatization of public spaces and the decreasing number of public parks, squares, playgrounds and libraries–reinforces the dominant order of individualist, consumerist and post-identitarian lifestyles. They deter the forging of possible alliances among tenants to join forces against powerful landlords and landladies, allowing instead that the ‘normal’ order of things is simply accepted and thereby reproduced. In this space of anonymity and individualism tenants become easily disposable bodies that come and go while powerful landowners accumulate wealth and set all the rules that we have to abide by.

Just yesterday we received a notification with “new rules” which imposes on all tenants a strict cleaning schedule including weekly inspections. If the space that we inhabit was already not made to feel as “ours”, it certainly is not now.

Living here I am reminded of a conversation I had with someone about anthropologist Marc Auge. He developed the concept of “non-lieux” (non-places) to refer to those spaces in which “no lasting social relations are established” and where there is a “total absence of symbolic ties, and evident social deficits.” According to Auge, if ‘places’ are defined as ‘identitarian’, ‘relational’, and ‘historical’, then a space that cannot be defined as identitarian, relational or historical, is what will define a ‘non-place’. As examples he cites spaces of ‘transit’ that people do not inhabit but through which they temporarily navigate like waiting rooms, airports, public transportation, large hotel chains, supermarkets and highway stops. They generally render the bodies that assemble and meet in these spaces anonymous and alien to one another. While Auge conceptualized place/non-place according to these parametres, he admits that the meaning we confer to ‘places’ and ‘non-places’ are also subjective and vulnerable to change by the very fluidity that brought them about. If we think of the bridges in Paris for example,  we notice that they are certainly transitive spaces and devoid of symbolic or relational ties (depending on the novelty and geography of the bridge) as people travel over them daily. In recent years however, they have been attributed new meanings as people spontaneously adorn fences of bridges with colourful chains, locks, scribbled messages and love notes. These are manifestations of human presence, not of corporations. They are expressions of love and solidarity, not sentiments of neoliberal egocentric narcissism. Bridges have also become, particularly in times of warm weather and austerity, the places where young people spend their weekends drinking, playing music and having fun with friends. Curiously, they also facilitate interactions with strangers, which can lead to unexplored territory. Non-places can thus also become sites of novelty, adventure, (sexual/prohibited?) pleasure and social improvisation. Unlike pubs, more traditionally defined as ‘places’, bridges are more publicly accessible spaces and can offer the possibility of a non-consumerist and unscripted social scene that allows for the relaxation of oppressive social norms and, perhaps more intriguingly, contact and relations across class, gender, sexual, cultural, ethnic, and racialized divides. So if non-places are ‘objectively’ created as spaces of anonymity and transition devoid of symbolic meaning and identity, they can also make room for the new, the stuff that remains undiscovered, possibly in a utopian post-capitalist fashion.

But if Marc Auge sees non-places as those spaces we do not inhabit, I wonder whether the architecture of those spaces meant to provide inhabitance, indeed so-called ‘places’ like apartments or houses, are also changing in their configurations to meet, or reflect, the globalized reality of travel and migration, home and diaspora, fixity and hybridity–or in fact, situations of temporality like mine. In many ways I reside in a non-place but possibly don’t inhabit one. The space of anonymity makes social relations and symbolisms absent despite human presence. It is a space that creates everyday anxieties exactly because of the very anonymity that births the idea of possible encounters with unkown others. If the space marks identity in an any way, it is perhaps solely in the way that it successfully captures the life of ‘non-placeness’ that probably all got us here to begin with.

If non-places like the metro directly confronts us with the banality, alienation and hollowness of urban existence, then the non-place where I live is no different. Like the metro where distance, silence and imagined invisibility are the norm, in the same space that I inhabit the similar practices pervade. In a space of anonymity, it conditions how we relate to each other while also marking our psyches and influencing how we feel about ourselves, thereby simultaneously affecting our relations with the world outside this space. If we get the chance to talk it remains brief and any conversation is bound to be superficial. There is almost a calculated and mutual understanding that these conversations must remain on the surface because establishing anything beyond it is not only a breach of convention, but almost like an unworthy investment of time and energy. The spatial configuration of our non-place, as devoid of identity, relation and symbols, then enforces the absence of social recognition of the self by the other and in turn creates an empty void that evokes sentiments of solitude and possible depression. The fight against this established order has been minimal although certainly present. The french woman for example has repeatedly tried to bring liveliness into the place by baking pancakes or buying sweets and leaving them on the counter together with a charming note inviting us all to freely take some. She even bought a little plant to balance out the angry notes that usually hang on the entrance wall. While her improvised efforts succeeded in establishing a symbolic footprint of social existence into an otherwise anonymous space, they failed to establish those very necessary social relations that keep us afloat.

At the same, it appears that this non-place is us, or rather a reflection of us. It is me because I arrived here with two bags of luggage: my belongings since I left holland 12 years ago when the meanings of ‘home’ and ‘identity’ changed forever and would never remain stable signifiers again. It is me because I have been stripped of those dominant identity markers that keep us rooted and stable; feeling neither dutch nor Ecuadorian, performing neither normative masculinity nor femininity, embodying neither hetero nor homo normative norms, not religious nor devout atheist, not white, but also not brown or black, neither bourgeois nor working class, neither student nor  professional. While (symbolic and material) markers of difference certainly have conditioned me, have shaped me deeply and continue to do so, my distance and alienness from (most of) these markers disallows me to truly engage with and relate to those that do strongly identify with them (and vice-versa). If then, I am devoid of fixed identity/identities, I am also devoid of a linear history because I am ever-changing. If I find it difficult to recognize the conscious self that I was even two years ago, despite tangible and intangible memories reminding me of a life lived in the past, then this causes ruptures with my understood ‘self’ across time and space and troubles those social relations that I have established in the past, but also the present. Consequently, if I am alien to both my past and present self, others become alien to me as well, and vice-versa. I am then the embodiment of the global forces that make and shape a non-place: not identitarian, historical or relational.

Yet at the same time, in many ways I am no different to my housemates whom I do not know: dislocated strangers navigating through a gruesome dutch landscape of whiteness, assembled here in anonymity, all longing for a Home that, at best, can only exist in our imagination. I wonder then if non-placeness is becoming a condition of our time, to embody and to perform, that keeps us in a constant struggle to find Home and make Home but never arriving at its fullest splendor. As we struggle and improvise new possibilities of the Home, however exciting and innovating that can be, feelings of solitude and alienation pervasively remain

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