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  • Nonplaces:An Anecdoted Topography of Contemporary French Theory
  • Bruno Bosteels (bio)

In its juridical sense, a non-lieu is a judgment that suspends, annuls, or withdraws a case without bringing it to trial. It is thus a judgment that announces or enunciates that there will be no judgment as to guilt or innocence, a finding that there is no place to judge. It therefore renders justice by refusing to render it under the law, which it does when it pronounces or enunciates the non-lieu.

—Peggy Kamuf, "Béance"1

Inside the Spatial Turn

If modernity will always be remembered as an era dominated by questions of time and history, then perhaps the steady waning of modern ideals invites us to think of the entry into something called the postmodern as a passage dominated by questions of space and geography. As Michel Foucault once famously observed in a 1967 conference paper, first published two decades ago: "Perhaps we might say that some of the ideological conflicts that animate today's polemics oppose the pious descendants of time and the willful inhabitants of space" ["Of Other Spaces" 22]. This conflict over time and space presupposes a much larger argument that is not only historical but also methodological in nature. What is at stake is both a question of the passage, or transition, from modernity to postmodernity, if that is indeed what we decide to name modernity's aftermath, and a question of the theoretical consequences that follow from giving precedence to space over time in treating this very transition. With regard to this second question, too, Foucault's work stands as exemplary insofar as he was able to show the degree to which a vital emphasis on space, geography, and territoriality [End Page 117] forces us to take leave of the modern paradigm of consciousness—typically associated with the category of time and its unfolding in the mind or spirit—in favor of a situated understanding of knowledge, subjectivity, and power. "Metaphorizing the transformations of discourse in a vocabulary of time necessarily leads to the utilisation of the model of individual consciousness with its intrinsic temporality," Foucault observes in an interview with the editors of the French journal of geography Hérodote, and he continues: "Endeavouring on the other hand to decipher discourse through the use of spatial, strategic metaphors enables one to grasp precisely the points at which discourses are transformed in, through and on the basis of relations of power" ["Questions on Geography" 69–70]. Whether real or metaphorical, a willful displacement of our categorial apparatus from time to space thus might enable one to avoid the idealist temptation inherent in a strictly discursive or textual model, by inscribing all discourses and practices in the geopolitics of power relations.

My aim in the following pages is not to go over the much-discussed shift from time to space once more, even as I take advantage of several of its methodological principles along the way. Instead, I want to map out a momentous change of perspective that has been taking place over the past few decades within the parameters of the so-called spatial turn itself. In fact, if and when modernity is coming to an end, both in the sense of completing itself and of revealing its character as a finite historical entity, not only does whatever shape critical thought takes in the face of this turnabout need to be securely fastened onto specific places and spaces but, if we are to believe a growing number of authors, particularly but by no means exclusively in France, the study of art, literature, politics, philosophy, and even anthropology would also require a thorough consideration of so-called "nonplaces" as a rigorous category for critical thinking today [for a brief discussion of the use of "nonplace" in Anglo-American anthropology, including Melvin M. Webber's notion of "nonplace urban realm" from the mid-1960s, see Weiner]. In the end, these proponents of the nonplace confront us with one disarmingly simple question: how can critical thinking in the present time respond to the task of having to work through whatever lies outside of the order that is actually in place?

The Exhaustion of...