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  • “Head Out On The Highway”: Anthropological Encounters with the Supermodern
  • Samuel Collins
Marc Auge’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. New York: Verso, 1995.

Does it matter that we spend substantial portions of our lives in a netherworld of highways, airports, supermarkets and shopping malls? Are these just liminal moments between other events and places that have more meaning to us, or do these sites warrant some attention in their own right? Marc Auge’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity elevates the ATM machine, the airport lounge and the superhighway to the status of high theory through a discussion of the interrelationship (and dissociation) of space, culture, and identity. Along the way, Auge takes anthropology beyond its sometimes theoretically moribund fascination with the borders between tradition and alterity, pre-modern and modern, and authenticity and commodification. Instead, non-place is the very nexus of raw and undistilled advanced capitalism, space shorn of all its cultural and social polysemy. But this does not mean that anthropology and ethnography in general are doomed to increasing irrelevance as some have forecast. In fact, Auge’s book is not about the dissolution of the anthropological object under the dubious sign of “crisis.” Rather, Auge locates non-place in a tradition of anthropological place and suggests that our understanding of the social relations and practices evident in more traditional anthropological places may help us to understand the different constellations of self and Other evident in non-place.

Until quite recently, most anthropologists were inclined to view the encroachment of the modern (and the many modernisms that it implies) on the people they studied with considerable ambivalence, either with dyspeptic and patronizing elegiacs (“They’re losing their culture”) or with a sort of master-cynic’s irony (“They’re watching Star Trek in Bangkok!). Of course, with the violent displacements, forced migrations and military maneuvers common to late-twentieth century life, these ambivalences are probably quite warranted. However, both approaches ignore modernity as meaningful social practice in the lives of people around the world, whether we mean the entrance of small societies into the wage nexus or the proliferation of commodified media forms in far-flung places. With the exception of the often-ignored work of urban anthropologists, “culture” has usually delineated small, bounded, isolated, and “authentic” societies. In anthropology, ideas of culture have always traveled from the exotic periphery to the metropole. Like English gentry returning from a stint with the East India Company, anthropologists and their theories accrued both power and prestige in the colonies. The modern functioned only as a diluvial benchmark for the loss of the “real,” the fall from the allochronic “cultural” spaces of the exotic Orient to the “non-cultural” rational present of the Occident.

With the advent of several major critiques of anthropology’s guilty past, most notably Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter and Johannes Fabian’s Time and the Other, anthropologists began their long journey towards redressing their fear of the modern with an innovative series of Baudelairean meditations on the dialectics of modernity and tradition, urban and rural, simple and complex. From Anna Tsing’s In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (1993) to Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), many ethnographies in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s explored the interstices between the pre-modern “exotic” and the modern quotidian, focusing on the interpolations of Western forms into “native” places (and vice versa).

As innovative and catalyzing as many of these ethnographies are, however, there is a pungent whiff of recidivism about them. As innovative and catalyzing as many of these ethnographies are, however, there’s a pungent whif of recidivision about them, as if the phrase “authentic primitive” has been crossed out only to be replaced by “subaltern peasantry”? These days, it seems, ethnographies are fairly redolent with the image of the plucky subaltern, stubbornly appropriating the reifying and alienating discourses and institutions of the colonial for their own more native, egalitarian, and sometimes utopian ends. Haven’t the ontological foundations for cultural theory in anthropology simply shifted from exotic authenticity to exotic resistance? In any case, the modern is reduced...

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