What Is Place?

What Is Place? September 4, 2017

“What is a place?” asks Massimo Cacciari in his contribution to The Intelligence of Place. To answer, he turns to Aristotle, who claimed that “all suppose that things which exist are somewhere.”

Fair enough, but what does that mean? Aristotle has some difficulty: “Entities are characterized by their ‘residing’ in a topos. But to know the nature of topos . . . is a matter of greatest difficulty, a search ‘beset with aporias‘” (14).

How so? Place seems to “have extension,” yet it’s neither material nor bodily. It’s not form either, “since it is evident that bodies do not have their form by virtue of the places where they are located.”

Perhaps place is like a container, and bodies are the things contained in it. That doesn’t work, though, since “bodies do not ‘bump into’ their place like objects in a vessel. Container and contained are in fact different in nature, which does not at all seem to be the case for the relation between thing and place” (14).

We can’t say that place is the “interval” between the contained body and the edge of the container, because “this interval either does not exist at all or it is continuously ‘exceeded’ by the movement of the thing” (14). I walk from my back deck to my back yard: What’s happened to the “interval” between my body and the place-container that is supposed to contain it?

Cacciari says that this leaves “but one possible way” to understand place: “it is the limit (peras) of the container insofar as it touches the contained im-mediately . . . . Place,  that is to say, is the extremities themselves, in im-mediate contact, ta eschata” (14).

What might this mean? Each thing has its limit and is “contained” within it, but the thing moves and so this limit “touches upon other entities.” The only “container” that contains my body is the limit of another body. Place is “the point or the line where [the extreme limit of the entity] enters into contact with what is other to it, where it ‘offers itself’ complete to its contact with the other” (15). Topos, he argues is the name for the point where my body, crossing from the back deck to the hard, runs into a tree.

One consequence: “it is impossible to define place without referring to body; no topos exists ‘uninhabited,’ because its concept entails the eschaton of the entity that persists with it. As a result, topos is not to be conceived as a uniform, equivalent, and empty extension; it should never be confused with the idea of a prior space” (14-15).

Another consequence: Place, as limit, is also place as limen, place as threshold, as relation and contact. Place is the “shared end . . . with what is other to it.” It’s “where the thing ‘becomes’ contact and relation.” Place is “the line that contains” the thing but also “at once, in containing, also sets it in relation” (15).

It’s a clever deconstruction of borders: Fences make neighbors because fences connect us with what’s on the other side, even as they separated us. Italian radical that he is, Cacciari doesn’t hesitate to draw the political consequences: “It a place closed off its own threshold, walls up its confinium, and therefore did not know how to recognize in the other the con-finis – that which in limiting is related, the ad-finis – the place would no longer be a place. Eliminating the limit-contact eliminates the place” (16).

Build that wall to protect our local place, and we do away with the place itself. “Confining” things within a container eliminates the co-finis, the shared end, of those on the other side of the boundary.

But Cacciari recognizes that the reasoning cuts in the other direction too. Globalism and nationalism, he claims, draw on the same ontology of place: “This place . . . which closes within itself the entities that constitute it and whose entities do not know how to manifest themselves at their limit, is completely identical with the idea of an indifferent a priori (not communis) space. Both represent, in other words, the cancellation of the limit. The idolatries of the local are on the one hand the product, and on the other, the natural partners of abstract ‘globalization'” (17).

He wants Europe to be rethought and reshaped according to limit. This means, he argues, rejecting both globalization’s homogenization of space and nationalism’s mirror-image attempt to confine without a co-finer. It’s not at all clear what this would look like in practice, other than the fact that it will involve Europe’s opening to the south and east rather than to the West.

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