Into The Space Between Spaces, Non-Place and Terrorism

     Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull (Spielberg, 2008) has taken on a fame of its own as one of the most 'memeable' movies to have been made in this century. From the quasi-theological claim that the hunt for a totalised gnosis (γνῶσις - knowledge) is outside of human comprehension, with Cate Blanchett as the soviet officer frantically muttering 'I want to know' whilst combusting, to the Hollywood glitz and credence given to the 'Ancient Astronaut' thesis [1] - a number of moments in this film constitute no more than sheer self-satirising hilarity. No single sequence of this film, however, is more recalled than that when the alien-gods speed off into space within their flying saucer, and after being asked where they are headed by Jones, John Hurt’s character responds with the line: “into the space between spaces”.

But how are we to understand the meaning of ‘space’ in the contemporary epoch? What is it to recognise a ‘space’? The phenomenological task of teasing into black and white what the concept of ‘space’ indicates for the ‘super-modern’ era is the central task of Marc Augé in his ‘Non-Places’[2] For Augé, ethnographic study has hit upon a particular problem in the understanding of recognisable ‘spaces’ as ‘place’. The onset of Modernity has produced two distinct categories of ‘place’: (a) anthropological place, and (b) non-place. In his own words, distinguishing the two: “If  [anthropological] place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place”. [3]

The towns, villages and cities that have been brought into being and added to by generations of interconnected humans, who have themselves been thrown into the world at various temporalities, constitute anthropological places; those spaces that are always in the process of becoming wholly disjointed, yet express a relational continuity in time. The space occupied by the motorway, the supermarket, the airport terminal, the high-speed railway, these are all non-places; locations that communicate in text (motorway signs telling one about the town or a castle at the next exit, boarding gate signs revealing where those queuing with their passports are travelling to, the to-be blurred and illegible station signs we speed past on trains, etc.) and yet only indicate the existence of anthropological places, avoiding their nexuses of historical relations before the place reveals itself to the individual. Supermodernity is aesthetically defined by the existence of the non-place to the detrimental significance of anthropological place. The best example of this, in my opinion, is when one is told ‘I have been to x, but only the airport’ – revealing the super-modern tendency to privilege the non-place at equal significance to anthropological place.

In the same manner that modernism has been a revolutionary force, overturning and re-calibrating established normative and epistemological frameworks, super-modernism contributes to the re-evaluation of even our capability to reflect on those spaces overflowing with historical relations and identities that we denote as places – undermining our relationship with the world inhabited and forged between generations of humans to a greater extent than even the modern condition led to. In this, something that Augé only alludes to [4], the non-place has become the chief target of terrorism, reducing the anonymous subject-body in transit into a mere corporeal existence as an ex-subject. It is because the non-place, with its de-territorialized relations between individual and text, turns the subject into an anonymous subject-body that attacks on non-places present a two-fold significance.

(a) Firstly, the attack on the non-place is to assault the spaces where individuals blend into an anomalous mass, giving the false impression of ‘randomness’ to create terror [5]. This is a misunderstanding however. It is not the impression of randomness this creates, but the impression of potential risk in engaging with corporeal anonymity – the ontological shift one undertakes when engaging with the non-space. No wonder that the global diffusion of non-places was followed by legislated-for corporeal securitisation: increased identity checks, metal detectors, x-rays, guards and so on. In response to increasing terrorist attacks on non-places, the response has been to lift the veil of anonymity at key moments within its internality. To disengage the potential for a terrorist attack in the non-place, simply put, one’s body is made void of anonymity – corresponding to a name, a birthplace, a religion, date of birth, etc. - and yet one’s subject reduced in the biopolitical response by the state in the process of securitisation; i.e. one becomes a non-subject to defend the non-place. 

(b) Secondly, attacking the non-place is to attack supermodernism itself. Many groups that resort to terrorism do so in response to modernity and its incessantly revolutionary nature.  To attack the non-place is symbolically equitable to assaulting the most overt symptom of modernism – as if one pulled only the leaves of weeds and called it weeding still. An understanding of the non-place can thus inform us of the contemporary phenomenon of global terrorism, enabling, perhaps, some aid to the toolbox of counter-terrorism in some manner, and yet simultaneously adding to our grasp of the relation between ‘space’, ‘place’ and ‘body’.

This discussion of ‘space’ began with Indiana Jones, it is only fitting that we return to this at its close. Perhaps if the characters played by John Hurt and Harrison Ford were plane/train spotters at the end of a platform or runway, sat outside a supermarket, or even observing a busy road, and one asked the other: ‘where are they going?’, the most fitting response would be ‘into the space between places’. There has always been a politics of territory – of place. Now we must engage with the politics of non-place.

[1] The best example of the Ancient Alien Thesis is espoused in the, somehow, more than 70 million copies sold: Erich von Däniken (1990) Chariots of The Gods: Was God an Astronaut?, London: Souvenir Press Ltd.
[2] Marc Augé (2008) Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, Second Edition, London: Verso.
[3] Ibid, p. 63.
[4] Ibid, p.90.
[5] This is adopted into the definition of terrorism by many. One such good example is in: Michael Walzer (2004) Arguing About War, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.90.