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Memories in Site: Toward a Renewed Understanding of Starbucks

Dylan Trigg

Trigg is a research student at the University of Sussex. He is interested in marginal spaces such as a hotel lobbies, airports and supermarkets. He has also written on the aesthetics of decay and modern ruins. His current research explores the idea of the built environment as a testimony to events of past destruction. His essay here is part of a broader work that examines the role that homogenous ‘sites’ play in contributing to a memory-based theory of personal identity. © 2006 Dylan Trigg. www.dylantrigg.com.

How does space contain memories? The question is hampered in that we lack a criterion that enables us to ascertain where past memories end and unmediated experience begins. Pure experience eludes as the imagination creates spatial memories devoid of factual grounding.

Despite this apparent conflation between forms of recollection, remembering an event necessarily implicates the context in which that memory took place. A placeless memory, as Edward Casey (1987a pp. 183-84) notes, not only disallows memory to be situated accurately; it also prevents disorientation with regard to that memory.

Casey’s analysis of ‘place memory’ is insightful and contentious. As with Gaston Bachelard, memorable space presupposes being intimate. This is a claim that allows Casey to render place “congealed scenes” for memory. As such, fulfilling Aristotle’s original description of place as “the innermost motionless boundary of what contains,” Casey (p. 184) is able to posit an idea of place as a place-holder of memories, so securing spatial memories.

In the present essay, I wish to contest Casey’s analysis of place memory. While intimate place is often regarded as archetypal in its containment of memory, the radical dichotomy between place and non-place (principally in the form of ‘site’) means that any such ambiguity between the two has been neglected. Here, I wish to address this neglect and in the process posit the memorable power of site.

 *****

We can begin by examining how Casey grounds his account of place memory. In this way, an opening is provided to ascertain if spatial memories are as secure as originally thought. Echoing Bachelard’s, Casey’s account of memory is framed by a mistrust of temporal-centrism. Understanding time without reference to what is represented by time means there is no contrast against which the measure of passing can be established.

“It is,” Casey writes in relation to the body, “only when we notice discrepancies between such states that we begin to infer the passage of time…” (p. 182). The simple ‘pastness’ of memory fails to acknowledge its entirety. Casey’s reply to this incompleteness is to consider how embodied memory necessarily involves particularization:

To be embodied is ipso facto to assume a particular perspective and position... it is to occupy a portion of space from out of which we undergo given experiences and remember them. To be disembodied is not only to be deprived of place, unplaced; it is to be denied the basic stance on which every experience and its memory depend (ibid.).

This is an important passage that grounds Casey’s account. Memory necessarily individuates events from other events by being specific. Thus, recollection suspends other events selectively to allow a particular memory to transpire.

The specificity of this recollection means that abstraction is negated. Remembering is seldom as vague as to evade a set of defined circumstances. But this is not the case: even the most formless memories submit to the category of being specific, and an event which is specific necessarily defines itself in time and space: “As embodied existence opens onto place; indeed takes place in place and nowhere else, so our memory of what we experience in place is likewise place-specific” (p. 182).

The ‘nowhere else’ of Casey’s remark reaffirms the exclusive nature of memory and experience. Freud’s comment that “the same space cannot have two different contents” is repeated in Casey’s metaphysics of spatial memory where the particularization of memory instigates its unique embodiment.

*****

Unfortunately for Casey, history has lost sight of the way that place contains our memories. Methods for remembrance have deviated from the Greek art of memory. The implications for this are more than a mere loss of tradition. In addition to being subjugated by a concentration on time, place has also been shadowed by a preoccupation with what Casey terms ‘site’: “that is, place as leveled down to metrically determinate dimensions” (p. 182). This division between place and site is essential, not least in relation to memory-based theories of personal identity. As such, it warrants careful examination.

Much has changed,” writes Casey with some regret, “since the early Pythagorean Archytas declared that place is ‘the first of all beings, since everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place’” (p. 184).

Casey’s historical reading of place’s loss of emplacement is framed by a geometrization of space and place that occurred during the 17th century. Situating Greek thought against modern thought (Newtown, Descartes, and Bernoulli), Casey suggests that geometrical space “was conceived as continuous extension in length, breadth, and width and, thus, as mappable by the three-dimensional coordinate system of rational geometry” (ibid.). As a result of this transition, place loses its “inhomogeneous and anisotropic qualities” and instead “is conceived as sheer spatial site” (p. 185).

Site, for Casey, is thus open. Against Aristotle’s definition of place as “the innermost motionless boundary of what contains” (ibid.), the relationship between a site and what occupies that site is detached, abstract and entirely devoid of intimacy. The effects of this are that as a container of memories, site falters. The “essentially empty” quality of the site undermines any claim to being memorable: “A site possesses no points of attachment onto which to hang our memories, much less to retrieve them” (p. 184).

In contrast, place, “full of protuberant features and forceful vectors” (p. 186), is distinct and able to facilitate memorability. Through containing memories, place preserves them: “To be in a place is to be sheltered and sustained by its containing boundary; it is to be held within this boundary rather than to be dispersed by an expanding horizon of time or to be exposed indifferently in space” (ibid.).

*****

With the risk of dispersion present, we have been united with Bachelard. Indeed, at stake in both Casey and Bachelard are several assumptions that both bind and ground their theories simultaneously. Though phrased differently in Bachelard, the distinction between site and place is elemental for both thinkers.

In both cases, we observe a masterful working of space and place in which intimacy and protection are essential in the construction of memorable place. Whereas Casey opposes place and site, Bachelard forges a radical (and dialectical) distinction between inside and outside through which the universe is said to press down upon the interiority of the home.

For Casey, site has a negative quality in that indifference, emptiness, and outright geometrization suppress the power of place. In Bachelardian terms, such attributes contribute to the dispersion of the potential dweller. Bachelard (1964, p. 47) writes: “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” The alignment of geometrical space with Casey’s site affirms the lack of shelter between the two. Both expand so that memories disperse as the absence of place neglects to contain them.

Let us summarize: through lacking “variegations,” site offers no possibility of containing memories. The lack of distinction in the site—literal or otherwise—means that nothing in particular stands out. Indeed, site is only transformed into a place through the conferment of a distinctive thing upon it, such as a house (1987a, p. 186). The presence of a house carves particularity from the homogenous and undefined. This is what we mean by the term ‘intimacy’. Lived experience, so important to both Casey and Bachelard, remedies the vacuity of the site by enforcing a narrative upon it.

In turn, place becomes animated through becoming particular. A particular place has a discernable identity. Thus, the trust we have in the continuous familiarity of a place means that indifference gives way to idiosyncrasy and character. Indeed, character and intimacy, if not synonymous with one another, remain inextricably bound.

We now must examine Casey’s argument critically. In the first instance, intimate space is said to be conducive to the emplacement of memory, since intimacy distinguishes itself from the supposed homogeneity of the site. Yet, this simple dichotomy between the place that contains and the site that disperses precludes an ambiguity between the two.

Indeed, in a later essay, Casey goes so far as to describe site rather self-consciously as the “anti-place dancing on the abyss of no-place” (1997, pp. 267-96). Thus, that site itself might afford a sense of intimacy is not possible in accordance with Bachelard and Casey’s logic.

*****

But what if one considers the role that site plays in securing intimacy rather than undermining it? It is often said that certain places are all the same. One of the unashamedly non-distinguishing features of a place (if the term can be used in an informal sense) like Starbucks is that it remains the same despite its spatial location. Orientation and continuity are afforded in a foreign city by knowing what qualities imbue the coffee house in advance. Against the backdrop of unfamiliarity, familiarity is conceived as the indissoluble motifs and identical pastel colors of Starbucks are encountered.

In such a situation, we can pretend to be anywhere while simultaneously being somewhere. So long as the outside remains excluded, Starbucks aspires to universality in its interior spatiality.

Avoiding an indeterminate idiosyncrasy that would harbor a discontinuity between individual stores (though being careful not to sacrifice the impression of being inviting and moreover localized) [1] Starbucks thus falls from a particularized distinctiveness and fulfils Casey’s definition of site as “having no internal differentiations with respect to material constitution” and so “leveled down to the point of being definable solely in terms of distances between ‘positions’ which are established on its surface and which exist strictly in relation to one another” (1987a, p. 185).

It is not “distinct potencies” that individuates one Starbucks from another but rather the geometrical space that exists between them. That they are often confused with one another only emphasizes their essential vacuity and so reinforces their presence, not as a place, but as a site.

*****

Starbucks exemplifies a location that outwardly reveals a lack of identity and so conforms to the category of site. Negative qualities associated with Starbucks are invariably bound to its apparent indifference as to what it contains at any given moment. “To be in place is to be sheltered and sustained by its containing boundary” (p. 186), writes Casey.

In Starbucks, shelter appears prima facie discounted by the absence of particular containment. Instead, one becomes intuitively aware of a location that undergoes (and aspires to) the mere semblance of containment.

In turn, this sense of ‘obligated inclusion’ is likely to have the opposite effect—i.e., to invoke repulsion. Nevertheless, there is a risk that this outright dichotomy between repulsion and attraction will harvest a partial perspective. As a result, the possibility of the site being both memorable and intimate is apparently lost.

Arguably, the resistance against regarding a site as being memorable owes its origin to the myth of Simonides. According to Yates’ account, a memorable place tends to be both varied and sequentially related. Arranging a ‘loci’ in a defined order, says Yates (1966, pp. 22-23), enables memory to be retrieved with greater ease.

Inversely, a lack of spatial variation is likely to breed confusion and forgetfulness. In a labyrinth, very little is remembered, and disorientation is gained as one dead end meets another. Further, a place that fails to house obvious distinctions will lose sequentiality and instead promote uniformity.

That uniformity lessens the potential for memorability is logical insofar as memorable place relies on “distinct potencies” to preserve memory. A multiplicity of diverse attributes might well furnish a place with the means to house memory. Bachelard (1964, p. 8) writes: “if the house is a bit elaborate… our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated.”

This does not entail, however, that an indistinct location is unmemorable and so devoid of intimacy. On the contrary: what it implies is that memorability relies not on “distinct potencies” determined by the natural unfolding of lived experience but rather by the cultivated and essentially contrived appearance of lived experience.

Thus, distinct particularization suffers a loss of actuality and instead is replaced by standardization and a sense of either implied or otherwise unlived experience. In turn, it is the cultivation itself, being essentially vacuous, which provides a platform for new memories to be conceived. Accordingly, the object of cultivation acquires a depth despite its apparent lack of intended temporal depth. In effect, it is a meta-depth

*****

Phenomenologically, this affirmation of the site’s potential for intimacy needs to be distinguished from what might be called a post-modern ironization of site. A kitsch interaction with a location, confining itself to a celebration of surface appraisal alone, fails to countenance the possibility of that location’s becoming anything more than mere diversion. Against the threat of a supposedly insipid form, kitsch appears to disarm standardization by ironically affirming it.

Hence: that which threatens to supplant the particularity of place is willed to emerge preemptively. As such, it is a pernicious strategy that evinces a passive form of aggressive resistance against site in the hope that the ‘siteness’ of the site will be overthrown by an ironic domestication of it [2].

The idea that site is limited by a homogenous lack of depth might well explain the inherent negativity that is often conferred upon it. Part of the resistance felt by those who refuse to frequent Starbucks often involves the belief that it strives to the status of a traditional (where traditional usually means ‘bohemian’) coffee house but instead emerges as a sterilized artifice. The employment of implicitly organic features such as ethnic art, earthly colors, recycled napkins, and dark laminated floorboards, rather than mirror the earthly origins of the coffee bean, only emphasizes this tension between particularity and mass-produced affectation.

Even if this claim is correct—and its validity is largely extraneous here—then the standardization of a place does not serve to undermine the memories that evade that homogeny. As Casey (1987, p. 190) suggests, “it is just one more lot to look at, and a such it is distinctly unmemorable.”A site that obtains meta-depth instead subverts the lack of temporal depth originally provoked by artificial features by rendering those features temporal in themselves.

*****

Central to both Bachelard and Casey is the notion that the particularity of place is instrumental in developing, in Casey’s terms (1987a, p. 186) “points of attachment” or, in Bachelard’s terms (1964, p. 8), “countless alveoli” that allow memory to be contained and so retrieved.

For Casey, variegations and obtrusions on the landscape define it in a positive fashion. Through encountering them, we are said to be “slowed down, stopped, or in some other way caught-in-place” (1987a, p. 198). Becoming attentive to place is brought about by a distinction between background and foreground.

This is equally true of ‘accidental’ obtrusions. In the shopping mall, we are likely to remember the disabled elevator because it caused us inconvenience through thwarting our progress. What implicates an object being memorable is the context in which it finds itself. The elevator individuates itself from the background through countering the movement of the shopping mall.

This dynamic that allows an object to become memorable through obtruding the landscape is foreshadowed in Heidegger’s analysis of the everyday tool. For Heidegger, everyday usage with things determines a particular type of knowledge. Yet, so long as things remain in use, they remain undiscovered: “A totality of useful things is always already discovered before the individual useful thing” (Heidegger, 1996, p. 64). The everyday world of things conceals itself within in a complex relationship between the assignment of usability and the production of that usability. 

*****

Thus, a thing is ‘conspicuous’ when it has subverted the “associations in which we use it” and instead disclosed itself “in a certain unhandiness” (p. 68). This subversion manifests primarily itself in the damage or absence of that thing. On the one hand, a damaged thing withdraws from use and so forces us to consider its unhandiness. As a result of this unhandiness, ‘objective presence’ paradoxically makes itself known. On the other hand, the absence of things causes us to be heedful to the space in which that thing was to be placed. Moreover, the greater that thing is sought, then the more objectively present it becomes “such that it seems to lose the character of handiness” (p. 69).

Through being removed from a given context, a presence is created in the space of absence which in turn constitutes an obtrusion. This is a significant point that highlights a basic shortcoming of Casey’s account of content-dominated variegation. Whereas Casey speaks of variegation in terms of an obtruded presence (consummately, the “erection of a distinctive house upon…an indifferent building lot” [1987a, p. 186]), Heidegger’s analysis demonstrates that diversity and disruption are also characterized by negation and absence too.

Not only does the absence constitute a “breach in the context of references” (1996, p. 70), but it also disrupts the pre-mediated totality of things, so far conditioned by handiness: “But with this totality,” Heidegger (1996, p. 70) writes, “world makes itself known.” Transferring this totality to the apparent conflict between place and site, it is evident that points of attachment need not involve a logic of content and presence.

Often, being slowed down or otherwise becoming attentive to our surroundings manifests in terms of what is missing from that landscape. Thus, in the space of the site, it is the very ‘leveling down’ of variegation that constitutes a presence in its own right. This inversion of variegations is realized in that sites produce not convex ‘points of attachment’ but, rather, entirely concave geometrical hollows. 

*****

If site is universal by dint of lacking particular content and so indifferent to us, then when that site is rendered intimate, an ambiguity between these divisions is the necessary result. Thus, until it is imbued with lived experience, site remains outside us, homogenous, universal and for Casey (1987a, p. 190) “even inimical.”

Yet, in the experience of conferring a meta-depth upon the site, a tension is created between subjective experience and the objective status of that site. Site and place appear to have converged, yet the convergence is vague because site remains as site while place maintains its distance.

Unlike place, memory does not therefore remain fixed definitely as “fossilized duration concretized” (Bachelard, 1964, p. 8). Rather, it shifts in between states of clarity. Moreover, since site itself is framed by a lack of particular distinction, experience which took place in site is never definite. This is realized in that site is not, in Casey’s words, a place-holder for memories. Instead, memory resides dynamically—the relationship between the contained and the container prone to mutability, not rigidity.

Transposing Bachelard’s topoanalytic investigation of the house onto the site, we would therefore be required to be just as heedful to detail. Since sites are easily confused, the nuances that individuate one site from another do so resonantly. Marginal details, hitherto dismissed, assume a significance that is realized in their immediate but otherworldly intimacy. If it is a specific parking lot we remember but find ourselves in a different city, even in a different country, then we are likely to notice precisely what renders one lot different from the other.

The individuation is subtle, but because of that subtlety the difference is experienced more forcefully. In the wide expanse of empty site, universality and particularity thus compound. In doing so, memory, not only assumed to have existed by means of affectation or physical ornament, is emplaced in a space of ambiguous homogeneity. 

*****

In this essay, I have sought to demonstrate that place need not hold a monopoly on memorability and that, through resisting place’s ‘points of attachment’, site instead creates an inverted hollow that is able to contain memory. In turn, this renders site intimate, particular, and yet simultaneously vague.

That this vagueness might constitute a more accurate representation of the past, being essentially fragmented rather than complete, is a question that begets further speculation. Nonetheless, as the urban landscape beckons to become ever more homogenized, resistance against this change opens itself to the dangers of a nostalgic idealization of static place. If site, in its unflinching ambiguity, can evoke a non-fixed image of space, then it will have already proved its power through contesting the dominancy of place.

Notes

1. That local art is hung on the otherwise identical walls means that each Starbucks can vary sufficiently to warrant being distinct without wholly subverting the recognized formula. The presence of localized attributes (a Starbucks in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, has Russian menus and chess tables to accommodate the large Russian community) has the effect of generating the impression of Starbucks being a place rather than a site. As the official website confesses: “Welcome! A Starbucks coffee shop is a special place. But most of all, it’s your place.”

2. Furthermore, while site and ‘non-place’ (particularity Marc Augé’s treatment [1995] of non-place) share obvious similarities in their lack of temporal depth, their distinction ought to be maintained.

References

Augé, M., 1995. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.. London: Verso.

Bachelard, G., 1964. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Casey, E., 1987a. Remembering. Indiana: Indiana Univ.  Press.

Casey, E., 1987b. The World of Nostalgia, Man and World, 20: 361-384.

Casey, E., 1993. Getting Back Into Place. Indiana: Indiana Univ. Press.

Casey, E., 1997. ‘Smooth Space and Rough-Edged Places’ Review of Metaphysics, 51: 267-96

Chase, J. et al., 1999. Everyday Urbanism. NY: Monacelli Press.

Heidegger, M., 1996. Being and Time. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Janz, B., Coming to Place, Environmental & Architectural Phenomenology, 15, 3: 11-15.

Tuan, Y., 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota.

Yates, F. A., 1966. The Art of Memory. London: Penguin.