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Non-places are robbing us of life Only flaneurs can save humanity

(PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)


August 21, 2023   4 mins

At Leeds-Bradford airport, as the closure of my departure gate fast approached, I stood at a security conveyor waiting for the results of a swab of my daughter’s rucksack. My eyes pleaded with the put-upon official to speed things up. I did not, during those panicked moments earlier this summer, think of myself as an ethnographic subject. But then I reread Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, and I was struck by how useful a study I might have been.

Augé’s best-selling book kicks off by imagining the experience of Pierre Dupont as he drives to Roissy airport, parks, goes through security, boards his flight and reads a magazine. His experience is far smoother than mine was: “He was enjoying the feeling of freedom imparted … by the certainty that, now he was ‘sorted out’, his identity registered, his boarding pass in his pocket, he had nothing to do but wait for the sequence of events.” Dupont flicks through ads for hotels and reads a book review that contemplates “the homogenization of needs and consumption patterns”. This is supermodernity: a globalised, homogenised, economy in which the same experiences and products are replicated in far-flung geographic locations.

It’s an unusual technique for scholarly writing. But Augé’s willingness to engage in make-believe in this way allows him to draw the general reader into what could have been an alarmingly theoretical essay on the state of anthropology.

Because French, and philosophically inclined, AugĂ©, who died last month, is often lazily bracketed with the Derrida and Foucault and the like. But he was first and foremost a practitioner. He began his career with field studies of the Alladian cultures of the Ivory Coast, writing books about power, death, symbols — key touchstones of anthropology. And though French scholarship after the student protests of 1968 was marked by radicalism, AugĂ© comes across as a genial thinker: political without being ideological, keen to build bridges in the Francophone academy at a time of upheaval.

AugĂ© was keen to explain how the transformations of the contemporary world had made anthropology more complicated. “We are in an era characterized by changes of scale,” he wrote. “Images of all sorts, relayed by satellites and caught by the aerials that bristle on the roofs of our remotest hamlets, can give us an instant, sometimes simultaneous vision of an event taking place on the other side of the planet.” So far, so postmodern; what AugĂ© called the “acceleration” of events is an idea that crops up repeatedly in political theory. The specifically supermodern condition that he identifies is the dominance of non-places.

We live in “a world where people are born in the clinic and die in hospital, where transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions” — from “hotel chains and squats, holiday clubs and refugee camps”. In non-places, exchange between human beings is transactional: you buy a sandwich, or a massage, or a train ticket. Speech is replaced by text; signs direct behaviour, instead of people, giving instructions and advertising products. We are, therefore, isolated, in “a solitude made all the more baffling by the fact that it echoes millions of others”.

Anthropology has traditionally been interested in circumscribed places, the best example being the island, which allows one to consider a culture in its entirety; but non-places offer the opportunity to study a kind of psychic isolation. This “world thus surrendered to solitary individuality … offers the anthropologist (and others) a new object”.

The implications of the rise of these non-places are many and varied. For instance, access to the sort of anonymity they allow is granted only if we provide evidence of our individuality, in the form of identification documents; Augé foresaw that supermodernity would increasingly require us to prove who we are. He also goes so far as to speculate that non-places are terrorist targets not only for practical reasons, but also because they refuse the very idea of the historical territories that nationalist causes wish to restore.

AugĂ© suggests, though, that we shouldn’t simply surrender to their ambiguous charms and to the seductive “feeling of freedom” they offer. Instead of giving in to the temptation to be passive, he suggests we can preserve our humanity through activity — observing, recording, storytelling. In this pursuit, he has influential fellow travellers. Take, for example, the writer Iain Sinclair, whose practice is psychogeography, which both examines and tries to subvert the behaviours produced by urban space; he was interested in precisely the kinds of non-places AugĂ© identified — car parks and industrial estates. London Orbital, a book tracking a motorway, routed him through the Heathrow suburbs. Where AugĂ© is an anthropologist with a poet’s touch, Sinclair is the opposite; he has the eye of an anthropologist but his project is that of an avant-garde poet, imagining afresh these overlooked zones.

The attention AugĂ© paid to the airport also aligns him with J.G. Ballard, who Sinclair visited in Shepperton on his orbital walk. Ballard’s 1997 essay on airports for Blueprint magazine comes across as a piece of rogue anthropology. “We are no longer citizens with civic obligations,” he writes, “but passengers for whom all destinations are theoretically open.” The airport is perhaps the ultimate non-place, a “discontinuous city, whose vast populations … are entirely transient, purposeful and, for the most part, happy.” Happy because, as AugĂ© pointed out, anonymity can be a liberation; airports, because so familiar, provide a sense of being at home when far away.

Yet what at one moment can be experienced as liberation and comfort can, in another, become boredom and oppression. The non-place is double-edged. But supermodern life inevitably channels us into these non-places: we have no choice but to enter. We therefore need to learn how to endure them.

AugĂ©, in search of guidance on how to do so, inclines towards the Jesuit priest Michel de Certeau, who in fact first used the term non-place. In his enduringly wonderful The Practice of Everyday Life, Certeau draws a distinction between the “strategies” used by institutions to control our behaviour public places — city-planning, for example — and the “tactics” employed by ordinary people to resist that control — such as climbing a high building to enjoy the view. Certeau’s book has become a kind of manual, which guides us towards imagining our own tactics, whether it be walking against the arrows on the floor of Ikea or pulling up our trousers to paddle in a fountain.

Non-places is an analysis rather than a manual, but it is clearly much inspired by de Certeau’s emphasis on the “itinerary”, the individual journey. To chart a path through non-places, we must become supermodern flaneurs. But above all, AugĂ© argues for restoring a social element to places that impose upon us solitariness. Talking to strangers may be the best way to push against the dehumanising effects of supermodernity. Pleading with airport officials using words rather than glares may be the way to reassert agency in a non-place that would rob us of it.


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AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

This may come as a shock but the world has changed.
It is still possible in England to ‘live in the country’, somewhat detached from the strictures of modern life. Some of my older ‘country’ relatives grew most of their own vegetables and kept chickens (some even caught fish and shot grouse and pigeons for food).
However 55% of the worlds population now live in cities, and cities are machines that need constant tending by their inhabitants to run smoothly. Cities need ‘nonplaces’ as adjustment points to make the city machine run and cities need transactional people to lubricate the city processes.
Is supermodernity dehumanising? I rather think so. But (heresy trigger warning) perhaps there are simply too many people to live lives of agency and individuality.

Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I think you may be right. Mass culture, which was born from out of the modern industrial city (and mass democracy), is antithetical to a life of true agency and meaning. The whole world is turning into a non-place, and with it the historical communities and forms of life associated with them are fast disappearing.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Like Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis but without the human, hopeful ending.

Last edited 8 months ago by Mike Downing
Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I think you may be right. Mass culture, which was born from out of the modern industrial city (and mass democracy), is antithetical to a life of true agency and meaning. The whole world is turning into a non-place, and with it the historical communities and forms of life associated with them are fast disappearing.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Like Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis but without the human, hopeful ending.

Last edited 8 months ago by Mike Downing
AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

This may come as a shock but the world has changed.
It is still possible in England to ‘live in the country’, somewhat detached from the strictures of modern life. Some of my older ‘country’ relatives grew most of their own vegetables and kept chickens (some even caught fish and shot grouse and pigeons for food).
However 55% of the worlds population now live in cities, and cities are machines that need constant tending by their inhabitants to run smoothly. Cities need ‘nonplaces’ as adjustment points to make the city machine run and cities need transactional people to lubricate the city processes.
Is supermodernity dehumanising? I rather think so. But (heresy trigger warning) perhaps there are simply too many people to live lives of agency and individuality.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Interesting article, but there is so much more to talk about on this subject. Luxury hotels which are almost identical wherever one goes, and ersatz localism where restaurants and air bnbs conform to a clichéd tourist version of authenticity.

And especially, as a commenter has astutely noted – the relation to somewheres/anywheres. The development of “non-people”, who gravitate towards these non-places and are essentially tourists even in their own country.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Interesting article, but there is so much more to talk about on this subject. Luxury hotels which are almost identical wherever one goes, and ersatz localism where restaurants and air bnbs conform to a clichéd tourist version of authenticity.

And especially, as a commenter has astutely noted – the relation to somewheres/anywheres. The development of “non-people”, who gravitate towards these non-places and are essentially tourists even in their own country.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
8 months ago

Interesting article. I wonder if this is a linked idea? The Somewheres and Anywheres idea (that seemed to receive publicity around the EU referendum in the UK).
Then thinking about travelling and passing through an airport. Worldwide they are so similar, one could be anywhere and I suppose (from this article) that you really are anywhere (or nowhere perhaps).
I am happy to class myself as a Somewhere person, the idea of “home” is strong within me. My Wife is less easy to compatmentalise, but I would say definitely leaning towards an Anywhere. She seems very happy and relaxed in airports, I find them stressful. I am one of those who plans and checks and looks for the signs to the gates and has my paperwork (or App work) all to hand etc etc. My Wife relaxes and doesn’t do anything (perhaps a little light shopping!).
I wish airports provided me with a sense of being at home when away!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

I wished London would provide me with a “sense of being at home” when I lived there – but it never did. Perhaps large cities are also non-places.

Last edited 8 months ago by Ian Barton
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I felt very at home in London when I lived there. Perhaps that was bacause I am an intorvert, and felt – for the first time – at home in the general alienation

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Interesting comment; i do know what you mean. I was a student in London and had a similar feeling at first, but in the end i was happier to return to my Somewhere. I still enjoy visiting though, and having a better idea of its locations having spent periods of time there. Incidentally, i don’t think it’s any more alienating now than it was in the 1970s.

Last edited 8 months ago by Steve Murray
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

It’s certainly easier to be anonymous in London than in a village.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Interesting comment; i do know what you mean. I was a student in London and had a similar feeling at first, but in the end i was happier to return to my Somewhere. I still enjoy visiting though, and having a better idea of its locations having spent periods of time there. Incidentally, i don’t think it’s any more alienating now than it was in the 1970s.

Last edited 8 months ago by Steve Murray
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
8 months ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

It’s certainly easier to be anonymous in London than in a village.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I don’t know. London is my village, and I don’t like to be away from it too long.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I felt very at home in London when I lived there. Perhaps that was bacause I am an intorvert, and felt – for the first time – at home in the general alienation

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I don’t know. London is my village, and I don’t like to be away from it too long.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
8 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

I wished London would provide me with a “sense of being at home” when I lived there – but it never did. Perhaps large cities are also non-places.

Last edited 8 months ago by Ian Barton
Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
8 months ago

Interesting article. I wonder if this is a linked idea? The Somewheres and Anywheres idea (that seemed to receive publicity around the EU referendum in the UK).
Then thinking about travelling and passing through an airport. Worldwide they are so similar, one could be anywhere and I suppose (from this article) that you really are anywhere (or nowhere perhaps).
I am happy to class myself as a Somewhere person, the idea of “home” is strong within me. My Wife is less easy to compatmentalise, but I would say definitely leaning towards an Anywhere. She seems very happy and relaxed in airports, I find them stressful. I am one of those who plans and checks and looks for the signs to the gates and has my paperwork (or App work) all to hand etc etc. My Wife relaxes and doesn’t do anything (perhaps a little light shopping!).
I wish airports provided me with a sense of being at home when away!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago

“The airport is perhaps the ultimate non-place, a “discontinuous city, whose vast populations 
 are entirely transient, purposeful and, for the most part, happy.””
I can assure you that I am never, EVER happy when I am at an airport. I can’t stand airports and can’t wait to get out of them again. Leeds-Bradford is a place I’m especially keen to get in and out of quickly.

Last edited 8 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Ever tried Horan International? Otherwise known as Knock?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

May I recommend a large G&T or pint of good ale in the ubiquitous ‘Spoon’ in most flight side lounges? Does wonders for my nerves and always at a keen price. It’s one ‘anywhere’ feature of the modern day UK airport that I truly value.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Ever tried Horan International? Otherwise known as Knock?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
8 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

May I recommend a large G&T or pint of good ale in the ubiquitous ‘Spoon’ in most flight side lounges? Does wonders for my nerves and always at a keen price. It’s one ‘anywhere’ feature of the modern day UK airport that I truly value.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
8 months ago

“The airport is perhaps the ultimate non-place, a “discontinuous city, whose vast populations 
 are entirely transient, purposeful and, for the most part, happy.””
I can assure you that I am never, EVER happy when I am at an airport. I can’t stand airports and can’t wait to get out of them again. Leeds-Bradford is a place I’m especially keen to get in and out of quickly.

Last edited 8 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
8 months ago

This is the endgame of globalism, a world of standardized, homogenized, interchangeable non-places, where the world looks mostly the same whether one lives in Rio, Beijing, London, or NY, where every man is an island looking out at the same dull ocean. A world no longer underpinned by cultural values, but by the generic, sterile doctrines of academia, scientifically designed doublespeak. Emphasize tolerance by enforcing ideological conformity. Be inclusive by excluding contrarian views. Increase diversity by breaking down all the values and institutions that led different groups of humans to form their own unique civilizations. Eliminate race, religion, nationality, borders, political parties, languages, and so on until there’s nothing left but a bland, mass produced, vacuous monoculture. Fortunately for us, there are other forces in nature besides technology, communications, money, economics, and the designs of our political overlords, and this will never work the way some think it will. I’m inherently more optimistic than Orwell. Like a psychological corollary to Newton’s third law, there are reactions corresponding to every action. If one applies a force to an object, there is necessarily a counter-force reaction. The more cultures, religions, and ideas any system tried to suppress or replace, the more force it would have to apply, and the greater the counter-force would become. The end result would be a tense system filled with paranoia, suspicion, anger, and civil strife. Like an overloaded boat, the system would be under constant strain. Governing would be an exercise in constantly whacking moles, dousing fires, and plugging leaks. Even a stiff breeze would send the boat teetering dangerously, to say nothing of an actual storm. See COVID for example, which is and was not much more dangerous than the flu, a threat to the sick, the old, the immunosuppressed, and so on, but wrought havoc upon our economy, supply chains, communities, relationships, political environments, and even our own psyches, and its effects are far from over. IMHO, the fears of some Orwellian global state are misplaced. They can have no final victory, for the same reason we can’t turn off gravity, go faster than light, or herd cats. We should fear, however, the damage an elite class deluded by the promise of utopia can cause in the attempt.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
8 months ago

This is the endgame of globalism, a world of standardized, homogenized, interchangeable non-places, where the world looks mostly the same whether one lives in Rio, Beijing, London, or NY, where every man is an island looking out at the same dull ocean. A world no longer underpinned by cultural values, but by the generic, sterile doctrines of academia, scientifically designed doublespeak. Emphasize tolerance by enforcing ideological conformity. Be inclusive by excluding contrarian views. Increase diversity by breaking down all the values and institutions that led different groups of humans to form their own unique civilizations. Eliminate race, religion, nationality, borders, political parties, languages, and so on until there’s nothing left but a bland, mass produced, vacuous monoculture. Fortunately for us, there are other forces in nature besides technology, communications, money, economics, and the designs of our political overlords, and this will never work the way some think it will. I’m inherently more optimistic than Orwell. Like a psychological corollary to Newton’s third law, there are reactions corresponding to every action. If one applies a force to an object, there is necessarily a counter-force reaction. The more cultures, religions, and ideas any system tried to suppress or replace, the more force it would have to apply, and the greater the counter-force would become. The end result would be a tense system filled with paranoia, suspicion, anger, and civil strife. Like an overloaded boat, the system would be under constant strain. Governing would be an exercise in constantly whacking moles, dousing fires, and plugging leaks. Even a stiff breeze would send the boat teetering dangerously, to say nothing of an actual storm. See COVID for example, which is and was not much more dangerous than the flu, a threat to the sick, the old, the immunosuppressed, and so on, but wrought havoc upon our economy, supply chains, communities, relationships, political environments, and even our own psyches, and its effects are far from over. IMHO, the fears of some Orwellian global state are misplaced. They can have no final victory, for the same reason we can’t turn off gravity, go faster than light, or herd cats. We should fear, however, the damage an elite class deluded by the promise of utopia can cause in the attempt.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Referencing the ‘radical’ act of walking across the arrows in Ikea reminds me that the arrows we saw appearing everywhere during Covid became something to be contravened. Lockdowns became the ultimate experiment in atomisation.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yup. There’s something even more creepy about mildly coercive settings like IKEA.

The tendency for them to avoid challenge, by trying to make YOU out to be the difficult one.

One challenge I did was to tender my enneagram results at a Myers-Briggs session at an employer. The awkwardness was hilarious.

Try something like that, or walking the wrong way through IKEA.

The interactions can be very funny, and uncloak the true believer.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
Dumetrius
Dumetrius
8 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Yup. There’s something even more creepy about mildly coercive settings like IKEA.

The tendency for them to avoid challenge, by trying to make YOU out to be the difficult one.

One challenge I did was to tender my enneagram results at a Myers-Briggs session at an employer. The awkwardness was hilarious.

Try something like that, or walking the wrong way through IKEA.

The interactions can be very funny, and uncloak the true believer.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dumetrius
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
8 months ago

Referencing the ‘radical’ act of walking across the arrows in Ikea reminds me that the arrows we saw appearing everywhere during Covid became something to be contravened. Lockdowns became the ultimate experiment in atomisation.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Really doesn’t live up to its title.

Why exactly are non-places robbing us of life, when looked at superficially they seem to provide us with a frictionless world centred on our needs? Why then are they so alienating, at least to some, while others love the reassurance that wherever they go they will get the same bundle of shops services and facilities (or tourist book versions of “otherness”) without ever coming up against any resistance. Where does their unreal quality come from – so striking to some of us, those I suppose who draw back and observe, or experience these places in ways they were not designed for – while others look perfectly, if oddly, at home.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Really doesn’t live up to its title.

Why exactly are non-places robbing us of life, when looked at superficially they seem to provide us with a frictionless world centred on our needs? Why then are they so alienating, at least to some, while others love the reassurance that wherever they go they will get the same bundle of shops services and facilities (or tourist book versions of “otherness”) without ever coming up against any resistance. Where does their unreal quality come from – so striking to some of us, those I suppose who draw back and observe, or experience these places in ways they were not designed for – while others look perfectly, if oddly, at home.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago

The picture looks like an Edward Hopper.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ed Ruscha.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ironically it is most definitely a “place”.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ed Ruscha.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Ironically it is most definitely a “place”.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago

The picture looks like an Edward Hopper.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
8 months ago

Kind of interesting, although it doesn’t seem to expand much on Durkheim’s description of anomie from the end of the C19th. Maybe history really has ended.

Jake Prior
Jake Prior
8 months ago

Kind of interesting, although it doesn’t seem to expand much on Durkheim’s description of anomie from the end of the C19th. Maybe history really has ended.

Graeme
Graeme
8 months ago

I enjoyed this, and think that’s because the author is a scholar of Ballard, whose novels (I think) prefigure such an anthropology of non-places. (“Supercannes”?). I read Ballard when I was too young to understand him properly; this piece makes me want to re-read the later works.

Graeme
Graeme
8 months ago

I enjoyed this, and think that’s because the author is a scholar of Ballard, whose novels (I think) prefigure such an anthropology of non-places. (“Supercannes”?). I read Ballard when I was too young to understand him properly; this piece makes me want to re-read the later works.

Mark Kidel
Mark Kidel
8 months ago

Great to see Marc AugĂ© acknowledged in a British context. His book was one of those works that changed my life. What the Englsh translation the title misss out is that ‘non-lieu’ n French has several meanings. The main one is legal and refers to a case that has ben dismissed. That adds a richness to the psychogeographic anomie that characterises so much modern living and architecture.

Mark Kidel
Mark Kidel
8 months ago

Great to see Marc AugĂ© acknowledged in a British context. His book was one of those works that changed my life. What the Englsh translation the title misss out is that ‘non-lieu’ n French has several meanings. The main one is legal and refers to a case that has ben dismissed. That adds a richness to the psychogeographic anomie that characterises so much modern living and architecture.

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
8 months ago

We are widgets produced by the Industrial Widget Corporation.

Michel Starenky
Michel Starenky
8 months ago

We are widgets produced by the Industrial Widget Corporation.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
8 months ago

Interesting article. I think most of us oscillate between the home and the journey, the somewhere and the anywhere. Life is a journey after all. Modernity though pushes us relentlessly into consumer units. If I have a sense of home, then being a passenger is quite pleasant. I like airports and bland hotels, watching people going to different places for all sorts of reasons, while there is not much else I can do. Maybe another coffee? Well, in small doses, I appreciate home so much more when I get back.

G K
G K
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Terrell

Exactly, Abraham call or going camping in modern terms

G K
G K
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Terrell

Exactly, Abraham call or going camping in modern terms

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
8 months ago

Interesting article. I think most of us oscillate between the home and the journey, the somewhere and the anywhere. Life is a journey after all. Modernity though pushes us relentlessly into consumer units. If I have a sense of home, then being a passenger is quite pleasant. I like airports and bland hotels, watching people going to different places for all sorts of reasons, while there is not much else I can do. Maybe another coffee? Well, in small doses, I appreciate home so much more when I get back.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago

This article misses the biggest non-place of them all: school.

G K
G K
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Oh, so true.

G K
G K
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Oh, so true.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago

This article misses the biggest non-place of them all: school.

Marsha D
Marsha D
8 months ago

Ah
 this sort of thing is one of the reasons why I read UnHerd. De Certeau and Augé gave me news eyes on my world. A timely reminder to re-read.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

A good example of inhabiting non-places:

https://youtube.com/shorts/8DQpSdGuWyA?feature=share