Non-Places, Muzak, And George Bataille: Losing Oneself in Atmosphere

#atmosphere #Bataille #capitalism #consumerism #architecture #atmospherictheology #AndyWarhol

For starters, let's consider a quick definition of the concept of “non-place”:

Non-places are spaces that are not specifically designed for or associated with any particular social or cultural activities. They are often characterized by their lack of history or unique character, and are used by people for transit or as places to perform simple, practical tasks. Examples of non-places include airports, highway rest stops, and chain stores. Non-places are often seen as being anonymous and lacking in local or cultural significance. They are often contrasted with places, which are spaces that are associated with specific social or cultural activities and have a sense of history and character.

In this sense, a non-place is quite similar to a liminal space, which is likewise associated with transition and waiting, such as a hotel room or a shopping mall during closing hours. A liminal space can be a non-place, but I don't think they are precisely identical because a liminal space can still have a coherent sense of identity. For example, I remember when I was a kid, I once had to make a trip to my elementary school on a weekend. Walking through those abandoned, lifeless halls was certainly liminal, but it was not devoid of identity. My elementary school had a firmly established identity, which was connected to a broader historical development and narrative. A non-place, on the other hand, specifically lacks such an identity and historical narrative within a specific culture. The ubiquitous presence of a non-space provides for it something like a quasi-omnipresence that dissolves any particularity or presence itself.

The example of an airport mentioned above reminds me of Andy Warhol, who once said that he loved going through the airport. Apparently, he would go through security and traverse the terminals multiple times without ever intending to board the plane. In his book, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol,” he said,

“Today my favorite kind of atmosphere is the airport atmosphere. (...) Airplanes and airports have my favorite kind of food service, my favorite kind of bathrooms, my favorite peppermint Life Savers, my favorite kinds of entertainment, my favorite loudspeaker address systems, my favorite conveyor belts, my favorite graphics and colors, the best security checks, the best views, the best perfume shops, the best employees, and the best optimism. I love the way you don't have to think about where you're going, someone else is doing that (...).”

Ironically, this is pre-9/11 airport travel, and going to an airport has only gotten more stressful with so many added security measures. Nonetheless, it's interesting that Warhol notes how one can, at least in his time, traverse an airport without thinking, as if one is a cog in the machine.

The machinic nature of going through the non-space of an airport fits well with the themes in much of Warhol's art — namely, the de-subjectifying power of commercialism and capitalism. As Warhol famously said, “Paintings are too hard. The things I want to show are mechanical. Machines have less problems. I'd like to be a machine. Wouldn't you?” Additionally, it is said that Warhol would create his art in a state of consumerist “zero-consciousness” where he would achieve a quasi-meditative state by simultaneously running the television and radio while thumbing through a magazine. When creating his art, Warhol would allow his consciousness to be thoroughly saturated by the mass consumer pop-culture of late capitalism, and thus you have Pop art. It seems to me that such zero-consciousness or de-subjectivity is the pure phenomenological experience of non-places.

Now, if I asked people to pick the ideal form of music to fill the atmospheres of non-places, they would perhaps suggest “smooth jazz,” elevator music, or corporate muzak. Muzak is a brand of background music that is played in public places, such as stores, offices, and hotels. It is typically designed to be unobtrusive and to create a pleasant or relaxing atmosphere for people who are working or shopping. In a sense, it is created to be “heard” but not listened to, existing purely for the sake of supporting the atmosphere of a non-place.

Because muzak is typically meant to point away from itself, it is a form of art that rejects itself as art. This is why I think vaporwave — and especially its subgenre “mallsoft” — is so interesting as an art movement. Mallsoft severs muzak from its original architectural, non-place location, and forces the listener to engage with music itself. In a sense, mallsoft tries to capture the atmosphere-in-itself of non-places.

For a sample of this type of music, here is my favorite mallsoft album:

Non-place and Religious Experience

Under the proper atmospheric conditions, when a non-space is combined with muzak, the result can be a type of regulated de-subjectivity, prompting the individual into a Warholian machinic behavior. In many cases, such as chain stores, the desired behavior is consumerism.

I don't mean to be too deterministic in my assessment. Atmospheres are composed of many agents, and people relate to spaces in different ways that are not a priori controllable when establishing an atmosphere. However, I think many of us could relate to the experience of getting “lost” in a dreamlike state while out shopping, moving on autopilot the way we sometimes unconsciously drive cars. Through this phenomenon, I think we can see that non-places operate as a type of sacred space for capitalism.

The religious nature of non-places might perhaps be linked to the feeling of continuity with the atmosphere brought about through (however brief) a disruption in the distinction between self and the external world.

The disruption of the distinction between self and the external world was a topic that fascinated French philosopher Georges Bataille. He placed this phenomenon within a dialectic between “discontinuity” (think “individuation) and “continuity.” Discontinuity is defined by Bataille as that which makes the individual distinct from the rest of the world—i.e., not in continuity with other beings, the ability to say, I am not identical to other things, but I am a unique being. In Bataille’s words, 

“This gulf (of discontinuity) exists, for instance, between you, listening to me, and me, speaking to you. We are attempting to communicate, but no communication between us can abolish our fundamental difference. If you die, it is not my death. You and I are discontinuous beings” (emphasis original). 

By “continuity,” Bataille simply means the parts of the external world that are devoid of sentience or subjectivity, whereas discontinuity arises from subjectivity. For Bataille, the chief example of continuity is death, in which the individuation of the subject passes, and the physical body is transformed into a corpse—a continuity with the rest of existence, subjectless and subsumed without resistance into the external order of things. The continuity-discontinuity dialectic is what makes atmospheres (and non-places) so interesting: in some cases, an atmosphere can inextricably link self and non-self. In most cases, the link is not so extreme, but it is still enough to cause a sense of wonder because it calls one’s discontinuity into question.

Bataille linked discontinuity with eroticism and continuity with death. As he said, “The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity.” One becomes aware of one’s own individuation from the world and subsequently longs for a deeper connection beyond oneself—chiefly exemplified by the eros of romantic encounter with a beloved. Death, on the other hand, brings the loss of self to the order of the external world. To push the erotic to its extreme can even induce a type of ‘death,’ such as the loss of oneself in the most passionate of romantic encounters. In Bataille’s famous work Erotism: Death and Sensuality, he provides numerous examples in which death and eros, though distinct, are frequently intermingled, often resulting in states of ecstasy or fervor. The implication for atmospheric studies is as follows: By linking subjectivity and objectivity, atmosphere can be an avenue for blending discontinuity (eros) and continuity (loss of self) together into an ecstatic or surreal experience that is both spatial and emotional. Atmospheres can influence experiences of transcendence through the expansion of bodily space, resulting in a deeper connection to the surrounding world.

However, being subsumed (in whatever degree) into a space brings about danger: If the self is being, in some sense, disrupted and reconstituted, then into what new sense of identity is one emerging? In the case of non-places, it seems that one's identity is being reconstituted into that of a consumer. In a less-radical interpretation, we could say that this reconstitution might be trivial at best or only slightly harmful in that too much consumerism perhaps distracts us from more important matters and can lead to too much waste. In a more radical interpretation, non-places can be seen as “sacred” spaces in which the individual experiences a (brief) apotheosis into the capitalist machine god that is seeking world-domination and devotion, a type of spiritual warfare attempting to usurp the rightful rule of God. But again, that's a pretty extreme reading. At the very least, I think we can see that capitalism bears with it a certain type of truncated and immanent religious modality.