Art and Creativity Coaching Articles

Building identity through taboos and non-places

Non-Places, Taboos and Identity

French anthropologist, Marc Augé, in his masterpiece, “Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity” coined the term “non-place” to describe those transient places in society that do not hold enough significance to be called “places”.

Today we might refer to them as “liminal spaces” – those places in between places. Examples might be motorways or supermarkets, hallways and entrances to buildings, slaughterhouses or abandoned houses. Consider also the political associations of marking a place as a “non-place”, such as an area abandoned or “hidden” by mainstream society but frequented by the disenfranchised. The non-place is overlooked and relegated to the sidelines, as are the people or animals who dwell in the non-place: homeless people, sex workers, supermarket staff, road maintenance crews, travellers, cleaners, animals for slaughter …

…”matter out of place” forms the basis of a “taboo”.

During my studies of non-place, an interesting issue arose around the concept of “matter out of place”: this refers to those “things” (objects, actions or people) that are found to be in a place considered by society to be wrong! (Think, litter in a graveyard, a drunk in a school, a dead person at a wedding…) This concept of “matter out of place” defines the basis of a “taboo”.

The definition of a taboo changes depending on the society and culture; essentially they are generally unspoken rules as to what society finds acceptable and tolerable or unacceptable and intolerable. These rules are taught from the cradle and become a generally understood set of behavioural rules. When people transgress these rules, they are committing taboo acts. The range of transgressions goes from minor to so major as to incur ostracism or death at the hands of your fellow society members. An extreme example is those cases within families (a microcosmic social unit) where so-called “honour killings” occur when the woman is considered to have transgressed a taboo.

…there are people who skirt around, bend and break the taboos of their respective society.

Taboos are the way that society keeps control of us. Taboos can sometimes be about protecting us from harm (for example, the prohibition to eat certain foods often has its roots in hygiene and disease prevention). But the problem with taboos is that they become so ingrained and deep-rooted that people do not question them, and it is rare for a society as a whole to transform a taboo into a permitted “thing”; what comes to mind as an example is the way that women in some Western societies now have more ownership of their bodies, sexual expression and reproductive rights, when only decades ago it was the man/patriarchal society that deemed what was to be done with a woman’s body. Sadly this “taboo” is still prevalent in many pockets of the Western world and there are political movements (especially in America) working hard to reinforce these outdated ways of thinking into legislation, i.e. to make it taboo again.

Thankfully there are people questioning these taboos … and sadly, they are also dying and being tortured for questioning the “norm” – so powerful is the taboo.

However, there are people who skirt around, bend and break the taboos of their respective society. These people are sometimes risk takers or have a generally perverse (NOT perverted!) attitude to mainstream culture. But the taboo-questioners are also the great thinkers of society, the ones who question the norms and push us to investigate whether certain taboos are still relevant, just, moral and pertinent. Another example of taboos is that in some societies there is a prohibition against women getting an education. Thankfully there are people questioning these taboos … but sadly, they are also dying and being tortured for questioning the “norm” – so powerful is the taboo.

During my Social Anthropological studies of place/non-place and taboo, I learned to question what society shows as its public face. Its public face is coherent, “clean” and strategically strong holding society within accepted bounds that keep the strong/rich in their place and the weak/poor very much in their lesser place.

I believe it is important as part of self-definition, identity and as part of our responsibility to our fellow earthlings to cultivate an eye to the non-places and to the taboos that boundary our personal lives.

Firstly, I would suggest looking to the disenfranchised people who occupy the non-places. These people, by dint of their circumstances or professions, are overlooked and marginalised by society. Their lives are valued less than people who occupy “places” (Is a cleaner respected as much as a doctor? A homeless person as much as a home-owner?). Is that moral and just? No. I have lived and worked in non-places; I know what it’s like to be there – invisible, unsafe, impoverished in every sense. We have the potential to be bridges between places and non-places to those beings (human and animal) who dwell there. The moral choice as to whether we ignore the non-places and their in-dwellers or not is ours alone to make.

Secondly, by suggesting we look at the taboos that act as boundaries around our lives and our choices, I am not suggesting wholesale revolution or anarchy. Start with your own microcosm: what unspoken taboos did you swallow growing up in your family or community? Isn’t it time to regurgitate what you were told you could and could not be, could and could not do? Spew it up and have a good look at it, and yes, it will probably be as nasty and uncomfortable as that sounds. Question everything and see where you can make changes. It will be scary because taboos are taught with the idea that should we transgress them we will be ostracized, die or forever be treated as a black sheep. But guess what, the black sheep are the innovators and creators, the dreamers and visionaries. And yes, it does take courage to stand out from the crowd … or to walk away from the crowd entirely.

How do you give meaning to the places you frequent? Are there places you avoid, and if so why? What feelings does it evoke for you to consider dwelling in the non-places, even if briefly? Consider defining your own boundaries and identity by imagining beyond the strictures of the “norm”!

Enter the non-places & question your personal taboos!

Non-Places, Taboos and Identity

©MavKühn 2016




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