Criticality

Place can, like so many other things, be used to exclude. By producing definitions which outline what place should be the alien elements glow, are made more conspicuous. Ideas of purity frequently hark back to a time when the place was better, simpler. Imagined pasts may be misaligned with historical realities or conceal aspects of place which do not fit in the image. These narratives are a fallacious way of making current inconsistencies and contradictions seem like potent junctions or crossroads in the battle to maintain an idealised place. Yet, whilst these can sometimes exert tension in such a way that places appear like their idealised representations, sooner or later they crumble, riven with too many inconsistencies, broken down by the dynamic presence of places themselves, which are not easily categorised.

Criticality requires us to be wary of these representations of place. It requires us to be attentive to how places have become, how they are still becoming, how our ideas of what a place is are imprecise. We are constantly renegotiating who we are in relation to place and what place is in relation to us. Place is what is immediately there, but also what is hidden. It may be the bed of rock or geological formation on which the land rests, which gives a place its peculiar shape and soil. It is the materials used to construct the place, originally sourced from close by, now sourced from afar. It is the weather and climate. It is the people and their interactions, the identities forged in multiple places which come to impress themselves on a new place and feel its push back. It is landmarks, both personal and collective, which shape people’s imaginations of place. The park, the post-box where you were caught graffitiing as a kid, the church spire, the old pub, the little quadrant of shops, the anti-landmarks which are less beautiful than infamous. It is the gritty, grey materiality.

To view place critically (in this sense) is to view how it fits into existing ecologies, to see how much it relies on other places and other peoples, ‘shadow places’ (Plumwood, 2008), ‘shadow peoples’, who were and are side-lined in the stories of places. To acknowledge reliance is to critically address perspectives which simplify relationships through a disavowal of the necessity of acknowledgement. This disavowal often occurs in market-economies which ‘dematerialise’ place-consciousness, portraying it as something idealised and singular, even whilst the very materials used to construct that place are imported. The implicit care-based valuation that occurs in the extraction of materials and labour from ‘shadow places’ is this: sites of extraction are places that are worth less (and can therefore be plundered), even whilst those materials, sufficiently reconstituted in industrial processes, may increase the value of a place hundreds or thousands of miles away.

A relationship with place of this sorts creates disparities in wealth and in who bears the brunt of ecological degradation, it denies the agency of some places (as they are constituted by both people and other things) and justifies continued extraction of materials. How, then, can we come to a critical appreciation of places which are made up of so many hidden or othered places and processes, places and processes of ecological destruction and labour exploitation? How can we acknowledge all of this whilst remaining responsive to the immediacy of our everyday lives, the routes we take, the buildings we live, work and relax in, and the configurations of the natural within the urban?