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Why Place Matters

July 24, 2014

To say that “place” matters is, to some extent, to swim against the principal currents of our times. The globalization of commerce, and the technologies of communication and transportation that have made globalization possible, make it so easy to move people and products, ideas and styles, that it sometimes seems as if the world is in fact becoming placeless. The tenuous and fungible nature of place in our times is as evident as the phone vibrating in our hands: when we answer, our first question to the caller is likely to be, “Where are you?” and the answer the caller gives us could plausibly be almost anyplace from Manhattan to Mumbai to the house next door. What more powerful evidence is there that place doesn’t matter anymore? Isn’t stressing the importance of place in our lives just a symptom of backward-looking nostalgia?

But place does still matter. Whether we like it nor not, we are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular, in the finite conditions of our embodiment, our creatureliness. So is everything else, even if we sometimes forget the facts of the matter, or get caught up in the power of our own digital illusions. The “cloud” in which untold billions of digital interactions are 0ccurring as you are reading this is not a cloud in the sky; it is the illusion of a cloud, a fantasy, a metaphor whose plausibility is grounded in and sustained by an army of servers, ungainly looking physical objects that are very much sitting right here on the ground, vulnerable to hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, and other calamities. In losing “place” entirely, and succumbing to the idea that a website can be a place and that digital relationships can substitute for friends and family, we risk forgetting this reality of our embodiment, risk losing the basis for healthy and resilient individual identity, and risk forfeiting the needed preconditions for the cultivation of public virtues. For one cannot be a citizen without being a citizen of some place in particular; one cannot be a citizen of a website, or a motel. And if these dangers are real and present ones, surely we are not helpless to address them. Surely there are ways that intelligent people, and intelligent public policy, can begin to address them constructively, by means of reasonable and democratic innovations.

Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, “Preface,” in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, eds.¬† idem (New York: New Atlantis Books, 2014), ix-x.

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