“Paradoxically, the more pervasive and invasive Google Earth, GPS and customized apps become, the less we know where we are. And when we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are.”—Mark Taylor
The following post is by Mark C. Taylor, most recently the author of Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill:
Place is disappearing. The accelerating intersection of globalization, virtualization and cellularization is transforming the world and human life at an unprecedented rate. The fascination with speed for speed’s sake is creating a culture of distraction in which thoughtful reflection and contemplation are all but impossible. These developments are driven by new information and networking technologies that have created a form of global capitalism in which, as Karl Marx predicted, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” As processes of globalization expand, localization contracts until place virtually disappears in a homogenous space that is subject to constant surveillance and regulation.
While science and technology are literally changing the face of the earth, it is rarely noted that modern and postmodern art prepared the way for this grand transformation. Modernism’s veneration of speed, mobility, abstraction and the new combines with postmodernism’s play with free-floating signs that are backed by nothing other than other signs to prefigure the virtualization of life that occurs when the tensions of temporality vanish in the apparent simultaneity of so-called “real time.” Paradoxically, the more pervasive and invasive Google Earth, GPS and customized apps become, the less we know where we are. And when we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are.
While new information, networking and media technologies have undeniable benefits, they also bring losses that should not be overlooked. The guiding thesis of Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill is that globalization, virtualization, and cellularization result in the disappearance of place and the eclipse of what once seemed real. While these processes appear liberating to many people, they are often profoundly destructive of human relationships as well as the natural world. My wager is that by pausing to dwell on and in a particular place we might once again know who we are by rediscovering where we are. This is not an exercise in nostalgia but rather a deliberate attempt to fathom various sedimentations surrounding us that might harbor alternative futures that would allow us to recover ourselves by recovering place. But what is place? Where is place? How does placing occur?
I have been exploring these questions in my teaching and writing for more than four decades. As the processes of dematerialization, virtualization, and globalization have accelerated, I have been drawn once again to the material, the real, and the local. Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill is the third work in a trilogy that includes Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy and Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. In these books, I return to what has been left behind but does not disappear to imagine the looming future, which harbors the prospect of either exceptional creativity or unprecedented destruction.
As industrial capitalism has given way to financial capitalism, personal, social, political and economic fragmentation has spread and deepened. Technologies that were supposed to connect and integrate are creating divisions within and among individuals and deepening the opposition between humanity and the natural world. Globalization leads to a hyper-competitive environment in which any sense of the whole—be it personal, social or natural—is lost. At this critical moment, perhaps change can come from refiguring the insights of past writers, poets, artists, philosophers and theologians for our time and place. If this effort is to be effective, it cannot remain disinterested, analytical and critical but must be committed to developing creative and constructive strategies for dealing with our most urgent problems. We need new maps to help us navigate territories that will become even more perilous in the future.
Recovering Place is not simply a book but is a multifaceted work that integrates original land art, sculpture, photography and writing. The interplay of words, objects, and images creates an opening for reflection, perhaps even contemplation. By taking philosophy off the page and outdoors, this work allows readers to hear silence, see light and darkness, notice what is all too often overlooked, and to think what for too long has been remained unthought. To see beauty in earth, stone, metal, wood, and water is to appreciate the bearable gravity of life before it is too late.