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Introduction to the Second Edition of Non-Places

A provocative study of the ‘non-space’ which defines our age’s love for excess of information and space.

Marc Augé24 November 2023

Introduction to the Second Edition of Non-Places

Since the first publication of Non-Places in 1992, urbanization has continued to spread in developed and underdeveloped countries, as well as in those now called `emergent'. Giant megalopolitan clusters are expanding, and `urban filaments', to use the demographer Hervé Le Bras's expression — describing those areas that, at least in Europe, where space is rationed, connect large settlements to each other and house a large part of the population and industrial or commercial substance — are thickening along coasts, rivers and main roads.

What we are seeing here is a triple `decentring'.

Big cities are defined firstly by their capacity to import and export people, products, images and messages. Spatially, their importance can be measured by the quality and scale of the highway and rail networks linking them with their airports. Their relation with the exterior is being written into the landscape at the very moment that so-called `historic' centres are becoming increasingly attractive to tourists from all over the world.

In the dwellings themselves, houses or apartments, the television and computer now stand in for the hearth of antiquity. The Hellenists taught us that the household in classical Greece was watched over by two deities: Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, at the shadowy, feminine centre of the house; and the outward-looking Hermes, god of the threshold, protector of exchanges and of the men who monopolized them. Today the television and computer have replaced the hearth. Hermes has taken Hestia's place.

The individual, finally, is decentred in a sense from himself. He has instruments that place him in constant contact with the remotest parts of the outside world. Portable telephones are also cameras, able to capture still or moving images; they are also televisions and computers. The individual can thus live rather oddly in an intellectual, musical or visual environment that is wholly independent of his immediate physical surroundings.

This triple decentring corresponds to an unprecedented extension of what I will call `empirical non-places', meaning spaces of circulation, consumption and communication. At this point, however, we should remind ourselves that there are no `non-places' in the absolute sense of the term. I have defined an `anthropological place' as any space in which inscriptions of the social bond (for example, places where strict rules of residence are imposed on everyone) or collective history (for example, places of worship) can be seen. Such inscriptions are obviously less numerous in spaces bearing the stamp of the ephemeral and the transient. That does not mean, however, that either place or non-place really exists in the absolute sense of the term. The place/non-place pairing is an instrument for measuring the degree of sociality and symbolization of a given space.

Obviously, some places (places of meeting and exchange) can be constituted in what for outsiders remains rather a non-place. There is no contradiction between that observation and the unprecedented extension of spaces of circulation, consumption and communication corresponding to the phenomenon we identify today as `globalization'. This extension has important anthropological consequences, because individual and collective identity is always constructed in relation to and in negotiation with otherness. So henceforth the whole of the planetary field is open at once to investigation by the anthropologist of contemporary worlds.

This enables a number of themes and phenomena to be addressed anew.


A world without frontiers is an ideal that has always appeared to the more sincerely humanist individual as a world from which all forms of exclusion have been abolished. And the contemporary world is often presented to us as a place where the old frontiers have been erased. Does this really mean that we are drawing closer to the humanist ideal of universalism? Obviously things are not that simple, and to throw some light on them it seems to me important to reflect on three matters:

- In effect there does exist at present an ideology of globality without frontiers, which manifests itself in a very wide variety of human activities worldwide.

- The current globality consists of networks that produce both homogenization and exclusion.

- The notion of `frontiers' remains rich and complex. It does not necessarily signify compartmentalization and separation. The ideal, egalitarian world may come not through the abolition of frontiers, but through their recognition.

The French term mondialisation refers to two orders of reality: on the one hand to what we call globalization, which corresponds to the extension over the whole surface of the planet of the so-called free market and the technological networks of communication and information; and on the other to what one might call planetary awareness or consciousness, which itself has two aspects. We are more aware with every day that passes that we inhabit a single planet, a fragile, threatened body, infinitely small in an infinitely large universe; this planetary awareness is an ecological awareness, and an anxious one, that we all share a restricted space that we treat badly. At the same time, we are also aware of the gap, growing by the day, between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor; this planetary awareness is a social awareness, and an unhappy one. Lastly, on a worldwide scale, the gap is increasing in both absolute and relative terms between, at one extreme, those who cannot even acquire literacy, and those at the other extreme who can access the latest grand hypotheses on the makeup of the universe and the origins of life. Is it necessary to add that, globally speaking, the philosophical heritage of humanity seems to have been squandered and that, maintained by violence, injustice and inequality, the often contorted withdrawal into more or less backward and more or less intolerant religious forms takes the place of thought for a considerable part of humanity?

How can the trend be reversed? Certainly not with a magic wand or pious sentiments. If we want to prevent knowledge and science from being concentrated exclusively at the same poles as power and wealth, at the points where different networks of the global system intersect, then today education is the ultimate utopia.


The term `globalization' refers to the existence of a free, or allegedly free, market and of a technological network that covers the entire earth, to which a large number of individuals do not yet have access. The global world therefore is made up of networks, a system defined by parameters that are spatial, but also economic, technical, scientific and political.

The political dimension of this phenomenon has been exposed by Paul Virilio in several books, but most notably in La bombe informatique (1998). There he analyses the Pentagon's strategy and its conception of the opposition between the global and the local. The global is the system considered from the system's point of view, from the inside; from the same perspective, of course, the local is outside. So in the global world, the global occupies the same relationship to the local as the inside to the outside. This means that the local is intrinsically unstable: either it is a simple reduplication of the global (the word `glocal' has even been used) and the notion of frontier is indeed being erased; or the local disrupts the system and may become the object, in political terms, of an exercise in the right to interfere. When he invokes `the end of history' to underline the idea that the association of representative democracy with liberal economics is intellectually unsurpassable, Fukuyama by the same token introduces an opposition between system and history that reproduces the one between global and local. In the global world, history — in the sense of dissent from the system — can only come from outside. The global world presupposes, ideally at least, the erasure of frontiers and conflict.

This erasure of frontiers is brought to centre stage by audio-visual technology and the management of space. The spaces of circulation, consumption and communication are multiplying across the globe, making the presence of the networks they rely on highly visible. History (remoteness in time) is congealing into various forms of representation, becoming a type of entertainment, of particular importance to the globetrotting tourist. Cultural and geographic distance (remoteness in space) is undergoing the same fate. Exoticism, which was always an illusion, becomes doubly illusory the moment it is put on stage. And the same hotel chains, the same television networks are cinched tightly round the globe, so that we feel constrained by uniformity, by universal sameness, and to cross international borders brings no more profound variety than is found walking between theatres on Broadway or rides at Disneyland.


The urbanization of the world corresponds both to the expansion of big metropolitan centres and, along coasts and traffic routes, to the spread of Le Bras's urban filaments. The fact that the political and economic life of the planet hangs on decision- making centres situated in world metropolises that are all interconnected, together constituting a sort of `virtual meta-city' (to use Paul Virilio's coinage), completes this picture. The world is like a single immense conurbation.

But it is also true that every big town is a world, even though it is a recapitulation, a summary of the world with its ethnic, cultural, religious, social and economic diversity. These partitions, whose existence we sometimes forget when distracted by the spectacle of globalization, return to confront us in all-too-obvious form, pitilessly discriminating, in the strangely gaudy and tattered urban fabric. When people talk about problem areas, ghettos, poverty and underdevelopment, they are referring to the city. A great metropolis today absorbs and divides the world in all its diverseness and inequality. Traces of underdevelopment are to be found in places like New York, and the world network joins wealthy business districts to the impoverished cities of the Third World. The city-world by its very existence relativizes or reduces to insignificance the illusions of the world-city.

Walls, partitions, barriers are appearing on the local scale and in the most everyday management of space. In America there are already private towns; in Latin America, in Cairo and all parts of the world, private districts are making their appearance, city quarters that can only be entered with the right identity and connections. Consumption is only possible with the aid of codes (credit cards, cell phones, the special cards issued by supermarkets, airlines and so on). Seen on the individual scale and from the inner city, the global world is a world of discontinuity and interdict.

By contrast, the dominant aesthetic is that of the cinematic long shot, which tends to make us forget the effects of this rupture. Photos taken from observation satellites, aerial shots, habituate us to a global view of things. High office blocks and residential towers educate the gaze, as do movies and, even more significantly, television. The smooth flow of cars on a highway, aircraft taking off from airport runways, lone sailors circumnavigating the globe in small boats witnessed only by the television audience, create an image of the world as we would like it to be. But that mirage disintegrates if we look at it too closely.


Furthermore, when we invoke the ideal of a world without barriers and without exclusion, it is not certain that frontiers are really the issue. The history of human migration was shaped by what we call `natural frontiers' (rivers, oceans, mountain ranges). These frontiers haunted the imagination as humanity colonized the continents. The first frontier was the horizon. Originating in voyages of discovery, a mysterious Orient, a boundlesss overseas or a far west, there has always been a frontier to occupy the western imagination. The frontier is the threat that disturbs and fascinates in the novels of Dino Buzzati or Julien Gracq. Of course, brutal conquerors have often crossed frontiers to attack and dominate other human beings, but all human contacts can be corrupted by power. To respect frontiers is to make a pledge of peace.

The notion of frontiers itself marks the minimal and necessary distance that ought to exist between individuals to make them free to communicate with each other as they intend. Language is not an insurmountable barrier; it is a frontier. Learning the other's tongue, or the other's dialect, means establishing an elementary symbolic relation with him, respecting him and joining him; crossing the frontier.

A frontier is not a wall, but a threshold. It is not for nothing that in all the world's cultures, crossroads and boundaries have been the focus of intense ritual activity. It is not for nothing that humans everywhere have given a complex symbolic expression to the idea that death is a frontier: one that can be crossed in either direction, maintaining a promise of communication from one side to the other.

So our ideal ought not to be a world without frontiers, but one where all frontiers are recognized, respected and permeable; a world, in fact, where respect for differences would start with the equality of all individuals, independent of their origin or gender.


Growing familiarity with the world-city and the city-world can lead to a feeling, expressed in the early eighties by Paul Virilio in his book L'espace critique, that the city as such is disappearing. Of course, urbanization continues on all sides, but changes to the organization of labour, insecurity — that dark downside of mobility — and the technologies imposing on each individual, via television and the Internet, creating a sense of a geared-down, omnipresent centre, make contrasts between town and country or urban and non-urban increasingly meaningless.

The opposition between world-city and city-world parallels the one between system and history. It is so to speak its concrete spatial expression. The pre-eminence of system over history and of the global over the local has consequences in the domain of aesthetics, art and architecture. Leading architects have become international stars, and when a town aspires to feature in the world network it commissions one of them to produce an edifice that will stand as a monument, a testimony proving its presence in the world, in the sense of being wired into the system. Even if these architectural projects refer, in principle, to the historical or geographical context, they are quickly captured by worldwide consumption: the influx of tourists who come from all over the world to sanction their success. A variegated global influence swamps the local colour. Architectural works are singularities, expressing the vision of an individual author and emancipated from local particularism. They bear witness to a change of scale. Tschumi at La Villette, Renzo Piano at Beaubourg or in Noumeéa, Gehry in Bilbao, Pei at the Louvre, Nouvel in Paris or New York are the global local, the local in global colours, expressions of the system, its wealth and ostentatious assertiveness. All of these projects have their own particular local and historical justifications, but in the final analysis their prestige comes from worldwide recognition. Rem Koolhaas summarized his wholehearted approval of this with the pithy slogan `Fuck the context!' Some architects (Nouvel for example) insist by contrast on the appropriateness of each project to its particular location. But these special pleas, denials really, do not prevent large-scale world architecture from being built into the current dominant aesthetic, an aesthetic of distance that tends to make us overlook all the effects of rupture.

It is at this point that the paradox is solved. In one sense architecture is an expression of the system. It is sometimes a form of caricature when, as happened in Times Square, it generalizes the aesthetic of amusement parks like Disneyland, where image and fantasy reign triumphant, or when cities compete to erect the world's tallest building. But the spectacular splendour of some architectural achievements is undeniable too. Architecture does transmit in a sense the illusions of the current dominant ideology and plays a part in the aesthetic of transparency and reflection, height and harmony, the aesthetic of distance which, deliberately or not, supports those illusions and expresses the triumph of the system in the main strongholds of the planetary network; but in that very process it acquires a utopian dimension.

In its more significant manifestations, architecture seems to allude to a planetary society that is yet to materialize. It suggests the brilliant fragments of a splintered utopia in which we would like to believe, a society of transparency. It sketches something that is of the order of utopia and at the same time the order of allusion by drawing in broad strokes a time that has not yet arrived, that will perhaps never arrive, but that remains within the realms of the possible. In this sense, large-scale contemporary urban architecture reproduces in reverse the relation with time expressed by the spectacle of ruins. What we perceive in ruins is the impossibility of imagining completely what they would have represented to those who saw them before they crumbled. They speak not of history but of time, pure time.

What is true of the past is perhaps also true of the future. To perceive pure time is to grasp in the present a lack that structures the present moment by orienting it towards the past or the future. It arises equally well from the sight of the Acropolis or of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Both structures have an allusive existence. So it can happen that architecture, against the grain of the current dominant ideology of which it is part, seems to restore the meaning of time to us and speak to us of the future.

Another example of our intellectual difficulty in thinking simultaneously about continuity and discontinuity, local and global, place and non-place, emerges in art and artistic creation in general. If the relation between artistic creation and our history is so difficult to pin down these days, it is precisely because time is accelerating and, as it were, evading us, and because the overlaying of temporal language by spatial language, the primacy of code, which prescribes behaviour, over the symbolic, which constructs relations, shapes the conditions of artistic creation. The world that surrounds the artist and the period in which he lives reach him only as mediatized forms that are themselves effects, aspects and driving forces of the global system. That system serves as its own ideology; it functions like a set of instructions for use; it quite literally screens the reality for which it is substituting itself or rather whose place it is taking. The unease and disarray of artists confronted with this situation are also our own, and they tend to exacerbate those problems, and we may well wonder what we have to learn from them.

The here and the elsewhere

Another element both troublesome and liberating is specifically linked to the difficulty that now attends the crossing of a frontier between the here and the elsewhere.

In its early days, cultural anthropology employed the notion of the `cultural trait'. A cultural trait could be either a material invention (a way of cooking, a technique for capturing fish or game, a body ornament) or an immaterial one (a ritual, deity or institution). The circulation and the diffusion of these traits were considered one of the forces for change within the world's societies. The goal was always to discover the relative importance of `diffusion' and evolution in this process.

In the contemporary world, the goal has changed radically. In the post-colonial era, there is no longer any chance to observe autonomous evolution in any human group. Purposely or by necessity, the human race has become objectively interdependent. The existence of the market accelerates the circulation and exchange of goods of all sorts. Integration with the planetary network is the necessary precondition for economic prosperity and political worth. From this point of view, the demand in which world-class architects (American, Italian, French, Dutch and others) are held in numerous cities on every continent and the aspiration of emergent countries to wield nuclear technology emerge from the same logic.

By the same token it is becoming more difficult by the day to distinguish between the exterior and the interior, the elsewhere and the here. This is what Paul Virilio hypothesized when he referred to the Pentagon's effort to set the global/interior and local/exterior pairings in opposition to each other. If that is how things are, it is easy to understand that the question of borrowings, influences or exchanges in the various domains of creation could turn out to be more complex than it looks: is it today instituting a new relation to others and the diversity of the world, or a new type of uniformization or even dominion? To attempt an answer to this question, there is surely a need to rephrase the question of the here and the elsewhere. One of the great divisions in the world at present is that between wealth and poverty, which cannot be reduced to a contrast between the developed and the underdeveloped worlds, given that there are under-developed zones in rich countries and developed sectors in some poor ones. This does not prevent our time from being marked by the great efforts of large numbers of people from countries in the South to gain entry to the promised land of the North. Under these conditions, the question of the various borrowings or influences that might be chosen by those working in the domains of architecture, design, fashion or cuisine is very obviously a `luxury' issue that exists essentially in the more fortunate parts of the world.

It was always like that. In the sixteenth century the Renaissance, initially Italian, then French, went through a period of return to classical Antiquity, which put new life into the Christian tradition and also absorbed influences from distant parts of the world (America, Africa, China), which Lévi-Strauss identified as the source of European vitality and dynamism at that time. The `here' in that context is clearly Europe, and the `elsewhere' the rest of the world. Have things really changed? Yes, in the sense that although there is still a centre of the world, it has geared down and to some extent deterritorialized. The virtual metacity consists of both the world's huge metropolises (the most influential of which are located mainly — but not exclusively — in America, Japan and Europe) and the exchange, communications and information networks that link them. In many contexts today people are more likely to mention the names of cities than of the countries where they are located.

So it is important to distinguish between different situations. In one sense, everything circulates and can be found anywhere. In Brazil, for example, ethnic groups that were thought to have vanished reappeared because the Brazilian government had a policy of granting land to socially constituted ethnic groups. Scattered, isolated mixed-race individuals came back together and reinvented, on the basis of memories and improvisation, common rules and rituals. For these ceremonies, they quite often resorted to objects circulating in the market, mostly of Asian origin: this is a clear example of the diffusion of material `traits' in the service of cultural reinvention. It is a return to the sources, but to external, borrowed sources. It seems anyway most unlikely that there is anything unprecedented about that, and it is easy to imagine that groups and religions have always been cobbled together in this way. What is new is the access to such very distant sources: it testifies to a new organization of the planet.

In the domains of architecture, art and design — fields that intersect with and partially duplicate each other — the involvement of forms or objects of remote origin does not result from the same constraints. It proceeds from a considered choice and has meaning in privileged circles aware of the immense possibilities offered, theoretically and ideally, by making the entire planet accessible to everyone's gaze. It indicates a sort of inspired, humanist-leaning eclecticism, opposed to cultural monopolies and to ethnocentrism. The problem that confronts the defenders of that eclecticism, as it confronts all artists today, is the extreme flexibility of the global system, which is extraordinarily adept at appropriating all declarations of independence and every attempt at originality. Before they are even formulated, calls for pluralism, for diversity, for recasting, for the redefinition of criteria, for openness to other cultures are absorbed, proclaimed, trivialized and staged by the system, meaning in concrete terms by the media, the fixed and moving image, the political and other authorities. The difficulty facing art, in the broadest sense of the word, has always been to distance itself from a society that it has to embody, nonetheless, if it wants to be understood. Art has to express society (meaning nowadays the world), but it has to do it deliberately. It cannot be simply a passive expression, a mere aspect of the situation. It has to be expressive and reflexive if it wants to show us anything we do not see daily on TV or in the supermarket. Under current conditions it is both more important and more difficult to manage this gap between expression and reflexiveness, which concerns in the first instance the paradoxical eclecticism of that recourse to the exterior in a world where there is no longer an elsewhere.

Perhaps today's artists and writers are doomed to seek beauty in `non-places', to discover it by resisting the apparent obviousness of current events. They may do this by high- lighting the enigmatic character of objects, of things disconnected from any exegesis or practical use, by putting a spotlight on the media that try to pass for mediators, by rejecting sham and mimicry. Architects for their part have two ways out. Some are directly concerned with the world's misery and urgent issues of housing, of construction or reconstruction; others get the chance to make frontal attacks on the spaces of communication, circulation and consumption, `empirical non-places'. Airports, railway stations, bridges, and some hypermarkets are imagined by the greatest architects as communal spaces able to give those who use them, travellers, customers or clients, a feeling that neither time nor beauty are absent from their history. They are further fragments of utopia, in the image of our time divided between passivity, anxiety and, despite everything, hope or, at the very least, expectation.

—An excerpt from Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity by Marc Augé, Translated by John Howe.

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