Marc Augé's book "non-places" explores the interstitial places between the 'significant and meaningful' spaces that he calls 'place'. He starts with a prologue about a man traveling from Paris by airplane. The man draws money, waits on the highway, enters the airport, then the airplane itself. All the while his reality is suffused with the advertising, the bright lights, digital displays, glass and polished walkways of places that are not quite places in Augé's sense, but which acquire their identity from their being on the way to other places, near or far. These 'non-places' are the declared interest of Augé.
But in the first chapter he conducts a very general study of 'the contemporary world' with the goal to find possible objects for anthropological investigation, which in the end turn out to be these 'non-places'. They seem to be the answer to the question posed by Augé, "whether there are any aspects of contemporary social life that seem to be accessible to anthropological investigation" (p. 16).
Augé observes three kinds of accelerated transformations that are responsible for what he eventually calls 'supermodernity'. Speaking about time he states an "acceleration of history" (p. 26) which leads to an overabundance of events. Secondly Augé finds a surplus in the realm of space: "the excess of space is correlative with the shrinking of the planet" (p. 31) which leads to a spatial overabundance. His third 'figure of excess', as he calls them, is "the figure of the ego, the individual" (p. 36).
In the second chapter Augé explains the more traditional anthropological notion of place, which enables him in the third chapter to construct his notion of 'non-places' partly in contrast to it. 'Place' for Augé means historical places within a complex historical and social context of other spaces in which 'normal' social interaction occurs. The airport lounges, fast food spots and transport spaces such as high-speed highways and railway lines, are not 'place' because they lack the quality of the 'social fact'. The transitional spaces are always 'here' and always 'there'; bridging between those culturally elaborated and historically situated places that seem much more 'real' for Augé.
In the third chapter he first gives a negative definition of non-places: "If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place." (p. 77-78) Non-places are being produced by supermodernity and do not integrate earlier places. A few pages later Augé explains a little more clearly, that the word 'non-place' for him "designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces." (p. 94)
A general problem I had with this book is that it is written - to say the least - not very careful and quite unaware of what is going on outside of French anthropology. Augé seems to want to develop a new anthropology but amidst all his spaces and places doesn't even realize that non-places also imply that there are transitions between spaces, between fields. As far as I see it, it is impossible today to develop a 'valid' theory that is totally ignorant of anything that goes on outside its direct territory. Besides citing only French sources he doesn't even seem to know his most important French contemporaries in theory. He alludes somewhat simplistic (and this way becoming wrongly) to "the mirror as the first identification with the image of the self" (p. 84) and doesn't even mention Jacques Lacan; he writes at length about movements and speeds of traveling (p. 85-86, 96) and doesn't make a single reference to Paul Virilio who published more than one book in this field. On another occasion Augé argues against textual anthropology, but doesn't even know the basic differences of how to deal with a text. He writes about hermeneutics and deconstruction (foundations of the latter laid by his compatriot Jacques Derrida) as if it were the same thing (p. 36), while they are the two contemporary methods of literary theory somewhat farthest opposed.
My second fundamental problem with Augé's text is his almost complete unawareness (he mentions it very marginally) of electronic media which are as I think at the same time something like the 'essence' of a non-place: the whole world happens on TV, but where actually is TV? and the creators of supermodernity as Augé describes it. What is the reason for the "overabundance of events in the contemporary world" (p. 30) that Augé sees as one of the creators of supermodernity? It is the media that will transmit any event 'in the world' to everybody, and if there is nothing suitable around, the 'event' will be created (very recent example: a friend told me about the ceremony of the lightning of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree which used to take about half an hour. Since the networks broadcast it, it takes several hours). The same question can be asked about the second and third category of Augé's supermodernity. Why for instance is 'history snapping at our heels'? The motto of media business answers: 'nothing is older than yesterdays news'. Why is the individual 'making a comeback'? Because it is being created (as Augé in another context states himself) by advertisements and other media. Augé's ignorance is the more astonishing since anthropologists have employed technical media in a rather central place of their work: audio-tapes, photography, film (=> Margaret Mead-Festival) were and probably still are basic instruments of anthropological research.
I find it difficult to accept Augé's insights concerning 'the contemporary world', since he leaves out too many important details.