Exploring the concept of placeness, one finds – as do those who dig deeper into the intricacies of physics or medicine or philosophy or any other science, art or craft – that the ideas get bigger as the scope gets smaller. Atoms, at one time, seemed miraculous enough as a micro building block of what we perceive as existence, but attempts to make even finer points of it have turned up gluons and other particles that have made matters (and matter) even more complex, and have sent us off on new directions via twisty paths, with the understanding of everything as the goal. Good luck with that.
Similarly, in pondering placeness, and placeness as art, and art itself, we here at arslocii have gone to places and seen things, and felt things, and recorded them, and so have come up with descriptions, skirted and homed in on definitions, and evolved questions, which in turn have generated more questions. Sometimes, clarity has been the reward; at other times, it’s been like trying to scoop up light in our hands and sip it.
On the radio this morning, music started playing, and then the deejay began speaking while the song continued at a somewhat lowered volume, and he said, to identify the tune, “Behind me you’re hearing …” and we thought: “Behind”? Unless the show’s host had actually turned his back on the CD player in the studio, there was nothing literally “behind” about it. But, in terms of placeness, it was a fascinating jumping off point: thinking of a diminished sound as being “behind,” as if radio waves were a place with directional coordinates. (Sometimes, intriguingly, “behind” is referred to instead by radio professionals as “under,” and the announcer is said to speak “over” the music.) It’s not location we’re dealing with here, really, nor physical layering, but representative abstract depiction, a metaphorical component to placeness.
And it got us to thinking (or, actually, rethinking) about where placeness resides; that is: Does or can a place contain “placeness,” in and of itself, as an essence of it, or is placeness just something in our head that we superimpose on a site, for some reason or need? Is it there, or do we bring it with us? And what is “it”? And where is “there”? And, as with radio, do you need to have an actual, physical place to have placeness?
Of course, something like radio is easily the topic of a placeness discussion in and of itself. Anyone lucky enough (i.e., old enough) to have heard Stan Freberg’s power-of-radio commercial (“Cue the maraschino cherry!”), or Jean Shepherd’s intimate and rollicking latenight monologues, knows that these artists of the air did more than just paint pictures with their words and sounds – they created places we were in, and today we have memories of being there. We can not only describe what we “saw,” but tell you how it smelled, or how big things were. They were magicians of placeness – they took us someplace else: behind, under, over. And no matter whether you were listening to them in the dark of night or the light of an afternoon, in a room, in a car, in the park, the placeness was there. And we were in it.
Is placeness an objective, universally grasped trait or aspect of the “personality” of a locale? Or, if placeness is not objective, and does not reside per se in the places we deem as having placeness, then it is a subjective thing, a personal preference, as much nurture as nature. A need in search of a vessel to hold it.
Or maybe it’s neither. Or maybe it’s both. (We’d sort of like, in a philosophical-cum-romantic way, for placeness to be an entity that exists in a place, just waiting to be discovered, like a new element, or a treasure in an antique shop, or a new sense, like umami.) Or maybe it is something we are meant to perceive but never quite understand – like great art, to know it when you see it, but never to have the tools to explain how or why, but to know when you are in the presence of it.
The direction of our future “digs” into the stratified soil of placeness – including our continued visits to and descriptions of places that we contend have that quality, that “soul,” if you will – will be to continue trying to determine what it is that gives places that are universally regarded as possessing placeness their “placeness,” to split the atom of it, to see the particles and attracting/repelling forces that give it its substance and shape – to get down to the indivisible, irreducible, ineluctable core. It’s a journey that may take us into places we cannot imagine that we will go, or that we ever knew existed: to dwell in places where music being “behind” or “under” or “over” is more than just a convenient expression but, rather, a signpost.