Review; Place, Modernity and the Consumer’s World by Robert D Sack (1992) Assessment 8 out of 10

Robert Sack is an Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin. My favourite Geographer who is also a writer, Yi Fu Tuan, also taught there, so this was clearly a power house. Like Tuan, Sack is a philosopher as much as he is a Geographer.

I read the Book once and wasn’t sure I liked it. I then read it again, concentrating on the passages I had highlighted and found I was increasingly impressed.The Book puts forward two big ideas. Neither is simple.

The first big idea is summarised in the figure below.

A Relational Geographic Framework; Space and Place (Somewhere) lie at the interaction of Forces (ontology) and Perspectives (epistemology). The Axes between Somewhere and Nowhere represent different forms of abstraction, the Lenses perspectives along those Axes. Sack doesn’t say so , but presumably the Lenses include religion, economics, Marxism and feminism, none of them taking a geographic perspective.

What Sack is saying is that ideas are increasingly derived from a theoretical position of Nowhere, unrooted in reality. Arguments and philosophical positions based in reality come from Somewhere, locations where nature, meaning and social relations are situate, overlap and interact. Theory fails where it ignores actual locations and actual lives.

In the Heroic Age, in Homer and in Irish and Icelandic Sagas, morality and social structure were one and the same. Society’s values were given, based in Somewhere. Virtues were cunning, bravery, humour, friendship and loyalty, not universal love, humility or charity.

In the Classical period philosophers moved away from Somewhere. Moral questions were posed abstractly but the individual was still part of the social whole, the polis.

In the modern world the social fabric has dissolved, morals are conceived in universalist and abstract terms. The Me Generation is self-occupied, its relations fragmented.

Sack’s model contrasts place and space. The modern perspective from Nowhere favours organisation of space which is geometrical and provides a supposedly ordered landscape of transportation and settlement.

The views of insiders and outsiders can be different. Places which are important to insiders may not be recognised as places by outsiders or by geographers.  The abstract view of space suspects any interest in the specificity of place and community, which it sees as potentially conservative and an impediment to planning.

The second big idea is concerned with the Geography of Consumption. Our non-working lives are increasingly spent in landscapes of consumption, housing developments, resorts, shopping arcades, theme parks, art galleries which are like department stores, department stores which are like art galleries. Places of consumption stress their separateness and present themselves as worlds apart. They stand in an intermediate and mediating place between structured geometric space and places which are traditional, personal and idiosyncratic.  By ignoring or hiding their link to environmental damage and supply networks they promote irresponsibility. They are the place of work for many, facilitating consumption, but this is concealed or played down. The consumer’s world is immoral by creating places out of context and obscuring the consequences of our actions.

The making of houses into images and places of consumption has accelerated. With new residences we can acquire a designed neighbourhood, landscaping, recreational facilities, a shopping centre and security patrols. Retirement condos are built surrounding 18-hole golf courses.

There is a tourist sequence from fisherman’s cottages in succession to shelters, guest houses, hotels and resort chains. Tourism ensures places aren’t just enjoyed by the élite and those lucky enough to live there. Places are discovered, become resorts, are developed, stagnate and may be rediscovered and rejuvenated (or not). Consumerism consumes the places it creates and depends on.

Places of consumption are a mix of fact and fantasy.  Disney World include different worlds all encouraging consumption. The unrealness of their juxtaposition is not appreciated. Landscapes of consumption become microcosms of what post-modernism takes for reality. They can appear dynamic and liberating, but to others shallow, an inauthentic pastiche.

We cannot escape being in place yet the world of consumption creates apparently unconnected places. Therefore our experience doesn’t provide a corrective to contextless theory, creating the illusion we are Nowhere beyond space, place and reality.

The Book includes thirty-three plates showing advertisements which helped create and maintain the consumer’s world and places of consumption. Interesting, but I still find a Book written by a Professor of Geography without maps incomplete.

When at University (some time ago) I studied the geography and historical geography of resorts, so what Sack says about them was more familiar. However the perspectives of much of the rest of the Book were new to me, providing insights into both philosophy and geography. Like Realness this is Book which will influence my thinking .

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