‘PLACE – THE FIRST OF ALL THINGS’. Opening essay of the book ‘Place’. London: Thames and Hudson, by Dean and Millar (2005)

I have had little exposure to critical writing in the Arts. My previous experience of higher education is in the biological sciences; essays in this field tend to follow the pattern of hypothesis, context, method, results, conclusion. In my professional life, I frequently read technical financial papers and commercial and legal contractual documents. These are also logically constructed.

I found this essay about ‘place’ to be rambling and confused. It seems to me that the authors are attempting to attach various philosophical concepts to the word ‘place’ and describe some conflict between them, when in fact, like many other words in the English language, ‘place’ simply has more than one meaning. The concluding paragraph is far from a summation, rather it is a ‘throw-away’ statement about hoping that the reader is encouraged by what the authors have ‘gathered’ to “dwell a little upon this rich, enduring, bewildering subject”. It is quite evident that they are themselves bewildered. For example they seem to be at pains to say that place is not location, and yet they use the word in that very context a number of times throughout the piece.

That said, I found several statements interesting relating to the meaning that is not simply location;

  • ‘[Place] is a word that is used to describe our relationship to the world around us’ (page 12)
  • ‘We can use [place] to describe the relative ‘rightness’ of a situation’ (page 13)
  • Place is something more often sensed than understood, an indistinct region of awareness rather than something clearly defined (page 14)
  • Place is something known to us, somewhere that belongs to us in a spiritual, if not possessive, sense and to which we too belong (page 14)

The authors follow this last by quoting Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) which posits that one has to know the human history of a place (location) in order to belong. I disagree with this, many people feel a sense of belonging immediately in a new place (location). I experienced this in moving to a new house last year; I had no knowledge of the area, the house is brand new and yet we walked in and knew we belonged there.

Perhaps I lack a poetic soul, but the paragraph on page 14 about James Joyce writing that ‘places remember events’, with the authors going on to list historical events that are subsequently known by the place names in which they occurred – Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Chernobyl…. there are also more positive examples like Woodstock – saying that the place gives itself wholly over to the event, simply doesn’t resonate with me. My opinion is that this is simply linguistic shorthand. I’m sure the current residents of Hiroshima don’t define their city by the bomb that the US dropped on it.


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