After many years of construction, delays and disagreements, Eleftheria Square finally reopened to the public. At least a part of it did. I must admit, when I visited it, I didn’t really feel much. I felt no excitement, no feelings of purpose or pride, and ultimately, no feelings of it having a sense of place. Eleftheria Square was to me what anthropologists might call a non-place. It is important to note that a non-place, much like Habermas’ public sphere, is both a contested and subjective term. Also like the notion of a public sphere, a non-place is useful for thinking constructively and normatively about where such spaces might occur and what they mean for contemporary life.
Non-places are defined by their lack of identity, history and importantly, relational experiences. Consider conversely a ‘place’ of residence. A house with a family living in it. Identities are acknowledged by each individual but also by other family members; each member creates a history with and for the other members. Relationships are vibrant. Social aspects are apparent for whoever might happen to be a fly on the wall.
In a non-place we are all anonymous, we have no identity, we are users caught in a standardized space that looks quite similar if you were in its equivalent in another part of the world. Non-places are social constructions created to assist global capitalist systems. In non-places we are customers, we are users, we are passengers travelling toward places of consumption. Non-places include airports, hotels, motorways and supermarkets.
In an incredible study on the identity of cities around the world, Sociologists Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit argue that certain cities have spirits. In classical times, Athens they noted, would have had a spirit of democracy. Today they posit, Paris has a spirit of romance. Oxford a spirit of learning, New York of ambition. I wonder what they would believe of Nicosia. Does it have a spirit? I feel that cities with spirits need more places and less non-places.
Unfortunately, in today’s era of continuous technological disruption of consumption practices and products, non-places are on the rise. Anthropologist Marc Augé, who coined the neologism non-place, identifies life today in a supermodern state. During supermodernity technology compresses time and space even more than modernity. Supermodernity creates innovations that compete with traditional non-places creating even more non-places in front of our screens. The non-place of a high street for example competes in how we shop with the digital non-place of the online space, amazon. This forces markets to give non-places more of a purpose than their original function. The high street competes with e-commerce by creating the experience of shopping. The traditional non-place of the high street reenters its state of a modern product, but in what Augé calls a super state, shedding its postmodern skin, creating a supermodern setting.
It should therefore come as no surprise that when the market attempts to normalize non-places, we end up doing the same ourselves. We become trapped inside the environments of non-places and adapt to them, not as beings or citizens but as consumers. We take photos of ourselves while driving or in elevators dressed up to go out, posting them on social media to share the ‘experience’.
We visit malls on Sunday’s, we shop at the airport, we drink coffee in clothes stores. By doing these things we are not really there creating histories and relationships. To make a non-place into a place it needs more sincere experiences.
I feel there is hope for Eleftheria Square to eventually become a place. To achieve this, we will need to embrace the capital’s square for what it is and not for a function of where it takes us. We should avoid using it only as consumers or passengers getting us to Ledra’s or Makariou. We will need to create a new history and an identity for it and for us in it. We will need to build relationships in it. Protest in it, talk in it, recite plays and poems in it. Play, run and meet in it. Read, write and draw in it. Ultimately, we should become one with it and with those we visit it with. Only then is there a chance for Eleftheria Square to become a place and possibly help Nicosia reveal its spirit.