January 13, 1998
THE LURE OF THE LOCAL: SENSES OF PLACE IN A MULTICENTERED
Lucy R. Lippard
The New Press, New York, 1997, $40.00.
Lippard opens her book on place with a confession: "Places have influenced my life as much as, perhaps more than, people." Her examination of the subject of place in human life draws on her personal experiences, art, literature, history, nature, and culture. She explores the relationship between humanity, nature and place: "The lure of the local is the pull of place that operates on each of us, exposing our politics and our spiritual legacies."
Lippard makes a distinction between place and landscape, defining place as a "lived-in landscape." Landscapes that have been lived in can become places "if explored." Landscapes that are merely looked at are still just landscapes. She expands the comparison: "Space defines landscape, where space combined with memory defines place." This distinction explains the feeling of boredom travelers experience after too much observation of landscape, no matter how magnificent, and the joy travelers experience at returning home, the ultimate "local."
If the local is such an attraction, why do people move from one place to another? Lippard points out the paradox of her concern with the local, with place, by admitting that she "was living in four different states, each of which had its own deep visual and emotional attraction" when she began this study. She expects to "continue to be an emotional nomad and a radical..., playing the relatively conservative values of permanence and rootedness off against restlessness and a constructed 'multicenteredness.'" It is possible that Lippard is only normal, that too much "permanence" is unbearable but that we need a certain amount of "rootedness," and that some need to be rooted in more than one place at the same time.
The yearning for home is analyzed as a need to belong; the longing for community stems from the same need, according to Lippard. These longings become more and more acute as we live more and more fragmented lives:
"The incomplete self longs for the fragments to be brought together. This can't be done without a context, a place." She suggests that we begin to "look around" the place we inhabit now. A series of questions guide the reader on a tour of home. It is hard to imagine that most people do not do this automatically, since the questions are so basic. For example, curiosity about the date of construction, who the original owner was, and the history of the land around the house seems only natural, but perhaps this curiosity is a habit that must be learned.
Lippard presents William Faulkner as a writer who understood the meaning of place, narrative, nature, culture and history in human life. It is true that Faulkner's fiction exemplifies the concepts she is presenting in this study. "Faulkner's county map has no external boundaries. It is all center, which can be read as a metaphor for its lack of borders, its extension of the local into the global on one hand, or the local focus inward, on the other." Another connection with Faulkner's work is Lippard's insistence that history and personal memory be separated. Lippard points out the disparate views of the Alamo experienced by white Texans and Hispanic and Indian Mexicans, while Faulkner dramatized the same confusion in his stories of the South and characters doomed by Southern Mythology.
The chapter on archeology emphasizes the need for inhabitants to know the history of the land, the land as earth itself. Lippard has a reverence for the discipline of archeology, a respect typical of those in the art world, for the concreteness, weight, smell and texture of what can be discovered in the earth. In spite of her respect, she admits, "Even the earth can't always be believed." The human history of any particular earth is necessary to complete the story, the history told by "those who truly know their places."
Lippard analyzes the problems of living in the city and those of living in the country in Part IV. "The cliched image of the cold, heartless city and the warm, cuddly heartland of small towns has long since been disproved. There is no Eden." She points out the irony of the belief that city dwellers are inherently more sophisticated and better educated than small town or rural people: "The urban ego is in fact parochial; New Yorkers (like Parisians or Bostonians) are among the most provincial people in the world. They are often as bound to their own neighborhoods and as ignorant of the rest of the city (aside from midtown) as any small towner." She concludes that those who live in large cities seek out their own "center" -- small town -- in it as soon as possible. She points out that, on the other hand, small towns produce not only neighborly friendliness and sympathetic support but also gossip, spite and conflict. The suburbs, in Lippard's view, have created as many problems as they attempted to solve. The automobile made suburbs possible and "strips" necessary. Like the suburbs, the strips that form near them are anonymous, private, boring and lonely.
Lippard ends the book with chapters on city planning, parks and public art. Her main concern is understanding how place affects human life--and how human life affects place. She emphasizes respect for nature, the past and community. She makes a plea for acceptance of the rich variety of cultures we have in the United States. And she urges us to "look around" at our places. "Local life, in fact, is all about communicating across boundaries, even if one lives in an economic 'ghetto' of rich or poor. Part of the process of looking around is listening to each other."