On Place and Personhood

We often find ourselves explaining who we are in relation to different places. We speak of ‘home’ – which, aphoristically, is ‘where the heart is’ – as being merely a three-storied house, or a small city apartment, in which we and our families might dwell; we also talk of our ethnic ‘roots’- of distant lands that we decide we are emotionally tethered to as a result of our ancestral backgrounds, and we speak of these countries as if they were secondary (phantom) homes. Through frequency of our visiting them, we become attached to various shops, parks, youth clubs, libraries, and other buildings and institutions. We come to define ourselves as being ‘Brits’, or, more specifically, as ‘Londoners’, or even ‘North-, East-, South-, or West-Londoners’. It is as though we each carry within us chunks of the places that purportedly define us so integrally; we act as if it is more true that places shape individuals, and less so vice versa.

Our brains, when conceptually reduced to their simplest forms, are filtering, meaning-making machines, and we define spaces in accordance to the ‘settings’ on said filtering machines. We thus find ourselves identifying with landscapes and ‘vibes’ that best suit our temperaments, and favouring cities that are most compatible with our aesthetic, spiritual, and otherwise individualistic values. It is important to note that there is a key distinction to be made between ‘space’ as an abstract but undeniable entity, and its more decorated fraternal twin, ‘place’, a more personalised concept. While space is a more objective idea – referring solely to the ever-present dimensions of height, width, and depth, through which all objects move – place involves the ascription of meaning to said spaces, whether on a purely functional (e.g. “This space is where I fulfil my bodily need to eat”) or a more emotional (e.g. “I associate this space with feelings of joy and love”) basis. When one strips away the cultural associations, emotions, ideas, and the sensory information that can be garnered from a space, it essentially ceases to exist as a place. For example, if you were to visit your favourite beach while your eyes are open, and while you are able to consciously process your surroundings, you may be overtaken by the simple splendour of the landscape, or by some deep nostalgic sensation. The space, to you, has meaning, and somehow embellishes your own personal reality. But if you were to exist in the same ‘place’ with your eyes closed, and with your other sensory functions shut off, despite existing in the very same space as in the former scenario, your internal reality has not been altered in any way. You cease, momentarily, to exist as a sensing being, thus extracting any subjective ‘place-ness’ from the space in which you stand.

Spaces – a positive idea – only become meaningful places – a more normative notion – when there are sentient, conscious, beings around to decode them in line with the nature of their own pre-existing cognitively wired states. The manner in which we have come to perceive places is not as a consequence of their external, cosmetic elements  – not in the greenness of their grass nor in their coolness of climate or oaken floors. The significance we grant to different spaces evidently stems from within us, and if any objective and true concept of place does exist, it is embedded deep within our psyches – in the same abstract and internal reason as to why two people can look at the very same landscape – the same objective point in space – and draw from it two very different conclusions of reality.

And this is one reason as to why I firmly believe that the idea of human consciousness – and the sheer immensity of variety between different people’s conscious realities – is inarguably the most magnificent thing in existence. 

Sadia Ahmed, 2019 

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