03 Aug

Placeworlds

As we consider our theoretical justification for using Second Life to facilitate civic engagement, we’ve come up with the notion of placeworlds. Below is a sketch of the concept:

Place is experienced space. It is what happens when geographic space takes on meaning of any sort – as an object of memory, or desire, or fear. Place can be produced through happenstance (the space of a first kiss), through narrative (the space of childhood that is persistently articulated with story), through familiarity (the space one lives each day), or through representation (the space of art or advertising). Places can be fleeting or lasting. Just as quickly as spaces are marked with meaning, they can be unmarked, forgotten or replaced with something else. This can be the product of literal transformation (an apartment building torn down and replaced by a parking lot) or personal preference (a park shared with an old friend who is no longer a friend).

The identification with place is an important method of organizing personal experience and social actions. While it may seem like a nebulous construct, place is arguably the most concrete marker of lived experience. Meaningful encounters with the built or natural landscape are necessarily a part of every life; yet, these encounters, when not cultivated through social processes are fleeting – either through gradual fading or aggressive erasure. Place is how people make sense of their social lives; yet there is little built into our civic organization that acknowledges this. American civic life tends to focus more on what Habermas calls systems –economic, social, political or cultural logics that determine and organize patterns and flows of social existence. Communication and transportation infrastructures, markets, political processes – all of these systems, according to Habermas, are in the process of colonizing what he calls “lifeworlds.”

The concept of lifeworld has a long history. It has phenomenological roots in Schutz and Husserl as an individually recognized form of “being in the world” or a kind of pre-interpreted reality that can be subjectively grasped at any moment. Husserl suggests that every experiencing subject operates within a horizon that is constantly altered as perspectives change. What is natural and familiar within an individual’s horizon at any given time is the lifeworld. Habermas takes issue with the phenomenological definition of this concept: “In the frame of the philosophy of consciousness,” he argues, “the ‘experiencing subject’ remains the court of last appeal for analysis” (1987, 130). Habermas’ intervention repositions lifeworld away from the experiencing subject and towards the social situation. But situations are not sharply delimited. They come into relief by “themes and articulated goals and plans of action” (1987, 122-123). In other words, a lifeworld comes into being when a group of people can come to a mutual understanding of something. A lifeworld is the ability for groups to share and build upon a common understanding of “who we are” (Friedland, 2001) through the cultivation of a sense of common goals and purpose.

That common goal or purpose is often place. Most lifeworlds exist in space (with the possible exclusion of network spaces, which we will address in the next section). Therefore, most situations produce place. Whether this is a street corner, a favorite hang-out, a neighborhood, or a playground, places are particularly well-suited for establishing common purpose among groups of people. When places are manufactured through communicative action, we can refer to them as placeworlds. Put another way, places become worlds when they are established and reinforced through deliberative dialogue. Placeworlds are more persistent than places alone – while place is simply experienced space (individually or collectively), a placeworld is formed when a group brings a place into shared relevance through communication. When a community organizes around a park that the city has earmarked to transform into a parking lot, they gather and deliberate over a given space and form shared understandings of themselves in relation to that space. This is a placeworld. When youth gather downtown to see and be seen, they create a shared understanding of that space’s function. Even if not consciously, the social actors in that situation all contributed to defining the rules and norms of the space, and have arrived at a common understanding of its meaning. This is a placeworld. Placeworlds matter for a group’s sense of purpose, social status and ability to organize as a political subject. But as we stated in the introduction, in areas with heavy poverty that are in most need of services, interventions are focused almost exclusively on repairing systems – economic, social or political organizations that have fallen into disrepair. The function of placeworlds are rationalized into the function of systems, and as a consequence, put into the service of systems. In Habermas’ language, they are colonized.

While this don’t address the use of Second Life, we believe that our intended use of the application is capable of producing the kind of group identity around place described above.

This will be tested and put into action this Fall. There will be two courses offered at Emerson College. Download the flyer here: Hub2 Flyer

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