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Thinking About the Improbability of Place

aphorisnt's picture

In all this talk about place and placelessness and belonging and home and porosity and everything, I remembered an idea I heard a few years ago in a Vlog Brothers video: the improbability of place. The video (which I'll include here if anyone wants to watch it) does a much better job explaining this concept that I probably could, but the idea more or less boils down to just how amazing it is that things are where they are and how they are and what and when. We condsider all these places when we talk about home–Bryn Mawr, Houston, Oregon, Madison, Chicago, Istanbul–but we never stop to think about how these places came to be and how amazing it is that they exist at all. The United States, for example, exists because a group of settlers formed an army and defeated the British, and ruthlessly laid claim to this entire swath of land, and came out on the winning side of both World Wars and the Cold War. But the US also exists because one explorer went the wrong way trying to find India and landed at a continent that existed where it did due to the motion of techtonic plates and the breaking up of Pangea, but only after the infamous Big Bang created that which is the Milky Way galaxy and our solar system in the first place. And if one takes the time to think about all of these events, and the billions of others not mentioned but of equal importance, that conspired to create any of the places we call "home" in the first place, claiming a city or a state or a two-story structure in suburbia as "home" seems rather arbitrary and shortsighted. Had just one thing happened differently, home could instead be on the other side of the world or on a different planet or somewhere else that I cannot even fathom. When I take this into consideration, my own feelings of exile seem to matter less, as does this need to identify something as home. I think porosity may be the way to go, allowing home and place to grow and change and envelope a wealth of people and places and experiences and embrace the sheer improbability that the place in which I am standing exists where it does at all. I'm not saying I have thrown off my feelings of exile or had some sort of revelation that now makes me entirely comfortable not having a specific place to call home. Rather, I suppose I can look at my own placelessness with a new perspective that while I may not be able to claim ownership to any one location, I can appreciate that location just existing at all so I can start to build something I can call home.

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Simona's picture

Alternate porous universes?

I find all these ideas facinating, especially the idea of alternate universes with all the different worlds and situations, places and people, things that didn't quite happen here. I can't help but wonder what our lives would be like if we were living on a Pangaea-like supercontinent...without continents, would we even have countries? Would there be boundaries? Or would the unity of the land-form encourage a more porous approach to life and place? Maybe the divisions between continents (oceans) make cultural exchange and understanding more difficult, but I suppose technology has recently bridged those gaps, but successfully? Somehow I still think there would be inequality, miscommunication, and oppression (forms of disconnection?) in the world even if the land itself was connected. But this little Pangaea-tangent has got me thinking about how much the land itself and our personal connections to our surrounding ecosystems may influence our porous (or bounded) connections to self and the world. 

Jenna Myers's picture

Being Aware of Other Peoples Unique Circumstances

I agree with aphorisnt that there are circumstances that lead us to where are, yet as Kelsey mentioned we also need to take into consideration that there are unique circumstances. This made me think of the butterfly effect. If you change something or do something differently in the past, then how will it affect the future? If the Industrial Revolution never happened then how evolved would society be today even though positive side to it would be that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would be lower. Yet even if the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen then each place would be affected differently. As Kelsey said, Climate change affects the world differently whether you are looking at the US or the Maldives. It’s also similar in when you look at living conditions. The environment and the lifestyle differ from where you live. Whether you are living in a nice neighborhood or if you are living in a crime filled neighborhood where you don’t want your children running around. I think its important for people to realize that there are neighborhoods and cities and countries that differ from their environment.

Student 24's picture

Everybody's Them & Porous Perspectives

Jenna's last sentence, about the need for people to realise the amount of difference and uniqueness, reminds me of the chorus of a song of mine (actually, "song" may be a bit too strong a word, as all I really have written at the moment is the chorus) which goes:

The world's not really me and them,
it's just a bunch of me's
And you're everybody's them,
and I'm everybody's them.

Basically what I'm trying to say is about perspective. (It's really difficult to not write with the "we" pronoun, but I think that it's appropriate for the point I'm making to write with "I," because at the end of the day, all I really know is what I myself have come to know, and I can only make claims for myself.) It seems to me that I grew up with a perspective of myself in the singular, that lived in the ocean of everyone else. That there was me, and then there was everybody else. A way I visualised this was by imagining vector-like lines going from my eyes and connecting with the eyes of everyone else (that I knew, or in the world). So I would be a center point with x amount of rays extending outwards. With myself as the center point, I am the 'me'. All the other points lead to everyone else. That creates 'me' and 'them.'

But then I realised that every single person is their own center point. That every single person has x amount of rays sticking out to every other single person, including me. That every single person is their own 'me' and to that person, every single other person is grouped together into a mass called 'everyone else.' That creates x me's and x-squared them's. (Or something mathematically similar.)

So, my point is, because every single person exists with this perspective, the x-squared them's all cancel out and we're left only with x me's. Which means we are all center points. Which means we're a lot more alone in the perspective of every other single person than we may think naturally.

For me, it visualises as a lot of individual people that have space between them. A pattern of points, each point creating a porous texture of perspectives. It's relieving. Lets in more light than if it was 'me' in conjuction with a mass of 'them'; everyone else.

By reducing ourselves to me's, it creates for me a cleaner, clearer, lego-like image of humanity. It eliminates hierarchy, organisation, segregation, macro-level function, wholistic-evaluation... I am a center point, and so is every single other person. Like I said, it's relieving. And if I am working to think more ecologically, I need this perspective so that I am not overwhelmed by the everything-ness of ecological thought.

Stacy Alaimo, in "Porous Bodies and Transcorporeality," resonates with my thoughts in her statement: "There is no 'over here' that’s isolated from over there."

Lisa Marie's picture


Aphorisnt's comment about not being able "to claim ownership to any one location, but appreciate that location just existing at all so I can start to build something I can call home" brought me back to Timothy Morton's essay about the limitations of being bounded to one location, as it may draw our attention away from other environments and issues affecting them. If we embrace our "porousness and placelessness" more, will we have more agency to care about the entire world (rather than the one location we feel attached to or at home in)? Does being unbounded or porous shape our interactions with the earth/environment? 

pbernal's picture

Connecting threads

I really like Kelsey's physics idea of an infinite number of universes, but rather than think of them as improbabilities, I actuall believe in that they happen in a sequence of events. To be porous, I believe we have to be open to the idea of everything having a connection to something before it or after it. Whether the connection be small or big, in order to be porous, the thoughts and ideas must be penetrable and permeable. Somethings are hold to grab a hold of or want to accept, but in order to understand who we are today or why certain things are the way they are, we have to retrace and pay attention the the connecting threads. 

Kelsey's picture

On Many Worlds

There is a theory in physics called the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.  According to this theory, there are an infinite number of universes, and everything that could have happened in our universe- but did not- has occurred in some other universe.  There is no empirical proof of this theory- in fact, there are several interpretations of quantum mechanics- but the fact that it could be true (and we currently have no way of knowing whether it is) has vast implications for the improbability of place.  If there are infinite universes with different realities, with different places, what makes our universe any more improbable (or probable) than the rest?  Everything that has happened in our universe, everything that has conspired to create the places we call home, is just as probable as everything that hasn't happened.  I agree with aphorisnt's point that we need to be aware of the vast chain of circumstances that lead to where we are today, but I don't think that sequence of events that got us here- improbabilities that are no more improbable than any other improbabilities- means that we shouldn't claim a specific place as home.  We may be porous, but our porosity is dependent upon our unique circumstances, including the specific places we call home.  I am affected differently by, say, climate change than someone from the Maldives, whose country may soon be underwater, and even though climate change affects the entire planet we are differently porous to the damages it causes because of our varying circumstances, our varying very specific homes.  Being porous does not make us placeless; instead, we are continually affected by our porousness and our placeness.  

Sophia Weinstein's picture

Earth as Home to Infinite Universes

The idea that what has happened in our universe is just as probable than all that hasn't happened here, with the assumption that it is sure to happen in another reality is very interesting. Just because something hasn't happened to us doesn't mean it doesn't affect us, in some way. I like the parallel that Kelsey draws between alternate universes and the much smaller ecosystem of earth. There are infinite ecosystems all living within, in response to, and because of, other ecosystems. When I read Stacy Alaimo's Porous Bodies and Trans-Corporeality, I kept thinking of ants, and the 'societal' behaivor that they have. Every ant is its own entity, without any understanding of self. Alone they are capable of very little, yet through their senses of each others horomones, they are able to interact and work together to collect food and build shelters - homes. Any one ant is a 'body', but also perhaps a small component of the 'body' that is an ant colony. Every ecosystem is just a component of another ecosystem, making earth home to an infinite number of universes.