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“It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the face that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves”

Robert Ezra Park (1950), p.249.

On the first day of my visit to Trondheim, I was keen to seek out its ‘bike lift’. This has been keenly promoted, and reported on, as a shining example of innovative urban infrastructure.  It seems significant that its narrative setting is a Scandinavian city: praise for the bike lift resonates easily with a widespread discursive idealisation of Scandinavian cities as beacons of liveability, social equity, good design, functionality, and so on.  It seems common for people to make sense of our own countries’ failings by constructing Scandinavia as a non-dysfunctional/utopian ‘other’.

How does this bike lift work? Well, a metal groove runs up a steep hill in the centre of the town (see picture above). You sit on your bike with your right foot on a sort of shark’s fin that moves upwards, pushing you and your bicycle to the top.  I believe that using it takes some practice. Like the vast majority of people trying it, I failed.

What interested me was the way that so many people were not only dutifully paying homage to this iconic innovation, but also seemed to express a sort of gleeful pleasure (mixed in with embarrassment) when they discovered that its reality didn’t match up to the hype.  In this sense, visiting the bike lift seemed to illustrate something much broader about our experiences when we visit places.  Unless we are able somehow to arrive in a place with no knowledge or visual images of it at all, our instinct is first to seek out those phenomena (in the city, perhaps a cathedral, a famous square, a tower, an atmosphere, a way of dressing, a type of food…) which play a dominant role in some kind of external image of that place.  This is not to say that a coherent, singular image of a place will be specifiable – we should expect the image, rather, to be multiple, contradictory, fragmented, contested.  Still, the visitor is positioned as a sort of deferential pilgrim.  We eagerly comply with this role, but simultaneously delight in finding ways in which our expectations go unmet (for better or worse). “It’s nothing like the way it looks in the film!”, we furtively joke to our companions. “There are a lot of fast food restaurants for a city renowned for its haute cuisine!”, we proudly note. “Nobody talks about all the ugly sprawl outside the historic centre!” we smirk, while attempting to keep that sprawl outside the frame of our own photos.

I was thinking about this because I was reading Erving Goffman’s well-known book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, first published in 1959 (the quotation from Park above is taken from it).  Goffman explores our complex performances when we deal with each other, through the use of words, rituals, clothes, and material settings. We often adjust our own performances in deference to the way that others present themselves, in the spirit of social harmony and cooperation.  At the same time, we are secretly keen to see through other people’s masks; we are delighted when any verbal or non-verbal clues seem to give us insights into some other ‘real’ person hidden behind the persona.

It turns out that Goffman’s model (to which I haven’t done justice here) has already been used to think about contemporary ‘city branding’ (see eg Zavattaro 2013). But I was interested in the Park quotation specifically.  If person comes from ‘persona’, might there be some kind of equivalent idea – something around duplicity, masks, etc – lurking somewhere in the etymological history of ‘place’? I’m always suspicious when definitions of concepts rest on etymological evidence. But it’s fun at least, and sometimes revealing.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid to say that my dictionary searches didn’t uncovered anything startling. I already knew that place comes via Latin from πλατεία (οδός) – ‘broad (road)’ – and so in Modern Greek ‘πλατεία’ means ‘square’, and we have ‘piazza’ in Italian, ‘plaza’ in Spanish, ‘plaats’ in Dutch, etc.  ‘Place’ also has a particular historical meaning as a ‘battlefield’. That’s all not much help, but it does at least underline the relational nature of place: a location defined in terms of convergences from elsewhere. The common thread across the different contemporary uses of the verb ‘to place’, meanwhile, is to relate an entity to a setting.

Perhaps a little more interestingly, all this relationality is interwoven with a strong sense of normative ordering: place variously refers to “position or standing in an order or scale or estimation or merit”; “rank”; “a proper or appropriate position”; the correct seat at a dining table; “a position occupied by habit, allotment, or right”, etc. But this doesn’t really add up to the type of juicy etymological finding that I was looking for.

Still, I think Goffman’s framework does seem to have a useful application to the way we relate to places as visitors. And, more broadly, to the way images of places are co-created by insiders and outsiders. It reminds us that even a relatively stable ‘place image’ belies, on the one hand, all the ongoing work being done by insiders ‘behind the scenes’ to craft this image, and, on the other, the continual enthusiasm on the part of outsiders to see through it.

Trondheim, 20 June 2019

References

Goffman, E. (1990) [1959]. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin.

Park, E. R. (1950). Race and Culture. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Zavattaro, S. M. (2013) Expanding Goffman’s Theater Metaphor to an Identity-Based View of Place Branding. Administrative Theory & Praxis, 35:4, 510-528.