Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Alastair Bonnett's "Unruly Places"

Alastair Bonnett is Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University. The author of numerous academic texts, he served as editor of the avant-garde, psycho-geographical magazine Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, and reported the following:
Page 99 lands us in a toxic town called Wittenoom in the wilds of Western Australia. Wittenoom is so dangerous that it has, literally, been taken off the map and all the signage has been removed. It used to be a blue asbestos mining town and today it is potentially lethal to visit it, even for the shortest moment. Like the 47 other hidden, secret and deleted places that I write about in Unruly Places, I use its extraordinary story to think about our passionate but profoundly uneasy relationship with place. By page 99 I have opened out the problem of destroyed and polluted places well beyond Wittenoom, noticing that “For governments having to cope with these stains on the map vanishing them away is the obvious and easiest solution”. But I also claim that totally erasing such hell-holes, even to the point of suppressing their names, has a serious down side. I argue that we have forgotten a little too quickly “how central geography once was to morality and religion”.
Heaven, Hell and all the other destinations and journeys of salvation and damnation were understood as permanent places and cartographic realities. They offered a moral map that helped people situate themselves in an ethical landscape. Hell was below, Heaven above. Such literalism may sound quaint to modern sensibilities, but it seems that we still need morality to be tied down and rooted to particular places and specific journeys. If our moral categories float free from the earth, they float away. Religion has always been upfront about all this, meeting the understandable need of earth-bound creatures for moral questions to be written into the hills, and for salvation to be a physical destination.

So rather than being deleted from the map, places like Wittenoom should be kept before us as visible manifestations of the consequences of greed and ignorance. They are parts of our lives, of our civilization, and they should be acknowledged with a steady and remorseful determination. Abolishing them leaves us with a deceptively and unconvincingly airbrushed landscape. Wittenoom should be treated as a memorial and paid the kind of attention currently reserved for battle sites, albeit from a safe distance.
Learn more about Unruly Places at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue