The Exigencies of place

Miller and Shepherd observe that "the technology of the internet makes it easier than ever for anyone to be either a voyeur or an exhibitionist—or both," allowing users to share "unprecedented amounts of personal information with total strangers, potentially millions of them." In a mediated communication environment in which the boundaries between public selves and private selves are being disrupted, " the blog might be understood as a particular reaction to the constant flux of subjectivity, as a generic effort of reflexivity within the subject that creates an eddy of relative stability. Infinite play, constant innovation, is not psychically sustainable on an indefinite basis” (Millard and Shepherd). The social function of blogging is, at least in part, about the ongoing construction of self in response to changing social and cultural conditions.

However, place blogging displays characteristics that suggest it is responding to additional elements of cultural kairos, namely, the need to construct a meaningful sense of place in the midst of widespread social mobility and rapid environmental transformation. In other words, place bloggers may be actively constructing a sense of self, but it is a self which is deeply informed by place as a central category of identity.

On June 15th, 2003, Ecotone posted the first in a series of Bi-Weekly Topics which poses the question, "How did you come to write about place?" These posts, like much of the content of the Ecotone site, offer rich metacommentary that allows these bloggers to define and develop the genre in which they participate.

Fred from Fragments from Floyd provides an answer which highlights the importance of self-fashioning explicitly in terms of place:

Short answer: I live in a unique and beautiful world and enjoy creating images of it in words and pictures. I want others to know this place and share the experience of living here.

Image copyright Fred First---

When we write about place we explore particular coordinates of geography and landform and private experience, guided by our own life maps, seen through lenses that can bind me to your world across the globe's wide curve. And doing so connects us person to person, territory to territory. It puts real places on the representational map that is the internet. Can this writing about place bring us into each other's world and build "real" community? I trust we will see.

I write about place to invite strangers to know and understand my world, perhaps to see their world differently having come here. I'd like to think they may have new and useful landmarks on their maps when they leave here. So perhaps I write, too, as an open page of hospitality, a way of saying "my house is your house, and my creek and valley, likewise". Maybe I think and write about place because, as I believe Wendell Berry has suggested, if you don't know where you're from, you won't know where you're going. In some small or great way, it may be possible in writing on this topic to help each other know where we're going by better understanding the places from which we have come.

"Writing About Place" (June 15, 2003). Image used by permission.


Quite frequently, the experience of mobility is an important exigency for place bloggers. For an inveterate nomad like travelertrish, mobility defines her sense of place and of self: "Not having a place gives rise to yearning and learning about what it is to have one." She locates her complicated sense of place out of both a sense of lack as well through learning from the many places she engages with as a traveler:

I write about culture and about place from my peculiar vantage point because I'm obsessed with it, fascinated by it, drawn again and again into its stories. I once read that people write because of some lack in themselves, and this might be true of me. I have fallen in love with a place-- the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. I have given it years of myself, years of words and praise. And married a man who can't STAND it there. Too cold. Terrible people, according to him. And so, the one place I might have claimed as my own is denied me, as long as I stay married to this guy, at least. Which looks likely. He's a misplaced person, too. Born in Algeria, transplanted by violent politics to France, and transplanted again by love to the States.

While travelertrish represents one end of the spectrum with regard to mobility, place bloggers more commonly reference a formative experience of mobility that continues to inform an ongoing process of self-definition, one situated in places they have moved to and have remained in for some time.

Chris from Bowen Island Journal describes the formative event of moving from Ottawa, Ontario to Vancouver, British Columbia, a move of 5000 kilometers that still left him within the same national boundaries but far from Toronto, his place of birth. This transplantation provides the exigency to begin blogging:

Moving to Bowen Island in 2001, combined with the samizdat opportunity of blogging led me to start this weblog to capture my experiences for myself, for my family who are scattered across North America and for friends in Israel, South Africa, America and the UK. As I have been writing about my life here, I am increasingly conscious of how blogging has brought a sharper awareness and attention to my life here. For me, blogging place is drawing attention to links in the elements that make up the landscape. As this blog has evolved, I have become acutely aware of the landscape that is forming in my mind and heart of who I am and what Bowen Island is as a place and what relationship exists between us. I have even begun posting stories of my life here on an interactive GeoLibrary which in essence returns the stories to the place that birthed them, and coincidently introduces my readers to these places in a more concrete and connected way.

A project that started in exile, now continues with an exile's eyes, writing a landscape that surrounds and holds me, and constantly inspires.

For Chris, then, place blogging is a way of maintaining relationships with people whom he no longer lives near, reflecting the importance of local knowledge for maintaining relationships: It's difficult to know people well if we don't know anything about where they are.

Wendy from Other Wind recalls moving frequently while growing up in Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, having a "home in all these places, but never a hometown. Wendy is able to recognize the benefits of moving—it made her "more open-minded, more diverse in experience and thought" and "less frightened of change"—but she also recognized that each move she experienced "had an opportunity cost" that left her "slightly rootless." As result, she writes, "For roots I have memories, each home a different flavor, each its own lovely tone," and she confesses, "I’ve always dreamed of far away places, places that could perhaps be mine." After a trip to San Diego, she describes the surprising sense of connection she feels to the seemly "ordinary" place where she actual lives, and the consequent desire to write about that connection:

I dreamed about what it would be like to live that close to the ocean. Yet when we came back to Knoxville, I felt comfort at seeing the trees. Here were my trees, so many and so striking in their late winter starkness. They washed over me, like coming home must feel. I don’t think I realized before right then that I had formed such an attachment to this place.


Now, even though I still dream of other places, of making changes and traveling, the pull to stay and live in this region grows in me. I can think of many reasons why I’ve finally felt a profound connection. I’ve lived here longest. I spent my childhood (or at least the part of childhood during which I went outside) in West Virginia, another piece of Appalachia, so many of my happiest memories contain the same imagery by which I’m now surrounded. I’ve married a man who could never really seriously think of leaving this place. Whatever the reasons may be, a new sense is emerging in me, and I want to hold it, to know it better. Sometimes, I write it down—see that tree there, that hill, they look like this, feel like this. I want to remember each time the sense of home tiptoes up on me, each time I know that I am kin to this beauty all around me. I claim this place with my words. I am making claims now, tiny claims of nativity.


While many place bloggers write out of the experience of mobility in their own lives, others write out of a sense of rootedness that they recognize as increasingly rare in our culture and is in need of preservation. Beth from The Cassandra Pages Beaver Meadow is a tiny hamlet in the hills of central New York

I write about place, in both a particular and a broad sense, because I’ve realized that I was given something precious that most people in our culture simply don’t have. A sense of deep connection and belonging -- to nature, to place, to the mystery of existence and creation: these are our birthright as human beings. There is no greater evidence for me of the alienation of modern life than the fear most people have of nature, co-existing with an equally intense sense of hunger, longing, and homelessness. As we’ve paved over our meadows and plastic-wrapped our foods, we’ve obliterated the paths designed to take us back to our origins and the truth about ourselves; we’ve encapsulated our souls. The enormous sense of loss I feel, observing the changes in attitudes and destruction of the environment that have taken place since my family left the farm in Beaver Meadow, is nothing compared to the collective loss I feel for the souls of humanity.

And so I write about place in the hope of awakening that inborn spark of recognition; of de-mystifying the web of connectedness between 21st century humans and the living earth; and of perhaps offering a safe passage, comfortably cushioned with words, into silence, wonder, and love. Without those, I don’t think there is much hope of awakening a sense of responsibility toward this fragile earth.

In his post, Beth makes explicit an important element of the culture kairos out of which place blogging emerges, namely, the global environmental crisis. For her, the construction of a place-based sense of identity is ethically and politically necessary to begin addressing the causes of this crisis and to begin imagining solutions.

In her post, Lisa from Field Notes writes lyrically of her sense of connection with two places, "the beach where I lived in Nayarit, Mexico, and this place where I stand, the Point Reyes Peninsula." In her words, "One day I was tightrope-walking along, juggling fireballs and swords, minding my business, when I became aware of a familiar sensation. I felt a dull ache in my heart and tension in my belly, like love, but not directed at any two-legged beast, but towards the very ground." This love of place is complicated and time-consuming, more like marriage than dating, full of passion but a passion that must be constantly nurtured:

Blake says that you can’t stay in the ‘walled garden of the lover’ forever. If you try to hold onto that fire and passion, you’ll fall all the way down to the ‘valley of isolation’, to cold self-pity. In order to keep progressing, you have to increase the heat of that passion with constant creativity. Like a marriage, this love of place. And like marriage, it requires art and imagination if it is to soar. I no longer have that land in Mexico, it slipped through my fingers like sand slips from barren shores. I can’t dig my hands into her soil, or smell her sweet, fetid womb, or hear the waves from my bed, but I can keep her alive with my love through words.

"One Hand in the Earth" (June 15, 2003).

To speak of place as an entity with which one can have a relationship is in itself a way of construction identity. Place, in this view, is no longer the backdrop for human activities but an something that impinges on ones life, that actively shapes and constrains the self. If one's relationship with place requires the same kind of daily nurture as does any significant relationship, then place blogging, with its emphasis on its regular practice of writing becomes a genre particularly suited to foster a regular attention to these relationships.


Numenius from Feathers of Hope identifies his relationship with place as being tied to the technologies he uses to engage with places. As a geographer by profession, he often interacts with geographic data using the latest geospatial technologies, and yet he recognizes the limits of these technologies in helping him develop a deep sense of place:

A year ago last November, it was late in the afternoon in a meeting in Houston on Internet map services, and drifting off, I wrote the following tanka:

Glowing screens -- managers stare
World a geodatabase.

Putah Creek saunter --
A hawk enters my haiku.
Who is the wiser?

The division, which my little poem hints at, between modern spatial technologies and the almost mystical striving for awareness of a particular locality is what is leading me to write about place. As somebody professionally involved with the former, I find I need the latter for balance.

"Of Space and Place" (June 15, 2003).

Increasingly, place bloggers are taking seriously the mediating role of online technologies and other new media in how we experience places.


Political blogging has also become one of the most highly visible genres of blogging. While many of these have been dedicated to examining national or international politics, Simon from Living in Dryden argues that "local blogging" needs to become an important form not only of political blogging, but also of place blogging. Simon began his blog after the 2003 local elections, when he invested time campaigning for the Democratic party. Despite of his efforts, the Republican party won several important positions on the town board, earning them 5-0 majority. This disappointing setback caused him not just to reflect on the place where he lived but to do so publicly in a blog:

The whole process has me thinking a lot harder about where I live and why, and a blog seems like the right place to do it. Thinking in public is kind of strange, and sometimes even embarrassing, but it also seems worth doing. There isn't a whole lot out there on Dryden, and it's taken us a few years to figure out where we are. Maybe this will help some folks find their way around, and heck, maybe it'll be interesting generally.

"A Long Few Weeks" (Nov 6, 2003).

Though this post from Living in Dryden was not part of Ecotone, it represents a useful addition to this list because it describes how he began to blog in response to a similar desire to figure out where he is and make his findings available to others engaged in the same project.

Writing as Orientation

Charles Bazerman describes teachers as playing host and guide to students who are encountering the university as a new and unfamiliar place:

In our role as teachers, we constantly welcome strangers into the discursive landscapes we value. But places that are familiar and important to us may not appear intelligible or hospitable to students we try to bring into our worlds. Students, bringing their own road maps of familiar communicative places and desires, would benefit from signs posted by those familiar with the new academic landscape. However, guidepost are only there when we construct them, are only useful if others know how to read them, and will only be used if they point toward destinations students are attracted to. (19)

While place here functions as a useful explanatory metaphor for how genres work in academic settings, this passage invites a more literal reading in the context of imaging how place blogging might fit in the classroom. For many students, beginning college is a dislocating experience as they encounter different social contexts and discourse communities as well as being physically displaced by the move to college. In this context, "orientation" to college extends well beyond the week before first-year students begin classes to become part of the intellectual project of the university.

However, while professors may be qualified to orient students to the new genres they encounter in a new academic landscape, it is less clear that they are qualified to teach students anything about the actual landscapes they find themselves inhabiting. As Eric Zencey has pointed out, professors often suffer from a kind of rootlessness that has become almost a required condition of academic life (16-19). If this is true, the classroom is best imaged as site where students and instructors collaborate to create local knowledge. Professors may design a structure to facility this process, but members of the class will need to contribute from their own experience of place.

Place blogs, then, provide part of the generic context in which this kind of invention can take place. Regardless of how place-conscious participants might be, place blogging assumes a common rhetorical exigency, namely that a sense of place is not just inherited but is actively constructive through rhetorical action. As Robert Brady from Pure Land Mountain, puts it:

I could see that dwellers in certain places were in love with places I did not find very appealing, whereas others disdained places I took to be paradise. I learned that much of our place relations are illusions that we bring to bear from whatever source we've gotten them. And when at last I learned to seek right away for the roots of a place, its deepest, truest roots, I found that each place required a change in me, a devotion in a way, an erasure of preconceptions, to be able to see the place as it truly was. That has become for me the value of places: we may change them, but they change us more. And to remain subject to change, and thus the possibility of growth, throughout life-- who could ask for more? Especially a traveler. So it was really quite organic for me to write about place, in this case Pure Land Mountain where I live, beside Lake Biwa in Japan, and to bring to that endeavor what I had learned. I hope it is of some use to others.

"Some Thoughts on Place" (June 17, 2003).

As students travel though our classrooms and attempt to create a sense of place, using technologies like place blogs can help orient students to the place of the university and give students the tools to continue engaging with place in meaningful ways after they leave.

Site-Specific Installations

Place blogging, like blogging more generally, is at least in part in the business of self-fashioning, and to this end the writing it produces tends to reflect on the connections between where we are and who we are. Coup de Vent from London and the North articulates this best at the end of her Ecotone post:

My partner, Paris, was in London this week. She saw a bloke get off a bus who was wearing a t-shirt from the Whitney Museum in New York. Across his chest it read "Site Specific Installation". That's me and my weblog - a site specific installation, an illuminated manuscript - a way of mapping time and place, emotion and fact.

The term "site-specific installation" is an apt description because it suggests the way that place blogs and the selves they construct are connected to particular places and only make sense in relation to these places. These places may change and these subjectivities may be in constant motion, but the regular, intentional installation of blogs and bloggers represents an effort to create meaningful relationships with the places that shape us.

As Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries puts it, the work of place blogging is meaningful because "we all want to feel like we belong somewhere. As people become more mobile, the need to feel like we belong somewhere will only increase. People feel grounded when they read about others who feel grounded" (DiSabato).

If place blogging is concerned with constructing a particular kind of self, a self-in-place, then place blogging in the classroom can encourage students to construct themselves not as individuals who use technology but as selves connected to particular communities and places. To this end, place blogging has the potential to reinforce pedagogical values shared by scholars and teachers who normally might not identify with "Computers and Writing" or New Media approaches to composition: those interested in ecocriticism, sustainable pedagogy, community literacy, and geographical approaches to composition. Place blogging can contribute to what Derek Owens describes as the project of

creating a space where students write and share stories about where they live, a space where they might come to see ways in which their needs and desires reflect the condition of those communities, and hopefully, begin to think of their local environments not as separate, incidental landscapes but as extensions of themselves. (75)

Emphasizing this link between self and place is the goal of creating both online rhetorical places (place blogs) and educational places (classrooms) as locations where students come to "find and make meanings, individually and collectively" (Burbules 76). In this context, blogging becomes a tool for both place-making and self-fashioning, one that is potentially useful for a wide variety of pedagogical approaches.


© Copyright Tim Lindgren