Thursday, November 8, 2012

Placelessness, topophilia and a search for the authentic

The human desire to experience the authentic is not new. In fact, it's been said that this desire is embedded into most scholarly pursuits of cultural analysis. But one needn't look into academia for examples of this. There's the "authentic Chinese restaurant", or the "authentic bánh mì stand" in an out of the way place somewhere in town, the one that is most commonly owned and operated by "a tiny little lady who spoke no English." In places like the United States at least, pride in such discoveries is common, and is only multiplied when traveling abroad. In those cases, the search for even a quick peek into the real becomes increasingly intoxicating (see photographic examples of this in Martin Parr's work, such as this one).

The search for the authentic (which, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder), serves as a cultural counterpoint to the "placelessness" that geographer E.C. Relph wrote about in his 1976 book Place and Placelessness. Gas stations, chain restaurants, strip malls, housing complexes and at times even aspects of our own homes have in some cases completely lost their connection to the physical place in which they are located. They could, in a sense, be anywhere.

Ill at ease in inauthentic and placeless surroundings, the search for the real intensifies. Walking among Belgians at Sunday's race in Zonhoven, I couldn't help but think about that search, along with the rising use of Belgian iconography among American cycling fans (something that, admittedly, I've written about before). I also thought about how places like the sand quarry that makes up the most exciting part of the course in Zonhoven could potentially lead to one of the first cases of cyclocross topophilia, something that fans of road cycling already know too well. But more importantly, I thought about the drive to, at times, mimic aspects of Belgian racing, and the fetishization of all things Belgian. Though this drive can at best seem inauthentic itself, Mary McCarthy's words about Venice, kept ringing in my ear. They reminded me that things are actually as we see them. This, she would argue, applies to both Europe, and the distorted image that some cycling fans have of that continent (the one they so eagerly, and only half-jokingly seek to replicate).

"There is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice...The tourist Venice is Venice. Venice is a folding picture-postcard of itself."

And with that bit of semi-coherent babble out of the way, here are some pictures that I took this past weekend. I'll post more of them (including ones of the actual race) soon.


  1. jimjimjimjimjimjimjimNovember 9, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    Please explain whats going on with the bikini girl and jeans wearing trainer rider, who may be wearing Caballeros if they still make them?
    Is he trying to win a sunny vacation or keep the heat on in the beach room?

  2. Jim,
    This is a perfectly good question to ask.
    Here goes my answer:

    1. I don't think the guy was wearing Caballeros (for those who may not know, that's a model of skateboarding shoe)
    2. People would go up, and pedal. If they beat the fastest speed, the girl would take an article of clothing off. She started out wearing cycling jersey, tights , shoes etc. Slowly, as more people beat the times, she'd take off more clothing. I think the least she wore was smaller shorts, and the bikini top in this picture. after that, the whole thing resets, and she puts on clothing again. I think, people with good times/speeds were put in a drawing to win a trip.

  3. that is exactly why i would be no good as a photographer in a race like that. i'd just sit there all day long taking pictures of that girl at various stages of nakedness. race? what race?

  4. The Belgian thing is definitely getting overdone. From a weekend cross race in Boise:

    Makes that run-up look 27 percent more "epic", no?

  5. oh boy...thank you for sharing that picture

  6. This is indeed a fantastic resource. Thank you for making this publicly available.


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