Tag Archives: John Durham Peters

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The Third Place

Place matters a lot in how humans relate. In a welcoming setting we feel comfortable, even as strangers.

The new ‘work at home’ culture that has emerged after Covid has a lot of cultural observers asking questions about how we are coping with this partial shift. Do we feel isolated? Would we willingly go back to pre-pandemic days? Some apparently find the world a bit limited when living and working under the same roof. And the office is not always a remedy. With more colleagues on scattered schedules, traditional work spaces have lost some chances for the kind of amiability that might have existed prior to Covid. Of Course, there are many exceptions. But few would welcome a ten-hour day in the middle of a half empty carrel farm. And not every workplace can be the kind of extended ‘game room’ that the folks working at Pixar seem to enjoy.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the idea of “the third place” several decades ago to describe a need in people to be out in the world, but without the hierarchies and tensions that often come from homes or offices. Libraries, inviting parks, coffee shops, public lectures, bookstores, bars, and churches are representative examples. Oldenburg noted that third places needed to be informal and welcoming with “no formal criteria of membership and exclusion.” So, as New York Times journalist Anna Kodé recently noted, an escape to a cozy private club does not meet his standard.

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We need third places to fully experience being “of” a place: to feel connected to a community that offers chances for random connections with few requirements.  In these spaces with may still be “strangers,” but our simple presence is somehow affirming. Imagine the denizens of Cheers”(1982+) or Friends (1994+) when all were just first-time visitors.

As in most towns and cities, a coffee shop with enough space is a representative case. My little town has a few good examples. My experience is that those lounging on the chairs and sofas are less thirsty than fulfilling a need to be in a common physical space. Many working on their laptops appear to be enacting an adult version of the parallel play of children.

There is an interesting communication dynamic in the act of putting ourselves in the presence of others, but not necessarily interacting with them. Place matters a lot in how humans relate. In a welcoming setting we feel comfortable even as strangers.

The Importance of Partaking 

The idea of communication has its root in the Latin verb communicare, which translates as “sharing with another” or “to make common.” But, as silent witnesses, are we really connecting in a third space? The argument for “yes” is strong. Our bodies and clothing say a lot, mostly that we are part of the tribe. There is also a degree of comfort when entering a welcoming space that is non-threatening. This derives from escaping the usual burden of responding to settings with clear expectations and verbal scripts. Because what we say can unexpectedly boomerang, our presence in a place is usually the additional option of adding our thoughts. An important part of communication is simply being present. What communication theorist John Durham Peters call “partaking” means “taking part in a collective world.” This is much more than an ancillary part of communication; it speaks to our core nature as social creatures.

Many theorists have paired Oldenburg’s idea with the work of social scientist Robert Putnam, who has argued that we live in an era where old and durable affiliations have withered. He lamented the decline of trade unions, granges, small museums, community service groups, church-supported activities and even bowling lanes, which were at a low ebb when the book was written. In Bowling Alone (2000) he noted that, even with increasing urbanization, we seem more isolated. More entertainment is produced exclusively with home consumption in mind. And, of course, the non-games side of the internet atomizes experience with only intermittent real-time interaction. (Texting resembles signaling, setting the bar too low to be included as rich human communication.) Some of those civic facilities that remain—school boards, city council meetings, and PTAs—now seem to come with more tensions that can easily shatter the idea that gatherings can nature the individual.

In the best of cases, partaking as communication is affirming because we are noticed and seemingly accepted: a variation of the old aphorism that “80 percent of life is just showing up.”

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Islands of Isolation

The present moment has created more self-isolation than most would like.  We know what it means to be alone with one’s own thoughts. Chatter with others may be in short supply. But our consciousness can easily take the chatter inside.  We may share a common culture and lineage, and we can build bridges to each other, but can our reservoirs of self-reflection ever be made transparent? 

Climate scientists warn that it will be just decades until areas of South Florida will become a watery archipelago. The level of the sea rises about one inch a year in Miami Beach, inundating streets that some residents continue to believe are flooded by water main breaks.  Even in denial, those residents must sense that a chain of islands makes continuous connection with the rest of the community an insurmountable problem.

Interestingly, communication scholar John Durham Peters makes the same observation about human communication (Speaking Into the Air, 1999).  We are, he says, our own islands of consciousness, forever separated from others.  We may share the same culture, but we can never fully know another person’s world.

All of this is Peters’ way of reminding us that we have oversold our abilities to make things right through communication.  He notes that problems of connecting with others are “fundamentally intractable.”  Our attempts at doing so creates a “registry of modern longings” that can never be satisfied.  Disappointment is a natural part of the effort.  As Peters notes:

Our sensations and feelings are, physiologically speaking, uniquely our own.  My nerve endings terminate in my own brain, not yours.  No central exchange exists where I can patch my sensory inputs into yours, nor is there any “wireless” contact through which to transmit my experience of the world to you. . . .  In this view, humans are hardwired by the privacy of experience to have communication problems.

                    Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wikipedia.org

Of course the theme of humans physically together and psychologically apart is universal, reflected in everything from Edward Hopper’s lone figures in the painting, Nighthawks (1942),  to virtually any film or play that treats individuals and relationships in all of their complexities.  The tensions inherent in coupling and adapting are shot through most country ditties about loneliness as frequently as recurring film narratives of abandonment.

This perspective only seems pessimistic if we believe in a kind of communication that is so stipulative or stripped of complexity as to be uninteresting. I can say with great accuracy that the Ketchup in our household is in the refrigerator, and know I can be understood.  But who cares?  The things that usually matter–feelings, values, aspirations and needs–all hide more easily out of sight. Could it be otherwise when we engage with other living souls with different life histories, memories, fantasies and fears?

Another part of our common over-optimism about communication is that advances in technologies are themselves reasons to mitigate communication confusion. Our devices make it possible to talk or text through every waking hour.  But, if anything, opportunities for sending and receiving messages only increase the chances to see the differences between us that remain.

The trick here is to accept the challenges that human complexity creates, without descending into the view that the outside world is mostly a mental mirage. To fall into that trap is to deny the chances that are still possible when words, images and music make sometimes durable bridges to others.