I was chatting with a friend last night on the patio of a popular local Mexican restaurant in a popular local tourist district, and she remarked that in general it can be hard to remember (or anyway distinguish) what city and country you’re in because places look so very much the same.
And it’s true. You can take an open-top tourist bus in Toronto as you can in many other cities, and you’ll be looking at buildings that for the most part don’t look like anything distinctive and are only important (if they are important at all) because they’re famous for something that happens or happened in them. Even where the places do have a visual appeal, it can be a visual appeal that, however generous it may be, is not sui generis.
This is not quite the same as Gertrude Stein’s “There is no there there.” It’s not that the place of your childhood is gone, as Stein was addressing, or that your archetope is lost, or that the things that distinguished a place have been “replaced by shopping malls,” to quote Chrissie Hynde’s song with the Pretenders, “My City Was Gone,” and it’s not what we usually quote Stein in reference to, the utter geographic and social vapidity of the sprawling American (and Canadian) suburb. All of those are matters of a lack of quiddity, of somethingness. These places have something – it’s why people go to them or look at them. It’s just that they have the same thing. It’s samethingness.
And I don’t mean homogeneity, not necessarily. The really cute tourist districts repurposed from defunct factories are not identical to their surroundings, and might even have some striking variety within them. But you can still have a sense of déjà vu, or perhaps déjà vécu. It’s like listening to a song in some genre of music that you might very well enjoy (or might not; de gustibus non est disputandum) but you can’t deny sounds very similar to many other songs in the same genre. (A heckler once yelled at Neil Young about his songs, “They all sound the same!” Young replied “It’s all one song!” and started playing the next one.)
So, yes, persistent resemblance. The fact that you can look at new buildings in cities around the world and most of them have little to no locally distinguishing features on the large scale. The fact that the really distinctive cute hotel next door to my building, with its long arcade strongly favoured by wedding photographers, is – provided the proposal is approved, which it will be, and people put money into the project, which they will – going to be replaced with a tall building that looks pretty much exactly like all the other tall buildings being built right now. Oh, it will be stylish. And as individually distinctive as a wedding gown.
The funny thing about samethingness is that, although Paul McCartney sang “people are the same wherever you go” to Stevie Wonder in “Ebony and Ivory,” it is precisely the people who add the difference. Yes, people around the world tend to wear similar clothes much of the time now, and people travel a lot, and indeed money is a heavily homogenizing influence (in language it can be striking: the more money someone has, the more likely they are to use a dominant and widespread version of their language rather than a local and distinctive version), but people and their cultures are still different. And as much as humanity is a mass, each human is still a secret aware singularity and history. Ultimately, the relief of samethingness – at least for me – is the close-up interactions with the people in the places. And the culture and language the people bring and use.