September 26, 2009

WHERE IS THIS TAKING PLACE? A Geography of Teen Identity

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image

Joan Didion (b. 1934), U.S. essayist. “In the Islands,” The White Album (1979).)


The work of adolescent imagination is play, and the play of teens is work. As with children, the growing and shaping and forming of identity takes place in places of the imagination. Kids and teens try on identities as they explore who they are and who they might become. Personhood is imagined into being, in places that are invented.


Children signify the past and future, desired or undesirable, savage or idyllic, sylvan or polluted. Childhood symbolizes a desirable future, imagined both collectively and individually by each of us. Each childhood is symbolic of each of our cherished individual pasts. They present and represent childhoods in a past sacral space in which each of us had an infinitude of imagined, remembered, desired futures. Our childhoods

Kids experiment with imagined selves. They impersonate. They im-person themselves. They try on identities like costumes, theatrical figures or heroic and romantic archetypes.

The secret places of imaginary play, of a childhood or a (re)-remembered childhood of two generations ago, may be in the fantastic and figurative space of children’s literature. Children can imagine being bad, or free of the socialization of childhood like Robin Hood or Peter Pan.

Kids on the internet can seamlessly experiment with being mean, or older, with romantic archetypes, or they can adopt entirely new invented identities. Yet the imaginary play of the internet and of contemporary childhood in the urban wild is both occupied and surveilled in a way that is completely unlike any library or secret glades, burrows, forts.


A part of adolescent work is learning and feeling a place, a community, a home, a belonging among a known people and place. Growing up is learning geography- the geography of knowing of where one is in the world.

Childhood and The Child, in a Piagetian, Cartesian/modernistic conception, are socially invented. (Cite). Children so conceived are a discrete category of persons, and childhood an ordinal sequence of categorical events. These milestones must be mediated and titrated by adults, so that events are not experienced too early or out of order (cite). It is a series that cannot be disordered or cross-contaminated or The Child will be polluted. Today what falls within the taxonomic categories of acceptable children and acceptable childhoods are socially negotiated and continually refigured.

In this modernistic conception, the child is assembled. Like a card game or a book, it is nonsensical if it is out of order. There are places that children must not see out of order. These are sites of contamination. Children seen in these places are seen as deviant or illicit. Their parents are seen as derelict. They are out of place.


This conceit of Childhood as a category or as an ordered sequence has not survived postmodernity in any sensible, unproblematic way. (Cite).

Many adults have shared and personal memories of fantasy play that took place unseen in burrows and forts and glades, in unclaimed and wild, undiscovered, abandoned places, and in cherished children’s literature. Our imagined, remembered and re-remembered childhoods of two generations ago are rendered fantastic by contemporary experience.  (Cite Goodenough)

The cyber-reality and urban wild of contemporary teens are fantastic to many adults. Childhood is sexualized, consumerized, digitized, kidnapped, unmoored from categories and the ordinal. Childhood has volatized into the hyper-real.

Childhood is compressed and disordered in space and time. It is curiously uncoupled from places. There is no longer a familiar, expected geography, a distribution of places like playgrounds where the presence of children is an expected familiarity. Rather, the appearance of children may more frequently mark places in which they are (un)expected.


Desirable affluent homes these days have suites for each child, and each suite has a comprehensive complement of electronic computing, gaming and entertainment equipment. Much of teen self-construction is within these surrounded, solitary spaces, through magic portals into an undisciplined, unsurveilled cyberspace. It is like Alice’s rabbit hole into a space of imagination, but it also a wormhole into an entire streaming, hyper-real atomic world that is altogether too real in a new, unimaginable way.

Electronic and online games have become so complex and interactive that they are encompassing, subsuming game-worlds. Much of self-construction takes place through the looking glass of a video monitor. It is a space of imagination. Some games are shockingly brutal. Some are online, reproducing death after death of the player, killed again and again by adversaries in other rooms and suites.

Kids experiment in unprecedented ways in the hall of mirrors of the internet. They explore being anonymously mean. They distort their ages as markers of status as children or teens, or they literally impersonate radical assumed identities. This is a routine of total self-invention that took place in only the most romantic of children’s literature.

Peter Pan. The Boxcar Children. Tom Sawyer. The Secret Garden.

Teens share their social self-invention in the illusion that and and texting are secret places of play. Secrets become ominous, and the dangers become electronically charged. Teens disclose their experiments in ignorance that they are not protected as children. They enact and disclose acts that, when made visible, will render them deviant and criminal because they are out-or-place and out-of-order. Social display takes place in a harsh, unmediated virtual and (post-public) space where we no longer have presumptive civil commitments to children, or to one another. People are not what they seem and children are not tacitly safe.


Some kids play baseball and do theatre. These are social practices that are adult-sanctioned and adult-mediated. They are legitimate, because they not out-of-order. They are (in order).

Children who are at risk lead to teens who are threats. (Cite). Children that are out of order are children who threaten, who have given the slip, who have slipped the noose of category. Kids in trouble become young men charged as adults. (Cite)

Kids without sanction are kids at risk. Without adults to sanction them, they are illicit. They have been let down and developmentally abandoned. They don’t have adults mediating or modeling for them. Where adult legitimation is literally absent, they need and find (or make) illegitimate places in which to construct themselves.

Garbage Grafitti 500px

The ‘space’ of childhood no longer includes as safe a family and community, and there is virtually no space outside of the body of the child from which threats to the child cannot come. There is no ‘safe space’ of childhood. There are literally no safe children. (Cite Stephens). Are the streets of the late-industrial city and suburb simply categorically unsuitable for children? Is the domesticity of child and family evaporating? (Cite.)


The invention of the idealized persona may take place as a molding of the physical body. Young bodies are sites of adornment. They can be rubbery and plastic, Like Barbie and Ken. Teen bodies are malleable. They can be written upon with piercings and tattoos. They are modeled with cosmetic plastic surgery so they are invented as (mimetic) duplicate celebrity figures. Conversely they are altered and marked and imprinted by injuries and defacements. Or they are invaded by cosmetic distortion- the introduction of alien substance into the body and the erasure of distinctive personhood.

Today this subjugation of the rampant body makes possible significations of belonging and difference, of inclusion and exclusion that are remarkable. Continually refigured technologies of body alteration produce a startling range of markings and costumes.

Teens expertly critiques the nuanced signification of subtler emblems: a wallet chain, a golf cap, the relative elevation of a beltline, elements of goth costuming. An anxiously and continuously compared, examined and recrafted ‘look’ is carried around as a reminder of subject-permanence like a blanket or doll. Belonging is tried on and skinned off, often at the mall. Different species of teen are seen watering at the same hole and foraging for fetishes at malls and at stores like Urban Outfitters.

Teen bodies and persons are ferociously contended, mobilized and eroticized. They are both more than and less than archetypes. They are highly sexualized and frantically turgid sites of post-modern cultural production and reproduction. (Insert Text about advertising?)

Access to money and influence over spending has made teens an unprecedented and fertile ground for formative rhetoric, commercial speech and advertising in the social reproduction of consumer identity, money and politics. Children and teens are branded through an unbelievably intense storm of media content to render them compliant consumers. Much of the content of advertising and commercial media projects models of ideal teens. It re-presents a commercially invented material culture of youth as desirable to all consumers: They signify your youth, your idyllic past, your possible futures. (Cite Kalle Lassen)

Here is the sharpest edge of the media/consumer/product/ identity nexus. Just think- were these figures and differences racial, spiritual, ethnic or linguistic, such violent, visible appropriation and colonizing of bodies and selves would be unconscionable. This argument posits the voices of ageism with the discourse of post-colonial resistance.

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Teens Are:


Plastic, like modeling clay

Unconstructed- like legos



Imagined into being


Where sticky terms in a discourse of power and identity attract such varied and fervently contentious social claims, they become both dangerous and vacuous. Symbols of desirable and undesirable futures become glued together in a noisy mass that cannot signify shared meaning.  Such terms only have utility as rhetorical blunt instruments, and only have real interest as artifacts that can be deconstructed.

Teens are subject to uniquely forceful categorical expulsion. There may be no persons that are so subject as adolescents to being violently and instantaneously ejected, flung from insider to outsider, and exiled from places. They can snap from category to category with the perplexing immateriality of Schrodinger’s cat.

Is your categorization of teens problematic? Interfering? Evict. Expunge the offending object. Pass it across the boundary of the category. Teens are (not)children and they are (not)adults.

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Teens Are/are not:


















Our future

My past

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Teens Are:

Teens are highly charged symbols. Most of all they are slippery. They, like the category of “the family,” are especially stubbornly resistant to dismantling into constituent elements or units of analysis.











Kids don’t know the difference between

help and manipulation. 

Undergraduate College Student

The teen communications network is a marvel. Their dexterity with text and instant messaging and cell phones have made email archaic and primitive. Today’s youth-oriented technologies for instantaneously communicated data and access to cars enable facile access to fertile opportunities for misdeeds and risks. Many kids simply don’t believe that their problems and risks can be shared with adults, and this puts them at an especial risk. This lead to a teen perception (and reality) that the worlds of teens are so removed from the adult world that most adults would be unable to handle knowing what really happens. In the movie Traffic, affluent drug abusing teens are so sure of the ignorance and ineffectiveness of their absent parents that they have no better idea of what to do with an overdosing boy than roll him out of a car at an emergency room. If kids are to perceive that adults are even in the game, or determined to be, adult pursuit must be at least as tenacious and as exhausting as chasing a toddler.


It’s easy to not see teens. If you are not looking you might not see them or their particular physical culture. If you are looking you will. They are seen/not seen. Ours is a world of hybridity and disappearance, of the collapse of space and time in which social differentiation among us is deranged. Where there is no sensible adult geography and domesticity disappears, teens have to invent their own terrain. Like the Boxcar kids, they have no stable adult geography into which to grow.

I am certain this can go wrong. When I was an adolescent, I began to bond into the community where I lived. I began to know adults as the substance of the community, and value my relationships to them. I came to believe that these people were coming to value me. This took place in a landscape in which I knew where I was. I knew my way around.

An inseparable part of finding my way in this community was knowing (and learning) the community as a place. Knowing place names, back roads, magical places and local history, even the weather, was the material of shared meaning with people. People came to and knew and loved the place and the community, because of where and how and who it was. The reflection and reinforcement of my coalescing self among these people gave a beginning to my adult personhood.

Part of knowing and being accepted there is the cachet of being local, of having been there before and during and back then. People there now know each other as (figures) here, by place. Knowing and recognizing and being is through native knowledge. I went away, and my adolescent bonding was interrupted. The valley has seen lots of changes in the past decades. Seeing the physical transformations of the place over decades of occasional visits has sometimes been physically shocking. My relationships with the people there were interrupted. I know who some were, but that is not who they now are, and they don’t know me. I have relationships with very few of them. I am not acquainted with the ones who have come since. I am not local, I am not a part of this place, and I am not a part of their knowledge of native geology. It is not my community, and I cannot discover if I know how to make one or find one or cultivate one now. Maybe I don’t trust that I can, or believe that a place can be stable and trusted. Maybe this is a part of development that, like language acquisition, is timely and its interruption can dislocate a life. Anyway it is somehow insensible to think about identity without place.


Teens are no longer known by geography, their where, to us, but they are to one another. They are known to one another by place.

Teen geography is populated by kids who are or want to be unsurveilled, unsocialized, unregulated and unimprinted by the disciplined adult world. It also serves as a place of contention about police control and power and authority. The presence and visibility of teens is the locus of social conflict about the presence and visbility of power, resistance, and the wild.  A geographical place serves as an icon and pole star for derelicts and runaways. Theirs is a wild of utter defiance and escape from the discipline of publicly constructed space where desirable future citizens are formed or found. 


Seen through another oculus of geography, Childhood takes place in a contemporary place that is disciplined: surveilled, structured, and regulated: socially contested territory. It is overlaid and etched with claims and counter-claims of power, money and identity. Each claim makes a unique valorization of what is unique and special, and each reflects the stakes, turfs and imagined futures of developers, merchants, bankers.

Each commodifies the edginess and grit of those parts that are made and shaped the most radically. Each would in its own way make it into something else, a frangible and fungible commercial pastiche of life/style, an illusory difference. Place becomes a life/style commodity that can be “skinned off”  and skinned on to a consumer like a Patagonia jacket, and urban space is a deposition of places so overlaid with the politics of money and identity that its character is suffocated by contestation. Cultural and specifically economic claims are made in space, on space, of space.

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Contemporary Urban Space Is:








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Wild, uncolonized places subsist in the alleys and vagrant seams and on the rooftops. The etching of teen identities gives what remains of its edginess and difference. It appears in seams, interstices, boundaries, edges and cleavages. Abandoned, unwanted, forgotten, vacant, underground, uncategorized, imaginary and empty, these are invisible like the place of raves.

In Trees Grafitti 500px

Sometimes this work leaves the visible artifacts of tagging and graffiti: signing, naming. It takes place at the edges of the downtown, at the edge of transient rental neighborhoods, on rooftops and in unseen alleys. It is outside of the contended borderlines of the territorial powers of the political. These places are like the raw, unsanded edges stage set-pieces. They are unfinished and un-marked and un-remarked because they are irrelevant to the illusion of the stage-craft illusion of the magic of the temple. They are criminalized, categorically suspect places of vagrancy. If a teen is seen here, she is vagrant and “out of place.”


It is not a sterile, fluorescent (re)construction of the disciplined, carceral space of the school or the hospital. It is not a place of detention. It is not assembled by adults. It is a physical place where teens can disclose a succession of experimental identities. But it is safe. It is safe because it is a physical place. They inhabit it. They occupy it. They populate it.

It is an incubator, a perfect vessel in which the culture can find purchase and begin to grow. It is a physical redoubt that is neutral, because it is uncolonized, unclaimed and uncontested.

Where is it? It is a node in the underground network of teen circulation. It is interconnected with the material web of teen places by the railroad right-of-way, by bus lines and by an encryption of occult markings like the signs used by hobos to identify places of sodality.

It is in a place that is just outside and beside enough that it doesn’t lap up against too many legitimate claims. It is close enough and alongside enough that it isn’t patently unsupervised or unregulated. It doesn’t attract police attention. It isn’t proper enough to become a nuisance, and it isn’t suspect enough to be troublesome. It isn’t really inside your town, but it isn’t outside either. It is astride an edge and adjoins the seam of the railroad and the counter-weave of the conduits of teen pedestrians. 


 It appears in seams, interstices, boundaries, edges and cleavages. Abandoned, unwanted, forgotten, vacant, underground, uncategorized, imaginary and empty, these are invisible.

Railrod Grafitti 500px

Look along the railways and threads that interconnect the underground, the vacant, the unclaimed and empty. Relax the focus of your eyes so that you can see the invisible. Just look. Follow along those edges and ridges where the material culture of teens is visible. This Zone will be a widening in the stream, an eddy or backwater. The countercultures and counter-territories and underground circulations that flow in interstices and seams and margins will intersect here, at the edges of the wanted and the claimed and the categorized.

It won’t be an exile. It won’t be in the pathological space of the forsaken or the overtly dangerous or the obviously contaminated. It won’t be an apparent place of abandonment or forsaking.

Ironically, there is often competition for unfound places: artist’s cooperatives, dance studios, and repertory theatres. Now, upscale redevelopments for the gentry are appropriating such places.


It works because it is not mediated by adults. It is a neutral vacuum. It can only be filled with the imagination of teens because it can resist relentless pressure like an evacuated hull, and sustain a neutral vacuum.

It is adults who defend a remembered past, an imagined childhood, a vision of a positive future, who assail the territory of the Place. But the imagined past and the envisioned future are not here.  It is neutral and insulated from the claims and presence and the imagined presents of adults.

Adults simply cannot see the naked material claims and presence of the teens that are there.

The Places Of Imagination Are:









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Inside, this Place is most intensely a place of music and poetry. It is a substantial place where young men and women of substance are born and celebrated.

 The rhythm and spirit that can take place here, the guts and heart and sheer creative horsepower that riot inside the space are astounding and unsuspected by many adults. The stage of the theatrical invention of personhood is conjured. It is pulled into being and held open by the embrace and affirmation of teens and complicit adults. Bodies are liberated and voices are amplified. Bodies are amplified and voices are liberated.


(OUTSIDE) it is quiet and veiled from the outside. It is…  not/seen.

A geographical or physical connection with the geography of other underground, illicit places would be a problem if visible.


This Place is so fully and ardently claimed, appropriated, written in, written on, imprinted, marked, signed, tagged, and imagined that it is impregnable, impenetrable. It cannot be endowed, or bestowed, or conferred. It is where the work of play and the play of work take place. It is continually imagined into being.

It may be that for most of us, the best way to make a place like this is to go away. The developmental task of adolescents, like toddlers, is to learn to say no.

This Place makes itself. It is self-assembling. It takes hold and grows as a culture within the labrum of the sanitary, uncolonized space of the abandoned.

We are gradually outsiders in the lives of our kids and our teens until we can no longer assemble, form and imagine them into being. When their work takes place, they are the inventors and we are no longer magicians.

You are gradually outsiders in the lives of your kids and your teens until you can no longer assemble, form and imagine them into being. When their work takes place, they are the inventors and you are no longer magicians.

Meka 500px


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editor @ 10:38 pm

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