Being There: The San Fernando Valley and Dasein

Written and Photographed by Federico Mata

“Everyone is the other and no one is himself.”
― Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

Driving around in the San Fernando Valley one cannot help but notice the heavy assault of strip malls. They are littered everywhere. On almost every corner, one can find liquor stores, laundromats, cell phone stores, tacos, water stores and more. The smells also encapsulates the city, a mixture of heavy smog and restaurants adds to the already noisy streets as the ambiguous city begs to have an identity. To the locals, the city is alive and well, having full identity, the “valley” as its known, has tough street cred and doesn’t try to be anything that is not, unlike its southern cousin, Los Angeles. Just like any other city in the US, the car reigns supreme. Having slightly more open space than Los Angeles, larger cars and trucks are seen more frequently as signs of status and wealth, with wide varying range of income levels and demographics dictate the social status. Using the “valley” as an example, it is curious to ask certain questions to a sprawling city in a more philosophical light, such as when we look at our environment, what doe we see? What does it tell us about ourselves? How has it molded the way we think, act, perceive and make sense of everything that we experience? In what way does affect being? Just walk outside, notice the sky, the streets, the trees, the people, what does it tell you? How does this external experience allow us to use our senses for the understanding of it? It is with this knowledge that we are able to make everything around us translatable to our understanding of the world — the being in the world — for better or for worse, and however limited, to reach the higher essences of being. But what does it all mean? Is language a catalyst for this? How does our biological, visual perception allow for an accurate representation of things outside us? Many things are at play in our daily lives, and nowhere is it more obvious than those of externalities, for it is the visual representation of the world that is in flux with the given epistemology of daily occurrences. It is therefore necessary for the understanding of our world that we have a better understanding of ourselves, to what drives us and gives us meaning. Philosophy allows for the reaching of these concepts into greater light, and the exploration of these concepts takes further into our central question: What does it mean?

Out in the world of concrete and paint, a shopping mall on Balboa and San Fernando Misson is a example in what has become a common interaction of our daily lives.

In our modern times, a common visit to a shopping mall may seem like no big deal. You drive or walk into the parking lot, you go inside the store, pick your items, pay, and go on your day. Yet everything that just occurred has happened by design. Besides your needs of being fed, the whole visit to the store is designed in such a way to dig into your deeper, unconscious needs. Advertisers have become bona fide experts in tapping into our minds for purchasing unneeded items, store layouts are designed in such a way that we must traverse many aisles and displays to reach our one item. Driving or walking to the store, one is bombarded by an endless array of billboards filled with ads of the next big movie, a new car, insurance services, dentists, doctors, strip joints, gas stations, fast food; a never ending supply of people trying to sell you something that you must buy. The consumer society is alive and well in this system, but it does not stop there. The layout of our homes, streets, roads, and cities has as much to do with us than we think. The pride that one pertains to their place of birth has to do with the bonding of only experiencing that aspect of the world. We become the city, we are the manifestation of it, we are its creators and destroyers.

Speaking with locals who were born and raised in Valley, this comes full circle. The pride associated from being from the “818” and its no-nonsense approach to life is a manifestation of authenticity that is accentuated even more by the mere presence of their birthplace. The character of the city empowers them to feel a certain sense of belonging to their very essence of being. This is most noticeable in the more urban areas, as street cred is a form of toughness and notoriety, and pertains to the identity of self. Often times, the city, street, home, even clothes we live and wear are the ultimate manifestation of our upbringing. The dialects and accents of a particular area enriches us with a sense of meaning and belonging. The customs and beliefs make our families and culture, fortifying a belief of uniqueness in the strength of community. Cuisine is the glue of festivities, and the ever growing symbols of a culture are its adopted colors, dress patterns, dance, art, language, and mores. More importantly, the geographic location of a people has as much to do with the culture than anything else. A desert dwelling people will have many different customs than a culture living in a jungle due simply to the amount of access of resources, and build a culture around it. A culture of cities built of concrete with access to plumbing and transportation will have a much different approach to being than a culture built on nature.

How does environment mold the self?

All the parts to access of resources plays a crucial role in our ability to become a human, its one of the aspects that makes us stand above the rest of the animal kingdom. We extract, mold, build, and exploit the available resources with uncanny precision to better suit our needs. We then package and distribute these resources to ourselves, making for a world with all the resources necessary to achieve the goal of… meaning? The progress of man to build his civilization into greater wealth has taken unprecedented advancements in science, medicine, industry, mass production, ease of access and knowledge at the edge of his fingertips. Yet we remain infants when it comes to knowing who we are. We are so inundated with every possible area of progress that being itself, our most important aspect, has been left at the door. We remain the same when it comes to individual progress that includes material wealth. We are more focused on the type of success that will gain us an ease of access to resources than to know what makes us who we are. Our cultures and customs can be a great catalyst to become who we can be, yet there is always the detriment of inhibiting progress. Add to that the religious institutions and any other that has to do with authority, and progress comes to a standstill: the external influences shut us down to becoming who we need to become in an individual sense.

Culture teaches us language, the word. Esoterically, a magic “spell” is only a spelling of a word into a continual phrase, evoking power to the chain of words. The words are only as strong as we make them out to be. The priests of old used this to their advantage, using language as the necessary tool to bring forth power and authority over the kingdoms of the past. Since then, language changes and adapts to the current time, yet the methods remain the same. One can only turn on the television or listen to talk radio to see and hear the molding powers of language, let alone books or articles. The thing about language, is that its not our own. As Alan Watts said in one of his many talks, we are given language, it is not your direct invention. It is learned, and given its limitations, allows us to live in the world waiting to be described. As an external agent, language is the maker of our world; it allows us to describe everything externally and internally. For instance, a rock to us is a hard, Earthly substance molded over a period of time that is now loose in plane existence. Yet, a rock is only a rock because we have given it a name. What would a rock be without language and an external being able to describe it? It is here where the philosophy of Martin Heidegger comes in to allow us to better understand this peculiar dilemma. In his work, Being and Time, Heidegger describes the philosophy of Dasein, a German word literally meaning being-there. But of course, as is tradition in philosophy, the literal translation is not the true of meaning of Heidegger’s intention. Instead, it is given a heavy ontological meaning as being-in-the-world as a separate being. If it sounds confusing, let me clarify. An entity, be it a rock, a chair, a person, or a house, exists as a being in its own right. No need for language as long as that entity exists in the physical sense. Dasein takes this into consideration when describing the being in an entity, that its existence is enough to warrant a sense of being. But what exactly is this being? What allows us to know that we or anything else exists?

“Dasein,” or the being-there in the world takes a new meaning when we truly begin to realize the externalities of our being into consideration.
What is an alley way and what does it do to our senses when we walk into one? How does day or night affect the meaning given to it?

Being is essentially existence. And existence is essentially the reciprocal of being. Language is the signal to being, that which kindles its relationship to the entity. It is also a very complex subject, one which has driven philosophy into the study of what we are, what it all means, and what is it to become.  In an effort to better explain the essence of being, many theories have come up to it, but nothing truly concrete has been made as an end-all-be-all explanation. Philosophy continues its quest to find out what it means to be, and the following is a light interpretation of it, however incomplete.

The San Fernando Valley and Dasein

Perhaps an easier way to come to the understand of these concepts, let us take a look a closer look at the San Fernando Valley. The sprawling suburbia built on mini-malls, suburbs, the porn industry, corporate industrial centers, tacos, and a large immigrant population is great example how cities affect being. Heidegger’s “Das Man,” often translated as “The-They” or crowd, asks the question of what being reacts towards a crowd or culture. The “818” version of Das Man is often a very distinct and macho facade, a raw, unadulterated street -mode way of thinking that bases practicality as an inherit way of being. With this practicality, the city is molded to its very core, a working-class city with very little in terms of giving something back. The freeways and streets play witness to this peculiarity of large urban cities, to the pot holes and shopping malls. In a way, Das Man inhibits the progress one can make to what Heidegger called “the call of conscience”, shunning the “Being-a-Self.” The quest for authenticity is lost to chit-chat, idle talk, and ambiguity.

The San Fernando Valley, with its network of congested freeways and taco smells, is a large city right above Los Angeles, better known for its great restaurants and strip malls. Pictured here, a rare traffic-free day on Easter Sunday. Source: Google Maps
Suburbia streets, here in the city of Granada Hills, often hides the sprawl that the city actually offers.
Above the 118 freeway on White Oak Ave
The mixture of nature with sprawling cityscape often hints of what was once vast farmland in the founding of the city.
On Rinaldi Street west of Zelzah Ave, the Aliso Canyon Park offers a retreat from the busy city with nature trails and suburbia homes overlooking the small park.

The French polymath, Gustave Le Bon, characterized the masses in his work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind as “In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious, and contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.”  Not that this is unique the San Fernando Valley, but the characteristics of a major city allows for the type of behavior to flourish and expand, leaving authenticity and self-knowledge behind. The mores and attitudes of a city has a limiting factor that leaves Dasein either forgotten or unavailable. Yet the sprawling size of a city also allows, if one is attuned to the flavors, for the expansion of culture and arts. Sizeable cities often include a larger arts base for one to exercise a fuller sensibility to the character of the city, and by being involved in these acts, a city can flourish and overcome the widespread issues facing often associated with large urban metropolis. The banality of cities that affects the individual in his temperament and being is one that should not be overlooked, and any city that is toxic to the individual must be looked into and further studied to find the root cause to what ails it. Nature may be covered in concrete and streets, but only when we dig further into it, the fertile Earth is all too ready to spring life back to the facade of concrete.

Dasein is simply a tool to investigate a infinitesimal portion of life’s meaning, and the further we are able to ponder life’s great responsibility, the closer we are in getting a minuscule understanding of it.


“All questions that do justice to the subject are themselves bridges to their own answering.”
― Martin Hiedegger


Model: Isabella Eisenpresser @isabellaeisenpresser

Further Reading:

Being and Time By Martin Heidegger

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

What is Called Thinking? By Martin Heidegger

Flesh and Stone by Richard Sennett

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind by Gustave Le Bon