Unreal Nature

March 26, 2009

Geo-Graphy: Slowed Into Form

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

Tom McCarthy: Really good art and literature is always political — perhaps all the more so the less directly it seems to be. In a way (I’m being provocative here, but I believe this, too), engaging with the symbolic order directly, with the realm of meaning, hacking right into its source code, is more radical than taking meaning for granted in order to simply make a statement.

… Art doesn’t resolve anything: I’ll gladly accept that. Instead, it intensifies the problems, producing surplus meanings left, right, and center.

Jeffrey Kastner: What’s intriguing to me about this is not the idea of the map as a symbolic representation of real space, but the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.

Eyal Weizman: I agree that the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it.

Tom McCarthy: Matter will always elude attempts to abstract it: There will always be a remainder.

All of the above are snipped from widely separated quotes within The New Geography: A Roundtable with Jeffrey Kastner, Tom McCarthy, Nato Thompson, and Eyal Weizman in the Apr/May 2009 issue of BookForum. I found the first half of the piece to be kind of boring, but suddenly, in the last half, it gets good. Really good. Here’s that section — from which I took the above bits and which I think is excellent:

TM: I think it’s all political. How can a map ever not be? The Hunting of the Snark, to use my earlier example, one that I suspect you’d relegate to the category of the “merely” aesthetic, isn’t just comic entertainment: It’s about the catastrophic collapse of a project that’s at once imperial (setting out across the ocean to capture something), economic (the crew includes a banker and a broker, equipped with a railway share), ontological (what is a snark, anyway?), and so on. Really good art and literature is always political — perhaps all the more so the less directly it seems to be. In a way (I’m being provocative here, but I believe this, too), engaging with the symbolic order directly, with the realm of meaning, hacking right into its source code, is more radical than taking meaning for granted in order to simply make a statement.

NT: I am of two minds on this. First, I agree that everything is political, in the sense that it exists in the world. I also agree that works in the symbolic order can have interesting political consequences. But I am sure we would all agree that not all things working in the symbolic order in fact do have them. I must say that cultural production has made hacking into the symbolic order in any way that has meaningful political results increasingly difficult. I suspect that’s why approaches in geography become more interesting as the symbolic order increasingly becomes a site for capital’s voracious appetite. The question perhaps is, How do problems in space resolve themselves in the symbolic order? Or, conversely, How do skirmishes in the symbolic order resolve themselves in space?

TM: But my point is that the symbolic order is itself political — indeed, the very possibility of political consciousness resides there. (How could you have political thought or action without meaning?) I think perhaps the “resolution” bit is the sticking point here. Art doesn’t resolve anything: I’ll gladly accept that. Instead, it intensifies the problems, producing surplus meanings left, right, and center. That in itself is subversive — subversive toward any dominant regime of understanding or interpretation, at the very least.

JK: This distinction between the symbolic and the tangible has obviously long been at the center of conversations about the differences between “artistic” and “political” practices. I doubt we’re going to put it to rest here, but I think we can all agree that the spatial environment is a particularly promising site for working on these problems. Perhaps as a way to bridge this, I can cite a passage from Hollow Land, where Eyal talks about the spatial organization of the occupied territories as “a kind of ‘political plastic,’ or as a map of the relation of all the forces that shaped it” — an array that includes official governmental bodies, the military, corporations, and so forth, but also more discursive things like the media and political activists. What’s intriguing to me about this is not the idea of the map as a symbolic representation of real space, but the notion of actual space itself as a map of the forces acting within it.

EW: I agree that the physical terrain/built environment could itself be thought of as a map. This is obviously a property not of the object/landscape but of the way we decode it. If territories are shaped by a multiplicity of diffused practices and forces, then we could try to read the way these abstract dynamics have slowed into form. I agree with what I sensed as Nato’s skepticism, namely that nothing is political in itself merely because power relationships are at work through it. Maybe we should reserve the term politics for more fundamental actions that change the way social forces come into play, rather than direct participation in the play of forces that structure a situation according to a dominant language.

TM: I’m very taken by this notion of physicality and plasticity. I love the example of the explorer Ernest Shackleton setting out to conquer and map the blank, uncharted space of the southern polar region, and how that very blank space itself, the tabula rasa of sea, turned material: The water froze around him and first trapped, then crushed, his ship. It’s like Deleuze’s notion of haptic space, which he opposes to classical distance and perception. His example is the Eskimo in snow: A spot on which his vision alights could be five miles away or a flake in front of his nose; space becomes tangible, close-up, all around you; you don’t dominate it with your gaze and your perspective anymore.

For me, this type of materiality lies at the heart of the practice of poetry. The prose poems of the mid-twentieth-century French writer Francis Ponge, for example, all revolve around a simple question, How do we depict things through language? He describes trying to “express” an orange, express being a word that has the dual sense of both representing and squeezing. When you do this, you may get some juice out of the orange (which, being globe-shaped, is a stand-in for the world), but you’ll always leave a husk behind, and the orange, given back over to its own plasticity, will resume, or partially resume, its original shape. Matter will always elude attempts to abstract it: There will always be a remainder. According to this line, what most resists dominant mappings is not alternative mapping but rather the territory itself, its sheer materiality. Perhaps with Eyal’s story, what was really going on was not people using the model to impose their readings on the land, but rather, through the model, letting the physical landscape mold their understanding and decisions: They became passive in front of its materiality.

EW: I think that Tom’s description of abstract space turning material also captures what war does to space. The historian Stephen Kern thought that WWI should be understood as the shuttering of space and time, and he described the combined effects of camouflage and artillery as the collapsing of the geometric order of front lines and territories. Gertrude Stein described bombings that blended disfigured landscapes with the remains of machines, buildings, and people in terms of Cubism’s undoing of the difference between object and background.

I think that beyond the various justifications Israeli officials have given throughout the years for their destruction of the refugee camps, there is a certain consistent logic. The war against the refugees is undertaken by the reshaping of their built environment. This is done with a combined power to both destroy and affect the construction. It was incredible to hear politicians last winter speaking about “reconstruction” in Gaza while the bombing was still taking place. Destruction is often followed by development attempts that combine welfare and architecture to replace the refugee camp with “housing projects.” One of the aims is to break the historical, spatial, and social continuity of the camp and, with it, the collective political identity of the refugees. So, again, a violently imposed spatiality becomes part of an attempt to affect political subjectivities.

Read the full discussion if you like the quoted section — though, as I’ve already said, I found the first half to be not nearly so good what I’ve given here. [ link ]

-Julie

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