Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Infinite City: The Evaluation

Solnit, (a solid) B

Craig and Justin: 85%

At some point during the semester, slightly befuddled at how to quantify the quality of these essays, our class brainstormed a list of elements that a good essay should contain, of ways that stellar essays ought to perform, and exactly what they should do for us. The list appeared weeks later on a handout from Ander, each criteria preceded not by a bullet-point or a number or a letter, but a little dash. This dash brought to mind the ­­­______ spaces left blank on forms, inviting a filling-in, requiring a filling-in. The way the list was laid out on paper suggested we might check off what the essay does well. But then, we (Justin & I) thought, what if the essay does something half-well? Or 3/4-well? There are twenty-five criteria we noted—why not just assign each 4 points, and at the end of the day tally the score out of a round 100? This is how our math homework is graded—why not judge art the same way? This way you can know a work of art’s quality at a glance. Example: Kundera’s novel Immortality = 98% = a stunner. Henry Miller’s The Rosie Crucifixion series = 54% = sad.

Is there any reason not to judge art by some (this) fixed system of quantifiables? Some might say we critics can’t properly quantify that certain je ne sais quoi. Well, we say, sure we can. If it’s got it, we’ll just add some bonus points. Consider it extra credit.

The text in question: Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit

1) The question of that certain je ne sais quoi? Does it have it? Or does it not? 4 (bonus) pts. – I say, sure it does. Je ne peut pas dire pourquoi.

2) What are the essay’s materials? Its methods? How is it powered? How powerful is it? 3 pts.My initial sense is that the essay’s power (which for me derives mainly from its intellectual ambition and quality) is diluted by the sheer amount of cramming-ness on these pages. I think I thought it was asking me to do too much, to process so much information, so many concepts I didn’t come to the book already invested in—and I was annoyed at being prodded thus. Upon getting down to work however (read: investing an hour and a cup of coffee in the endeavor), Infinite City’s mingling histories suddenly appeared not only interesting, but compelling and nuanced and important Method(s): Re-envisioning, juxtaposition, irony, collaboration, visual art—all seem more or less successful here I think. On the more end: Idea-wise, this thing strikes me as stellar. Less: compared to Schalansky’s Atlas the maps here seem less pretty than simply colorful, less provocative than they are simply an interesting backdrop to the writing, which for me, is where the real force of the essay lie. Much of the essay’s power derives from its collaboration, and it’s collaboration seemed a plus as I read it, or still seems a plus (I’m not really sure), but not all of the writing was as driving as it could have been, and though I admire the idea of incorporating so many minds into one work, of striving to defeat the bias inherent to individuals, and as much as I admire this reconfiguring of the city as an attempt to beat back the colonialist spirit and give/take the power back to the people, I am still left wondering: why is Solnit’s the only name on the cover? I suspect this is because at the end of the day it is her consciousness that is fixed here. Solnit is the dominant personality, and except for maybe Aaron Shurin’s section Full Spectrum (“…it’s generally agreed that the boys from Down Under perfected the art of drag names…”), Solnit’s writings deliver a more nuanced and meditative performance than the other included authors. Intentionally, or not, she seems to be saying, ‘This is not an anthology. This is my vision. I just had some help with the drawing.’ In any case, having only her name on the cover betrays, to me, that what we are being presented with here is less an atlas depicting some of the infinite cities of San Francisco, and more a Solnit meditation on the infinity of cities that exist within the city, and what that means: it is Solnit talking, even when she is not the one talking. And this, to me, means the essay is not as powerful as it could be.

3) How fairly does it treat the material? The audience? 4 pts. – San Francisco is treated, perhaps, as fairly as it could be expected to be, examined from myriad angles, resulting in a full(er) portrait of a complex place. The audience…—I’d wanted to say the audience was not treated particularly fairly, what with the density of words and long pages and the bundling of political topics and everything, but I suspect it was instead me not being particularly fair to the book. Yes, Schalansky was easier to read. Yes, this gets a little Lonely Planet-ish maybe and I was initially resistant to this since atlases don’t usually come with so much talking, or come with such an openly political agenda, but this is all part of the greater point, I think—subversion of given histories, of accepted boundaries, subversion of the atlas as a silent thing, a seemingly benign thing. It asks much, perhaps, of its audience. And I have decided to deem this complimentary.

4) How rich and interesting is the language? 3 pts. – The art and ideas seem to be where it’s at here. The quality of writing varies from here to there, author to author—always dependable, if not great.

5) How well it constructs or deconstructs its self/subject? 2.5 pts – Oh yeah, I think Solnit knows what she’s doing here: “reinventing the atlas,” “examining the many layers of meaning in one place,” “I joked to some of my friends when I was working on this project that owning race horses and castles is as nothing to commissioning maps when it comes to a sense of power and luxury…”—but again, doesn’t putting her name alone on the cover mean she is effectively retaining that power, the colonizing power of mapmaking that the collaborations were intended to defuse/diffuse?

6) How interesting or unusual is the material? 4 pts. – An exploration of a place, of people, incorporating history through the present, juxtaposing the beautiful with the nasty—pretty interesting, I think. Unusual?—using a reworking of the atlas as a medium, yes, unusual, I think.

7) How deeply is it explored? 4 pts. – It’s not exhaustive, certainly. It’s not a Ken Burns documentary. But it’s (relative) brevity is also kind of the point. There are infinite cities that could be explored and chronicled here, and perhaps ending where it does is simply an acknowledgement that yes we could go on and on and on and on and we know that, and now knowing that, we’ve probably gone far enough.

8) How wide is the scope/vision of the essay? 4 pts. – Rethinking a place, its histories, its politics, its peopling, its connectedness and disparities, and rethinking the form of the atlas, trying to re-create the form without any (or with less) colonial single-consciousness bias by flooding the essay with an array of collaborating biases—the embrace of this essay seems to be pretty wide open.

9)How well-tailored is the method to the material? 3 pts. – Perhaps it is a little text heavy. Perhaps the maps should be allowed to speak for themselves, but the text too can be seen as explorations in mapmaking. The collaboration of artists is at the heart of this, I think, is the fulcrum beneath the idea of maps as colonial tools versus maps as a means of real exploration. But again, why is Solnit’s the only name on the cover? Because she is the hegemon?

10) How active is the material and the form, and what is the relationship between them? 4 pts. – The material and the form seem to me dependent one on the other, each in a supporting role—drawing as map, text as map—supporting the atlas whole, which is less about marking or defining, or drawing borders, than it is about actively exploring.

11) How accessible is the essay? 2.5 pts. – I want to say it’s totally accessible. But it’s actually kind of academic, I think. Does that mean it’s not accessible? Maybe? I just taught a creative writing class at a high school, 9th grade, and while talking about the many creative forms maps can take I passed around Schalansky’s Atlas…, Denis Wood’s Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, and Solnit’s Infinite City. Infinite City was the first back into my hands.

12) How valuable is it to contemporary society? How timely? How timeless? Is timeliness desirable? 4 pts. – This essay’s value, I think, lies in that it strives to foster a greater knowledge of people and place, and create a milieu of greater understanding and acceptance in our society, which is at once more tolerant than ever before, and yet still alarmingly bigoted at times. It is an essay with a purpose, and it is a timely political object. On the other hand, it may also be read as more of a timeless, eloquent, interesting artifact; it is political, but pleasing to read as well. As Solnit told The Believer, the important question is “How can you write about the obscure things that give you pleasure with a style flexible enough to come round to look at more urgent matters?...can you retain some of the elegance and some of the pleasure when you look at big, pressing topics? I think you can. It’s what I’ve tried to do.” It’s what I think she does. If it was all about the trappings of nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal we readers might be bored; if it was all meditations on butterflies and gastronomy, the same.Of course, even when it is just about butterflies, there remains a political undercurrent: “In a divided culture, being undivided and synthesizing and connecting across broad areas can be an act of resistance, just as being slow—as in doing things deliberately, walking or biking or cooking from scratch or gardening or sitting around and swapping stories, not being dilatory or sluggish—in a sped-up culture is an act of resistance akin to the work slowdowns that were one form of factory strike.” It is valuable, I think. It is timely. It is (maybe) timeless.

13) How dialogical is the essay? 2 pts. – The collaborating artists here might be seen as dialoguing, though it also seems likely Solnit was nearby suggesting what they say. I don’t know where this is coming from exactly, but it’s almost as if I can hear her, calling, “I am here and I am brilliant and I will remain calm and meditative while I talk you through it all. I will speak through all these other people. I will tell you how it is.”

14) How much does it move us? 2.5 pts. – I can only speak for myself. Stimulated—yes, yes. Moved (as in psychic fibrillation of the heart)—I don’t know. The jury’s still out. Which make me suspect: moved—not so much. (Maybe I am cold-hearted. Maybe if this was an atlas about Milwaukee my heart would have responded differently.)

15) How interesting or idiosyncratic is the brain at work? And how well can we see it work? 3 (4) pts. – There is a brain at work in this essay and her name is Rebecca Solnit, and her brain is distinct and interesting, certainly. And I am confident I could pick out a Solnit sentence from a line-up—though she is, I think, less pleasantly idiosyncratic than simply intelligent and preoccupied here with the many social issues her oeuvre regularly tackles. Perhaps such preoccupation is idiosyncratic. Perhaps I simply wish for more idiosyncratic whimsy. But whimsy is not in the equation—only interesting & idiosyncratic. So perhaps the essay deserves better than a 3 here then…

16) How are we changed by reading it? 4 pts. – Solnit may not have been the first person to articulate these minorly profound ideas regarding mapmaking and history and bias and the layering upon one another of invisible cities we can never know, but Infinite City is a remarkable articulation of those ideas, and being exposed to them here, in this way, it is likely I will never read an atlas (or think of San Francisco) in the same way ever again.

17) How much of this essay is conducted in the spirit of inquiry? 3pts.— Solnit’s project explores a way to counteract the establishment of mapping, and therefore must inquiry about its own maps. Applying Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to map-making, Solnit states “another map is required; and another; yet another,” so on and so forth. So self-conscious about its own limitations, the text becomes an infinite exercise in inquiry with the only solution being more inquiry, another map, more inquiry, another map…

18) What movement does the essay show? 2.5pts.— Are these maps orbiting the same idea on the same plane, the different maps only being alternative vehicles? or are we in a rabbit hole and going further and further into Solnit’s mind? The trajectory, the break down by chapter, seems necessary, but distracts from the idea that one map made is complicit in the mapping of the next. These maps are individual units all reflecting Solnit’s ideas of representation. Each map inquiries in a specific way about a specific thing, but they fail to communicate with each other.

19) What spaces does it open up—either in itself or in us—and how well does it work those spaces? 3pts. – The space opened up is infinite, depending on your belief if mapping is a way to open or close doors. While Solnit seems to be preoccupied with the conception that after each map must come another map, but order for the door to remain open. As artists predominantly involved with the textual, we are forced to consider how we can negotiate with the visual for a deeper inquiry of a subject.

20) How present is the self? 2.5pts. – As commented on in a previous question, Solnit’s name appearing on the cover possibly undermines the thinking behind this project. So, the question here should be, how un-present is the self? or how has the collaboration formed a newly individuated self? Solnit writes 8/20 essays accompanying the maps and her editorial weight pressures the rest of text. The atlas becomes less of a collaborative vision and more of a folio of individual visions.

21) How important are the stakes? 4 pts.— Beyond the text’s colorful invitation, the stakes here are highly charged. We can either be complacent or apolitical and continue to have the establishment generate maps for us or we can participate ourselves. Solnit’s background as an activist influences the thinking through this text. The text gives a voice to the voiceless through maps and asks readers to do the same.

22) Do we measure the text against or within its genre/constraints? 4 pts.— Absolutely. Solnit has spent a great deal thinking about place in the rest of her work and here has chosen to broaden the possibilities of how we represent place through the once purely systematic/scientific process of Atlas making. The value of this text is how it finds pleasure in the negotiation between the organized system and the individual.

23) How might we quantify or at least understand how conscious the text is of its inquiries, subtleties, and contradictions? 3.5 – The text remains self-conscious of its endeavor throughout. The introduction provides an interesting analysis of the shortcomings of atlases and notes its own limitations. Incredibly conscious in its frame, but drops its consciousness within the individual sections in service of its exercise.

24) How much do want to privilege the personal? the individual? 2.5pts – Here the individual is valued in its contribution to the collective. As an act of essay, I want to think me about collaboration. Personally, I value the individual within the essay and how essay is the mode where an individual can operate and undermine entire institutions. All in all I need to think more about this one.

25) How complex is the essay and its methods and/or questions? 4pts. – The thinking and questioning behind this text is incredible strong. Its method of pairing text and maps further complicates are notions of space. Solnit inclusivity between mediums and genres and voice makes this text a rich, complex, pleasurable, and overwhelming experience. Besides the overarching question, I am interested to see in class what other questions, macro/micro, are being asked here.

26) Does it continue to reveal meaning or complexity or beauty after we reread it, after we press it down? How much does it keep giving us? How much do we want to return to it? 4pts.— Continues to reveal meaning as we progress into the routine of our lives, and allows us to breakthrough our routine of seeing into new territory. Powerful and continuous.

1 comment:

  1. As far as 7, 8, and 19 go, the points given and evaluation seem a bit generous--is Solnit's city infinite? Her view seems strikingly finite to me. Though she wants to pre-empt this by admitting that limitation in her introduction, still. The inclusion of other authors might be the best illustration of this--where's the dissonance or dissent in voice or perspective? Things seem to line up a bit too easily, I think.

    I had high hopes going into this book, especially with the early nods to Borges and Calvino, but I was soon disappointed by a book that never seemed to follow through on its promises.