Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Invitation to Go Beyond

Fortunately, we do not have to debate whether or not Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City essays; most reviewers refer to the maps’ accompanying texts as essays and Solnit doesn’t object in interviews. Nevertheless, we can debate her comment in “The Believer” interview with Benjamin Cohen regarding her take on labeling a writer:

I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is, but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. Sometimes I say I’m an essayist, because that’s an elegant, historically grounded—if sometimes trivialized—mode of literature, while nonfiction is just a term for the leftovers when fiction is considered to be paramount, and creative nonfiction is even more abject a term.

However, in the interest of awarding the Essay Prize I’m more inclined to offer comparisons of Infinite City to the other submissions about which we can then debate. Since first encountering Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, I found Infinite City dizzying and disastrously complex (just look at its subtitle). I liked the simplicity of Schalansky: four colors; sparse, homogenous maps; one page per map, one page per story; and the limited, but no less limiting vision of fifty remote islands. Yet it remained unclear after discussion how Schalansky was essaying; we even wondered whether or not she was “colonizing” the places she was writing about and what that might mean. Solnit, partly through the shared effort of producing Infinite City, does not seem to be guilty of colonizing San Francisco—if we are to accept a previous blogger’s definition that “at the heart of colonialism lies a power dynamic which involves the domination of an outside over an inside.” Solnit has lived in San Francisco for most of her life, whereas Schalansky, admittedly, never set foot on the islands she wrote about and never will. “No two people,” Solnit writes early on, “live in the same city.” Additionally, in “The Believer” interview, she says, “I am still struck by how much unknown San Francisco contains after a quarter century in residence there. And…my main urge is to deepen my knowledge of known and loved places and regions rather than jump into entirely new territory.”

We could also compare Infinite City to Reality Hunger. Solnit wrote about half the essays and collaborated with over 30 other artists. Shields wrote perhaps a third of his manifesto and stole the rest from others. I wonder if Emerson and Montaigne would have objected to Shields’ appropriation? I’ve silently championed the entries from Schalansky, Finnegan, and Boully because they worked alone, or mostly so. But I’m wondering now if Solnit doesn’t merit more praise for her ability to collaborate? “Alone, we’re powerless in many ways that we’re powerful together, and that power is one of the great pleasures and purposes of life we hardly have language for in this culture,” Solnit writes.

Solnit deserves praise for rounding up eloquent spokespersons for certain maps. “Monarchs and Queens” was paired with a lyrical essay written by Aaron Shurin, who, Solnit acknowledges, “has written gorgeously about queer San Francisco from his youth in the 1960s onward in his book King of Shadows.” Shurin declares: “This is a map of transmutations; a map of tribes, of wings and of wingspread. This is a map of unfurled maps. This map unleashes its legends.” He also inquires, in regard to the burgeoning queer culture, “Did the city itself bust out, bank into flight? Didn’t the city itself change shape, burst through, take wing, blaze into color, catch fire and light?”

These questions balance the statements that the maps make. From the epigraph by Italo Calvino in the Introduction, it is clear that Solnit is on a delightful quest to answer her own inquiries about this city and to discover “the question it asks you.” “While my story is mine,” she writes, “my map of San Francisco is also potentially yours.” I find her willingness and acumen to let others tell the story of her city admirable. Like Solnit’s selection for the Mission map: Adriana Camarena, “herself an immigrant from Mexico City now living in the neighborhood of this map, [who] investigated both populations, finding stories of stasis and displacement, hope and loss, gang life and economic hardship.”

In the Acknowledgements as well as a podcast from the UC Press website, Solnit thanks UC Press Art Director, Lia Tjandra, who “found us this creamy, luscious, delicious uncoated paper” and chose “what kind of binding that would make its life last.” She made the book “tall and slender so that when you opened it would have a squarish page spread” that was “fun to handle, more portable;” “the unit is the page spread, not the individual page as it often is with pictorial and visual art books.” Alas, the peninsula of San Francisco, at 7 x 7 miles, is almost perfectly square. So the form fits the contents it would seem.

What began as a proposal for a project to honor the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on its 75th anniversary, Infinite City may have become a model for other artists to collaborate and commemorate their own cities. Her thesis is inviting, more of a manifesto than Shields’ Reality Hunger which devours others’ language and ideas to bolster the individual, more deeply explored and lived-in than Schalansky’s islands. Infinite City is still dizzying and complex, but not disastrously so, since it’s clear that Solnit has designed it “with the intention not of comprehensively describing the city but rather of suggesting through these pairings the countless further ways it could be described.”


  1. I don't think it's fair to accuse Shields of "stealing...from others." He is clearly invested both explicitly (as a subject it's part of, if not the main thrust, of his argument) and implicitly (since it's the stated methodology of his text and many if not all of the texts he lauds) in the idea of appropriation as both an artistic and technique and perhaps as a necessary contemporary and documentary one. He cites his sources. One could make an argument about perhaps relying overly on others' actual words instead of his own, but it doesn't look to me like there's any way of reading it as theft.

  2. & I think it's smart to point us to some of the collaborative efforts in INFINITE CITY. Perhaps a promising avenue of inquiry for us to frame Solnit's work is whether she is essaying, or if her role here is primarily curatorial (or to what extent curating might be essaying). They're essays, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they essay in the way that we're thinking of essay.