Monday, May 9, 2011

The Case for Wood

I must admit, from the very beginning of this class, I thought Everything Sings was the clear winner. Although I have admittedly wavered in my beliefs throughout the semester, as I have  re-considered the book in tandem with the other two nominees, I realize that, among the three, Wood is still the best essayist.

I think perhaps one of the most useful ways to compare the three might be to think about the project, and the execution of that project through the chosen form. As Wood creates unconventional map after unconventional map of Boylan Heights, his books is, in fact, enacting its project on its own terms. Each map may be thought of as an "attempt" to create a visual or pictorial representation of the neighborhood. Thus, not only does the introduction "essay" in that it introduces the project - it continues, on each page, to "essay" with each map being an exploration of a different (and unusual) aspect of place. As one blogger posted, this book is not about Boylan Heights, it is about expanding our sense of place as we understand it through our representation of it. Here, what another blogger posted becomes relevant: the use of the second person. Far from being annoyed or "pushed in," I felt the second person to be inclusive where Schalansky and Shields were exclusive, or in the latter case, particularly alienating. The stances of each author are obvious from the way he or she posits him or herself in the titles. Re  Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (rhetorical), Atlas of Remote Islands: 50 Island I've Never Set Foot on and Never Will (semi-rhetorical - these places only exist in the author's imagination, a warning label that serves as a disclaimer for the blending of fiction and non-fiction), and Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas (title: rhetorical in an abstract way - re the blogger's question "What do we mean by 'Everything'?" subtitle: relatively neutral, although still abstract - it introduces us to the concept of a "narrative atlas," which is an idea we wrangle with alongside Wood and his students throughout the book). For me, and I think I can speak for my group, the author's positing of the reader in an inclusive mode allowed the book to be about presence rather than absence (Schalansky's "Remoteness", Shields' "Hunger for Reality").

While Schalansky's form self-consciously engages in the very concept she calls "colonizing" by re-creating the maps of her 50 islands in a traditional manner, Wood's approach opens up an entirely original method for making and reading maps. Wood is self-conscious in a different manner: he realizes that the places/things he maps are ephemeral, "useless," and incapable of becoming "commodities". However, his introduction is in praise of the beauty of mapping/preserving a moment that will inevitably be subject to change. Whereas we typically understand maps/the landscape itself to be static, especially in an age of Google Earth, satellites, etc. In fact, as we know, the earth and the global tectonic regime is constantly changing, eroding, erupting, etc. Wood calls attention to this logical fallacy, and points earnestly toward the importance of mapping human decision-making, and understanding how our presence is constantly shifting the places we inhabit.

In response to Shields, all I have to says is: it's been done before, and Benjamin's The Arcades Project is much more interesting to me.

In conclusion, I think it is rather obvious that Wood is still the obvious choice. His form succeeds above and beyond Schalansky and Shields, in that each page of the book marks another "attempt," or "essay" that can be read collectively. Although the same argument could be made for both Schalansky and Shields, I believe that upon close examination and scrutiny that you, dear reader, will feel compelled to agree with me when I say their "attempts" fail. Schalansky's book seeks to understand remote places, and does so with a breadth that each "attempt" is relatively the same as the previous. The same goes for Shields. After a while, it is inevitable, dear reader, that you put those two books down, and take a break from listening to the same thing over and over.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Wood's book is the only one of the three finalists that can be and wants to be read in one sitting. Not that this should determine the prize, but I think it's worth noting. While the reader is compelled to pick up and put down both Schalansky and Shields, sometimes due to sheer exhaustion, Wood's project is accessible and interesting enough to compel the reader throughout the book, to continue flipping the page until they sadly reach the back cover. Don't get me wrong, dear reader, all three books are worth returning to. But Woods' is open enough to let you into his world, into a consideration of place, time and time again, without pressing judgment, without telling you what to think, and by letting the visuals speak for themselves.

I think it is obvious that Denis Wood's is the most idiosyncratic and creative mind at work here, and raises the most interesting questions with respect to our daily lives. His book takes the most (interesting) risks, and has the most at stake. He asks us to pay attention to the world around us, to (try to) listen to everything that sings in a world in which we must often struggle to find beauty among a damaged and urbanized landscape. He completely inverses the use-value of the map, and challenges his readers to do the same. Mapping becomes not about hegemony of place, but preservation or a moment in time, and understanding how such moments speak to how we, as humans affect our planet, our landscape, our city, our neighborhood, our own home. And what important things for us to consider deeply and abstractly as we find ourselves on the brink of ecological disaster, overpopulation, etc. the dawn of the 21st century.

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