Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shedding The Facts For Melody: A Response To Denis Wood's "Everything Sings"

When considering the intentions of this book, I had to question the ordering of its maps and what was being derived from them. Wood explains that "The maps toward the front of the atlas are about the neighborhood and its continuity in the city… [t]he maps towards the back of the book are about the discreteness in the city… [t]he maps woven in through the middle try to capture the broad givens of the front giving birth to the literal facts of the back, and vice versa: the churning and grinding that transform the city." So, to put these intentions to the test, I took a look at a few of the beginning maps (purposefully overlooking the first one, as I will get to it later).

The book initially intends to get at the guts of the town, showing a hill as if it was made up of topographic lines, then moving beneath it to “Intrusions Under Hill,” where gas, water, and sewer lines act like veins and arteries for a created body, as do the power lines in the next map (Squirrel Highways). What’s odd, though, is what’s derived from these arteries. The cables/pipes like arteries thing is a pretty obvious metaphor, but Wood does choose to end his angular, power line map by speaking about it not as a human means but as a means of transportation appropriated by the squirrel. Likewise, “Intrusions Under Hill” isn’t strictly about the transportation of human needs, but how those needs affect their surroundings, initially implying a negative connotation (the old humans ruining the environment thing) and changing it into an eerie balance (which seems forced here, but not in the next map) of human and nature, especially by positioning it next to Squirrel Highways.

As I see it, the ordering is quite logical: one thing triggers another. For example (please excuse the brevity): Boylan’s Hill turns into what’s under the hill, which turns into what’s on the hill –power lines, which turns into squirrels on those power lines, which turns into trees -because squirrels usually run on trees, which turns into tree canopies, then a realistic view of the tree coverage, then disfigured trees casting shadows, then pools of light created by lamp posts vs. those shadows, then the streets the lamp posts are on, and so on). So, while Wood seems to be transmitting the associative quality of his brain, he’s also supposing that there is an inherent network of stuff tied to humans, which in turn, ties to other stuff and other humans. This stuff is the stuff that ‘sings’ and creates rhythms (more on this later), as he puts it in his introduction.
But not only is the canopy map tied to the aerial view through ‘trees’ (because, well, they are both aerial views and have to do with what trees show and hide) it is also tied by references to Boylan Height’s history of urbanity and nature that lands in the space between guilt, nostalgia, and inevitability. “Broken Canopy” ends on a sort of guilty note about urbanity, as does “Aerial View” begin. But flip a few pages to “Pools of Light” and you get an interesting anecdote regarding the need for lamp posts in the 19th century, positing them as replacements for the moon. However, the map does not imply this guilt. Wood even notes in the introduction of how beautiful it was to watch his friend create the map and the circles of light with each brush stroke. So, does this map intentionally create a tension through juxtaposition?

As I mentioned earlier, I initially questioned Wood’s intentions regarding ordering, with each map seeming to logically speak to the one before it, the one after it, and their narrative components (basically showing how urbanity has broken down nature and there could be harmony, at least with the squirrels, but not really), then I came across “Pools of Light” which led me to recall Wood’s first map “The Night Sky,” which does work logically in that the night sky is expansive and yet weighted in the neighborhood from which it is viewed. Wood even quotes William Saroyan to wrap this point up, saying, “Birth is into the world, not into a town.” Then again, the quote and map/narrative seem oddly evasive as well. This map seems to function least as a map, but more as a picture. And its relation to the text, as I stated, is logical, but also creates a tension between Wood’s elaborate explanation of his team attempting to map this view and the uselessness of this map. I find myself not even caring if those stars are really in that specific place in the sky in that specific town. And what’s with the ones in the bottom right corner, hanging out in the darkness of the tree silhouettes? There is something oddly enlightening about this image, yet also illusive. This evasiveness, while not prevalent by any means in all of Wood’s maps, seems to come about more and more as the book goes on, leaving behind the nature vs. human idea and settling into a space that sheds the need to explain background information and facts, only showing present motion (ie: the routes of the mailman or paperboy).

It is here that Wood’s idea of rhythms, again, becomes prevalent. He notes:
"The incoming paper snaking through the neighborhood can be likened to the primary winding, the paper lumbering off in the garbage truck or the secondary. The milkman, the vegetable man, the mailman, the delivery trucks, the school and city buses (Bus Ballet), all are involved in bringing in stuff that, sooner or later, invariably transformed, has to leaves… the neighborhood inhales and exhales. It breathes."

Basically, Wood is initially presenting facts and background information that can be shed in order to give way to the narrative, the personal. This is akin to Wood’s last entry about “The Magic Tree Map Transformer Machine,” working through data to get to one, completely unique tree. In so many ways, Wood isn’t just speaking to what he’s prefaced in his introduction, but performing it. He quotes Christian Brown (through John Cage), saying (with regards to trying to only have sound without melody), “No matter what we do it ends by being melodic.” He seems to embrace the melody that Cage and Brown pushed away, calling it organic, then equates that melody to narrative, that atlases, pieces that can be read as pieces in any order are narratives. So, it is no wonder that Wood’s most successful pairings of maps and narratives are ones that don’t say the same thing, but create an evasive tension between what a map is supposed to create and what a narrative is supposed to say. Each seems to break the confines of their genres to speak to similar spaces, what remains of people and what they do in those spaces. Neither can quite be touched, but Wood certainly encircles them.

The only question that remains, though, is to what extent Wood goes to track down these melodies. He is concerned with rhythms of people (ie: the paperboy, the pumping of gas, the transference of electricity, etc) rather than who these people are and how they choose to group themselves in an area, implying a sort of arbitrariness about this that lends itself to the idea of the infinite (ie: Solnit?). However, Wood seems to have a very purposeful order, shedding his facts to get to the narrative. Given this propulsion, can Wood justly recall this arbitrariness to create melody when his ordering doesn’t seem so arbitrary?

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