Saturday, April 30, 2011

What I Think Denis Wood Means When He Says "Everything"

Toward the end of our discussion on Solnit last week, we made a brief and runty attempt to tackle the word infinite—how it’s hinted at & suggested in art and writing, what effect the suggestion of infinity might have on a reader or viewer, etc.

The talk stuck with me because I’d been rolling the topic around in my head since I was a teenager. I am a compulsive abstractor. A conceptualizer. I have a lot of pictures of groups of people taken from very far away, but not too many portraits. (I think people look best from really far away, either waving or walking.) I’m into types and symbols. I’m into ideas, not people (or, not people qua people—I’m into what people represent, what they stand for).

I don’t care about community. Or, I only care about it in theory. A couple of weeks ago, I went to the open studio of a friend who lives a few blocks away. When I went up to tell him I was there, he said, “Oh, it’s great you’re here, because there are a lot of people from the neighborhood you should meet.” I don’t want to meet people from the neighborhood. Or, I don’t want to meet them from the neighborhood because they’re from the neighborhood. I rarely meet my neighbors and am deeply apathetic when it comes to local elections.

I blame it, predictably, on my upbringing: part New York City and part semi-rural Connecticut. “Community” in Connecticut is staked on distance. You pay for the privilege of being able to go for days without actually seeing other human beings. “Community” in New York, as far as I could ever tell, was staked on a perverse pride in being able to make enough money to survive. I always found it easier to treat people in New York as contained bursts of information or service. (Benjamin’s “shock” theory is useful here—you’d die of exhaustion trying to dignify and parse the pathos of any given city street at any given time). There’s a lyric by the songwriter Bill Callahan that I like very much, and it goes, “Alone in my room, I feel like such a part of the community / But out on the streets, I feel like a robot by the river, looking for a drink.” I sympathize. Thinking about community fills me with god’s warmth; actually being at community events makes my palms sweat.

By extension, I’ve never cared much about place. I am always surprised when I visit my brother and see him wearing a VIRGINIA t-shirt, which he must’ve bought when he came to visit me during college (go hoos)—and I’m surprised because I don’t have one, and I’ve never had a t-shirt or hat that advertised any place I lived or worked in. (Though when I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, I considered buying a t-shirt that said Little Rock, Arkansas, in part because when I moved back to Brooklyn, all my friends asked me how I liked Alabama. The whole city and state of Arkansas is just brutally underappreciated.)

I’m taking the long road around to talk about Wood, but in order to convince you I haven’t lost sight of the point, here’s an assertion: I think that the smaller the expression is, the more profoundly it can invoke the infinite.

I don’t want to structure my thoughts here as Solnit vs. Wood (even though the temptation is logical and obvious), but what I will say by way that Infinite City feels torrential to me. It’s messy, it’s an information dump, it’s wildly opinionated. It attempts a kind of life—or, it attempts, I think, to make the reader feel like the book could just melt into reality, or extend itself into it. It has an enmeshed quality. It’s eager. It’s maximal.

Everything Sings, by comparison, feels whispery and humble. The maps tend toward abstraction, and the narratives within—and between—them is subterranean. Take, for example, “Police Calls.” The two biggest numbers, i.e. the two most commonly reported crimes, are in the southern part of the neighborhood: “motor vehicle accident” and “vehicle blocking passage.” Then turn back a page and look at “Signs For Strangers.” Surprise: The places where there are the most traffic signs is also the place where there are the most vehicle-related police incidents. It’s an obvious conclusion, but the experience of piecing it together as a reader is satisfying. Or take the passage from “Trees in General” to “Broken Canopy” to “Disfigured Trees” and later, “The Age of Trees” and read it like the story it is.

Or, on the more abstract end of the spectrum, just look at “Wind Chimes.” There’s no delineated space at all, just a near-synaesthetic representation of sound. The book is filled with invitations to resonance and connections—invitations, really, to poetry, or at least to narratives whose weight lies in ellipses and off-stage exchanges. I admire that.

And I think that part of the way he achieves it is by taking a microcosmic approach and working on a very small scale. Raleigh, North Carolina, is a city with no immediate cultural heat. I doubt young teens dream big-city dreams about living in Raleigh. (Charlotte is bigger, and for what it’s worth, I always thought that Chapel Hill was more fun.) And Wood isn’t even working with the whole city, just a single neighborhood, and in several of the maps—“Sound Walk” or “The Light at Night on Cutler Street”—only a portion of that neighborhood. He spends some time aggregating history but more time focusing on his—and his collaborators’—own observations.

The result is that the book feels less like the result of research and more like the result of a practice, an attitude. Sit and watch. Write something down. Listen. Walk around and report on your block. When I read “Sound Walk,” I hear it. And as I hear it, I’m prompted to try and make my mind aware of itself, its perceptions, and its attitudes. Everything Sings isn’t about Boylan Heights at all; it’s a book about being where you are. The information is washed away by the life that runs through it.

And I’m moved by the book because I think it contains an implicit challenge. My block is the last place I’d think about visiting because I’m there all the time, but on the other hand, I know very little about it. The reflex—mine, at least—is to pay attention to other places because I imagine my block will always be there to investigate when I want to. Of course, what ends up happening is that I’ll move and realize I wasn’t really living where I just lived. I’ve had this experience over and over again. And the challenge, then, is to frame the picture, focus on your immediate surroundings, to apprehend your habits and your indifferences.

“Some guy on Cabarrus had a lovely sweetgum cut down—in its prime—to stop the gumballs dropping on his Corvette,” Wood writes at one point. We don’t just get an explanation for the absence of a dot on the map, we get the Corvette, and its annoyed owner, and we get the sticky thing falling out of the tree, and we can see this guy getting annoyed and thinking about what the heck he’s going to do with the tree because damn if he’s going to let is ruin his car (which is not described as red but I just imagine is red anyway), and from this one line we’re offered not just the lay of the land but how it feels to walk there, too—we’re offered spirit. Wood’s patience in making the maps is a devotional exercise: It’s him recognizing the spirit of all these things he could easily ignore. And there’s the abstraction, I think, or the suggestion of the infinite—this belief that the smallest and most easily taken-for-granted places have routines, idiosyncrasies, variations, infrastructure, history, change, sights and sounds—that, to use his words, everything sings, but it falls on us to listen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Infinite City: A San Francisco Treat

The commercial jingle Rice-a-Roni: the San Francisco treat catapulted rice pilaf, the underdog side dish, to fame in the 1960’s. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with its fluorescent orange appeal, was dominating grocery store sales at the time. Everywhere children were eating gummy pasta, devoid of nutrition, a shameful staple in the American diet. Everywhere people identified the pasta with Italy. It became a false and unjust representation of Italian cuisine, contributed to negative stereotypes, possibly even led to the production of Jersey Shore. (Research TRUTH about Italian cuisine and Italian culture and place research here in order to push back at the negative stereotypes.)
The rather murky origins of Rice-a-Roni have never been examined, despite the fact that they are important to California history, the diets of American children, and serve as an example of commercial marketing genius. One day the Italian widow of one of the founders of Golden Grain Macaroni Company walked into her elderly neighbor’s apartment and smelled the delicious air of rice pilaf. Her neighbor was Armenian, this was an Armenian dish, and she was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. (Research TRUTH about Armenian history and insert research here in order to push back on ethnocentric readers who don’t know about Armenia and don’t care.) The Italian widow immediately recognized a winner. Her family’s pasta factory began producing rice pilaf and thanks to her Armenian neighbor, they could finally compete with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. By going outside her own Italian culture, the widow destroyed the monopoly Kraft Macaroni and Cheese had on side dishes in America and introduced an Armenian food staple to our diets. The widow expanded her 1960’s dietary worldview and our own as a result.
I am being facetious. In part because I grew up in a desert outback with little knowledge of urbane environments like San Francisco—in part because my earliest sense of SF came from those Rice-a-Roni trolley-car commercials. I was, as they say, a country girl. But I am also trying to make a point: Rebecca Solnit writes about important matters. Choosing what she would like to include in her San Francisco atlas she considers the underdog, the forgotten tribes, the marginalized ethnic groups, the queens, the environmental disasters, the trees and butterflies. She criticizes the War Machine, the destruction of the environment, the extinction of salmon, and the stupid way we ignore global warming though it threatens our shorelines and our lives. She is a serious and earnest thinker who feels it is important to seek out forgotten histories. She researches. She compiles facts. She quotes intellectual writers—Thoreau, Borges, Calvino, and Rumsey, on the first page of her introduction alone. She loves a good argument.
I enjoy Rebecca Solnit’s writing. I especially appreciate that she dismantles harmful myths that have to do with my own culture: she has repeatedly skewered the myth of the vanished American Indian, the myth of an empty wilderness that needed to be tamed. She grew up in an era when American schools taught versions of history she didn’t enjoy, from a perspective she found unsettling as she grew older. Prior to the 1980’s, in many states, ‘cleaner versions’ of history were taught, versions that left out our country’s dark asides. As her worldview expanded, as she wrote, read, and traveled, as her sense of being human tied into different demographics of people, she needed to rewrite the history she learned in school. Thus she told stories that embraced the forgotten ones, stories that enabled her to live in America and feel part of the country in a way that made her proud. I suspect that Solnit had very personal issues at stake in her early books—that she was learning as she wrote. In other words, it wasn’t knowledge that she ‘gave away’ but knowledge that she was surprised to learn. Watching her language meander across the page gave the reader a shared sense of her discovery.
In terms of her new Essay-Prize nominated work, it was not all I hoped for it to be. Though I loved the maps and the ghost-like sense of place that gets evoked in the introduction and in the discussion of ‘moving films,’ and though I loved the idea that civilization is ineffable and ever-changing, I was ultimately disappointed that I did not feel as much passion at work in “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” as I have in her other work. I don’t know if the diffused emotion is due to the collaborative effort, the overall tone of the work, or the fact that not enough of the topics selected for the maps relied on whimsy and imagination. The introduction claims that “maps are always invitations in ways that texts and pictures are not; you can enter a map, alter it, add to it, plan with it.” With the exception of the final “plan with it” I did not feel any of these invitations while I read the atlas. I felt somehow unable to enter the argument, to see myself existing in this world. I suspect that a sense of shared discovery did not come through as strong as the authors might have liked. I believe the atlas failed in its universal appeal. It did not hit like a catchy jingle or become a treat that non San-Franciscans could understand and celebrate.
Finally, I suspect that my younger peers here at Iowa will complain that older progressives have lost touch with their generation. Many of these young people had Howard Zinn’s version of history included in their high school curriculum. Not only do they know the names of obscure tribes, feel well-informed about the LGBT community, and have friends from every ethnic group, many have fought a sense of liberal guilt from a young age. The result is that they hate forced binaries and didactic writing. Though young students may be progressive themselves, they do not want to see finger-wagging liberalism in anyone’s writing. Especially if the authors don’t show enough negative capability: counterbalance may be one of the most prized characteristics of a modern essay.
“Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas” will be popular among those who know and love California’s northern half, or perhaps among those who share Solnit’s singular vision of the city. For those readers who like a bit of contradiction or feel the need to admit disparate voices into any argument, it may be enjoyed a bit less.

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.

Cities within cities

A number of years ago I bought a large framed map of THE WORLD: Compiled and Drawn in the Cartographic Division of the National Geographic Society, 1965 from a Chicago antique shop. It's a pretty thing to look at: a wash of variegated blues with cream-colored continents, their individual countries demarcated by pink, green, and yellow lines. As an instrument, it does not inform the viewer of the world today (it contains Rhodesia, Bechuanaland, the USSR), nor even of the world as it was in 1965 (in order to position the United States front and center on the map, China has been cleaved in two, with everything east of the Himalayas pushed to the far right side of the frame and everything west of the Himalayas pushed to the far left), so much as it suggests the way the Cartographic Division of the National Geographic Society envisioned the world in 1965. This is not a map of the world but a map of one particular vision of the world.

It is a political map in the technical sense—it demarcates governmental boundaries between nations and the regions inside those nations, with small dots and large dots indicating cities and capitals. But it is also political insofar as it makes a statement; it reveals a specific bias. This version of political mapping is the one Rebecca Solnit and her team of collaborators put into practice in the atlas Infinite City. "A map is in its essence and intent an arbitrary selection of information, " Solnit writes. Defining places as "stable locations with unstable converging forces," she seeks to present a version—or rather, versions—of San Francisco that highlight those converging forces most poignant to her own experience.

I haven't read a great deal of Solnit's other writing, but I'm familiar enough to know that the subjects she seeks to chart on the maps of this atlas--environmentalism, militarism and social justice among others--are of regular concern to her. She draws much attention to the fact that we are getting her "perspective, with all its limits" which is a nod to the more theoretical aspect of her project. If this atlas can be read as a love letter to San Francisco, it is also making a fascinating and more broadly reaching argument about the ways in which "the description will never close the distance entirely between itself and its subject". As Italo Calvino's narrator says in Invisible Cities, which Solnit takes as her atlas's namesake, "The city must never be confused with the words that describe it." Or the maps. And this gap—where each description invariably falls short of the thing it means to describe—is fertile imaginative ground, limitless in possibility. "It is in the myriad descriptions that the maps begin to approximate the rich complexity of the place, of a place, of any place," Solnit writes in her introduction. From this perspective, approximation is both a more honest and more interesting attempt than accuracy. For accuracy is an impossible myth.

The more San Francisco is described, the more it seemingly eludes description. Solnit and her team heighten this sensation by illustrating a place in flux. The city changes geographically as the sea level rises, altering the location of the shore to submerge some neighborhoods and shift the marshes inland. The city changes demographically: Solnit notes the influx of African Americans during the Great Migration (Map 8: "Shipyards and Sounds: The Black Bay Area since World War II") and pointedly ignores the migration of upwardly mobile hipsters to the Mission ("Leaving out the gentrified Mission…was one of the pleasures of making this version of the place" she writes of Map 13: "The Mission" North of Home, South of Safe"). And the city changes across time, as indigenous languages are forgotten or revived, as buildings are razed and rebuilt, as residents are born or die or move away. This city—every city—is haunted by infinite ghosts, and "learning to see some of them is one of the arts of becoming a true local," Solnit writes (76).

I find the maps most effective when they call up strange and thought-provoking associations. Bizarre juxtaposition of subjects mapped on a single page—for instance, murders in 2008 and Monterrey Cyprus trees in 2009 on the map "Death and Beauty" (p.109)—allow these subjects to be seen both on their own terms and as placeholders for myriad other subjects. (Couldn't we instead map sites of heartbreak and bougainvillea?) A fairly straightforward street map focused on Fillmore Street (p. 66) is stippled with site markings, small black dots affixed to labels marked in white ink on black backgrounds. Viewed on its own, it presents as an average tourist map with designated tourist sites: galleries, bookstores, roller rinks and churches. Yet it faces a Rorschach-like ink blot that is so formally suggestive of the arrangement of labels on the Fillmore map as to cause the viewer to see the map as a Rorschach blot of its own. Just as no two people interpret a Rorschach test in the same way, Solnit writes that "no two people live in the same city."

This idea might strike a reader as disheartening, a suggestion of our fundamental alienation from one another, but the nature of Solnit's project undercuts such a reading. It is, after all, a collaboration. Solnit may be at the helm of this project, but she shares these pages with a wide-ranging group of artists and intellectuals. Each brings his or her own voice to the page, from measured tones of the geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro ("High Tide, Low Ebb") to the ecstatic lyricism of Aaron Shurin in the essay "Full Spectrum" (from my favorite section, "Monarchs and Queens"): "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? This is a map of incendiary lights!"

Infinite City is dense and takes a long time to get through, though the getting through is largely pleasurable. Is it an essay? One essay? I believe the project as a unified whole may well be essaying: "In the course of making it, I have discovered how many more maps each of us contains," Solnit writes, and that sensation is passed onto the reader through the accretion of the 22 maps presented here. Still, I prefer to read it as a collection, picking it up and putting it down again, reading it out of page order and never in one sitting.

Solnit invites her readers to "map their own lives and imagine other ways of mapping… perhaps to become themselves some of the living books of this city or their cities." And one of the testaments to this book's strength is that after reading it, I find it virtually impossible to decline her invitation. Weeks after finishing Infinite City, the image that lingered for me was not one of Solnit's San Francisco, but rather a half-forgotten memory of my own, come alive again through the reading of this book.

During the first winter I lived in Chicago, I found myself driving through snowbound alleys in a north-side neighborhood late one night. Chicago's geography arranges itself in a near perfect grid, the north-south and east-west streets evenly spaced and situated at clear perpendiculars. Alleys run between these streets, superimposing a smaller but proportionate grid over the main one. Where the main streets are populated by fences and front doors and pedestrians, the alleys are home to garage doors, trailing vines, trash cans, house pets prowling through narrow unkempt backyards. It is possible to wander an entire neighborhood through its alleys, and it makes for an entirely different experience—inverted, seen only from behind, the familiar becomes strange. That night the snow lay thick over the road and roofs, so the alleys appeared like tunnels, and without streetlights I only had the moon and my headlights to cut through the dark. Though I was blocks from my apartment, I quickly became lost as the alleys branched away unrecognizable and indistinguishable. I felt then not only that I was no longer in Chicago, but that I was no longer anywhere really. I felt as though I'd slid through a crack in the city's façade and entered a sort of parallel dimension. The magical otherworldliness of that experience, faded in the years since, is what comes rushing back reading Infinite City.

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.”