Tag Archives: Fredric Jameson

Uneven Geographies

uneven 2In his important book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the efforts of writer-activists to document what he describes as forms of “attritional violence whose effects are scattered across time and space.” How, he asks, do such intellectuals made visible the otherwise hidden, imperceptibly gradual but nonetheless deadly impact of environmental toxins such as depleted uranium.

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I write an essay for an edited collection focusing on the visual arts and critical landscapes. My piece looks in particular at artists such as Allan Sekula, George Osodi, Ursula Biemann, and the World of Matter collective.

My argument is that these artists are intent on documenting the forms of accumulation by dispossession that uneven 1characterize contemporary capitalism. One of the most interesting questions that I have come across while working on this essay has been the issue of how the visual arts can engage in forms of what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping while avoiding simply reproducing the soul-crushing landscape of exploitation that characterizes uneven development today. How, in other words, can you document without enervating?

It seems to me that this is a crucial question which many on the left are asking today. I think, for example, of Judith Halberstam’s recent The Queer Art of Failure and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, each of which in its own way grapples with the pessimism of our current historical moment.

In thinking through these questions, I found the catalog essay by TJ Demos for Uneven Geographies, a show he uneven 3co-curated at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum, particularly useful. Demos puts the issue in the following terms: “in focusing on uneven development today we risk simply reaffirming its existence in the realm of representation.” How are visual artists, curators, and intellectuals more broadly to respond to this dilemma?

Demos argues that we may respond to the dismal moment in which we find ourselves by engaging with creative work that does not simply document but also responds to the uneven geographies of capitalism in a variety of modes and genres. We also need, he suggests, to document movements which are intent on articulating alternatives to the present suicidal state of affairs. Here is Demos from the exhibition catalog:

The exhibition’s ambition has been to highlight numerous aesthetic approaches—sociological as well as affective, documentary as much as performative. These approaches not only record, map, and explore forms of inequality related to neoliberal globalisation, but also reveal the power of oppositional and creative energies that are already directed against its economic-political arrangements, and open up other modes of globalisation. They thereby complicate and challenge the analysis of uneven geographies as an otherwise potentially disempowering fatalism.

Demos’s argument resonated for me in particular in relation to environmental issues. As Eddie Yuen argued recently in Catastrophism, “the politics of failure have failed.” While we need to be clear about the extremely grave future we face as a result of anthropogenic climate chaos, trying to galvanize public opinion through further displays of environmental catastrophe is a losing proposition. We need to concentrate our intellectual energies on viable alternatives to the grim present, as well as on articulating plausible alternative futures.



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Staying Alive

Survival is our politics now. So says French political anthropologist Marc Abélès in The Politics of Survival. And so say many cultural producers today, although this admission often comes by way of what cultural theorist Fredric Jameson called the political unconscious more than through any overt acknowledgement of the true character and gravity of the crises we confront today.

Take Ridley Scott’s recent film Prometheus, for example. The film is a prequel to Alien (1979), a film which shared a great deal in common with previous Cold War-era paranoid movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Of course, Alien was a film of its time. The movie’s focus on the biopolitical threat of contagion was clearly influenced by the ecological crisis of the 1970s and by previous works of biopolitical horror such as Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969). In addition, the bad-ass heroine Ellen Ripley was very much a product of second-wave feminism.

Nonetheless, just as in earlier films of paranoid American empire such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Scott’s Alien features a hapless crew of (multicultural but clearly American) explorers who stumble upon an alien horde that subsequently annihilates them. The message seems to be that the expansion of U.S. capitalism can bring its agents – the crew members of the spaceship Nostromo (in a nice reference to Joseph Conrad) are bringing a freight of iron ore back to Earth – into contact with threatening populations of aliens. But it is the survival of this small group of explorers alone that is at issue.

Contrast this with Prometheus. In Scott’s prequel, released thirty three years after the original, it is the survival of humanity itself that is at stake.

In Prometheus, we find out that the aliens which Ripley battled are the product of a toxic biological weapon engineered by a race of god-like extraterrestrials who, having created humanity, have now decided to wipe us out for some inexplicable reason. The struggles of archeologist Elizabeth Straw to survive the various alien threats that assail her thus stand in for the struggle of humanity itself to stay alive.

One could perhaps say that the inscrutable motives of the “Engineers” who created us and now seem bent on our destruction in Prometheus might stand in for our planet’s environment, which seems to be turning against us with increasing virulence and unleashing multiple unanticipated plagues upon us. This is perhaps stretching allegory a bit far, but the crux of the film is indisputably the struggle for species survival, a marked shift from the earlier Alien films.

The obsession with survival in contemporary U.S. culture is virtually inescapable. Soon after seeing Prometheus, I wandered into Amie Siegel’s exhibition Black Moon (2012) in the Austin Museum of Art. Siegel’s video installation offers a powerful evocation of the current obsession with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios. Long panning shots through blighted suburban housing developments in what appears to be Phoenix or some other city of the Southwest evoke the sub-prime mortgage-fueled bust.

Erupting into this bleak landscape of politically engineered economic abandonment, a small band of women guerrillas struggles to survive an unnamed and invisible nemesis.

Like Scott’s Prometheus, Siegel’s video exhibition remixes an original from the 1970s, in this case Louis Malle’s film Black Moon. Siegel’s piece updates the original, though, by situating the unexplained civil war in the context of neoliberal blight. Like Scott’s film, Siegel’s work also focuses on women as protagonists. The exhibition shares a great deal with Sarah Hall’s dystopian novel The Carhullan Army (2007), in which a commune of radical feminists takes to the Scottish highlands in order to survival the ecologically driven collapse of modern society.

This kind of apocalyptic narrative exerts such as strong appeal on the contemporary political unconscious, I want to argue, precisely because of the absence of genuine acknowledgement of the gravity of the crises that confront us in mainstream discourse.

The exhaustion of the neoliberal model of capitalism has been addressed by elites since the onset of the present crisis in 2008 by wave after wave of heightened austerity that is doing nothing but exacerbating the crisis, as well as drowning average people in misery. The political systems in both the U.S. and E.U. seem gripped by total gridlock, with rule being carried out in Europe by conservative bankers whose feckless measures have plunged the economic union into interminable crisis. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a political system riddled with corruption as a result of the influence of big money has spiraled into previously unknown extremes of partisanship and polarization. And, of course, underlying these crises, we continue to push the planet through incremental increases in carbon emissions into a climate crisis from which there is likely to be no exit for the vast majority of humanity.

There is, of course, little substantial admission of these crises in mainstream discourse, let alone an attempt to grapple with the kind of serious, systemic transformations that would be necessary in order to stem our current headlong rush towards oblivion.

Given this fact, the apocalyptic political unconscious proffered by films such as Prometheus can often seem very attractive. Hell, at least someone is willing to admit we’re in deep shit.

There are, nonetheless, significant dangers associated with such an outlook. As Eddie Yuen and the other contributors to the forthcoming volume Catastrophism point out, apocalyptic thinking distorts our understanding of the organic crisis faced by contemporary civilization. As a result, such thinking more often impedes rather than fuels progressive responses to crisis. In fact, if catastrophism has any basic DNA, it is in the apocalyptic thinking of fundamentalist religious movements, which tend to be animated in their responses to crisis by highly reactionary social mores.

The challenge we face, then, is to survey and help the multitude understand the depth of the crisis we currently face, while not giving in to apocalyptic rhetoric. We cannot afford to wait for the slate to be wiped clean before we build new, sustainable societies. That battle has to be waged in the present, through initiatives both pragmatic and visionary enough to engage people in genuine campaigns of hope.


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