A new book tracks art's attempts to map capitalism
While many of us are conscious that the last forty years have witnessed the most important restructuring of global capitalism since WWII, important questions remain. We know that commodities flow through global logistical chains and people, without papers and with them, across borders. Our daily bread is made of headlines about environmental catastrophe and degradation, as capitalism follows its unrelenting path of expansion and exploitation. We may know there has been an enormous reconfiguration of the capitalist apparatus—which has led to talk of capitalism’s increasing complexity, to the fragmentation of classes, and to a questioning of our ability to understand our subjective relation to the totality of these global processes. But is it possible that capitalism is now or perhaps has always been “too complex” to know? Is it possible that capitalism and thus our relation to it is fundamentally beyond our ability to grasp? What do we actually know about capitalism and our multiple, contradictory positions within it?
These are the provocative and pressing questions that underlie Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle’s Cartographies of the Absolute, which examines
Cartographies of the Absolute
Zero Books, 2015
Cartographies of the Absolute is a timely, and critical, return to the notion of cognitive mapping, one of the more suggestive (and underdeveloped) ideas of the prolific Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson. Their short book is positioned in the context of an “inflationary boom” (their term) of works that seek to map or produce cartographies of capitalism: films such as Capitalism: A Love Story and Darwin’s Nightmare, literary theorist Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees, and the current interest in the work of artists like Marc Lombardi and Trevor Paglen. Through an examination of various contemporary, as well as historical, works (the majority of which are from the United States or UK) they test the limits and potential of our ability to produce cognitive maps that could both reveal the outlines of capital, its contradictions, and our singular and collective positions within it.
Throughout this work, Toscano and Kinkle’s emphasis is on “the second noun” in their title, that is, on the absolute, on the infinite, and therefore on the inherent difficulties and limitations of representing capitalism, a totality without a singular center. Their book proposes an examination of the paradox of how to map the un-mappable, how to represent what evades representation, and thus, through close readings of cultural objects across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they give us a balance sheet of aesthetic strategies for tracking a quarry that appears both everywhere and nowhere, as material and immaterial, and as what, as Marx famously put it, melts everything solid into air.
Fredric Jameson’s original call for aesthetic and other works that would engage in a cognitive mapping of capitalism was made in the shadow of the 1970s stagflationist doldrums and Regeanite 1980s. It was, as Toscano and Kinkle lay out, a call for work that “would enable individuals and collectivities to render their place in a capitalist world-system intelligible: ‘to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.’” Jameson argued that the economic crisis of the 1970s further scrambled the perspectives of the traditional Marxist left and that its disorientation was due, in part, to a transition between periods of capitalism. The difficulty of the left during this transition had to do with its lack of resources for picturing this new stage.
In Jameson’s account, the representation of classical or market capitalism was not particularly difficult: economies were built around a national territory which individual subjects inhabited and could grasp. Monopoly or imperial capitalism, however, opened up a gap between subjective experience and capital, as now an individual’s life world in Victorian England, say, was cut off from a vast swath of territory intimately linked to the valorization of capital but difficult to access for any one subject. Jameson’s example is the novels of writers like Virginia Woolf or E. M. Forster where we can register “…‘a dawning sense of the non-perceptual spatial-totality’ of imperialism.” The postmodern era and the great restructuring of capitalism that occurred since has only further deepened these contradictions—as capital has come to be (by some accounts) less and less tied to the territory of the nation, the difficulties of its representation have only grown.
If we imagine a politically conscious U.S.-based author today attempting to rewrite Grapes of Wrath to have a chance at representing, at a minimum, the experience of workers in the California agricultural economy, that author would probably have to speak Spanish and several indigenous languages and be fluent in multiple regional and local Latin American political economies—but even this author would be unable to write from inside anything other than the formal constraints and traditions of U.S. literature, and who knows how they would represent or make visible within a narrative structure the interlinkage of the current global grain and commodities markets and their fragmented international proletariat. The problems, as we can see, are close to endless.
Thankfully Toscano and Kinkle are not deterred. Retaining the essence of Jameson’s cognitive mapping as an “orientation towards totality,” the chapters of Cartographies track capaciously across an impressive collection of objects and time periods: from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, 1920s Soviet planning, Isaac Julien’s 2013 Playtime, and the films of Harun Farocki. And while they limn these multiple attempts at resolving the problem of capital’s representation, they consistently refuse the temptation to systematize the unsystematizable, always carefully shutting back and forth between cartography as both a technical and philosophical problem, and always conscious of capital’s ability to escape any fixed form of representation and of the limits of an aesthetic form to fix it.
Toscano and Kinkle’s complicated dialectical pursuit of capital and cartography romps across seven insight-filled chapters. In the first, they turn around social theories critical of totality as over-reach (here represented by the philosopher and historian of science Bruno Latour) with a nice line, lifted from Baudelaire: “These things, because they are false, are infinitely closer to the truth.” To see “it” whole is not to remove incoherence in favor of a smoother meta-narrative, but rather to pass through and draw sustenance from the very contradictions that inhere in the capitalist totality. The second chapter puts another spin on these themes looking at the socialist imaginary of an economy that could be fully “planned” (that is, mapped in a rational, efficient form by a dedicated set of bureaucrats) and defends it against critics who see the socialist goals of transparency via the plan as doomed by a failure to acknowledge representation’s inherent limits.
Against the “usual criticisms of communism as a messianism—hallucinating a society without contradiction, antagonism, and so on,” Toscano and Kinkle look closely at the post-revolutionary Russian context to “identify the thorny and at times tragic problems thrown up by the attempt to create an aesthetics of the plan.” This chapter successfully complicates the notion that all is needed to overcome capitalist abstraction is to overthrow it in favor of the concrete. Returning to the concrete has been a common call in the moment after the 2008 financial crisis. But communism, Toscano and Kinkle write, is not
a mere negation of abstraction, form and invisibility, it is their refunctioning…The point though is not to abrogate this aesthetic ambivalence of real abstractions…it is to experiment with forms of social organization which, necessarily combining the sensuous and the supersensible, will not do so through forms of equivalence founded on the abstract commensurability of labor, time and life.
In other words, capitalism is not a system of “bad” abstractions, speculative financial systems, or parasitic rentiers, which could be eliminated by returning to “concrete” things like real work, the production of actual commodities, and the regulation of financial capital in favor of productive capital. Rather capitalism is a system that is defined by strange mixtures of the abstract and concrete, of the invisible and visible, of the representable and the unrepresentable, and to find our way through this system to another we cannot merely hope to overthrow the more immaterial component in favor of its opposite. For Toscano and Kinkle, Soviet planning can be seen as an attempt, perhaps unsuccessful in the end, to deal with the real abstractions, or material immateriality, of inherited forms of capitalist production.
The remaining chapters of the book are a similarly dialectical pursuit of the cartography of capitalism, on the one hand, and its limits, on the other. The second part of the book focuses on cities and the long post-1973 crisis (featuring close readings of the 1981 werewolf film Wolfen, The Wire, and films made in the wake of the 2008 crash). The final section features two chapters on logistics and the “landscapes of dead labor” (seen, for instance in Alan Sekula’s photographs of industrial parks) that modern logistical systems hath wrought.
Toscano and Kinkle’s conclusion as to the success of these works in providing such a cartography of the absolute is decidedly mixed: “It is difficult not to conclude that, bar some inspiring exceptions, capital has been a theme or content, not an occasion truly to rethink and refunction our available genres, styles, figures, and forms, to recast our methods of inquiry in the arts as in the sciences of society,” they write. This is the internal tension of two functions of mapping that Toscano and Kinkle trace: on one hand, maps locate us in a terrain, but a perfect map would merely be the object it seeks to replicate (which would imply anti-capitalist mapping merely recreates capital writ large). On the other, maps are for going places, and an anti-capitalist cartography would imply a sense of direction, future orientation, or projection of fantasy which is at odds with the locational function of mapping (the aim is not to locate us but allow us to arrive). In this sense, the larger problem this book charts is that the problem of the contemporary cartography of capital’s absolute is perhaps not the lack of cartographers, but rather a lack of places to go.