Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

Geopoetics in a post-political world?

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…”

-Oscar Wilde

An excellent post by Mark Fisher at K-punk that includes a thoughtful review of the current Uneven Geographies exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary as well as The Geopolitical Turn conference that took place at the gallery on May 8th. If we are indeed living in a post-political age  (or it is better to say that this is an age all too casually  framed as post-political?),  what will need to be rethought is the very possibility of re-assembling the political. Capitalism, as Fisher has recently argued, has grown accustomed to the idea that it is the only game left in town. This widespread sense – what Fisher describes as “capitalist realism” – does not only present capitalism as “the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it” (Fisher, 2009: 2; original emphasis).

That process of re-imagining is central to the Uneven Geographies exhibition and Fisher is right to resuscitate Fred Jameson’s well-worn notion of cognitive mapping as a thematic that is creatively attended to by a number of artists whose work features in the show. I plan on writing a much more detailed review of the show so I will concentrate for the moment on picking up on the possibilities that remain immanent to a new radical form of cognitive mapping. Jameson’s original 1990 essay seems more relevant than ever and it is a useful rejoinder to the now familiar left-wing laments on the post-political that are adroitly explored by Jodi Dean in her book, Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies. As Dean points outs, “claims for post-politics are childishly petulant. Leftists assume that our lack of good political ideas means the end of politics as such” (2009: 12).

There are, of course, many good political ideas. What I take from Fisher’s recasting of the cognitive map is a return to a form of ideology critique that seeks to give some kind of meaningful form and shape to the capitalist Real (Lacan famously referred to the Real as that which any ‘reality’ seeks to repress). Cognitive mapping serves, in other words, as a geographical correlate to the representation of the relationship between a subject and his or her Real conditions of existence. It operates in contradistinction to capitalist realism by exposing the fractures and inconsistencies that structure its claims to ‘reality’ (Fisher, 2009: 18).

It is in this context, that a growing group of artists (including many in the Uneven Geographies exhibition) have begun to develop a series of working methods for presenting the Real while speaking back to the impoverished sense of reality that capitalism presents as inevitable, necessary, and natural. New forms of counter-cartography are central to these practices and we see them at work in Uneven Geographies in the paranoid mappings of Mark Lombardi, the painstakingly constructed cartogrammes of Bureau D’Études, and the pioneering installations and drawings by Öyvind Fahlström which remain remarkably fresh and playful. I will have much more to say about the show in a follow-up post. I also hope to develop some of these ideas for the Crossing Boundaries symposium in June at the RGS.

Suffice to say for that moment that the Real work of imagining a new politics – with its terrains of activism and struggle, pragmatism and creativity – has already been underway for some time now. I am not talking of the depressingly vapid pronouncements that have accompanied the recent election here in the UK though we do need to take seriously the dangers that they carry with them. Rather, it seems to me that the ground for generating alternatives forms of life, both precarious and durable, is in the process of being mapped. Perhaps the contour lines of a rather different combination of hopes and understandings, commitments and solidarities are finally coming into view…


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