Atlas and City as Sites of Relation and Transformation

The literature in our class syllabus began at the dissolution of the urban individual (Death in Venice), and how the metropole changes his mode of sociality from one that directly engages others to one that is speculative—a public barred into privacy, and a “longing” that is “the result of insufficient knowledge” (Mann, 42) by the city’s imposed distances between its overcrowded inhabitants. One early theory I formed for this depiction was that one’s imaginative capacity to project this sort of personalized “legibility” onto another was also part of self-preservation and compromised self-making in urban environments—or, that the urban individual was marked by experience of formation in, around, and beyond subjectivity, while subjectivity itself (or at least in its preceding forms) eluded him. We then progressed to Walter Benjamin and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, whose lenses of historical detritus and trauma-signaling, “pointillist fragmentation” began to further blur the relation between city and resident. Could cities’ distanced observers recover, Benjamin asked, the living granularity of its past inhabitants’ “drudgery,” which murmured under its illusory surfaces of self-stable historicity and existence? If not, Woolf seemed to add—if fragmented individual and urbanity itself cannot add up into a whole, but only into the impossibility of one—was it conversely possible to attain a form of “hopeless hope” by concretizing these unrealizable desires and selves in writing that also pointed continually to its own state of interregnum and incompleteness? Such questions were taken up to trouble more explicitly the larger ideas of mappable cities (Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities) and legible urban selves in writingwork (Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue) in the last works we encountered in class, which challenged the authoritative hold of cartography and language respectively. Calvino in Invisible Cities honed in on the dangers of giving map-work (in many ways analogous to writingwork) the task or ability to claim all-encompassing representation of its objects, while Kapil pushed this latent inadequacy to its extreme in Ban en Banlieue, a remarkable work of form-as-content whose conjured urban bodies decompose before the reader’s eyes in a series of futile explosions that break down any remaining solidity—whether the city’s, individual’s, or that of continuity and legibility at large.

Given these concerns of the class, and the atlas form’s opportunity to stage an intervention on their behalf, I began to wonder what kind of aesthetics might best help me visualize their various lamentations of “invisibility.” I eventually found my medium in pictography, which—as image-texts that inherently disturb the isomorphic relation between sign and signified—seemed like the right conduit for restoring textual materiality to both maps and the act of reading, and for staging “the problem of multiple epistemologies, ontologies, temporalities, and mnemonic and creative priorities” (Edgar Garcia, Signs of the Americas). I realized such aesthetics could be salutary in thinking about the problems outlined above, especially because many sign systems play upon similar ideas of fragmentation by recasting them into ones of metamorphosis. They achieve this by freely exposing their own aesthetics of disarticulation—or, their animated suspensions of relationality—through their ambiguous readability, and by shooting new life through these fragmented forms by recontextualizing them as fragments that can carry their own wholes, fragments that offer space in which to constantly re-create without negating their own origins in incompleteness. These dynamically inhabitable wholes offer, in the context of this class, the reparative social possibility of bodied (textually “granular”) co-presence in cities—as well as the restored capacity for “kin-making” (collaborative rather than unidirectional reading) that the city’s impositions strip away, both of which together return the possibility of shared transformation that the literature we’ve read thus yearns for and attempts to fashion.

My original intention with this approach was to research and emulate the sign systems of Chicago’s indigenous peoples. I quickly realized, however, that working to keep fidelity to these pictographs (or similar, highly figurative signs like the ones found in Torres-García’s work) would compromise my ability to allude to Chicago in my atlas—for, while I didn’t want viewers to be able to orient themselves fully in my atlas, I did want them to sense that they were continually orienting themselves around Chicago in particular. I thus opted, on the whole, for simply rendered sketches that evoked architectural and natural features common to the city’s commercial and residential buildings, but not necessarily to any one landmark. Despite my best intentions, though, a couple discreet ones (the Chinatown gate, the distinct bridge at Ping Tom Memorial Park, an unspecified downtown Chicago River bridge and Riverwalk, etc.) still worked themselves in—and I struggle to decide whether this was my own memory participating in my creation of a space for Chicago’s collective reimagining, or whether I was still at some level ceding to the pull of conventional cartography that had long been hammered into me and my conception of mapping places. In any case, I hope that the displacements, four-sided directional disorientations, and careful juxtapositions of these landmarks (when they are identifiable) still provide a useful site for viewers to map my counter-mapping, so to speak, and to recover a sense of active present as they “read” (in a constant state of movement and repositioning) the atlas in order to do so.

At the same time that the map’s many languages allude to and encourage polyphony/plursignification, however, the scenes’ embedded illegibilities sometimes turned out to pose another layer of commentary on the city-as-fragment, and its elusive readability that continues (in this atlas however, at least self-reflexively) to gap viewers. In one of the city-scenes, Carl Sandburg’s voice refracts into Spanish and Chinese lines that murmur of “Shoveling, / Wrecking, / Planning, / Building, breaking, rebuilding,” and, “(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building or speak its name or ask a policeman the way to it?)” as they cluster around a line of Graceland Cemetery mausoleums. In another scene, Brooks’s “grayed-in” pause to dreaming (“Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, / We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.”) hovers above two residential flats, which stand atop Sandburg’s Chinese whisper: “Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust, / and the press of time into centuries, play / on the building inside and out and use it.” Image and text are in conversation about textual, material (urban), historical, and arguably cartographic decay in the former scene; while they resound together in the latter and envelop the pale cloud of a flat-dweller’s daydream, which is thereafter sanded by the same elements’ (the air’s, water’s, and arguably even time’s) revealed ages in the Sandburg just below them. The moment mingles with the century, and insides with outsides; while Graceland’s surrounding texts on death speak concomitantly to burial and exhuming, to collapses of time and their potential reopenings. The question of if these image-texts actually “speak” to these thematic clusters regardless of whether their languages are fully understood or not is an interesting one, but is most significant in that it makes one acutely aware of the city likewise figuring and defiguring itself. In this atlas Chicago can hopefully be seen as a living, shifting force that transmogrifies; and we, as urban subjects, as being inextricable from and mutually undergoing the same process—as polyvocal, living bodies that work and rework, read and reread, an environment that ultimately remains inscrutable and to some extent relies on this inscrutability to shape us and our own shaping of it in return.

As Claudia Rankine demands in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, her lucid treatise on loneliness—the threat of which is perhaps at the heart of this class’s outlined problematics of the city—“The words [and maps],” if left to their own spells and telos, “remain an inscription on the surface of my loneliness” (Rankine, 129). Mutuality—here brought about through restored collectivity and multidirectional imaginings—is the force that relieves this condition, which could poignantly be described also as “the limit of subjectivity.” Rankine’s concluding manifesto notes, “In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of” (Rankine, 131). The carefully omitted, self-reflexive object of this phrase—be it a new world of urban co-presence, or our otherwise still-frozen texts, maps (histories), streets (materialities), and selves—rests on the abovementioned responsibilities that restorative literature of the city has to us, and us to it.

—Serin Lee


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