CENTRAL is a geographical research initiative, contemporary art practice, and interview series from and about the landscape of the United States of America. You can email me

On Spatiality and Subjectivation, some Notes from eight months ago

August 2013

This is the most amount of time I have lived in Brooklyn, my hometown, since I moved to Portland, Oregon four years ago. After planning to be in New York for only one month, my length of stay doubled to accommodate necessary recovery time to cope with the sudden triggering of previously unacknowledged childhood trauma. This experience of memory has slid like a thin film over a similarly psychogeographical experience of spaciotime which occurs with each return to my home city, a plural affect multiplying the thickness of an already rich correspondence between place and perception. In the midst of this layered experience, thoughts about the relation between spatial understanding and subjective experience have been widened, recurring now with greater resonance and acute, though often fleeting insights.

I’ve been studying influences bearing on place perception through my investigations of place histories, especially social and political histories, insofar as these things create and project a field of potentiality or a desired future, or, conversely, a density of memory bearing nearly gravitational weight and mass. Take, for example, a brief but potent sweep of socialism across the United States at the end of the 19th century, taking strongholds in places like the mining town of Butte, Montana, where a strong and vibrant future was envisioned for unionism and labor organization (see Calvert, The Gibraltar, 1988). Or, on the other hand, consider the gravity of a site such as Wounded Knee, where in 1890 the United States government massacred hundreds of men, women and children of the Lakota Sioux on their own land –– a site which drew, 83 years later, a powerful occupation and rebellion led by the Oglala Lakota and members of the American Indian Movement in 1973 (see Smith & Warrior, Like a Hurricane, 1997; and Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1970). Both of these very disparate examples demonstrate how the collective psyche can actually contour its land and place (and vice versa) wielding memory, experience and imagination.

But these collective events, movements, and flows which carry the enormous power to generate places seem to have little to do with the highly abstracted, semiotic, and individualized poeticisms of those interested in psychogeography (see Coverly, Psychogeography, 2010). The playful and temporary experiment of the common psychogeographical dérive to “re-write” a city seems laughably bourgeois, though such wanderings can, of course, expand one’s sense of embodied placement, opening up an avenue of thought through which to examine the spatial processes of subjectivation.

Despite the strong temptation to jab at the navel-gazing of some strains of psychogeography, it is important to consider seriously its basic proposition: that even the most minute psychological experience of place emerges reciprocally with its very existence and is as constitutive of place as it is constituted by it. The memory of the body, spontaneous navigational movements, conscious and unconscious patterns of thought in the continual act of travel; all somatic experiences of place are a crucial part of the constitution of a collective spatial consciousness. More importantly, a close examination of the subjectivities which produce and are produced by place can shed light on our understanding of how places are made… and what place and space are.

Place-navigation is always a navigation of what has been socially or governmentally constructed; not only because of the spatial determination of a sidewalk and a street, but also because of the constantly shifting influences of biopower. In this sense, place-understanding is always filtered through a constructed subjectivity. Our navigations through a city are also performances of gender, racialization, subjugation and privilege, all of which assemble and reassemble at any given moment. The landscapes of power create worlds that construct our behavior, emotion and experience, for example, when queer youth feel desperately unsafe in Moscow, Russia or Humboldt, Nebraska; black people are perpetually criminalized by stop-and-frisk in their own neighborhoods; or my whiteness remains invisible as I walk through a department store unfollowed.

When we consider the effect that place can have on thought and behavior, even at a micro-level, we can see more clearly how the same myriad forces that construct places also construct bodies and subjectivities. The relationship between a place and a person is reciprocal to a point where they become inexorable. This phenomenon is thoroughly political.

The most extreme places in which law, biopower and geographical power interlock are what Schmitt and Agamben call spaces of exception, within which sovereign power is capable of transcending the rule of (its own) law to strip people of their designation as human (and their access to human rights) under the auspices of a “state of emergency” (see Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1998; and State of Exception, 2005). Within the space of exception, those social and legal designations which come to form a place lead to the corrosion of subjectivities and the degredation of what it is to be a human being, as in Agamben’s example of the concentration camp, or the contemporary processes and sites of the global war prison.

Geographer Derek Gregory takes up the concept of exception to analyze the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, an extralegal site for which full legal responsibility is obscured by overlapping limits of international law: a place belonging fully to no nation and within which acts of horrific torture and maltreatment are made possible.

Agamben understands the space of exception as a site of the suspension of law, commenting on Bush’s Guantánamo (like all of the sites of the global war prison) as a site for which the “state of emergency” has to be renewed each year, and through which Bush had to transform “provisional and exceptional measures” into a “rule of government.” (see Gregory, Violent Geographies, 2006). But geographer Derek Gregory closes in on Guantánamo as an example of a site in which “the Bush administration shows manifest disdain for domestic and international laws,” yet “it neither dismisses nor disregards them.” Furthermore, Gregory explains that “this matters because it means that law is a site of political struggle not only in its suspension but also in its formulation, interpretation and application.”

Guantánamo is a site where torture destroys time and space. In Gregory’s own words:

"Torture derives from the Latin torquere meaning to twist, and under the sign of our colonial modernity torture not only twists bodies—piling them on top of one another, shackling them to bed frames, standing them on boxes – but also twists space and time. To explicate this requires in turn the topology of sovereign power, and hence of the state of exception, to be understood as a performance, a doing."

Here we see how the construction, deconstruction, and treatment of a human being is predicated on performances of a topology; it is an embodied expression of a spatial construction. These are paroxysmal spaces in which spatiality itself is corroded. At this most extreme and unthinkable vanishing point, constructions of space and the experiences of human beings overlap and collapse.

As a traumatic memory becomes dissassociatively despatialized, often enfolded in amnesia, so the global war prison consists of spaces in which an extreme overlap of spatial and human designations torques space and time through unutterably inhuman torture and imprisonment: a systematic production of trauma. Opening up the possibility of resistance within these hells requires intense scrutiny of international law as well as the courageous examination and enunciation of the unspeakable processes in which subjectivities are desubjectified, human beings stripped of their humanity in a space of exception.

Consideration of these extreme spaces requires a fundamental grasp of the complex arrangements and flows that occur between places, their social and legal constructions, and the human beings that move through or are imprisoned in them: including their subjectivities, perceptions, and performances. The construction of space is reciprocally emergent with the construction of subjectivity; and at its most extreme sites, this twofold phenomenon can construct its own implosion.

This was posted 8 months ago. It has 2 notes.

The Railroad and the Modularization of American Space (Part One).

For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.

WG Sebald

From a heat wave in the Brooklyn summer, riding the mercifully air conditioned subway cars for the first time since January, I remember the experience of the cross-country trip The Railway Journey that was CENTRAL’s first gesture. I remember the long hours in my compartment of the train, watching the landscape pass, or, as Sebald wrote in a poem of his not too long ago, being seen vanishing by the landscape itself. My train car was like a camera obscura, providing me with a tiny pinhole through which I could see a scene inverted, twisted, spinning with speed. There was no solitude like the train cars that whisked me along terrains I had never seen before; landscapes which I still have not walked. The window became a screen and the subject of many of the photographs taken along the rails.

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In The Railway Journey, I set out to collect a catch of research in a net composed of many questions, none so prevalent as how this landscape is seen. Watching the land by rail was a historical point of departure for me due to my interest in the massive perceptual changes that happened with the invention of high-speed mechanical transportation. Before trains, human beings could never traverse large swathes of land without becoming exhausted. On the train, passengers could fall asleep in one place and wake up in another, given that they could rest through the cacophonous rumbling of the mammoth machine. Coupled with the incredible tactile feeling of the train’s motion underfoot, passengers in the early trains marveled at the panoramic landscape views available to them from the window.

People still ride the passenger railways of the United States specifically because of the views they afford, the glass-framed movement and light that very closely prefigured early film. Amtrak’s viewing cars position passenger seats to fully face the window, or they are tilted ever so slightly toward each other and out the window so that one can gaze at the landscape shoulder-to-shoulder with a co-traveler. The view is positioned to slide perfectly atop the rails, which are not visible from the elevated room, always positioned on the second story of its car, above the café selling small snacks for airline prices.

With the vieiwing cars positioned in such a way, the beauty of the scene outside is the same as it was for early traingoers: one feels as though they are floating above the land, immersed in a filmic display of scenes from which they are wholly excerpted. The blurred foreground spins off to a farway landscape feature that can be seen slowly turning, eventually passing by as the wheels of the train car push on. This type of vision transforms salient landscape features into objects and makes the land into a perfectly framed light show that seems to be without end. The majesty of the landscape resonates in the harmonious experience of both technology (the velocity of the train, which makes its passengers into omnipresent viewers) and nature (which appears ever more pristine and vast specifically because the viewer is not implicated in its scape).

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The importance of the shift to high-speed, compartmentalized and mechanized travel cannot be underestimated as we consider how this landscape is seen. Before the train it was not possible for a human being to watch land moving without some degree of embodiment and periodic exhaustion, whether their own or their horses’. The gravity, surface and climate of the land were always a part of one’s experience through it. The train marked a revelatory and life-shaping change in the popular experience of land, changing the way that space was experienced to the extent that it thoroughly effected how space was constructed thereafter.

Before my winter travels I had only traveled to distant geographies by airplane or as a passenger in cars and buses. The railroads seemed to carry so many of the pivotal, nation-making forces of the 1800’s — the movement of labor, the first corporate monopolies, the possibility of large-scale extractive industries, the seaming of the land into properties and parcels, and the tirade of frontierism that eventually constructed the spaces we traverse today, both physically and imaginatively.

I was specifically interested in how phenomenological experiences of and around the train caused a fundamental shift in the way that space is perceived, effectively constructing a condition of modernity that can be characterized by modularity, surficiality and disembodiment. I wanted to see for myself how the experience of the train could transform land into a series of planes and surfaces, smoothing out textural details like the gloss of a photograph or reflection of a window. I wanted to be able to launch myself across thousands of miles without getting out of my seat or even coming close to a motor. And I wanted to watch as the doors of the train cars dispatched me to and from different places and brief rest stops like the arm of a crane moving shipping containers in a city port.


[to be continued]

In the history of colonial invasions, maps are always first drawn by the victors, since maps are instruments of conquest; once projected, they are then implemented. Geography is therefore the art of war but can also be the art of resistance if there is a counter-map and a counter-strategy.
Edward Said (via fearandwar)

(via tothebatfax)

Transgression does not seek to oppose one thing to another, nor does it achieve its purpose through mockery or by upsetting the solidity of foundations; it does not transform the other side of the mirror, beyond an invisible and uncrossable line, into a glittering expanse. Transgression is neither violence in a divided world (in an ethical world) nor a victory over limits (in a dialectical or revolutionary world); and exactly for this reason, its role is to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of its limit and to trace the flashing line that causes the limit to arise. Transgression contains nothing negative, but affirms limited being –– affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time.
Michel Foucault, Preface to Transgression

Lecture recording with Q&A: The Role of Geography in American Radicalism, delivered at the PAST DUE PDX: The People’s Library Portland, MFA Gallery, Pacific Northwest College of Art. Please don’t mind the sore throat immortalized in this recording –– as some of you know, I lost my voice for a week after this night –– or the gentle hum of the fan that went on in the background. Thanks for recording this, Carolyn!

CENTRAL Poster Project

CENTRAL has come out with its first batch of 8.5x11” double-sided posters for printing and distributing in your communities and about your home. The first four posters quote from Michel Foucault’s introduction to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. Following posters quote Susan Sontag from her essays and speeches inAt the Same Time. DOWNLOAD THE FIRST EIGHT POSTERS after the jump.

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…whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape they are gathered from it. Moreover, while places have centers –– indeed it would be more appropriate to say they are centers –– they have no boundaries.
Tim Ingold, the Temporality of the Landscape
…what I want to talk with you about today is that analysis and dismantling or reconfiguring a system are inseperable activities. We have to analyze to make the change. However much we might have very good hunches, or really poignant experience, analysis is necessary to political action. So lets first for a few minutes analyze the political culture of the United States because these constantly renovated relationships shape why things happen where they do. Now, you know that I’m a geographer. And some of you might think that what geography is is the study of capitals and rivers and mountains. Oceans. Some of you might think that geography is geology and I study rocks. Well, while I might have rocks in my head, those are not the things that I study. What geographers study is why things happen where they do.
Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore

The Role of Geography in American Radicalism

I delivered this lecture on November 26th, 2012, as part of PAST DUE, The People’s Library PDX at PNCA’s MFA Gallery. Video documentation will be posted shortly. Thank you Matthew Leavitt, Forrest Loder, Mark Nerys, Anna Grey, and Ryan Wilson Paulsen; thank you Micheal Martinez and Val Hardy; and thank you to those who came out to share a wonderful evening of discussion!
––Chloé

The word geography literally means earth-writing. We all write the world into being, constructing and reconstructing it as a landscape in which we can live. We reinscribe place through our actions and our discourse, drawing up maps for survival and culture. It is the disciplinary responsibility of geographers to transcribe and edit the writing of the earth. Geographers are taking note of this responsibility in radical ways, making antiracism, anticapitalism, and people’s history cornerstones of their scholarship. Like direct action, like the telling of history, like visual studies, and like critical theory, geography is another tool for us to implement as we write our worlds into being.

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Updates for November 23rd, 2012

The details are coming together across CENTRAL’s web locations in these weeks preceding the year’s end, and the project’s kickoff tour! Check the facebook page to follow status updates on your news feed and the twitter page for live updates! In order to help fund CENTRAL’s cross-country research tour, the upcoming IndieGoGo fundraising profile will go live in only a few days! I’ll post the link here soon.

I’ve been wading through conversations and research materials as I gear up to host a seminar-style event at PAST DUE, The People’s Library Portland at PNCA’s MFA Gallery (follow the People’s Library on facebook!). The Role of Geography in American Radicalism will be a talk in which I go through some of my own research in the fields of cultural and human geography and share some thoughts on radical practice, using a few American radical movements as touchstones. What do the Wobblies, the Chicanos, the Zapatistas, the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers have in common with relation to geographical issues? The answer seems straightforward, and in this sense it is: these radical movements are in part movements against oppression with regard to place. As the talk strings itself together, we’ll begin with some thoughts on how the discipline of geography, since being splintered off as a professional discipline at the end of the nineteenth century and institutionalized in the academies of North America and Western Europe, has contoured the systems of power that eventually necessitated the radical uprisings included in our list, focusing primarily on the complicity of the geographic discipline in the construction and formulation of race.

The idea that there is some eternal metaphysical core to geography independent of circumstances will simply have to go.
David Livingstone, The geographical tradition: episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. 1992.

I’ll be going through some of the most obviously spatial practices of radical movements, such as the Black Panthers’ service to the people programs like Landbanking; the poesis of EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos and Zapatista Peace Camps; the concept of Aztlán in the Chicano Movement; the American Indian Movement occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973; and the sit-down strikes of the Wobblies.

We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.
Huey P. Newton, To Die for the People. 1972.

How do the practices of radical movements such as these already embody the theories of post-structuralist critical human geography and radical geography? How do the world-making practices of radical movements function alongside critical human geography to generate new forms world-writing? What is the value of continually re-making the already reflexive field of geographical inquiry, rather than follow Alastair Bonnett’s suggestion that geographers should give up their sense of a discipline?

…reflexivity is also contradictory, especially in a situation where the field of anti-racism studies - in geography, in particular - is dominated by white scholars, for whom reflexivity means on the one hand moral introspection both about their role in reinscribing racist relations and about their effectiveness as anti-racist activists, but on the other the risk of appropriating the moral ground of anti-racism with concerns about their own position. Reflexivity is a necessary aspect of contemporary scholarship, therefore, but one that must be constantly on guard against smugness, or against turning the anti-racist project itself into a white project.
Audrey Kobayashi, The Construction of Geographical Knowledge: Racialization, Spatialization. 2007.

I’m looking forward to sharing these questions with the attendees of the talk on the evening of November 26th, at 7pm, but more importantly I am looking forward to the kind of discussion we can have together. I can’t wait to participate in a conversation following my opening comments, especially because of the diversity of knowledge bases that will be brought to the room on Monday. I am just beginning my self-directed research and this event is intended as an opportunity for discourse to share geographical concerns. It is one of the core principles of CENTRAL to make sure that research is continually opened and re-opened, public, multiple, and grounded in conversation. Lets get together!

––Chloé