Questioning the Frame

Thoughts about maps and spatial logic in the global present

Coco Fusco December 16, 2004

Terms such as “ map­ping,” bor­ders,” hack­ing,” trans-nation­al­ism,” iden­ti­ty as spa­tial,” and so on have been pop­u­lar­ized in recent years by new media the­o­ries’ cel­e­bra­tion of the net­works” — a catch-all phrase for the modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and exchange facil­i­tat­ed by the Internet.

We should pro­ceed with cau­tion in using this ter­mi­nol­o­gy because it accords strate­gic pri­ma­cy to space and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly down­plays time — i.e., his­to­ry. It also evades cat­e­gories of embod­ied dif­fer­ence such as race, gen­der and class, and in doing so pre­vents us from under­stand­ing how the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of those dif­fer­ences has shaped our con­tem­po­rary worldview.

Tech­no­cen­tric fantasy

The rhetoric of map­ping and net­works con­flates the way tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems oper­ate with mod­ern human com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Accord­ing to this mode of thought we are to believe that we live inside the world of William Gibson’s Neu­ro­mancer and that sal­va­tion is only attain­able via very spe­cif­ic tech­no­log­i­cal exper­tise unleashed against the sys­tem — i.e., hack­ing. Con­sid­er the heroes of Hol­ly­wood sci-fi block­busters such as The Matrix whose pow­er lies in their knowl­edge of the code.” It is implied that we oper­ate in net­works because com­put­ers and the Inter­net have restruc­tured our” lives and because glob­al eco­nom­ic sys­tems have turned us into glob­al cit­i­zens. Hack­ing then comes to stand for all forms of crit­i­cal engage­ment with pre­ex­is­tent pow­er structures. 

I’m just a lit­tle too old to believe these new media mantras unques­tion­ing­ly. This rhetoric implies two pos­si­ble expla­na­tions for the dif­fer­ence between the net­worked present and the non-net­worked past. 

The first expla­na­tion sug­gests that no one on the left before the age of the Inter­net prac­ticed sub­ver­sive manip­u­la­tion of exis­tent media, tac­ti­cal inter­ven­tion, inves­tiga­tive report­ing and infil­tra­tion of pow­er struc­tures. It also would seem that before the dawn­ing of the net­works, no one knew what being an organ­ic intel­lec­tu­al was about, no one elab­o­rat­ed alter­na­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems and no one was aware of or sensed a con­nec­tion to geo­graph­ic regions oth­er than Europe. 

The sec­ond expla­na­tion would be that elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion has pro­duced a form of net­work­ing that is so rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent as to imply a neat break with the past. In either case, these argu­ments con­ve­nient­ly sit­u­ate their advo­cates out­side his­to­ry, since either way tac­ti­cal media prac­ti­tion­ers have noth­ing of val­ue to inher­it from the past. 

While I can under­stand that there might be a dearth of knowl­edge about tac­ti­cal inter­ven­tions of pre­vi­ous cen­turies, I am per­plexed by the appar­ent loss of short-term mem­o­ry of many cul­tur­al the­o­rists now in vogue, who were alive and active in the 70s.

Can we for­get Daniel Ellsberg’s pub­lish­ing of the Pen­ta­gon Papers, the uncov­er­ing of the Water­gate scan­dal, the break-in to an FBI office by an anony­mous group that led to rev­e­la­tions of COIN­TEL­PRO and the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act, the many Sen­ate inves­ti­ga­tions of FBI cor­rup­tion, the wide­spread sol­i­dar­i­ty with Third World inde­pen­dence move­ments, the pletho­ra of under­ground and alter­na­tive press­es and glob­al mail art net­works — all oper­at­ed by rad­i­cal activists, artists and intel­lec­tu­als? Those of us who can at least recall the ways that these strate­gic inter­ven­tions trans­formed polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al life in that decade nec­es­sar­i­ly cast a skep­ti­cal glance at the mes­sian­ic claims of technocentrists.

The shift from Euro­cen­tric inter­na­tion­al­ism to a more glob­al­ly inclu­sive world­view came long before the age of the Inter­net. It was launched out­side Europe and Amer­i­ca, and emanat­ed from the geopo­lit­i­cal mar­gins. The process took place across a range of fields of knowl­edge, cul­ture and pol­i­tics. This revi­sion of the world pic­ture was cat­alyzed by post­war decol­o­niza­tion; the Non-Aligned Move­ment launched in 1961; and civ­il rights strug­gles in the devel­oped world, includ­ing the Black Pow­er and Chi­cano move­ments — all of which invari­ably affirmed their alliances with Third World rev­o­lu­tions. This polit­i­cal process was expand­ed upon by a post­colo­nial under­stand­ing that var­i­ous dias­po­ras shared transna­tion­al con­nec­tions and that these dias­po­ras were pro­duced by the eco­nom­ics and pol­i­tics of colo­nial­ism and impe­ri­al­ism. The his­tor­i­cal bases of these move­ments are con­sis­tent­ly obfus­cat­ed by the tech­no­cen­tric rhetoric of net­works and map­ping that emanate from Europe, North Amer­i­ca and Australia. 

Instead of deal­ing with these his­to­ries, con­tem­po­rary dis­cours­es on glob­al­ism and new tech­nol­o­gy tend to dis­miss post­colo­nial dis­course as mere iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics.” They tend to con­fuse bureau­crat­ic efforts to insti­tu­tion­al­ly sep­a­rate the con­cerns of eth­nic minori­ties with what always have been the much broad­er agen­das of anti-racist polit­i­cal strug­gles and post­colo­nial cul­tur­al endeavors. 

I am a great admir­er of the prac­tice of elec­tron­ic civ­il dis­obe­di­ence and have used hack­tivist” soft­ware such as Flood­net to engage in online protest actions myself. But I find the willed his­tor­i­cal amne­sia of new media the­o­ry to be quite sus­pect, and even dan­ger­ous. One of the rea­sons I chose to make a/​k/​a Mrs. George Gilbert, a video art piece about the Angela Davis case, was because I want­ed to reex­am­ine cru­cial his­to­ries that are now being for­got­ten with­in the con­tem­po­rary con­ver­sa­tions on glob­al­iza­tion. The alien­ation caused by multi­na­tion­al cor­po­rate dom­i­na­tion (oth­er­wise known as Empire) that many mid­dle-class young adults in the Glob­al North feel is just the last chap­ter in a long his­to­ry of reac­tions against impe­r­i­al projects.

Map­ping mistakes

Anoth­er issue of con­cern is the new media culture’s fas­ci­na­tion with map­ping — a fas­ci­na­tion that it shares with the mil­i­tary strate­gists. The news of the Iraq war fre­quent­ly involves men in uni­form point­ing to or bet­ter yet walk­ing across maps of var­i­ous Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries — so when I then walk into gal­leries and cul­tur­al con­fer­ences in Europe and find more men (with­out uni­forms) play­ing with maps, I start to won­der about the pol­i­tics of those representations. 

In the Amer­i­can media, maps dom­i­nate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of war­fare. While real­is­tic depic­tions of the vio­lence of war via pho­tographs and film have been banned from Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion news, maps are accept­able to those in pow­er because they dehu­man­ize the tar­gets. Sim­i­lar­ly, in the con­text of the art world, maps have come to abstract and there­by silence indi­vid­ual and group testimony.

New media cul­ture uses maps to read the world in terms of extremes. Con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al the­o­ry is rife with ren­der­ings that cel­e­brate macro views and micro views of the work­ings of the world, both social and bio­log­i­cal — which is to say, maps of vast spaces and phys­i­cal phe­nom­e­na and maps of the most minus­cule thing. We hear over and over again about glob­al sys­tems and panop­tic vision on the one hand and genome chains and nano-enti­ties on the oth­er. When I first noticed this phe­nom­e­non I was struck by how it com­ple­ments the resur­gence of for­mal­ist art criticism’s love affair with the grid. By this I am refer­ring to the return in the 90s to the def­i­n­i­tion of art as a search for per­fect forms,” and a cel­e­bra­tion of the for­mal char­ac­ter­is­tics of objects and sur­faces. What I have become more con­cerned about as time goes on, how­ev­er, is how this fetishiz­ing of spa­tial extremes enables the resur­gence of Descartes’ idea that humans are ratio­nal, autonomous indi­vid­u­als and that the human mind and math­e­mat­i­cal prin­ci­ples are the source for all real knowledge.

How­ev­er objec­tive they may appear, maps do have a point of view, and that is one of priv­i­leged super-human sight, of safe dis­tance and of omni­science. The map­mak­er charts an entire field of vision, an entire world, and in doing so he (yes he) plays God. Whether you are behold­ing the map as a view­er or chart­ing it as the car­tog­ra­ph­er, you rule the world before you, you con­trol it, and, in putting every­thing in its place, you sub­sti­tute a glob­al whole estab­lished through pic­to­r­i­al arrange­ment for an actu­al dynam­ic engage­ment with indi­vid­ual ele­ments and enti­ties. The psy­cho­log­i­cal motive behind assum­ing that posi­tion of pow­er is not ques­tioned, nor is the pre­dom­i­nance of white male tech­no-elites in that dis­course seen as any­thing more than incidental.

It is as if more than four decades of post­mod­ern cri­tique of the Carte­sian sub­ject had sud­den­ly evap­o­rat­ed. Those crit­i­cal dis­cours­es that unmasked the way uni­ver­sals sup­press dif­fer­ence, which gave voice to the per­son­al expe­ri­ence of women, the poor and dis­en­fran­chised minori­ties, are treat­ed as inher­ent­ly flawed by both the pro­gres­sive and con­ser­v­a­tive dis­cours­es of glob­al­ism. Pro­gres­sive media advo­cates dis­miss these dis­cours­es of dif­fer­ence as essen­tial­ist” while Repub­li­cans decry them as the tyran­ny of spe­cial inter­ests.” But both pro­vide ide­o­log­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the dis­man­tling of leg­is­la­tion pro­tect­ing civ­il rights.

View­ing the world as a map elim­i­nates time, focus­es dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly on space and dehu­man­izes life. In the name of a pol­i­tics of glob­al con­nect­ed­ness, artists and activists too often sub­sti­tute an abstract con­nect­ed­ness” for any real engage­ment with peo­ple in oth­er places or even in their own locale. 

What gets lost in this focus on map­ping is the view of the world from the ground: lived expe­ri­ence. What is ignored is the per­va­sive­ness of the well-orches­trat­ed and high­ly selec­tive visu­al cul­ture that the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans con­sume dur­ing most of their wak­ing hours. Most peo­ple are not look­ing through micro­scopes and tele­scopes and dig­i­tal map­ping sys­tems to find truth about the world. They are watch­ing real­i­ty TV, sit­coms, the Super Bowl, MTV and Fox News, all of which also offer maps of a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent kind: con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that pit inno­cent Amer­i­cans against the Axis of Evil, embed­ded jour­nal­ists’ hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry mis­read­ings of for­eign con­flicts, alle­gories of empow­er­ment through con­sump­tion and end­less­ly recy­cled, bib­li­cal­ly inspired nar­ra­tives of sin and redemption.

Going off-grid

Final­ly we should con­sid­er what is being left off the maps and why? What has hap­pened, for exam­ple, to insti­tu­tion­al self-cri­tique in the art world? Why has such exam­i­na­tion become taboo in exhi­bi­tions or unpop­u­lar with artists who grav­i­tate to polit­i­cal sub­jects? Why in the midst of myr­i­ad inves­ti­ga­tions of cor­po­rate con­trol of pol­i­tics and cul­ture is there lit­tle or no atten­tion paid to cor­po­rate con­trol of the muse­ums and of cor­po­rate influ­ence in art col­lect­ing? Why is it accept­able to the art world for an artist to address the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict, but not to address the pres­sure put on the orga­niz­ers of glob­al art exhi­bi­tions to show­case a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Israeli artists? Why is it fine for black artists to cel­e­brate the con­struc­tion of black style but not to make vis­i­ble the vir­tu­al absence of black peo­ple as arbiters in the pow­er struc­tures of the art insti­tu­tions, gal­leries, mag­a­zines and auc­tion hous­es where black art is giv­en eco­nom­ic and aes­thet­ic value?

We live in a very dan­ger­ous time in which the right to express dis­sent and to raise ques­tions about the work­ings of pow­er is seri­ous­ly imper­iled by fun­da­men­talisms of many kinds. Now more than ever we need to keep the lessons of his­to­ry fore­most in our minds and to defend the crit­i­cal dis­cours­es and prac­tices that enable dif­fer­ing expe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives to be heard and understood. 

There are just too many impor­tant par­al­lels to be drawn between COIN­TEL­PRO and the excess­es of law enforce­ment brought about by the Patri­ot Act to be dis­mis­sive of his­to­ry. Social­ly con­scious artists and activists, rather than embrac­ing tac­tics that rely on dreams of omni­science, would do well to exam­ine the his­to­ry of glob­al­ism, net­works, dis­sent and col­lec­tive actions in order to under­stand that they are root­ed in the geopo­lit­i­cal and cul­tur­al margins.

Coco Fus­co is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Colum­bia University’s School of the Arts. Her most recent pub­li­ca­tion is Only Skin Deep: Chang­ing Visions of the Amer­i­can Self (Abrams, 2003).
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