Seeing it Hole
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 various attempts across the twentieth century by artists and intellectuals to produce cartographies or maps of capitalism—maps which could serve to show us where we are located, to guide us to capital’s weak points, and to indicate current and future dynamics . Their answer to these questions is a qualified “no”—that mapping capitalism is necessary if we ever to understand our position in it, but that as a system “without a command and control center” there is no “one” authoritative map. That is, capitalism as a system riddled with contradictions and aporia requires cartographies that refuse to smooth out, flatten, and resolve the same.
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.