In their book Cartographies of the Absolute (2015) theorists Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle make use of marxist thinker Frederic Jameson’s notion of “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping”. Through intricate analyses of everything from Hollywood movies and television series such as The Wire to contemporary artists such as Alan Sekula, Melanie Gilligan and Trevor Paglen, Toscano and Kinkle explore the specific potential of artistic expression to offer mappings of contemporary capitalism’s obscure totality. The aim is to make visible the class relations and social spaces that are unrecognized by the hegemonic regime of representation.
Recently both authors visited The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, where they presented at E2-E4/Rutiga Golvet, the school’s platform for theoretical lectures and discussions. In a wide ranging conversation they elaborated certain themes of the book towards conspiracy, state secrets and lies. Toscano, who is co-director of Centre for Philosophy and Critical Theory at Goldsmiths in London, related the global oil economy to the spy novel’s maxim about the secret war taking place under the surface of every peace. Kinkle, who works as a translator and a lawyer in New York, took as his point of departure the late Guy Debord’s thesis that secrecy is the most vital component of the society of the spectacle, which he related to the role of media during the Trump administration.
E2-E4/Rutiga Golvet is organized in the same space as Moderna Museet’s experimental space Filialen (1971-1973), and Kim West – who curates the program together with Lars Bang Larsen and Stefanie Hessler – said that Filialen can be regarded as an early attempt at “cognitive mapping” of the complex and obfuscated class relations in late capitalism. In this way the program moved conceptually between the state policies of the present and the financial crisis of 2008, when Toscano and Kinkle began writing their book; between the contemporary artworks that they analyze, and Jameson’s call for cartographies of capital in The Geopolitical Aesthetics (1995), twenty years before they first appeared; and between the cartographic perspective on capitalism and the local context nearly 50 years before.
In your book you depart from Frederic Jameson’s call for an “aesthetics of cognitive mapping,” which is the important but ultimately impossible task of depicting social space and class relations in our epoch of late capitalism. Impossible because, to Jameson, the totality of class relations on a global scale equals the metaphysical category of the “Absolute” which defies any complete qualification or representation, and because capitalism equals what you call an actually existing metaphysics; important because it can provide a certain orientation and enable individuals and collectives to make their place in the capitalist world-system intelligible. How should we understand aesthetics here?
Alberto Toscano: Generally, we were interested in the representability of contemporary capitalism in popular film and the arts as domains very broadly conceived – in the representation and figuration of social relations. More peripherally, we also dealt with literature, like Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra (2006) and William Gibson’s novel Spook Country (2007). In other words: what is the aesthetics of the economy?
In this sense, we are not referring to aesthetics as a discipline or philosophical tradition as such – though our work intersects with those kinds of debates – but with the less neatly circumscribed area of visualisations, figurations, representations and narratives that take capitalism as their explicit theme or implicit preoccupation. The inspiration from Jameson was, at least initially, a way of framing these domains. And the initial exercise – which the book hopefully moves beyond – was to say: Jameson made this argument in the mid-eighties about the need to develop ways of representing capitalism, as a necessity for political action. What does it mean to revisit that argument 25 or so years later, in this post-financial crisis context, when it seems that a lot of artists want to represent capital? Because that was arguably not the case when Jameson was urging them to do so in the first place, as his own tentative examples indicate.
Jeff Kinkle: Brian Holmes has discussed this in a great way in the book Else/Where Mapping (Eds. Abrams/Hall, 2006) and in his writings for Bureau d’études, the Paris-based artist duo who define their work as a cartographic practice. Holmes describes how, following the rise of the anti-globalization movement, there was this real attempt in the early 2000s to figure out how the global system was working, and how to represent it, both in a didactic way for the protest movement, and then in a different way, as this seeped into a white cube context, in the field of contemporary art.
Some of the works of art that you discuss in your book seem, in their very structure, to bring out or mimic the internal contradictions in capital accumulation, for instance Melanie Gilligan’s use of role play and oracularity in her four-part film Crisis in the Credit System (2008), and Allan Sekula’s use of montage in Fish Story (1989–1995) and, later, in the film Forgotten Space (2010). Would you agree with this?
AT: Yes. It is also a question of how different aesthetic and social forms have a greater affinity with different genres or media. A certain argument that many return to – and that we touch on in the beginning of the book – is that this problem of form arises most forcefully as linked to crisis in the 1920s and 1930s, especially so for communist or Marxist inspired figures that are formative to that moment, Eisenstein and Brecht being two cases in point, but also Walter Benjamin in his essay on the work of art. In these texts we find arguments linking how capitalism becomes visible in crises to certain forms and techniques, and here montage clearly plays a very significant role. Both in Benjamin’s essay and famously in Eisenstein notes for an abandoned film of Marx’s Das Kapital.
What’s intriguing in Eisenstein is the idea of trying to find an analogue or something that functions ‘like’ Marx’s writing method and exposition, but within the form of film. All those problems become very interesting in relation to the limits of didacticism. Precisely what Eisenstein does not want to do is to illustrate – one could just go and read Capital, so what’s the point. The aesthetics of cognitive mapping has to be something else than providing an illustration of the ways the critique of political economy allows you to map capitalism. So that raises the question of aesthetics. In Eisenstein and his idea of the “montage of attractions” there is an affective and intensive method that allows one to think and/or feel things about capitalism that are different than the ones you have access to in reading Marx.
Brecht is quite a different case in that he approaches the problem of representing capital from a rather weird angle, which Adorno criticizes him for: Brecht thinks that in order to give a popular analytical insight, one needs to transpose fascism or capitalism into seemingly anachronistic and simplified scenarios, such as the gangsters of Chicago. So the dramatic form is not trying to explain to you how contemporary capitalism works, it creates these artificial circumscribed worlds that you are able to think ethically and politically about. These common problems, which are given very different solutions by artists trying to rethink their art in the throes of the crisis of capitalism, are interesting in how they point us to the limits of treating aesthetics as didactic or explanatory.
JK: It seems like the problem was never how to make Capital’s chapter “The Working Day” into a film, but the rest of it.
AT: The value form.
Haha, yes. So you are raising questions of the limits of representation along with problems of visibility/invisibility of capital and capitalism, such as Sekula’s photo essay about the sea as a forgotten space in the understanding of how contemporary capitalism functions. But then you bring up someone like Trevor Paglen, whose work also concerns forgotten, hidden or dark spaces – those of military “black ops” units and secret military bases, as well as undersea internet cables and satellite orbits in use for communication and surveillance – in a way in which representation seems more directly determined by its very difficulties or impossibilities. Here the question of invisibility or low visibility is of a very different kind I suppose?
AT: It’s a different type of problem. Not that it couldn’t be interestingly connected. Paglen’s problem – concerning the thresholds of perceptibility/visibility, but also all of the legal and material mechanisms that can be employed to make things invisible in this regard – is theoretically, methodologically and visually different from the problem of something which is non-representable because it is systemic, not because anyone is necessarily trying to hide it from you. That is to say, even if there were no tax havens, even if all company records were publicly available, the problem would still pose itself: how does one represent a totality? This is not the case when it comes to the secrecy, invisibility, and the materiality of the distance that Paglen does very interesting and intelligent things with (or, in a different vein, Eyal Weizman and the Forensic Architecture group).
JK: It’s a different logic that Paglen is often dealing with, the logic of state power, which is not the same as the logic of capital which Gilligan and Sekula to a larger extent are dealing with. There is an interesting moment towards the end of Paglen’s deep state travelogue, Blank Spots on the Map (2009), in which he acknowledges that the project of exposing the black budget of the Department of Defense, for example, while important politically and interesting aesthetically, can become a mere cataloguing if not linked to broader systemic concerns.
AT: But a point of comparison, given what you said about the role-playing in Gilligan’s work, is the attempt to dramatize the relation of the individual to the totality, which was also Jameson’s concern of cognitive mapping. This is perhaps less apparent in Sekula’s photographs than, for instance, in the long interview sections of The Forgotten Space, with people in homeless camps, or in another section with trade unionists in the International Transport Workers’ Federation. And you can find this in Paglen as well, in how the plane spotters are mobilized, or how the secret mission patches of I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me (2010), are researched by socialization in bars near high level security bases, etc.
It’s done in different ways, but in all cases it concerns an individualized experience of systemic totality as an aesthetic, causal and narrative problem.
Given this topic of secrecy and logic of state power, which is also the focus of your intervention at Rutiga Golvet, are you moving away from the questions of representing capital to representations of the state?
JK: We are still formulating the basis of our next project, but it will likely be informed by these themes. The PhD I did with Alberto at Goldsmiths was on Debord’s work following the dissolution of the Situationist International in 1972 and, as we will discuss during our talk, some of Debord’s writing from that period, particularly his collaboration with Gianfranco Sanguinetti in relation to Italy’s Years of Lead (Anni di piombo), feels quite relevant today. This may serve as a jumping off point – along with the polar novels of Jean-Patrick Manchette, and Italian responses to the Moro kidnapping and the ‘strategy of tension’ – but we are still in the early phases.
What subjectivity is implied by the works of cognitive mapping that you describe? Either one can think of cartographies as something rather concrete and practical – much like the very real consequences of historical imperialist cartographies, but hopefully working in an inverted way – or one can think of it as a Kantian project, in the sense of drawing the limits of our possible knowledge, in this case regarding capital. Which is to say: this is the degree to which we can know and represent the totality of capital, and this is where our understanding of it will end; this is what we can know, do what you like with it. So what subjectivity or agency is then implied?
AT: I’m not so clear on this myself, this representation-action nexus, or the whole idea of orientation: you can find it as a metaphor for thought in Kant at the end of the 18th century. It is not particularly new, the idea that effective action requires reconnaissance and understanding of a particular situation. But I wonder if the reality at times is not rather different.
It’s not that you map a situation which is then followed by a certain action that will touch on a nerve center, a weak point, a weak link or what have you. Instead it might be a retroactive sequence: you do something, and then you find out how systems work or how things are organized by the nature of the reaction or the effect. Putting it somewhat ironically, I think that there is a dialectical deficit in seeing it according to the scheme “step one, represent; step two, act.” This is also what I find interesting in Paglen’s work, the haphazard character. The people who essentially discovered the CIA’s rendition flights were not actually looking for it; they are just obsessive compulsive nerds who record every flight that is ever taken, and then there is this gap in their knowledge. They naturally get very angry, and the thing that really irritates them also happens to be a state crime.
Anyhow, this is very different from the representation-action scheme. It’s true that Jameson produced that in his own didactic, schematic, simple way, and it is much more elaborated elsewhere in his work, but I do wonder about that particular political understanding based on the logic of an aesthetic moment, and then a praxis moment.
Indeed. And I suppose it would be futile to expect you to formulate any rosy and clear political agency, not least given the great Jameson quote you deliver from his “Cognitive Mapping” text: “successful spatial representation today need not be some uplifting socialist-realist drama of revolutionary triumph but may be equally inscribed in a narrative of defeat”?
JK: Yes… Haven’t you written somewhere, Alberto, about the tendency for every work within this genre to consist of nineteen and a half pages of dense theory and at the end a “But, now comrades, we have to…”, a copy-pasted paragraph with a call to arms for the revolutionary subject? I think… we definitely don’t have that.
AT: In the end, cognitive mapping is not a complex theory. Jameson called it a desire. We could also see it as a slogan or a lure for thinking. What’s best about it might not be translatable to any philosophical claim, but I still think it’s a worthwhile line of inquiry, precisely in how it can open up a series of questions about specific works.
Like any Marxist critic of Jameson’s kind, you’re always oscillating back and forth: on one level you’re talking about specific works in terms of their sui generis formal elements and content. On the other level there’s a possibility of total monotony, talking about the way they are haunted by, reflect or articulate aspects of this totality. But what’s interesting, not just about Jameson, but about this kind of dialectical criticism at its best, is that the seemingly monotonous concern with this totality actually allows it to make very detailed and compelling formal, technical, methodological, and political points about very specific works.