"Text" and the Site of Writing
Jeff Derkson

"That the widespread textualization of the outside world in contemporary thought (the body as a text, the state as a text, consumption as a text) should itself be seen as a fundamental form of postmodern spatialization..." (158)

--Jameson, Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism

"For its part the poststructuralist version of postmodernism worked to exceed both formal aesthetic categories (the disciplinary order of painting, sculpture, and so on) and traditional cultural distinctions (high versus mass culture, autonomous versus utilitarian art) with a new model of art as text." (72).

--Hal Foster, The Return of the Real

"A provisional conclusion might be that in advanced art practices of the past thirty years the operative definition of the site has been transformed from a physical location—grounded, fixed, actual—to a discursive vector—ungrounded, fluid, virtual."

Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity, October 80 (Spring 97): 95.


I've started with this top-heavy loading of quotations to highlight a general movement from textualization of (generally) the "outside world" and place/site alongside a similar movement within (generally) art and site-specific art in order to establish a frame to address how the "place" of writing and cultural production could be rearticulated. Aside from a poststructuralist tendency to read structures as texts, how does this "textual turn" implicate writing as a constructive act? Has the modernist literary project of writing an imagined world been deflected through poststructuralism so now the world is imagined as not only written, but as text?

Parallel to this "textual turn," which leads intriguingly to Mowing Kwon's vague "discursive vectors,” there has been both a related mapping impulse and a constructive intent directed at "place.” The mapping impulse is both ontological and geographic (writing as a mapping of a mind or of subjectivity, writing as part of the process of realizing "place"). In popular media, texts, particularly novels, are given a primarily ontological role, of telling us something about the places we live in, and by extension to tell us something about "ourselves" or to illuminate the author as subject. Geographically, the constructive intent is perhaps clearest in a national literature's assembling of images and icons to create the imagined place of a nation and to the related levels of regional literatures and urbanist texts.

In contemporary art, a sort of sociological turn and mapping has emerged. Hal Foster cites Dan Graham"s “Homes for America” which "mapped" typologies of American suburban houses as well as the taste that they constructed and were based on, and “Twenty-Six Gas Stations” by Ed Ruscha as examples of the "sociological mapping...implicit in some conceptual art" (185). More recently, and more ironically and more internationally, there is Komar & Melamid's "The People's Choice" (http://www.diacenter.org/km/) which uses official polling agencies to survey a nation's preferences in visual art based on approximately ten preferences (ranging from "Favorite color" to "Prefer indoor or outdoor scenes") and then realizes the "most wanted painting" and "most unwanted painting" utilizing the information. While this project is lightly politicized around issues of taste and in its adaptation of the current political tendency to base policies on poll results, it is linked to current site-specific art practices which, as Kwon notes, "routinely engage the collaborative participation of audience groups for the conceptualization and production of the work...." From this collaboration, these site-oriented works "are seen as a means to strengthen art's capacity to penetrate the sociopolitical organization of contemporary life with greater impact and meaning. In this sense the possibilities to conceive of the site as something more than place—as repressed ethnic history, a political cause, a disenfranchised social group—is a crucial conceptual step in redefining the public role of art and artists"(96). A recent example—and there are many—of this laying bare of the historical determinants of place is realized in Stan Douglas' Nu*tka* which presents a "Canadian Gothic" of late-nineteenth century Nootka Sound on the Northwest Coast of B.C. through interlacing video images of the area and disembodied voices of the Spanish and English colonizers.

This chronotopic imagining of place as the site of a repressed racial (ethnic, class and gendered) history has been an obvious project of literature. In Canadian literature, this project was determined both discursively and historically. Discursively, the embarrassingly narrow yet dominant critical trope assigned to the national literature the role of providing a history to a country strategically defined as having none. This necessitated a "return of the repressed" in literature to counter the dominant literary (national) historical projects. Historically, Canada has imagined itself as bicultural and this framework worked to suppress the histories of groups other than the French and English. Within this very generalized framework, official and aestheticized responses to this historical repression have emerged. Small-town history chronicles that celebrate a town such as Morden in Manitoba, which can be bought at City Hall (here in Austria these projects are very similar and are called Heimatbuch [roughly, "homeland book"]) or a book such as Andreas Schroeder's The Mennonites which provides, in a coffeetable book format, a history of the Mennonites in Canada. More well known, and with a larger cultural impact, Joy Kogawa's novel Obasan brought forward the history of the Japanese-Canadian internment. Yet the moment that novelists are taken as historians is as problematic as when artists are believed to be sociologists or social workers. For instance, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion aestheticizes the history of working-class people in Toronto, as if the workers appreciated the modernist aesthetics of the worksite and the solidarity of shared labor rather than complained about the relations of production and wages.

That these textual and visual models present place and site as being a manifestation of history can lead to a deflecting of the present. For instance, Roy Miki speculates that Obasan could, from one vantage point, "become an object of knowledge as a Canadianized text that teaches us about racism in our past" (Broken Entries 143). The implication is that racism is relegated, chronotopically, to the past. Douglas' Nu*tka*, in its return of repressed history, could mimic the trope of First Nations' culture as a relic of the past, as being only determined by European actions, as the passive site where the history of dominant culture is acted out.

Here I want to speculate on (and politicize in a different way), Kwon's idea of place as a "discursive vector" as a means to situate oneself within a present site. I write "politicize" because it is possible to propose a move from text to discourse as a movement from a static structure open to analysis (whether virtuoso or standard) to a constructing determinant of place and subjectivity. Here place/site would not solely be determined by histories (dominant or repressed: emergent or residual), but by competing constitutive discourses that both affirm and erode the local/national and the everyday in the name of the global. Without solely reducing globalization to the effect of a discourse, it is possible to perhaps clarify the effects of globalization by understanding them as being discursively enacted at one level, as having a constitutive effect. Discursive is not synonymous with "fluid," "ungrounded," as Kwon proposes, but is precisely constitutive and grounding. In this formulation, the particularisms of a place/site and its histories are not just the oppositional force to globalization (or the corrective to dominant historical narratives), but an aspect of place that can be utilized by globalism; that is, a dialectic of local and global, or site and nonsite (if a place is imagined as siteless in its loss of particularities due to globalization).

My own turn toward the discursive effects of globalism in relation to place/site arose because of the contradictions I saw in the city in which I was living. The city of Calgary in Alberta imagines itself as a regionally-based "open-for-business" kind of city, free of, but also wary of, the ills of larger cities, yet a city of international standards. This discourse of regionalism serves to cloak the existing relations of production which Calgary—as an "oil town"—is linked into, and determined by. Global capital through the multinational oil and gas industry whose corporate logos hover above Calgary's gridded streets is a key determinant of both the social relations of the city and how the city imagines itself. When the oil industry is profitable (due to high crude prices or a manufactured crisis), the city thrives and new homes are built, rents rise, corporate headquarters shuffle, cigar bars and fusion-cooking restaurants open—in short, a lot of money is made by a few people but the scramble for profit is on. This imaginary masking of real relations, a kind of cognitive masking, is what Arjun Appadurai cites as fetishistic: "The locality (both in the sense of the local factory or site of production and then extended sense of the nation-state), becomes a fetish that disguises the dispersed forces that actually drive the production process" (Modernity At Large, 42). In Calgary, the global forces then have a direct effect on the planning and layout of the city, as well as the architecture; the social space of the city (itself a constituting aspect), is determined by the management of the effects of globalization and localization. Seeing how the effective discourses of place/region and nation could serve as a mystifying factor, blocking the real relations of the city, I moved away from an investigation of place and toward the discursive determination of a place/site.

As a writer, the emphasis on the constitutive discourses of site/place can supplement site as repressed histories. These discourses must also be seen, alongside repressed histories, as historical developments, as constitutive elements of the repressed history and emergent history. The site of writing then becomes imagined as a place of intersecting discourses: not groundless and fluid but both determined and determining.

Issue One
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