[Reader-list] Questioning the Frame

coco fusco animas999 at yahoo.com
Fri Dec 17 02:21:30 IST 2004


Questioning the Frame
Thoughts about maps and spatial logic in the global
By 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

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

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,

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