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After Ethington

When reading Philip J. Ethington’s “Placing the Past: ‘Groundwork’ for a Spatial Theory of History” alongside his Ghost Metropolis project, the two pieces occur to me both as connected and disconnected in compelling ways.    The connection, I believe, is as apparent as the abstracts that preface both pieces: compare the line “all action takes and makes place” from Ghost Metropolis to the line “the past is the set of all places made by human action.”  I point out the obvious relationship between the essay and the digital work, so that I might direct my attention to the (at least) two ways I see the pieces belying this relationship.

For all the theories of time that are brought to bear, supported and refuted in Ethington’s essay, little, if any, of his prose is dedicated to issues of digital media.  Surely, in response to such a statement one might reply with the stock, although especially germane, expression, “world enough in time.”  Every essay has its limits, and Ethington’s is no exception.  But is it so hard to imagine that Ethington’s notion of both world and time were drastically informed by his concurrent project, Ghost Metropolis.  This elision is in many respects refreshing.  In a field where every digital artist has his or her own theory of digital conditions of possibility that “emplaces,” to use Ethington’s term, their work inside of a nascent new media community (which seems to redefine and advance itself at the same gallop pace as technology) such a move to abstain from theorizing could be considered as radical.  On the one hand, Ethington’s essay, and its resistance to discuss new media, takes for granted certain stock concerns of digital art/lit.  It does not employ the grammar of interactivity and hypertextuality in so far as to further obfuscate his spatial theory of history.

Without question, the internet is radically reshaping various social practices and conceptions that exist in and of time, practices and conceptions that are essential to Ricoeur’s definition of natural time: “human or lived time” (470).  Ethington’s Ghost Metropolis is an example of this redefinition in its form as well as that form’s discovery of content, regardless if he mentions it or not.  By way of form, Ethington forces various modes of reading into propinquity.  In the many definitions I have played with for poetry, the only one I stick with relates to this line of thinking, while erring on the side of imprecision: Poetry is time.  Pages in a book become poetry only when we apply our own time to them.  I say this to point out how notions of time, for me, invariably relate to modes of reading.  In the form of Ethington’s piece, we are invited to interact with at least two different modes of reading, and therein at least two different modes of time.  There is the reading of the text on the right hand side of the screen and the reading of the map on the left.

It is important that one can call what I do to a map “reading,” even though it’s a pictorial representation.  For instance, in grade school curriculum, a teacher is responsible for teaching a unit on “Reading Maps.”  How does “reading” then relate differently to maps than to paintings or other pictorial works of art?  I would argue that the standard term for what I do to art is “appreciate;” “reading” a work of art implies something of a different level of commitment, i.e. an attempt to understand what the piece depends upon.  In the normative use of maps, the act of looking is rarely on par with “appreciation” and more akin to the type of interpretation we do when confronted with varying combinations produced by means of a particular set of twenty six symbols.  Yet, to read a map carries a different time signature than to read handwritten directions

For example, time, and its different modalities, comes into play when we are unsure if we should stay on the 40 or take the Capital Blvd exit.  When split with a second’s notice, do we turn to the map or the handwritten directions? Which will make us whole quickest?  Which will light our path before it becomes passed/past?  Regardless of the answer, we can see that time works differently in each case, as it does in Ethington’s map project.  Though it seems that the content of his project, deeply dependant upon this distinction between modes of reading, is aimed at bridging the gap between the reading text and map, and bridging the gap between the archive and the alive.  I am reminded here of a poem from Laura Jackson, “Map of Places,” where she reconsiders the material representation of maps, writing “the reality of paper tears.”  Here is a potentially relevant passage:

Now on naked names feet stand,

No geographies in the hand,

And paper reads anciently,

And ships at sea

Turn round and round.

All is known, all is found.

Death meets itself everywhere.

Holes in maps look through to nowhere.

By way of mentioning Jackson, I want to stress the assumed role of reconsideration as integral to the production of art and literature.  Without doubt, Ghost Metropolis is meant to provoke its interactor, especially the Californian, to reconsider the impact history has on their familiar haunts, as we say.  But is Ghost Metropolis a work of art/ literature?  The visitor to the site looks at a map that is organized in regards to historical narratives.  They are presumably comfortable with the function of maps and historical narratives, and the site doesn’t, in my opinion, challenge those comforts.  To do so might limit the project’s reach.  (The title Ghost Metropolis, however, seethes with poetic froth.)

Here, I’ll briefly point to the second incongruity between the essay and the project, in a means not merely to answer the question is Ghost Metropolis a work of art or literature, but to ask how does it change our ideas about art and literature. The essay, thorough in its survey, is not needlessly dense.  It builds an argument that is revelatory in tone.  Ethington’s uniting of place and time cues the reader to feel that great re-visionary work is at hand.  The project, on the other hand, is one of the few we’ve seen this semester that is meaningful and interactive with minimal preliminary instructions.  Does this imply minimal reconsiderations of how we interact with media?  This question could be in accordance with the work’s resistance to participate in the discourses of art and literature, which attempt to “make it new” at every turn.  But isn’t there something new about this project?  Doesn’t that newness—be it media, information, interface, etc—influence us to see our world anew?  How do we answer these questions while keeping in mind that Ghost Metropolis is contextual and serviceable in a way that, let’s say, Cayley’s “River Island” is not.

I want to close with a sort of summary question that I found in Brian Kim Stefans’s Fashionable Noise, which I hope will help further the conversation between service-oriented works like this one and out-of-order-oriented ones like those of Cayley and even Andrews.  Here’s the question in the context of a ICQ chat session, Darren Wershler-Henry responding to Stefans:

“Charles Bernstein and I had an interesting conversation about all this when I read in Buffalo a few weeks ago, and he said that what intrigued him about the work of the younger generation [of poets] was the question of whether or not it was possible to jettison opacity (a Modernist hangover, in his opinion-the idea that something has to be difficult to be good) and still have a piece of radical writing” (34)

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