AFFECTION FOR PLACE RUNS like a red thread through Rebecca Solnit’s work. Solnit is a writer without portfolio who has already produced histories, bestiaries, catalogs, travelogues, and field guides; her formal ambition is tempered only by her interest in exploration, in introducing herself and her readers to unknown territories. In her latest work, a gorgeously produced collection of maps and essays called Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she turns to another locality-determined genre, adding “cartographer” to her CV. “The atlas you have in your hands,” Solnit writes in her introduction, “is a small, modest, and deeply arbitrary rendering of one citizen’s sense of her place in conversation and collaboration with others.”
“Modest” and “infinite” might seem like strange bedfellows, but Solnit uses both adjectives to acknowledge that her title’s reach must necessarily exceed its grasp, since it “aspires to suggest something of the inexhaustibility of even a small city but is itself finite and even capricious in its mappings.” On the journey that led to the creation of Infinite City, Solnit discovered how many invisible San Franciscos lie mapped within the minds of her fellow citizens: geographies she may have been vaguely aware of but never really knew, as if their streets and landmarks lay shrouded in the city’s perennial fog.
Still, even an infinite city is a shared space, and if Solnit’s frank declarations of the book’s limits occasionally seem like protesting too much — a preemptive strike against any number of predictable, small-minded criticisms about things left out — they also suggest that her project encompasses not simply her own idiosyncrasies but something much larger. As Solnit herself surely knows, all citizens have not only their own peculiar, private thoughts about the place they live but also a deep commonality and tacitly agreed-upon set of norms and ideas about what the place represents, derived from years of living there. One of our oldest words for such a pool of agreed-upon norms and ideas from people living in a shared space is “politics,” and Infinite City, like its subject (and author), is political through and through.
As Infinite City shows, San Francisco’s politics, even given their famously perpendicular relationship to the politics of the country at large, are stranger than they seem, full of internal contradictions. “Contradiction” is a key word in the book, the conceptual model for understanding the motion of history (as it was for Karl Marx). “The Bay Area is good at containing contradictions,” Solnit argues, in a passage that could easily stand for the book as a whole:
being both the great laboratory for new military technologies and the capital of opposition to militarism, being both Tuscany and the starship Enterprise, making both delights for the palate and poison for the body. Behind the latter conundrum lies its constant tension between being more sensual and engaged with place, substance, and pleasure, on the one hand, and more sped-up, technological, profitable, and disembodied, on the other.
These contradictions are visualized and spatialized in Infinite City&...read more