Where Danger Is

By Sven BirkertsOctober 28, 2014

Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness by Rebecca Solnit

CRITICAL AND TERRITORIAL in my nature, not easily impressed by my fellow essayists, I will here cede territory and admit to being impressed, more than impressed, by the vigorously growing oeuvre of Rebecca Solnit. Her newest collection, Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, at once globally wide-ranging and topically urgent, fastens by solid coupler to her 16 previous books, and will surely solidify her reputation as one of our most independent and necessary freelance intellectuals.

The title announces Solnit’s ambition as well as her thematic focus, and the book’s endpapers offer a map of the world annotated with the titles of the various essays — a veritable cartography of woe: she will be addressing “trouble” in Japan, Iceland, Detroit, Haiti, Mexico, the Arctic, New Orleans, New York City, and Silicon Valley, to name many (but not all) of her chosen places. To then read in sequence is to register a toppling domino chain of political, environmental, and social disasters, not unlike the effect of reading the Sunday Times, but here amplified and explored. Through accumulation and cross-reference, the essays create a comprehensive overview of where we — all of us, not just Americans — find ourselves now. Encyclopedia is not easy going, though Solnit is an effective, informative, and frequently lyrical stylist: the difficulty is all in the implications, the recognitions.


Encyclopedia comprises 29 essays — most published first in a variety of journals — which are arranged in no discernible larger pattern of chronology or spatial transit. The opening piece, “Cyclopedia of an Arctic Expedition,” printed in Orion Magazine in 2013, is followed by her reflections on the Arab Spring from 2011, and then a 2010 essay-meditation on the complex evolution of the ethos of the Bay Area. But for all the diversity of her subject matter, there is an undeniable larger coherence at work: when a coherent and passionate intelligence gives itself fully to one thing and another, no matter the focus, what inevitably emerges is also the portrait of a coherent and passionate intelligence.

This intelligence is informed at every turn by Solnit’s basic character formation, which I would describe as fundamentally idealistic — aggrieved by injustice, and righteous and combative in reaction. Drawn to sites of chaos and malfeasance, keen to document evidence to support her position, she is also ever on the lookout for signs of awakening and countering initiative. As the poet Hölderlin wrote: “Where danger is / there the saving power grows.” In her introduction, Solnit puts it more matter-of-factly: “I see disaster everywhere; I also […] see generosity and resistance everywhere.”

A case in point, and such cases abound, would be “Detroit Arcadia,” which was first a widely discussed Harper’s cover story. The core of the piece recounts the implosion of the city that grew, in the first part of the last century, into an industrial titan, with a population of over two million, but which in recent years has fallen into near-anarchy, losing over half of its population. Solnit quotes former Detroit mayor Coleman Young, who said most pithily:

[…] at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to two million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures — 1.4 frigging million of them.

The essay examines the trajectory of linked causes — everything from job outsourcing and corporate greed to class stratification and racism — even as she gives us an embedded journalist’s feel for the look and feel of things. Describing how she put up at the Pontchartrain, once the city’s premier hotel, she notes that “the lobby was bisected by drywall […] and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls […].” She checked out after just one night, in part because of the “generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests.” Pages of historically informed reportage follow, but the melancholy saturation is not to be shaken off easily.

Strikingly, though, and in a way that suggests the almost dialectical dynamics of Solnit’s sensibility, the essay is not all doom and gloom. Indeed, referring to a bucolic frieze depicting the original Native American inhabitants of that area, which used to adorn the lobby of that same hotel, she writes: “[…] as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely — and sometimes even beautifully — post-American.” What she is foreshadowing here is the revelation of an active, community-based, sometimes completely independent reclamation of property in the city — the planting of large swaths of now arable land where houses stood, blocks and blocks of them, before they fell to arson.

This is the kind of thing Solnit looks for — ground-level, human initiative; defiance of the pronouncements of politicos; and, in so many different contexts, the large-scale machinations of corporate interests. She thrills to the occasions when the put-upon stir themselves and rally to action — as in New Orleans, as in cities throughout the Arab world. What is it that finally tips the scales? “The boiling point of water is straightforward,” she writes in “The Butterfly and the Boiling Point,” but “the boiling point of societies is mysterious.” Trying to solve this mystery is part of why she travels to zones of upheaval — why she studies and reports. The title of her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, confirms this is an ongoing preoccupation.

The prospective reader should not, however, imagine some neat cloud-therefore-silver-lining dynamic always in play. Solnit can also linger on the downside and resist all impulse to uplift, as in her 2008 essay “Notes From Nowhere: Iceland’s Polite Dystopia.” Here she reports how, talking to Icelanders, “I felt like I was hearing a fairy tale told backwards, a tale in which they had been dispossessed of their great gifts and birthright.” She cites the privatization of the right to fish, the selling off of the genealogical records of the population to a private corporation, and the sacrifice of the nation’s wilderness to the Alcoa corporation’s smelters. If we are waiting for some reversal, Solnit does not, in this case, offer one. “Icelanders are aware of the problem,” she affirms, “and yet seem unable to fix it.” The essay, and there are certainly others of its ilk, sustains the tension, offers us no place to turn with our distress at the implacable progress of exploitation.


These various reports from the front make up a good portion of Encyclopedia, and taken together they are mutually enhancing, if also at times somewhat repetitive in their mode of attack. But they do not by themselves account for the larger resonance of the collection. Indeed, if Encyclopedia contained only news from crisis zones, its honed edge might after a time start to dull. But Solnit has various other angles to play, and other modes to deploy. Chief among these is her more literary frequency, a feel for the expressive image that adds a welcome affective depth to this gathering of reports from the field.

Interestingly, that opening essay, “Cyclopedia of an Arctic Expedition,” which you might expect would set the tone for the work to follow, is very much a subjective — and literary — account of Solnit’s extended journey into that austere ice-world. Her prose advances no political or social critique, tracks no culprit elements (or not many, anyway). Instead, the piece is an evocative, impressionistic account self-consciously staged as an alphabetical enumeration, beginning with Anchor Chain and continuing on to Zodiac. Alphabetical orderings are a tried-and-true way of dodging the constraints of form, but sometimes they are effective. This one clearly liberates Solnit to indulge her more sensory impulses. Under C, for Color, for instance, we find:

And the smeared red of a polar bear’s meal on blue-white ice. The cream of a polar bear against the white of ice — our chief guide says at one point that the tiny blob on the hillside is not a polar bear because it’s the wrong shade of white. Shades of white: snow, clouds, glaciers, bones, polar bears, quartz rocks.

How better to suggest the perceptual acuteness bred by deprivations of the color field — and other fields as well.

Similarly, “Inside Out, or Interior Space,” a commissioned essay on interior decoration, makes use of various sumptuous renderings en route to its larger assertion, which is about the loss of a common public arena, and the transfer of energies to the elaboration of private spaces. The cinema gave way to the home entertainment center, and the “old modernist dream of a better world had become the dream of a better home and garden, and a massive industry of television programs, magazines, books, tax deductions, Home Depot warehouses, and more specialized fed this appetite or this distraction.” The theme is picked up elsewhere as Solnit deplores the desecration of the eccentric populist values of her old San Francisco by the incursion of Silicon Valley ethos, the symbol of which is the unmarked Google bus, ferrying its corporate worker bees to the “campus” in the highest-end vehicular comfort.

In these essays, developing the subplot of cultural transformation at the hands of techno-visionaries, Solnit gives impassioned opposition to the flourishing digital ethos. Her 2013 essay “We’re Breaking Up,” in particular, lays out a chilling portrait of a culture gone rudderless on a sea of signals. She begins by observing how close we are, in calendar time, to the divide. “On or around June 1995,” she writes (echoing Virginia Woolf, who marked December 1910 as a watershed moment in the history of the modern era), “human character changed again.” Before that, we lived in the old familiar world of the daily newspaper, the housebound phone, the writing and receiving of letters, the evening newscast … After, arriving in a cataract of innovation that has not yet abated — well, we all know the litany. We know it because we are in its toils, caught up on every side: with email, texts, newsfeeds, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — do I need to go on?

Solnit grants that the changes have brought their benefits: giving people more chance at uncensored expression, helping organizers to coordinate movements of resistance, allowing us to reconnect with old friends. But she also draws lines and distinctions. “Previous technologies have expanded communication,” she affirms. “But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat.” Formerly we lived moving back and forth between two poles, solitude and communion, privacy and public interaction. “The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection.”

There is always the danger, in these kinds of discussions, of sounding like a scold — to harken back is to indulge in nostalgia, and to question the momentum of new technologies is to declare yourself old-school. But Solnit steps up unapologetic, speaking for what David Foster Wallace in another context called “single-entendre values,” and what here might be thought of as a former understanding of the proportions and values of things. Here she is on Google glasses:

I tried on a pair that a skinny Asian guy was wearing in the line at the post office. (Curious that someone with state-of-the-art technology also needs postal services.) A tiny screen above my field of vision had clear white type on it. I could have asked it to do something, but I didn’t need data at that juncture, and I’m not in the habit of talking to my glasses. Also, the glasses make any wearer loom like, yes, a geek. Google may soon be trying to convince you that life without them is impossible.

Not unexpectedly, Solnit brings the essay around to what she hopes will be the emergent countering momentum, some push toward slowness and reengagement with material process. She sees some confirmation in the slow food movement, and in a return in certain quarters to gardening and handcrafting. She fantasizes that “the young” will set up “rebel camps where they will lead the lives of 1957, if not 1857, when it comes to quality of time and technology.” Of course she knows the unlikeliness of this, but she knows, too, what the consequences will be if we continue on our track of relentless digital mediation of all parts of life. They will be grim, but “with a grimness that would be hard to explain to someone who’s distracted.”

And so here we find ourselves, coming to the end of this gathering — in a world besieged by natural and political disasters; living in an almost capsized imbalance of haves and have-nots created by unrelenting corporate greed; threatened on all sides by environmental calamity; in need as never before of real democratic solidarity, of cooperative action, even as we fixate on our mini-screens, cocoon ourselves in signals. That last metaphor suggests the eventual emergence of some surprise of bright beauty, the likelihood of which is pretty slim. It’s hard news that Solnit brings us, though, again, she is not without hope. She keeps her faith in the human project, its possibilities. But these will not be easily offered. They will have to be fought for, and fighting will require us to find one another in common cause. For us to Occupy anything we will have to first Occupy Ourselves. If it does not give us specific directions, Solnit’s Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness at the very least sounds the wake-up call. Not shrilly, but with reasoned eloquence — which is finally more effective.


Sven Birkerts is the author of The Other Walk and other collections of essays. His book Changing the Subject: Essays on the Mediated Self will be published next year by Graywolf.

LARB Contributor

Sven Birkerts co-edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars. His most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf).


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