NOT FAR from the glistening glass and concrete utopia of downtown Los Angeles, the housing tracts of Irvine form a vast, measured landscape of corporate office parks, drive-in megachurches, and ticky-tacky houses where orange groves once grew. Five times the size of Manhattan and long the largest privately held real estate parcel in the country, these sprawling tracts corral the workers and wealth of a postindustrial economy. Unlike its northern neighbor, Irvine does not reify international finance, media, cultural, and real estate companies in spectacular architectural spaces; Irvine has no downtown. There is no there there.

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The city’s bizarreness — its totally planned, totally exurban terrain — enthralled and disturbed the photographers who made up the movement known as the New Topographics, including figures such as Lewis Baltz and Edward Burtynsky. The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine, Baltz’s book of opulently austere black-and-white photographs of office parks subtracted of human subjects, seems at once to celebrate this faceless terrain and to disclose its abstract quality. To depict contemporary economic landscapes is evidently to risk succumbing to the sublime, to hazard swooning before the incalculable beauty of all that desolation (an experience all too familiar to any ogler of disaster porn from the ruins of Le Detroit; any harmonizer with the crescendos of Treme). Yet depictions of our economic realities — deindustrialization, deunionization, financialization, abjection, kleptocracy — are obviously crucial to any collective redress of those realities: know your enemy and all that jazz. So when do beautiful things build knowledge, and when do they merely beget stupor?

Baltz’s photographic journey along the aleatory paths of sublime and abstract aesthetics is at the center of Cartographies of the Absolute, co-authored by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle (Zero Books). Toscano and Kinkle draw on Fredric Jameson’s “aesthetic of cognitive mapping” to present “cartography” as a metaphor for the kind of beauty that builds knowledge, the kind of aesthetic experience that results in revelation. In a formidable talk at the 1990 conference “Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture,” and in print in his classic Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Jameson asked art to teach (as in “to teach, to move, to delight,” a theory now neglected but once cherished in the classical rhetoric of Horace, Sidney, et al.). Demanding that art instruct, and specifically instruct about “the true economic and social form that governs experience,” Jameson observes that the art for which he is looking “does not exist,” and quickly acknowledges that there is something unusual about his quest: “It may well be wondered what kind of an operation this will be, to produce the concept of something we cannot imagine.” He admits that his call for pedagogical art diverges from standard practice, in which artists’ manifestos announce the consequences of their already-made work, or critics name what “they have already before their eyes.” His is a criticism that precedes art, that prepares the way for art; a criticism that harkens back to the Victorian Matthew Arnold, that looks back at our present history and demands a different future. Though calling for a new aesthetic, what Jameson is ultimately offering is a new kind of criticism that holds that “the profit motive and the logic of capital accumulation are […] the fundamental laws of this world, [which] set absolute barriers and limits to social changes and transformations.” This new criticism understands its role, as criticism, to be the invention of what does not exist: a critique and historicization of capitalism as what is given; a conceptualization of something we cannot imagine; an ushering of creative works that expand what we can imagine; a construction of hitherto non-existing worlds; a journey to utopia.

For Cartographies of the Absolute (which Jameson appreciatively blurbs), maps serve as a metaphor of the didactic impetus in art — that it can teach us who we are, how we are, and who and how we might be — first and foremost by teaching us where we are. Art created specifically to cognitively map is art that analyzes global capitalism, “a cultural and representational practice adequate to the highly ambitious task […] of depicting social space and class relations in our epoch of late capitalism or postmodernity.” The more an artist depicts space granularly, the more the depictions will render “visible” the invisible logics that organize and determine our social space, and “works emerging under the banner of this aesthetic would enable individuals and collectivities to render their place in a capitalist world system intelligible.” Maps thus also serve literally here: Toscano and Kinkle imagine the orienting province of art largely in terms of its mimetic representation of space and place. The works they consider are works about actually existing places: Irvine, Baltimore, New Mexico, New York, Chicago, Paris, Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Seoul, Gravesend, Wall Street, 10/24 meters from the surface of the earth.

In curating their archive, Toscano and Kinkle bet that by beholding images of places (photographs, cinema, digital art), spectators come to know their place. How does this knowledge develop? How does a particular kind of content in visual art develop into a particular kind of insight in the spectator? Since “what is at stake is the figurability or representability of our present and its shaping effect on political action,” another query lurks: how do insights become action? Who is the audience standing in uncoordinated reserve, ready to deploy when a cognitive map rolls out, burning down the house once its floor plan is clear? As their interpretation of their archive proceeds, Toscano and Kinkle often find that even the most atmospheric and spatial of works result only in partial distillations of capitalism’s logics, and so they often round out their pictures with critical discourse generated by the artists they consider. When criticism about an artwork achieves a less partial distillation, then the work is a successful map.

Has Jameson’s desired art materialized in the 25 years since his talk? Toscano and Kinkle ostensibly explore this question in Cartographies but also tacitly ask whether the new utopian criticism is working. They loyally repeat Jameson’s temporal distortion (looking back not only over post-1990 aesthetic productions, but also further, to the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s), and loyally repeat as well his emphasis on criticism (placing great weight on critical commentaries, often by artists, though not always in appraisal of their own works). They set their sights on a dizzying breadth of works both artistic and critical, ranging from Baltz’s photos and Allan Sekula’s commentary thereon to the cult film Wolfen and the critic’s darling The Wire; the collaboration between critic Bruno Latour and photographer Emilie Hermant to works of the geographer and artist Trevor Paglen; from The Wolf of Wall Street to Das Kapital and Sergei Eisenstein’s unrealized plans to film it. Their analysis markedly distributes less attention to the art works themselves than to the critical discourses surrounding art.

The ultimate object of Toscano and Kinkle’s study thus seems to be less the art that may be emerging in our current phase of capitalism than the critically driven arts and artistically inventive critiques that span the 20th century, and that might serve as models for, if not instances of, the temporally distorted, imaginatively productive, politically utopian criticism that Jameson inaugurates. Maybe this focus inflects their strategic choice to co-author, and to publish with Zero Books: the critical aesthetics to come are collaborative and speculative, outside conventional idioms or accepted voices, and they address themselves to a public. (The mission statement of Zero, printed in all of their texts, hails “another kind of discourse, intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist” and explains their commitment to “the idea of publishing as a making public of the intellectual.” [We had originally reported that Zero Books had been disbanded; Zero Books continues to exist, but editor Tariq Goddard and the entire staff of Zero Books has since resigned en masse and founded Repeater Books, because they felt they were having trouble fulfilling that mission under their parent company, John Hunt Publishing. Stories here, here, and here. — Eds.])

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Lewis Baltz’s photographs, like those of Edward Burtynsky, comprise maps that engender a sense of dislocation. Toscano and Kinkle home in on their ambivalent effects: on the one hand, their subjects (Irvine and other manufactured landscapes) “signal the becoming concrete of the abstract; not just the moulding of everyday life by the homogenising power of abstract social forms (value, money, exchange) but their physical embodiment in ‘really abstract’ spaces,” while on the other hand

the spiritualisation of this abstraction can be criticised for its fetishisation […] present[ing] us with beautiful monuments to alienation without any inquiry into the processes of their production. In the depiction of cycles of energy extraction, circulation and waste, cause and effect implode into a kind of entropic destiny, which we can nonetheless artistically enjoy (while we simultaneously arrive at some kind of mindfulness of our total and terminal dependency).

The ambivalence within the artwork is wonderfully framed in the discussion of Baltz’s work, and murmurs through most of the book’s conversation. Ambivalence is often the end point of Marxist cultural criticism — the dialectically inclined tend to think of creative works as both determined by and excising the conditions in which they emerge. A work of art, as art, negates and exceeds what exists, even though it also works with available materials. But it is tempting to say that Toscano and Kinkle are ambivalent about ambivalence — rather than understanding the task of the spectator as that of choosing sides, they want the work to build in to itself univocal polemics, “recasting what political teaching, instruction or even propaganda might mean in our historical moment.” The issue with Baltz, then, is whether a photograph can enunciate a polemic, or whether the image gets in the way.

Photographs always potentially degenerate into fetishes — static moments of beauty we can placidly consume with all the rapture of the wise: “I know very well that capitalist totalization is reaching untold zeniths of depredation and destruction — but isn’t it sublime?” Though they don’t put it this way, the reason why this happens appears to rest with the medium of photography itself: its (generally) instantaneous quality. Burtynsky prizes scale above all else — taking aerial photography to new heights — but maybe a temporal rather than a spatial medium is necessary in order to “inquire into processes of production,” in order to relay “cause and effect,” to not merely see a place on a map, but to ask yourself, as David Byrne once did: How did I get here?

So what would be an art medium that oriented the spectator to their place in capitalism, that was spatial but not static, that was cartographic but not flat? For Toscano and Kinkle, somewhat confoundingly, the answer is not art per se, but art criticism. The book’s strongest chapter, “The Art of Logistics,” identifies “logistics” as a genre of photography and film focused on shipping containers and commodity chains, and then finds the apotheosis of the genre in critical essays. Beginning with a discussion of moving-image works that trace commodity chains (Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War, Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Lucy Raven’s China Town), the chapter establishes that films “dislocate the fetish of the commodity by bringing to the fore, however tentatively, the social relations largely shrouded by the final products,” but films can also risk “defetishizing too fast,” revealing behind the commodity not a sphere of contingent social relations but rather isolated, suffering individuals. Where the New Topographics presented “beautiful moments” too insulated from critical inquiry, the cinema of logistics too often presents an individual’s tragedy in place of a system’s.

Instead of turning to a different modality of art to transcend these insufficiencies of the visual, Toscano and Kinkle exalt criticism. Essays like those by the artist/critic Allan Sekula, to whom the book is dedicated, can “confront the deeper challenge that logistics pose to the image,” achieving in the hallmark plot and causality of narrative what the flatness of the visual arts cannot. In writings from the 1970s and 1980s published in various art journals and collected in his 1989 Photography Against the Grain, he exposes the weaponization of images and the traffic in photographs behind forces like the quotidian operations of the Department of Defense. Sekula’s criticism, Toscano and Kinkle argue, offers the third way between too rapid defetishization and too torpid fetishism; it “return[s] us to the reality of instrumental images” by revealing “capital as the ultimate determinant of instrumentality.” Behind the beautiful moment stands the industrial complex which the photograph is powerless to capture, but which a critical narrative powerfully imparts.

As this chapter concludes, a commanding map results not from “the representation of logistics” but rather from the “logistics of representation” — not from photographs of container ports, but from analysis of the productive forces that deploy images. Ultimately, art cannot map capitalist totality. Only art’s mediation by criticism can:

a consideration of the logistical image can thus open onto an aesthetic and political inquiry into the conjunctions between circulation and abstraction, the traffic in photographs and their abstraction from use, the role of images in logistical flows (military, productive, financial) and their modes of exchange and commensurability. Attention to the traffic in and of photographs, to their integration into logistical apparatuses of production and destruction, provides a critical counterpoint to the lures and impasses of images and representations.

Here, though, the thread of the argument strains. For Sekula’s criticism historically predates both the art whose limits it transcends (most of the cinema and photography treated in this chapter), and the call issued by Jameson for such a criticism. The fact, then, that the most lauded work in this book is a body of essays that preexists Jameson’s effort “to produce the concept of something we cannot imagine” implies that the new utopian criticism is not yet working.

It might be, though, that criticism of the sort they and Jameson long for — the kind that uncovers how aesthetic works illuminate the dim of our exploitation — would work more readily if its criterion for “illuminating’” aesthetics broadened. Why must art referentially represent? But if there is a blind spot in this visionary argument’s literalism about maps, it is only the same one that has long dogged major strains of Marxist aesthetic theory: the conviction that art is at its best when it is “repurposing aesthetic creation as social and political research,” thereby becoming “adequate […] to depicting social space and class relations” — the conviction that it is the job of art to index, rather than mediate, existing reality.

Since this conviction has overdetermined debates in Marxist criticism for a century, it is not surprising that Toscano and Kinkle cling to it. But their enthusiasm for “making the invisible visible” and for visual art that is directly about place amounts to a particularly narrow notion of indexicality. What if the paramount question isn’t whether capital can be seen, but how it can be mediated, remediated, negated? What other forms of aesthetic representation — not visual, not referential, not literal — might prompt even more forceful thinking about social space and capitalist totality? What forms of being-in-common — co-ops and unions, parties and the party, die-ins and communions, daily suffering and daring — and what ideas thereof could embolden our doing something else? The authors sagely quote Jameson’s admonition that “since everyone knows what a map is […] cognitive mapping cannot (at least in our time) involve anything so easy as a map; […] dismiss all figures of maps and mapping from your mind and try to imagine something else.” Readers of Cartographies might wish they had heeded this caution, challenging the supremacy of the visual and instead championing imagined communities, imaginative dialecticizations, and imaginary webs of interpenetration and determination — webs of the sort possibly best spun by that least visual of arts, fiction.

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Fiction is only glancingly treated in Cartographies of the Absolute, but its significance for a more robustly conceived aesthetic of cognitive mapping is not to be underestimated, nor are its affinities with dynamic criticism to be understated. Toscano and Kinkle themselves exhibit a clear preference for narrative arts in their critique of the photographic fetish and in their praise for critical essays, and narrative arts have been Jameson’s major focus since Postmodernism. His particular interest in the critical and utopian possibilities of science fiction has often celebrated its mapping prowess. None other than the sci-fi giant Ursula K. Le Guin last year underscored this political promise of sci-fi and fantasy: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” To make new worlds we need not cartographers of what exists but architects of what does not, an art of words including the words of criticism, of course, but also the words that exuberantly construct the novel states that exceed what already is, the words of the art after criticism. That word-art might look little like didacticism, and much like defamiliarization, like fantasy and science fiction, or the experimental solidarities of first-person-plural fiction, or the radical banalities of stream-of-consciousness, or the world-building of high realism, like works in the past that we don’t yet know how to read.

On their last page, Toscano and Kinkle, in a final gesture of ambivalence, conclude their meditation on the necessity for a certain political intent and a certain referential content in art, by admitting “there is in the end something reactionary about the notion of a metalanguage that could capture, that could represent, capitalism as such.” With this admission, they reveal one limit of a literalist cartography: that works most literalistically about where we are might stifle the possibility of being somewhere else. Maybe the pressing project isn’t to adequately index capitalism, but to boldly link arms to do something differently. And this would seem finally a more vivifying job of art: to delightfully move us to make something else, to itself make something else, “to rethink and refunction our available genres, styles, figures and forms” in ways that commend alternative and new forms of sociality.

Though utopia is nowhere, it is a place — but we don’t know how to make it there, nor how to make it, there. Will maps help? Will the 14-lane superhighways of Irvine? The 14-line sonnets of yesternight and tomorrow? Whatever aesthetic experiences teach us, our wisdom will not relieve us of the necessity to enact the lessons of the past and the plans of the future together in that collective project that Karl Marx called “the ruthless criticism of everything existing,” a.k.a., “communism […] not a state of affairs […] [but] the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” Art might galvanize this movement, it might playact this movement, or it might only ever arrive after. There’s a city in our mind; come along and take that ride.

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Anna Kornbluh teaches literature and literary theory at the University of Illinois, Chicago.