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Rogoff: Terra Infirma

Page history last edited by Anne Cong-Huyen 10 years, 5 months ago


Research Report: Terra Infirma: Geography's Visual Culture, by Irit Rogoff


By Anne Cong-Huyen, Untitled "Flight Paths" Project Team


  1. Abstract. Informed by the work of Michel Foucault, Edward Soja, Gayatri Spivak, and others, and using an interdisciplinary theoretical approach, Rogoff examines contemporary conceptual art in a self-consciously non-hierarchical manner to analyze the ways in which it deals with various contemporary crises, namely policies and events that affect rights, belonging, and agency. She privileges the notion of art as constitutive and attempts to examine how it shapes consciousness and culture, rather than the other way around. At the same time, she insists on multiplicity, divergent narratives, and the process of finding a position, rather than any static understandings of subjectivity.


  2. Description.

    Traditionally an art historian and scholar of visual culture, Irit Rogoff steps outside of confines of art history and criticism to offer a far-reaching, theoretical text that looks at Western art in the last twenty years of the 20th century. In the introduction to her book, Irit Rogof explains that her text is “an exploration of links between, first, the dislocation of subjects, the disruption of collective narratives and of languages of signification in the field of vision, and second, an epistemological inquiry which stresses difference rather than universal truth” (1) The focus of this ambitious project is in the cartographies of visual culture responding to contemporary 20th century traumas “that have begun to take place in the aftermath of displacements, migrations, enslavements, diasporas, cultural hybridities and nostalgic yearnings undergone by contemporary subjects” (9). Her theoretical and cultural underpinnings are broad and she sites diverse authors like Adorno and Horkheimer, Edward Said, Salman Rushdie, Neil Smith, Homi K. Bhaba, Derek Gregory, Gloria Anzaldua, Jacques Derrida, Michel de Certeau, Sigmund Freud, Frederick Jameson, Caren Kaplan, Kobena Mercer, Gayatri Spivak, Susan Stewart, Sara Suleri, Minh-Ha Trinh, and others. As can be seen from the above list of names, she draws from a wide array of critical approaches in addition to her main geographic one. As she states, “this work comes in the wake of twenty years of feminist epistemology, film theories of sexual difference, post-colonial studies, post-modern geographies, discourses on space and spatialization and critical analyses of vision and visuality, not to mention the many aspects of both structuralism and post-structuralist theory and philosophy” (13).


    The book itself is divided into five thematic chapters: “Subjects / places / spaces,” “Luggage,” “Mapping,” “Borders,” “Bodies.” The first chapter, “Subjects / places / spaces,” is an introductory chapter that outlines her major theoretical methods. In choosing geography, Rogoff is specifically looking for a framework that connects people and places to the discourses around them (15). She problemetizes the disciplinary paradigms associated with geography and encourages a critical geographical approach that makes room for a destabilizing of the centralized foundations of traditional geographic practice. She writes:


    “Geography is at one and the same time a concept, a sign system and an order of knowledge established at the centers of power…Geography as an epistemic category is in turn grounded in issues of positionality, in questions of who has the power and authority to name, of who has the power and authority to subsume others into its hegemonic identity. Critical activity which locates geography as its field therefore pursues an active form of unnaming, renaming and the revising of such power structures in terms of the relations between subjects and places.” (21)


    This critical approach is applied in her discussion of spatialization (informed by Nicolet) and her analysis of “visual fields,” which is the main objective of the text.


    Each subsequent chapter is a standalone essay that presents a case study in which she is “attempting to read systems of geographical signification as re-written by contemporary arts practices” (13).  Chapter 2, “Luggage,” examines painting and museum exhibitions that display suitcases and containers, like the Ellis Island Museum, or Charlotte Saloman’s painting “Viertes Kapitel: Die Deutsche Juden,” or the Art in Ruins image, “My Homeland is not a Suitcase” from Conceptual Deb (57). Chapter 3, “Mapping” presents an argument for “un-mapping, remapping and counter-cartographies” that Rogoff finds in alternative and unconventional representations of space and place in contemporary art (73). Chapter 4, “Borders” questions the traditional dividing and demarcating purposes of borders that is understood to exist externally to the subject. She identifies additional internal, bodily, and cultural or social borders and examines their representation in art. Several specific examples include activist Chicano art that directly address the label of “Mexican” and “illegal,” or feminist art that situates the female body against or amidst those spaces outside of it. And Chapter 5, “Bodies” further examines how bodies are geographically marked and used as signifiers of identity, which she views with “ambivalences of belonging” (146). She looks primarily at female bodies and notions of femininity, which are bound to class, ethnicity, and location.


  3. CommentaryRogoff presents some very useful preliminary work that can easily be used to examine “Flight Paths,” especially in terms of her methods of analyzing different forms of media (including film and literature in addition to the contemporary art), which are pretty extensive throughout her text. In addition, her condensing of a multiplicity of theories provides an excellent example of how we can pull from diverse theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds and apply them in a cohesive manner in critically looking at a text like “Flight Paths.” Her text has a notably activist tone, drawn no doubt from her theoretical influences, but rather than being purely critical of the dominant culture, she sees artistic practice as a significant way to deterritorialize and destabilize epistemologies and cultural practices. This point of view can also be applied to our group’s text, which we admitted approached with some initial reservation, but which may prove to be surprising in other aspects.


    One thing that Rogoff does not go into detail about in her text, which she admits to in her introduction, is the significance of information technologies and the potentials they can afford and dangers they possibly present. I believe that we see both potentials and dangers in “Flight Paths,” and these are not just in the content of texts, but also in the process of thematic collaborative writing and community building that happen in online spaces. In this particular instance we see that “positionality” is still important, and the collaboration is still hierarchical in some ways, and (possibly) too democratic in other ways. I’m not sure yet exactly what we’ll discover, but Rogoff’s discussion of boundaries and borders made me re-think those of individual identities and contributions in online spaces like this, and her chapter on luggage is also complicating my notion of containment and how bits and pieces of the “Flight Paths” Universe are contained or bleed into one another. So although she does not deal directly with digital technologies like those that we’re working with, her theoretical approach is incredibly provoking as we approach our text.


  4. Resources for Further Study

    Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College of College of France 1977—1978. London: Picador, 2009.


    Gregory, Derek. Geographical Imaginations. London: Blackwell, 1995.


    Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women.  New york: Routledge, 1991.


    Rogoff, Irit. Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture. London: Routledge, 2000.


    Said, Edward. “Narrative, Geography, and Interpretation.” New Left Review.   (I/180) March-April, 1990.


    Soja, Edward. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. London: Verso Press, 1989.


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