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  • Journeys through the Offset World:Global Travel Narratives and Environmental Crisis
  • Ursula K. Heise (bio)

In his classic Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson explores the challenge that globalization poses for individuals' sense of situatedness through contemporary architecture. In a chapter entitled "Spatial Equivalents in the World System," he focuses on the Frank Gehry House in Santa Monica, a building that consists of a new architectural envelope superimposed on an older structure so as to create spaces not adequately defined as either "inside" or "outside" in the conventional sense. These unsettling transitional spaces, Jameson argues, provide a metaphor for a broader shift in spatial experience as global networks of commerce, media, politics and culture make it increasingly difficult for individuals and communities fully to inhabit a single place.

[I]n that simpler phenomenological or regional sense, place in the United States today no longer exists, or, more precisely, it exists at a much feebler level, surcharged by all kinds of other more powerful but also more abstract spaces. By these last I mean not only Los Angeles itself, as some new hyperurban configuration, but also the increasingly abstract (and communicational) networks of American reality beyond, whose extreme form is the power network of so-called multinational capitalism itself. As individuals, we are in and out of all these overlapping dimensions all the time, something which makes an older kind of existential positioning of ourselves in Being—the human body in the natural landscape, the individual in the older village or organic community, even the citizen in the nation-state—exceedingly problematical. . . . [W]e know that we are caught within these more complex global networks, because we palpably suffer the prolongations of corporate space everywhere in our daily lives. Yet we have no way of thinking about them, of modeling them, however abstractly, in our mind's eye. This cognitive "problem" is then the thing to be thought, the impossible mental puzzle.

(127)

Jameson proposes a similar analysis of John Portman's Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel with its enormous, unmappable lobby and its transfer of outdoor architectural features to the indoors.

The conceptual task that the unconventional structures of the Gehry House and the Bonaventure Hotel are designed to fulfill is therefore two-fold [End Page 61] and self-contradictory: on one hand, they model the way in which global networks transcend more conventional experiences of place; on the other hand, they point to our inability to draw cognitive or aesthetic maps of these new planetary spaces. This tension between the attempt to portray global connectedness and the inadequacy of current cultural forms for such a task characterizes much postmodernist art, in Jameson's interpretation.

Environmentalist thought, at first glance, seems to have found more successful and less problematic ways of representing worldwide systems. After all, the image of the planet as a whole, exemplified by the Earthrise and Blue Planet photographs of Earth seen from outer space, became symbols of the emergent environmentalist movement soon after the Apollo 8 and 17 missions had made them public. The slogan "Think globally, act locally," coined by René Dubos in 1970, similarly summed up environmentalists' commitment to a vision of planetary connectedness, as did Kenneth Boulding and Buckminster Fuller's metaphor of "Spaceship Earth." At the same time, seminal books such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968) and the Meadows' report on The Limits to Growth (1972) sketched highly publicized scenarios of global disaster if rapid action were not taken to remedy environmental problems. Yet closer analysis shows that the representation of global networks remains an unfinished task even in environmentalist thought, art, and literature. The Blue Planet image, as critics such as Sheila Jasanoff, Wolfgang Sachs and Gayatri Spivak have argued, achieves its sense of global coherence by placing the observer in outer space, and thereby avoids the question of how particular geographic, economic, social and cultural locations might shape the view of the whole. According to them, the photograph elides any reference to political and cultural differences so as to project a misleading image of the world as a unified, balanced whole (Jasanoff 40-41; Sachs 110-28; Spivak 72).1 Implicit (and sometimes explicit...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2095
Print ISSN
0049-2426
Pages
pp. 61-76
Launched on MUSE
2012-03-17
Open Access
No
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