Friday, January 07, 2011

Trevor Paglen: Blank Spots

Some snippets from Dirty Wars:

Planning the rescue of a kidnapped friend who has been squirreled away in a disused government installation, two men in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) study maps of the area: “They peered at the maps, each with that enigmatic blank in the middle, like the outline of a state in a geography test, belonging to something called ‘the U.S.,’ but not the one they knew”  (250).

The unmarked space on the map has become a common trope in writing about the American West in recent years, a double motif that speaks on the one hand of the shroud of secrecy covering military-industrial activity and on the other the resistant spaces beyond the inventory of the U.S. standing-reserve.

In Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge (1991), “A blank spot on the map translates into empty space, space devoid of people, a wasteland perfect for nerve gas, weteye bombs, and toxic waste” (241). Similarly, in DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), the white places on the map “include the air base, the army base, the missile range, the vast stretch to the northwest called the Jornada del Muerto and the interdunal flats as well.”  The flats themselves are perversely “map-white, on the page and in living fact,” so that their absence on the map does in fact represent their physical condition. In an uncanny twist, the blank space on this map tells the truth even as it continues to lie, since the few low buildings and propane tanks that are visible “service the underground operation in the Pocket, where weapons were conceived and designed” (404).

The blank space on the map is a visible marker of the state of exception that, as Giorgio Agamben explains in State of Exception (2005), “represents the inclusion and capture of a space that is neither outside nor inside (the space that corresponds to the annulled and suspended norm).”  The “topological structure” of the state of exception, claims Agamben, is “defined by the oxymoron ecstasy-belonging” (35); that is, being-outside yet also belonging.  This seems to me to be precisely the condition of the map’s blank spaces, which simultaneously refuse the function of the map’s signifying purpose while confirming this function: the blank space is where the hidden is emplotted, where the suspended norm gives shape to the normative representation of the world that surrounds it. The blank space is neither inside nor outside the nation state of the United States; it ruptures the continuous spatial indexing that produces the narrative sense of the map as a record of all there is while also indisputably being in that space.