The City & ytiC ehT

Late last week I finished China Mieville’s latest,
The City &
ytiC ehT
. TC & CT is a detective story,
it’s not just any detective story (what
Mieville calls
a "police procedural"
). In terms of theoretical richness, this one holds
even with Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Mieville creates a
pair of cities fraught with boundary in.discretions. Citizens from Beszel and Ul
Qoma pass by each other every day, but as they do so they must unsee people and
things from the other city. Even where the borders become confusing
overlaps, in cross-hatched zones likely to draw heavy traffic from autos and
pedestrians, unseeing remains a necessary tactic (sort of the opposite of
panoptic conditioning; unseeing here as deliberate, uneasy negligence).
Political, jurisdictional consequences are of course tied to this cities-wide
condition. Within this intricate third-spacious scene, Mieville works up a novel
that jets along with surprising acceleration: mystery elements, hazy figures,
and ethereal domains, also detective work that relies on the knowledge available
even while deliberately unseeing and smudge-remembering what is present
(that is, a kind of audiovisually unconfirmed felt sense).

I’d say more, but I already returned the copy to
Collin, who both recommended it and lent
it to me, and since it was a borrowed copy, no margin notes, no dog-eared pages.
But this entry is to say, pick it up. It’s a lively, quick read, very much the
sort of thing you still have time for even if you feel summer fading to fall.

Chamber of Absences

I haven’t been taking great notes while reading Prairyerth, but I did
dog-ear a page for this:

There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is
with your eye on a far goal, because then you begin to believe you’re not
closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland
sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering
whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and
the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as
difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of
absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I
raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot feel just where it
had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people:
circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me
lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on–that place you have
to get through, that purgatory of mileage. (82)

"That purgatory of mileage"–the horizontal vista of Chase County draws Least
Heat-Moon in. The expanse of long grasses is at times disorienting.
He feels lost, but knows that no line can be walked for five miles without
crossing a road. He is a journalist, a chronicler, a gatherer of stories.
Sometimes he consults a map, such as when he stands in Cottonwood Falls with "an
1878 bird’s-eye-view engraving of the town" (52), but he also–sector by county
sector–sketches his own. This last point is important, I think. It
is the practice where his methods live up to the "deep mapping"–an ethnographic
presence in graceful suspense (not unlike North’s ten years of "walking among"),
part Geertzian "thick description," but also meta-, also interested in the up
and out–the topography. This prairie topography can be experienced on

I’m mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon’s "chamber of
absences"–the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet
) de Certeau’s "wave of verticals," the "scopic drive" he chides after
looking out onto NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. What
is strange–exciting, even–is that Least Heat-Moon cannot figure out how to
organize his book until he appropriates a form from the grid of his hand-drawn
maps. About maps, de Certeau says, "They allow us to grasp only a relic set in
the nowhen of a surface of projection…. These fixations constitute procedures
for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice" (97). If
I may put that last sentence through a tumbler, what if, "the trace left behind
is the practice" or "the trace left behind invigorates the
practice (of walking in the city/prairie)"? This windy adventure forks yet
again at the distinction between the general-use map (with common place names,
consensus, etc.) and that other, more self-selective attunement (an
experiential, even egotistical sketch).

About my own chamber of absences: I am warming up to the idea that none of
this belongs in Chapter Five. But I nevertheless find myself happily stuck (not
stranded) on the problem of "What about maps as a (databasic, interested)
writing practice?". I don’t know. Yet there is a promising something
(a fantastic thingamabob) at the theoretical fulcrum between de Certeau’s
high-up perch (fraught with verticality) and Least Heat-Moon’s more moderate,
walking-the-prairie sensibility (fraught with horizontality). I would be
thrumming again on matters of scale, I suppose, to wonder whether that’s all it
amounts to when Least Heat-Moon breaks into his intimate portraits of
people and places, interrupting with his private, deliberative excursions to the
various plateaus or flint shelves for reorientations from time to time.
Don’t we all need (or at least desire) such reorientations?


Briefly, I just want to post a few thoughts on Greg Urban’s chapter from
, "The Once and Future Thing (PDF)." 
As Urban tells us, the ways culture moves, flows and circulates "is the central
mystery of our time" (39).  Urban frames the paradox of cultural
flow by characterizing its latent tension: the pull between sameness and difference. According to Urban, these two forces combine in a conglutination of
alpha (
α) (which he derives into beta (β) or "new" culture) and their
inventive counterpart, omega (ω).  Where beta is inertial
(replication and mundane derivation in New! culture), omega is accelerative
(inventive).  Urban tells us that "The force behind such accelerative
culture is the interest it generates, which stems in part from its novelty"
(16).  As I read it, this has bearing on our other considerations of the
ways memes achieve thriving conductivity (Aaron Lynch in Thought Contagion)
and restrictive factors in diffusion theory (Everett Rogers, Diffusion of
). And although I don’t want to be hasty in extending this to
questions about the ways ideas and innovations spread/cycle through a discipline
or field (like ours truly…um?), I will return in a brief second to one

Here’s the thing:  Urban’s work invokes familiar sources, from Bakhtin–"Our
speech is filled to overflowing with other people’s words" (17)–to Benedict
Anderson (imagined communities, text privileged, print capitalism), Bourdieu (habitus
as "filter created by inertial culture for new expressions" (23)), and Gramsci
(hegemony), he draws on an impressive list of thinkers/writers often invoked in
rhet/comp.  Yes?  Without being explicit about what he regards as the
most formidable cultural objects involved in the replication of culture, Urban
does, in places, give us cause for supposing that we might be capable of
making–perhaps composing–the ω object.

"The process [of hegemonic struggle] must depend upon the production of new
expressions, and hence, on ω culture" (26).


"However, accelerative culture opens the possibility that a new object–an ω
object–can cut new pathways, can reshape social space by harnessing different
strands of extant inertial culture" (19).

I’m not making my point as succinctly as I’d hoped to, and it’s a rather
simple point: "Shared and circulating documents, it seems, have long provided
interesting social glue" (190). See there, it’s not even my point. 
Here I’m drawing on a chapter I used with WRT205 students for this evening’s
session from Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information (PDF).
Basically, the connection for me is that the busy vehicles shuttling memes,
enabling diffusion and so on are oftentimes documents–produced texts; written,
designed and rhetorical.  Brown and Duguid tell us, "documents do not
merely carry information, they help make it, structure it, and validate it. More
intriguing, perhaps, documents also help structure society, enabling social
groups to form, develop, and maintain a sense of shared identity" (189). 
I’m not trying to make a case that documents are the only thing; they’re merely
one thing.  But that they’re the thing of interest to many rhet/comp folks
reminds me that we should come to terms with the relationship of writing to
Urban’s ω cultural object.  It’s not a tidy match with Urban’s cultural
object-types, but Brown and Duguid differentiate documents into two groupings:
fixed and fluid.  Particularly as we conceive of the bearing of texts on
network/cultural formation and organization, the distinction is incredibly
useful, I think. I’m trying to say that consideration of memes, diffusion and
variously same-different cultural vectors (from Urban) presents us with
productive correspondences to document production (text making…writing) and
the (dis)comforts manifest in our biases toward/against fixed or fluid texts. 

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