Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

[Rebecca Solnit. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.]

Before I talk about this book, I want to talk a little bit more than I usually do about why and how I read it.

So. A couple of years ago, I published two books of history starting from differently situated stories of long-time activists. These stories were contextualized in ways that worked to be responsive to the standpoints of the those who told them to me, and I used the stories as entry points and building blocks to at least begin the process of exploring the historical trajectory of the social world that shapes all of our lives, and that does so in ways that mean our lives are impacted in vastly different ways by power, privilege, oppression, and exploitation. Though the books didn't necessarily attempt to rigorously or exhaustively do this, the idea was that if I start with my story, and your story, and that other person's story -- listening deeply and honestly to all three -- and then I try to figure out how those three are connected in terms of the material social world that shapes and is shaped by all three of us, then I can learn some interesting and politically useful things.

Over the last year, I've occasionally alluded to a Next Big Project that I originally envisioned as historical but (though I didn't exactly recognize this for quite some time) much less dialogical than that one. That vision lasted through quite an extended period of reading and writing towards/around the NBP, but did not endure very long after I finished another piece or work early this past summer and immersed myself in earnest in figuring out what this new thing could be. It's all still in flux, but it is feeling quite a bit less historical and quite a bit more dialogical than my original plan, which I think is a positive development. I won't go into more detail on that at the moment, but one conclusion that I came to in this re-visioning process is that, along with some rather tedious research that is necessary to set the initial stage for some of the more interesting things I hope to do later on in the document, I also need to further develop my practices around the sort of knowing the world (and writing about the world, a related but non-identical field of activity) through encounter and relation that I hope will make this project both dialogical and interesting (primarily to me, and if I'm lucky to readers at some point in the future). I want to do some reading in the next little while of books that enact ways of knowing the world that are in some way connected to my own still-hazy notions of doing so through encounter and relation, as well as books that explicitly and analytically think through how that might work. (If you have any suggestions for things I should read, leave me a comment! :) ) I asked contacts on Facebook for suggestions, and this book was one. I've read some of Solnit's essays online before and very much like her writing, so I jumped at this opportunity to sink some time into reading one of her books.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a collection of essays. They are unified by a sensibility and by the somewhat abstracted theme identified in the title, though the specific content of each varies considerably. They are essays that weave together writing grounded in memoir and writing grounded in research -- a combination that may not be directly relevant to my current NBP, but that may be more central to a NNBP currently simmering on a burner farther back. And the essays are wonderfully written, thoughtful, and very much relevant to my current priority of knowing the world through encounter and relation, in the sense that they enact an approach that, at least in my reading of it, counts as an example of doing so (albeit a rather different one than I am working towards, I think). My reaction to the specifics of the writing and the ideas in the book are actually quite mixed, as I'll talk about below, but I want to make sure it's clear before I get into that that I am no less enthusiastic about Solnit's flair and craft than I was before, and I give this book a great amount of respect for how much it got me thinking.

The writing in this book is, as I expected, vivid and clever and done with a keen eye to evoking place and detail and mood in ways that are very effective at moving a flow of more abstract ideas forward. Despite that great skill, those more abstracted flows of connection and meaning were sometimes so abstracted, and sometimes took such seemingly arbitrary turns, that even with her skill at weaving them together, it still felt a little disjunctive. I'm not saying that this made me dislike it or that it was poorly done, but it was a little distracting at points, and I suspect some readers might be more put off by it than I was.

My other main concern about the writing was that, as skillful as I found her use of detail and lush description, it sometimes felt like a bit much. And I should hasten to add that I don't mean this in the sense that it was overreaching what she could deliver -- there is a prominent teacher of writing and creativity whose books I enjoy and find useful in some ways, but who makes me roll my eyes in other ways, and one of those other ways is the emphasis she puts on well chosen detail and description to make writing sing despite the fact that often when she does that herself it falls flat and feels forced. I had no such experience in reading this book. Rather, here, it was more a matter of a surfeit of the excellently done. This is perhaps reducible to taste -- mine and the author's differ, and that's fine.

In terms of the approach to knowledge production that this book embodies, I'm glad to have encountered it and I definitely learned from it, but ultimately it's not exactly what I want to be doing. Because of the very personal and sometimes apparently arbitrary twists and turns that it took, reading this book with an eye to the epistemological and craft questions I started with was a really important reminder of the inevitably idiosyncratic character of meaning-making for all of us, all the time. When we actively make meaning from some new experience, yes we are doing so based on the accumulated knowledge we already have, the overall shape of which is a product of how socially organized standpoint has produced our experiences and practices of meaning-making to date. But we are also doing so based both on the random and the arbitrary parts of our experience that aren't particularly reflective of deeper aspects of social organization and also on the many conceptual practices that all of us have that are produced through relationships among meanings that exist in our heads at a remove from the socially organized practices and meanings in which we are embedded. It felt like this book really drew on those aspects of meaning-making, and there's no reason that it shouldn't, if for no other reason than that is an important part of how we each experience our journey through the world -- and, I suppose, in the default liberal-democratic understanding of the social that permeates our culture, it is the part of our experience and meaning-making that really gets emphasized. So, like I said, reading this was a good reminder, and I need to think more about its implications for what I want to do. But I know that I ultimately want to end up with rather a different way of relating to both the more idiosyncratic and more clearly socially produced aspects of how our experiences are shaped and how we make meaning from them.

Another aspect of the substance of this book that I had mixed feelings about was the way in which indigenous peoples weaved in and out of what it had to say. This initially seems unconnected to my point in the paragraph above, but I think they're actually related. Now, on a certain level, the fact that there are multiple points in this book where histories and (to a much lesser extent) present day realities of indigenous peoples are addressed is actually quite a positive thing. It's not something that happens nearly enough in contemporary North American nonfiction by non-indigenous authors, even when it is a book like this which pays a lot of attention to place and land and history. So, in some ways, "yay". But there is something about how the book does it that doesn't sit right with me, and even after spending considerable time reflecting on it, I'm still not sure I fully understand why. On a certain level, I suspect that part of my reaction can be attributed to cultural difference -- the author and I are both white settlers, but my own sensibility around these things comes out of an evolving set of understandings and practices among a mostly Canadian, mostly rad-left, mostly non-indigenous political niche. I've seen it pop up in US contexts in social media, but not so much. I've seen it reflected outside of rad-left circles, but not so much. And it certainly tries to be informed by indigenous anti-colonial sensibilities, but I think it would be foolish to claim that there aren't contradictions and hypocrisies and problems in how those of us who are in one way or another connected with the white-settler-dominated, Canada-based far left take these things up. But, to circle back to my point, Solnit is a product of a much different political niche, and so it's no surprise that her ways of engaging with the colonial past and present of Turtle Island are quite different, and I'm sure there are lots of things wrong with my own ways, so who am I to judge.

But even so, there were things that bothered me enough and on the right sort of grounds that I don't think it's only about difference in political sensibility; there is actually a problem there. For instance, one essay recounted lots of narratives from the earlier centuries of colonization from settlers who became lost to their origins and to their original selves in one way or another, and who became part of indigenous nations. While the essay certainly acknowledged this was part of an overall horrific historical trajectory of colonization and genocide, there were some key points related to that history and the kind of story the essay recounts that it, to my great surprise, didn't take up. It had less than I expected to say about how indigenous folks might have felt in those moments about both the larger attacks on their nations and the act of bringing settlers into those nations. It had nothing to say about the ubiquitous forced assimilation in the other direction, past and present. And the obvious connection between the theme of loss of self and diverse indigenous experiences of the many tentacles of colonial attack did not get made. Or to take an example from elsewhere in the book, a later essay spent an extended passage (pp. 161-9) talking about "terra incognita" on old maps and, again, relating that to the book's theme of getting lost, but it noted only in passing at the end that "those old maps were tools of empire and capital" rather than allowing that insight to inform the preceding eight pages. Or, despite in some places mentioning the ongoing existence of indigenous nations on Turtle Island, there were other places where the book talked about them only in the past tense despite current practices, voices, and experiences of those nations seemingly being relevant to the point at hand. Or the more general failure to connect the overall theme of self and of being lost and of exploration to realities of colonization, not just on Turtle Island but to the ways that postcolonial authors and scholars whose lives have been shaped by colonial trajectories elsewhere in the world have written about it.

And, yes, I know I'm drifting there into complaining that this book was a certain project rather than a different project, which quickly becomes unfair. But in the midst of all of that, there is a core that I think is legitimately politically troubling, whatever the intent of the project.

I think that relates to my earlier points about how the knowledge production that underlies the book isn't quite what I want to be doing. It is a reminder that knowledge production based in encounter isn't intrinsically a path to politically useful knowledge. After all, a core point in Edward Said's scholarship on orientalism is that the West has been producing knowledge (via literature and otherwise) based on encounter with the world beyond Europe for centuries, but it has all along encoded within it systematic distortion, exoticization, othering, oppression, and silencing. And one remedy he suggests is deliberately juxtaposing literature produced on both sides of the colonial divide, and seeking understanding from the ways that they do and don't relate to each other -- an approach that, really, has a similar basis to the quite differently applied one that I talked about at the start of this review, which involves listening to my story and your story and that other person's story and seeing what we can learn about the social relations that have produced all three of us from figuring out how our very different experiences exist in socially organized relation to each other. That doesn't guarantee that we won't still reproduce troubling tendencies in the knowledge we produce, but it's at least a better place to start.

So in reading this book, I enjoyed and learned from its focus on a very idiosyncratic journey of meaning-making, but its ability to combine lots of content about the broader social world with a seeming detachment of that from the actual process of meaning-making, at least in places, was a warning to me. As was its tendency, even when its meaning-making did seem to reflect explicitly on and connect directly to the social the social, to reflect much less on power and social organization than I want to. And I don't dismiss its copious use of the social as imagery, allegory, or analogy -- I think those things can be useful too, as devices for writing. But whatever I do, I hope also to foreground not only social as source of device for illustrating self, but social as producing and produced by self. And however I make knowledge from encounter and relation in the work ahead, I want to be very sure that I do so in ways that are substantively dialogical, and not just sporadically so.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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