Review of Karin Hoepker's No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson

Review of Karin Hoepker's No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archeologies of the Future in William Gibson

2012-09-03

The good news in Alex Link’s review is that Karin Hoepker’s No Maps for These Territories begins the necessary work on spatiality in William Gibson’s first two trilogies. Still, much remains to be done. Link points the way to a critically productive analysis built on Hoepker’s opening moves.

Review of No Maps for These Territories: Cities, Spaces, and Archaeologies of the Future in William Gibson, Karin Hoepker, New York: Rodopi, 2011.

Karin Hoepker’s No Maps for These Territories, not to be confused with the 2001 Mark Neale documentary of the same name, is a welcome addition to a field in which “substantial research does not exactly abound” (49 n.3), namely, the work of William Gibson.  This study generates “a typology of spatial formations within [William Gibson’s] future urban episteme” (17).  It intends to “formulate a comprehensive description of the ways in which [Gibson’s] texts address spatiality and urban spatial formations” so as to create “a framework for ‘pattern recognition’” (17).  While it occasionally mentions other work, this study limits itself primarily to Gibson’s first two trilogies: the Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) and the Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties).  Hoepker’s overall strategy is to take us through a series of spatial types, rather than to proceed through the novels one at a time.  However, the early part of the study does devote most of its attention to the Sprawl trilogy, and the latter part to the Bridge trilogy. 

Hoepker provides a brief overview of cartography and recent science fiction before delving into the promised typology.  The study then presents us with an analysis of Sprawl broken down into urban and architectural patterns, with sustained considerations of the Hypermart in Count Zero and the Finn’s place as it appears throughout the Sprawl series.  This consideration of Sprawl space, with its emphasis on junk and heterogeneity, gives way to a long-overdue and welcome analysis of the spatial significance of Joseph Cornell’s box art, which is often referenced by Gibson, especially in Count Zero.  We return to a typology of architectural spaces and forms of inhabitation by examining the presence of arcologies in Gibson’s work, which generally take the form of “corporate arcologies,” or enclaves, and “low income housing” (127).  Our last two sections are devoted to the artificial construction of the natural in Gibson’s landscapes, or what Hoepker refers to as Replascapes; and to the tension between the Bridge, on the one hand, and the spread of malls, franchises, and tourism on the other.

While the study promises to move from its typology to “the identification of potential interrelationships on the level of a metaorder” (20), it does not quite do so.  One of the threads the volume does take up repeatedly, without quite weaving a tapestry with it, is the sense that one frequently encounters spaces in Gibson’s work that are organized from the top down, be they corporate arcologies or the massive mall called Container City.   The corporate arcology, for example, is by turns “the visionary, master planned community” and “a potentially dystopian control space” (130).  As one frequently finds in spatial studies that tend to rely on Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, Hoepker opposes control spaces to ones like the Sprawl which, by contrast, are “excessive and hypertrophically heteroclite.” Sprawl spaces are resistant to the “order of grid space and territorial control” (88).  Nevertheless, points of obvious comparison between, for example, the Bridge, the Hypermart, the Finn’s, the Sprawl, the Projects, and Cornell’s boxes go unexamined, and often unmentioned.  It is unclear whether Hoepker sees these phenomena as iterations of the same thing, or significantly different, or somewhere in between.

Although connections between the elements of the typology are not clearly realized, Hoepker fully explores the manner in which Gibson’s “fictionally imagined spaces highlight their own genealogy” (28). With the introduction of a spatial type, Hoepker typically provides us with an extensive history of its place in the world. For example, in discussing arcologies, no mention is made of comparable enclaves in literature such as, perhaps most obviously, J.G. Ballard’s Running Wild or High-Rise. Instead, they are situated within a rather thorough discussion of the arcology as a utopian project, particularly with reference to Paolo Soleri framed by the thinking of Michel Foucault, David Harvey, and Fredric Jameson. Likewise, the discussion of the Replascape is situated within a brief history of the garden city. The study seems to have difficulty deciding whether the Sprawl is “a paradigm of future urbanity” (124) or the “new fabric” of the city today (125), such that at times it is unclear whether Hoepker is referring to the Sprawl, urban sprawl, or both.

That said, scholars looking for a close literary analysis of the significance of spatial formations in Gibson will most likely be best served by the book’s final section, which examines the relationship of the Bridge both to franchises and to Container City in Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties. It is here that a consideration of the impact of these various spaces on forms of inhabitation and their use in Gibson’s fiction come together clearly and forcefully in a manner that illuminates the way in which tensions in Gibson’s work play out spatially. Otherwise, the book’s other sections have surprisingly little to say about the role of these spatial formations in Gibson’s work. They are noted, grouped, situated in the history of American spatial thought, and compared to Foucauldian notions of space, but little is actually said about their place in their respective narratives.

I hesitate to write about books that this one might have been. However, so any avenues go unnoticed, or unexplored beyond simply noting them, that I should point out a few of the opportunities missed. For example, while it is intriguing to note that Turner, of Count Zero, seems to pay a steep psychological price in exchange for his freedom of movement, which is in a manner consistent with Michel de Certeau’s conception of the tactical, the observation remains undeveloped (148-9).  While the discussion of what Hoepker, drawing on Koolhaas, calls Replascapes in Gibson, observes that the advent “of nanotechnology and artificial life creates hybrids capable of blurring the boundaries between object and living matter to an unknown extent” (178), there is no discussion of the Replascape’s relationship with the cyborg, evident from Neuromancer’s very opening paragraph, nor even of the uncanny, seemingly organic growth of buildings through nanotechnology in Idoru. The observation that “the Sprawl consists of a strange mixture of concrete, tangible materiality and elements of the atopically generic” (74) seems an especially useful but missed opportunity to explore the difference between spaces, their situation in a larger geographical framework, and the patterns of their inhabitation in relation to the patterns of “emplacement” (19) in which they participate. Lefebvre’s sense of perceived, conceived, and lived spaces would seem an apt point of entry here.

Perhaps the most significant element about which Hoepker remains silent is the place of metaphorical, telematic or virtual space in Gibson. We are inserted into virtual space right from the start in Gibson, yet Hoepker does not indicate why it goes unmentioned here. Since this work is “about spaces in fiction and, in a broader sense, about imagined spaces and their formation” (27-8) as “real-and-imagined” spaces, the study of virtual space would provide an opportunity for Hoepker to reflect further on her own connection of Gibson’s fictional spaces and architectural history.  Furthermore, there are elements of Gibson’s virtual space that complicate Hoepker’s reading. For example, the Neuromancer AI in Neuromancer occupies a simulated natural landscape that also functions as a kind of afterlife for Linda, Case’s deceased love, and it is a space where its encodedness is dimly visible beneath its surface, making its own genealogy as an imagined space rather explicit. When one considers these elements of Neuromancer’s space in conjunction with the possibility, in Count Zero, that voodoo loas inhabit the matrix, a new dimension of space in Gibson opens up, which is the possibility that technological, artificial spaces make themselves available to religious experience. While Hoepker draws upon Henri Lefebvre’s conception of abstract space in her discussion, she never mentions its complement, absolute space: space unmediated by processes of capital, where opaque nature and religious experience reside as an ever-receding excess to those processes. Virtual spaces offer an intriguing response to this pair of Lefebvrean terms.

Sometimes, readers are asked to do a significant amount of work in order to follow Hoepker to these conclusions, which are then abandoned rather than considered. For example, we are taken through Foucault’s thoughts on Roussel, which are applied to the work of Joseph Cornell, so as to situate Marly’s considerations of the Boxmaker in Count Zero, but all, seemingly, simply to conclude that it is unclear whether the Boxmaker conceals a secret or presents us with the “opacity of the object world” (112). In fact, on the whole, No Maps for These Territories is a strenuous reading experience, particularly for two reasons: its unclear methodology, and its problematic editing at both the level of overall organization and simple accuracy. 

First, regarding methodology, I must confess that I am honestly unable to tell whether No Maps for These Territories is intended to be experimental in its style. As a whole, it is so fragmented that it often risks losing the reader altogether. We dip in and out of Gibson abruptly, and theorists such as Kristeva (159), Barthes (162), Deleuze and Guattari (141-2), Bakhtin (213), Agamben (106), Haraway (182), Lukàcs (149), along with literary works that are tangentially related to Gibson at best, are introduced without contextualization or rationale, and disappear just as suddenly.  Specialized terms — particularly for use in spatial analysis — are left undefined, incompletely introduced as in the case of the Lefebvrean pairing of abstract and absolute spatialities, or, as with Michel de Certeau’s “strategies” and “tactics,” defined (142-5) long after they are first introduced (26). This sense of fragmentation is compounded by writing that is strangely repetitive; for example, we are told five times that the geodesic domes of Count Zero produce microclimates, and in as many pages (56-60).  Altogether, this style produces a sense of paralysis in the text, as we find ourselves constantly repeating ideas and switching to new ones, instead of developing them.

It seems, however, that this fragmentation may be deliberate. Unfortunately, that evidence comes long after many, I suspect, will have given up reading. While Hoepker mentions, in passing, her study’s “absence of an integrated theoretical framework” (22), it is only made explicit in the book’s final paragraph that what “is in many ways fundamental to this study and Gibson’s work, is a form of contrastive writing that is capable of layering the discrepant in ways that emphasize and creatively maintain the difference, without superimposing or collapsing one cartographic order upon the other” (231). It is true that this methodology is consistent with Hoepker’s reading of “Gibson’s sprawl space” as exemplary of the Foucauldian “heteroclite,” which is “beyond synthesis or homogenization” (49). At the same time, Hoepker notes that the heteroclite exists “in the absence of a conceivable common place” for its elements, and it “may still have to find a territory proper to it and continue to reside in the shifting configurations of the heterotopian in the meantime” (210).  If this volume is indeed an experiment in heteroclite writing, it would seem that the “territory proper to it” — and I mean this in all seriousness — is on a bookshelf, unread.  To read it is necessarily to subject it to the organizing logic of the reader, insofar as one can, as I am doing here.

If the writing strategy is deliberate, some discussion of this methodology is crucial, but is nowhere in evidence. One wonders, for example, about the compatibility between a taxonomic project such as the generation of a typology, and the play of contrastive writing; about its relevance to Gibson in particular; about the relationship between this superimposition of different theoretical models and, since Hoepker makes significant use of Fredric Jameson, Jamesonian “transcoding,” about the relative narrowness or breadth of the range of her selected texts; about the potential for theoretical texts to serve as a specialized kind of literature; about how this experiment would contribute to the staid postmodern trope of fragmentation; about how this methodology relates to Gibson’s heteroclite spaces particularly in their noted limitations (153, 207, 216) and to the Jamesonian “Utopian impulse” (163); and perhaps most importantly, about why one would want to conduct such an experiment. If the intention is to avoid a kind of coercive authoritativeness in criticism, then the experiment needs to at least consider the possibility that, after a generation of poststructuralist criticism, readers are likely already disinclined to regard critical studies in this manner.

Second, No Maps for These Territories contains so many errors that it becomes very difficult to trust the writing.  Instead, one cannot help but suspect that perhaps the fragmentation is actually the result of error, and the sense that it might be by design comes to seem like an alibi. The volume teems with mistakes, from missing punctuation, to incompletely revised sentences, to variations in the spelling of a name or a term often on a single page (150, 202), to inconsistent page references and inaccurate quotations, to faulty syntax, to sudden changes of verb tense, to inconsistent capitalization (that, for example, contribute to the confusion between sprawl and the Sprawl), to incompletely revised and incoherent sentences, to simple typos, and more. It requires significant faith to believe that a study this unreliable at the level of simple writing is reliable conceptually.

In the end, it is unfortunate that while this study amasses such a prodigious arsenal of research, it does not go as far as it could beyond that first act of collection.

This work would benefit greatly from a reorganization and correction of its contents, a thorough exploration of the implications of its observations, and a clarification and thorough consideration of its methodology. Given that I spent much of my time completing or inferring ideas, analyses, and logical connections between sections and chapters, I can only say that, in its current form, No Maps for These Territories either demands much of readers for uncertain returns beyond, perhaps, what those readers themselves might bring; or it demands nothing of them beyond a bearing witness to its play.