Or, Cognitive Mapping in the works of Mike Skinner and Ray Carver

One concern of postmodern literary theory has been the politics of space. The likes of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson have investigated how postmodernity has developed a repertoire of replicable, generic spaces in which to conduct its business, and how it has also generated corresponding new types of emotion – new types of loneliness, estrangement, and dislocation, but also new types of connection, contact and pleasure. The essay which follows is an investigation of how Jameson’s arguments about ‘cognitive mapping’ apply to two writers working in a postmodern milieu, Raymond Carver and Mike Skinner. Yes, the guy from The Streets.

On ‘Dry Your Eyes,’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free’s climactic moment, Mike (the album’s narrator, who shares at least his first name with its author) is confronted with Simone’s decision to leave him. His initial reaction is not to examine his emotional response, but to recount, in painstaking detail, the minutiae of his physical experience:

I stand there for a minute staring straight into the ground
Looking to the left slightly, then looking back down
World feels like it’s caved in
Proper sorry frown

The world that has ‘caved in’ signposts the descriptive tactic which follows, as in his appeal for clemency, Mike Skinner’s narrator uses metaphors which are consistently bound up in physical change and location. But they don’t sound like metaphors: the figurative verbs he uses are, in fact, common parts of a conventionally idiomatic discussion of a relationship. The song’s first line talks of a life ‘turning round’; subsequently he implores his object to let him show her ‘where we could just be’, and he can ‘change’, and ‘grow’. Even his half-hearted suggestion of a new way for their relationship to exist – that it be ‘open’ - is bound up in the language of physical experience. Dead language is reinvigorated by its proximity to a literalised version of the same.

His tentative wait for a response returns to the close description of physical detail:

I look at her; she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s looking straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s looking down at her feet
Even the eyes, the clichéd ‘window to the soul’, refuse to be interpreted; and while they are shut, fled from his examination, they absent themselves wholly from the narrator’s gaze, reemerging looking, instead, at their owner’s feet.

The rest of the song feels almost autistic in its scrutiny of their meeting: it has something of autism’s inability to categorise successfully, to prioritise information according to its usefulness and then store it. We have a sense of an individual who has found that the terms on which he thought he related to the world are entirely inadequate, and who cannot resist revisiting the precise circumstances of a disastrous moment in an attempt to find some crumb of detail which will explain what has happened. He loses coherence later on – ‘I’m just standing there. I can’t say a word’, and, when he does manage to express himself, ‘I’m not gonna fucking just fucking leave it all now’ – in a way which may remind us of Mike’s repeated retreats into the safety of an insufficient emotional response earlier in the album.

Failures of communication such as this are not an original thematic concern to A Grand Don’t Come For Free and its postmodern peers; Kipling and Forster and Beckett and innumerable other twentieth-century (and previous) writers have considered roughly the same thing. Their special quality, perhaps, lies in the way they attempt their hermeneutic of such a subject. In The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson defines an aesthetic of ‘cognitive mapping’: the ‘alienated city’, Jameson says, is

…above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves… disalienation in the traditional city, then, involves the practical reconquest of a sense of place, and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories.

Alienation is understood here as a problem which may be fought by an attempt to assert control - that is, the ‘practical reconquest of a sense of place,’ which finds a precise correlation in ‘Dry Your Eyes’’ narrator’s obsessive demarcation of both his and Simone’s movements. It is a striking feature of the album that it insistently locates its linked narratives in highly specific settings, and often foregrounds these settings lyrically: ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way’ is Mike’s proof that he loves Simone by repeated comparison of where he would expect to want to be (‘I should be standing at the bar/waving a ten pound note around’) with where he chooses to be (‘I sit here on the sofa at my girl’s house’); while ‘It was supposed to be so easy’’s chorus explicitly links the frustrations of Mike’s inability to return a DVD with his foolhardy decision to venture from the environment which he controls:

Today I have achieved absolutely nowt
In just being out of the house I’ve lost out
If I wanted to end up with more now
I should have just stayed in bed like I know how

Similarly, ‘Get Out Of My House,’ from its title downwards, is a battle over territory, emotional and physical; it locates a bitter conflict between the two lovers in Mike’s failure to be in the right place at the right time. We discover here that Mike is epileptic, and the reason he was not present to look after Simone was an appointment to pick up pills to control his condition – that is, to better control his relationship to his physical environment.

Their escalating disagreement (which culminates in his departure to Ibiza, territory which he makes his own and where she is replaced by another woman) finally implodes when Mike delivers a comic monologue which underlines how this fight is ultimately the result of an inability to communicate:

“Don’t try and give me that shit, right, cos, d’you know what I mean, you’re not exactly, fuckin’, y’know, d’you know what I mean, well, it don’t really matter any more, d’you know what I mean, it’s hard enough remembering my opinions without remembering my reasons for ’em, you’re confusing me now. I’m not going to give you an example - I can’t remember an example, you do it all the time, you know, that thing that you do, I can’t remember when you last did it, can I?”

In his short story ‘Why Don’t You Dance’, Ray Carver gives ‘the girl’ a speech which touches on something of the same concern:

The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in the yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this crappy record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?
Where Mike acknowledges that he cannot articulate what he is feeling or explain his version of events, the girl instead tries to assert the vision of the world with which she is most comfortable – the one where this man is simply ridiculous, and may be dismissed as wholly alien – by the sheer force of her and her friends’ mocking laughter and jarring obscenities; and so the effect is tragic rather than comic, particularly when we come to the narrator’s subsequent modification of her speech:
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

This scene comes at the end of a story whose extraordinary controlling image – an image which might stand as the archetype for Jameson’s idea of the impulse to cognitive mapping – is of a bedroom and living room reassembled outside, all the paraphernalia of a married home displaced to the front yard after the relationship disintegrates. The cognitive map, as Jamison points out, is ‘not exactly mimetic’: its function is

…to enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of the city’s structure as a whole.
Jamison also draws a parallel with Althusser’s definition of ideology – as the ‘representation of the subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her real conditions’. The relocation of a domestic living space to the outdoors fits these models very well: but their owner, although not ruffled by the strangeness of the environment he has created, is ironically too convinced by his controlled recreation of an environment which has fundamentally changed in ways beyond his control, and still sits on the sofa, watching television, and drinking.

Another Carver story, ‘Boxes’, examines a son’s relationship with his mother, which has been badly strained by her moving to the same town as him. Again, we are shown people who try to gain control of their lives by gaining control of their material circumstances:

Other people take vacations in the summer, but my mother moves. She started moving years ago, after my dad lost his job. When that happened, when he was laid off, they sold their home, as if this were what they should do, and went to where they thought things would be better. But things weren’t any better there, either. They moved again. They kept on moving. They lived in rented houses, apartments, mobile homes, and motel units even. They kept moving, lightening their load with each move they made.
We are told later that ‘her mail got fouled up, her benefit cheques went off somewhere else, and she spent hours writing letters, trying to get it all straightened out.’ The straightening out is the point here: despite the constant disappointments, a combination of dumb hope and a desire for an ever more refined degree of control pushes the couple, and then, after the husband’s death, the mother, on. And the more moves they make, the smaller and smaller the sphere of control becomes – from ‘rented houses’ to ‘apartments’ to ‘mobile homes’ to ‘motel units’, and from two consciousnesses to one. The mother’s unhappiness seems linked with the unpredictable vagaries of each new place, of the way her memory of California does not account for the changes when she returns, for the traffic being heavier, for the pollen in the air.

It’s worth noting the way Carver’s prose corresponds to this interest in control. His narrator’s limited lexis and heavy preference for simple sentences mirrors the old woman’s determination to find something external she can easily delineate; and whilst her specific behaviours are particular to this story, the presentation is more general. As Carver’s narrators limit their self-expression, those who speak in his stories find themselves incapable of articulation at the vital moments of their lives: and so in ‘One More Thing’ LD says ‘I just want to say one more thing’, and then ‘could not think what it could possibly be’; and Helen in ‘What’s In Alaska?’ wants to tell her friends a story, but can only ‘push on the tip of her nose with a finger and narrow her eyes’, because she ‘can’t remember what it is now’; and in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’, Terri says, ‘Now what?’ and the narrator simply writes, ‘I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room was dark.’ Tellingly, in what is arguably Carver’s most optimistic story, ‘Cathedral’, the connection between two people occurs not through speech but in physical contact. A man guides his blind guest’s hand in a drawing of a cathedral to give him a sense of what it might look like. In effect, the two of them create a kind of abstract space, tangential to reality, accessible to them both despite their wholly incongruous perceptions of the world: as the story reaches its conclusion, we read, “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” The blind man’s natural relationship to a real cathedral is rather like that which Jameson posits in The Cultural Logic Of Late Capitalism; this story’s power comes from his capacity to transmit something of this understanding to his sighted companion.

This instance is a rare moment at which either of these artists allows his subjects the ‘cartographic’ quality which Jameson opposes to his more linear category of ‘itinerary’; which is to say, it is a moment at which humans achieve that kind of understanding which might be described by a process which ‘comes to require the coordination of existential data (the empirical position of the subject) with unlived, abstract conceptions of the geographic totality.’ A map differs from an itinerary in that, rather than requiring knowledge of a single route, it requires a full understanding of a space. Another such moment might be in the last track on A Grand Don’t Come For Free, ‘Empty Cans’, which imagines two different futures, one limited by a failure of communication (Mike misunderstands a TV repairman who is going to tell him where his missing thousand pounds are), the other opened up by a disruption of the ordinary space Mike and his friends inhabit, when Scott opens up the back of the television to find the envelope containing the money. If the art which refuses such moments dominance is not the ‘new political art’ which Jameson hopes will ‘achieve a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing the world space of multinational capital,’ this is probably because such an art would feel deeply dishonest in a world which has not begun to approach such a reconciliation in its ordinary life.

That a method such as these artists’ – constantly approximating, perennially uneasy, and with a postmodern incapability of decontextualisation - is valid may have something to do with what Simone Weil referred to using the Greek expression metaxu, which means ‘resonant communication’. ‘No human being should be deprived of his metaxu,’ she wrote, ‘that is to say, of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, tradition, cultures etc.) which warm and nourish the sould and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible.’ Pico Iyer regrets the difficulty of the same thing when, on an extended visit to Los Angeles International airport, he muses that the ‘Global Soul’, ‘lacking a sense of ‘we,’ might nevertheless remain loyal to one airline.’ In the subtitle to his book The Global Soul, he refers to ‘the search for home.’

In ‘Not Addicted’, Mike gambles on football matches, but he does not support a team, rejecting the material for bonding common to many of his peers; and the curious moral at the end of his curious album is a liberating recognition that ‘no-one else is really fighting for you in the last garrison.’ Even Carver’s far larger and more diverse body of work, which defies similar summation in aphorism, has as perhaps its single most consistent feature an unidentified yearning for a fuller sense of something larger. Like philosophy, this brand of postmodern writing is really rooted, to borrow Iyer’s quotation of Nietzsche, in ‘homesickness: the desire to be everywhere at home’.