Academic journal article Extrapolation

Thriving in the Gap: Visual and Linguistic Meaning Unmaking in the City & the City

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Thriving in the Gap: Visual and Linguistic Meaning Unmaking in the City & the City

Article excerpt

Spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that "visual experience" or "visual literacy" might not be fully explicable in the model of textuality.

W. J. T. Mitchell (Picture Theory 16)

China Miéville's characters in The City & The City are world builders who create the possibility of a unified city by creating a new language that combines the two official languages, Illitan and Besz. In interviews in Locus and Science Fiction Studies Miéville resists labeling his work as definitively any one genre. I, too, will refrain from labeling, though I will treat his creation of secondary worlds as a facet of fantasy. It is the fantastic element of his characters' creation and un-creation of secondary worlds through the use of language that is pertinent to this study of The City & The City, which contains not one but two secondary worlds, or cities. Language as world creation is also complicated by characters who create through seeing and unseeing, through visibility and unvisibility. Acts of seeing cause characters to experience an interstitiality which manifests in linguistic, visual, historical, and grosstopical gaps. Once characters see the unvisible or cease to unsee, they move out of their current social imaginary and into the interstitial, into yet another fantastic world.

In Miéville's novel, power lies in the interstitial. The first interstitial entity mentioned is Breach, a visual power structure which lies between the cities, simultaneously of both Beszel and of Ul Qoma, and yet of neither. While Breach sees both cities with the absolute gaze of authority, it exists in neither city. In the gap, Breach and the citizens who cross over to Breach have the power to make and unmake meaning. As characters move into the interstitial, they gain the power of the interstice, the power to see completely, and therefore the power to create languages and worlds. My purpose is to show how, even as subjects of the eye of authority, as subjects of the absolute gaze, certain characters, such as Inspector Tyador Borlú and Professor David Bowden, each find a way into the gap, the unmarked, the interstitial, where signifiers of language, culture, mythology, the social imaginary, and ideology become unbound and unmade by the characters' use of visibility and sight.

Ordering of the Visual

Previous to Borlú's or Bowden's moving into the gap, what is visible is ordered by authority, one which Borlú says "we hand over our sovereignty to at our own peril" (Miéville 64). The consequence of this kind of social ordering is that seeing the unvisible, or taking on the authoritative gaze, is the definitive act of resistance. Within this act of resistance, of tearing down visual and linguistic meaning, citizens take power for themselves and become "sub-creators" in the interstice as the authors of their own ideologies and individualities (Tolkien 132). Michel Foucault's idea is that what is visible is ordered by authority for the single purpose of control and power over society. As the model for this kind of visual control, Foucault references the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham's device by which authority (the overseer) sits at a central location and views each citizen, prisoner, inmate, student, or worker. Citizens of the Panopticon do not see the overseer, nor do they always see each other. Residents never know when they are surveilled. For all they know they are constantly watched, and the authority sees everything, which causes characters such as Bowden and Borlú to strain against the highly rigid, systematized, and confining socio-spectral order.

A historical example of the Panopticon comes through Foucault's description of "strict spatial partitioning" in plague-stricken Europe ("Of Other Spaces" 357). He describes socio-cultural spaces in Europe as "segmented, immobile, frozen . …

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