ReMapping the City: Palimpsest, Place, and Identity in Art Education Research

By Powell, Kimberly A. | Studies in Art Education, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

ReMapping the City: Palimpsest, Place, and Identity in Art Education Research


Powell, Kimberly A., Studies in Art Education


The built environment has a long history of productive study within the field of art education. Urban landscapes have been studied as sites of material and visual culture and analyzed as an extension of cultural and social life (Chapman, 1978; Guinan, 1999; Guilfoil & Sandler, 1999; McFee & Degge, 1980). Yet the study of built environments has been somewhat marginal to art education curriculum. In this article, I examine the figurative concept of the palimpsest as a means to analyze the ways in which built spaces embody social, cultural, and historical narratives of place and identity, thus drawing attention to the critical importance of built environment study in art education. Drawing on a field research study conducted in Panama City, Panama, I relate the palimpsest's structural and aesthetic qualities-layers of text that have been rewritten over each other-with its metaphoric qualities of reinscription, relationality, and hybridiry in order to discuss contemporary postcolonial issues of identity, history, and culture and their implications for art education research.

Palimpsest as Knowledge and History

Early uses of the term palimpsest referred to the reading and publication of ancient manuscripts, in which scholars sought to uncover, examine, and piece together the layers of rewritten text. During the medieval period of monastic Western Europe, erasure of existing text for the purpose of recycling parchment for newer texts was common practice. A chemical mix, however, between the erasure process and oxygenation resulted in the ghostly reappearance of original text (cf. Dillon, 2005). Beyond the specific scholarly context of reading manuscripts, the metaphoric use of palimpsest was found in the work of Thomas De Quincey (1845). De Quincey defined the surface structures of layered texts as involuted, in which previous drafts, languages, and thoughts are evident amidst newer rewrites. De Quincey defined involute as "the way in which our deepest thoughts and feelings pass to us through perplexed combinations of concrete objects. . . in compound experiences incapable of being disentangled" (cited in Dillon, 2005, p. 245). Knowledge, in other words exists in a web of relations, embodied in unrelated experiences that nonetheless continually inhabit and disrupt each other.

The term palimpsest has been used in disciplines such as literary theory, architecture, geography, media studies, and technology, evidence of its metaphoric prowess and possibility. Post-structural uses of the term have underscored palimpsest as a metaphor for the reinscription and legibility of discourses situated within institutional power structures, and for the reexamination of subjectivity. Scholars, for example, have variously aligned notions of the spectral subject, temporality, "living on" with the palimpsest, and of su rature (undererasure) in which the written word is crossed out rather than erased (Dillon, 2005; Gerber, 2003), thus eliciting the ways in which layers of time and subjectivity inhabit each other in an involuted manner.

Sarah Dillon (2005) has argued that Michel Foucault's concept of genealogy is a form of palimpsestuous reading that does not focus solely on the underlying text but, rather, the relations between texts. For Foucault (1980), the challenge of the historian was to act as both archeologist and genealogist, uncovering layers and "making visible what was previously unseen" by examining the details up close and bringing them to light: An archeologist potentially unearths knowledge that may have been previously disqualified as inadequate while the genealogist traces "strategic connections" (Foucault, p. 38) among these knowledges and discourses that are brought to light. Dillon emphasizes palimpsestuous v. palimpsest reading, phonetically linking the term with incestuous: "The palimpsest is an involuted phenomenon where otherwise unrelated texts are involved and entangled, intricately interwoven, interrupting and inhabiting each other" (245). …

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