Cognitive Mapping and Critical Images of Infrastructure

Curator's Note

Cognitive mapping is a way for us to recognize what we generally find difficult to perceive: our place within the ideological space of the world system, in which distinctions between public and private disappear in favor of the all-devouring corporation. Cognitive mapping is, therefore, especially suited to engage media and images that otherwise resist visualization and critique. In Fredric Jameson’s elaboration of the model, for example, he utilizes films whose narration of conspiracies eventually reveal misappropriation of infrastructure, like Videodrome (1983, broadcast and cable systems) and Chinatown (1974, water). Such films are “an unconscious, collective effort at trying to figure out where we are and what landscapes and forces confront us in a late 20th century whose abominations are heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality.”[1] 

Infrastructure can be understood as the arrangement and transmissions of such forces and the impetus for the composition of such landscapes. It acts as the backstage of reality; it is what makes daily life possible as a series of moments, positions, and just-in-time deliveries. Infrastructure’s resistance to visualization and narration – and putative affinity for the database and the network rather than for the cinematic image – help explain why it’s such a popular topic for conspiracy films and why cognitive mapping can be a useful approach to it. Infrastructure, however, is just as suited to conspiracy theories as it is to the kind of analytic and allegorical work of cognitive mapping that conspiracy narratives like Chinatown enable. This is the case whether discussing the extensive, largely right-wing conspiracy theories that have sprung up around discussions of supply chains and disruptions since 2020[2] or the tendency of scholarship on infrastructure to deploy metaphors of concealment, omnipresence, and exposure.[3] There is an uncomfortable resonance between the zeal and practices of the true believer conspiracy theorist and humanities scholarship that relies on the hermeneutic. Regardless of the political underpinnings of their analysis, both the conspiracy theorist and the film theorist tease out opaque meaning, decode signs, identify and reconcile apparently contradictory phenomena, and detect ideological significance in an apparently apolitical text. Above all, they share (we share) a faith in our analyses’ reparative power: that if the things we uncover were exposed, it would matter – that everyone would comprehend the hidden form that had been surfaced and act to intervene in the reality it revealed.[4]

The Newsreel clip above, and the 1968 documentary it is taken from, Garbage, offers a way of thinking cognitive mapping as a critique of the infrastructural image without recourse to conspiracy or the logic of the hidden, visibility-via-failure, or even the projection of power. The clip suggests how the original source of Jamesonian cognitive mapping – Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City (1960) – can be repurposed to affect a critique of the infrastructural image, one that is, as members of Up Against the Wall Motherfucker describe in the clip, literal, obvious, and non-tactical. Garbage recounts The Motherfuckers’ action in response to the New York City garbage strikes in February 1968. The Lower East Side group, whose neighborhood was particularly impacted by the strike, as later scenes in the film document, drove hampers of garbage to the main plaza of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and dumped it in and around Reston Fountain on the night of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.

That dumping, I argue, is cognitive mapping, and a kind that escapes either of the two extant dominant models. For Lynch, cognitive mapping refers to the mental activities individuals engage in to negotiate their physical space and how they bring their individual maps into compliance with the overall dominant map (and meaning) of that space. Lynch provides no indication that the paths, edges, and landmarks people use to map are conditioned by relations of production and no implication that people can chart maps in addition to reading them. The collective is absent, and mapping is something people do alone by thinking about space before or after they produce it rather than while (and by) moving through it with others.

 Rather than reclaim Lynch in the way Jameson does, by substituting a spatialized allegory of ideology and a revelatory logic based in representation for Lynch’s depoliticized reading of physical space, The Motherfuckers refuse to do what is required in traditional cognitive mapping: to recognize where one space ends and another begins by comprehending the differences between them. For them, Lincoln Center is literally garbage. They perform “a cultural exchange, garbage for garbage,” bringing a “cultural revolution to Lincoln Center” because “Lincoln Center [is where] it belongs.” That is, their work is a new map of embodied relations of production: the garbage is out of place; it should be dumped where it belongs, with the other garbage that is the waste product of America, so that’s where they put it. 

Garbage also restores another dimension absent from Lynch’s theory: the moving image itself. Lynch’s model, as I have argued elsewhere,[5] is one based on the still image, where legibility is predicated on immobility. The section above details the group’s transit from their Lower East Side base through the city’s subway stations and streets and, notably, the performances (handing out flyers, engaging bystanders in conversation, making music) they engage in on the way that remap the space they negotiate, changing its character as its users develop different programs for it. Moreover, the extensive voiceover heard in the clip, which is characteristic of the film as a whole, adds the temporal dimension absent from both Lynch and Jameson’s models. As The Motherfuckers progress toward Lincoln Center, they recount how the earlier actions of a group in Watts during and after the Uprising inspired their own, how their activity relates to their own future plans, how they prepared for it, their analysis of it, how they evaluate it in retrospect, etc. Producing this complex temporality, where the future and the past are always engaged by and embedded within the present, maps connections to other groups, other practices, and other potentialities. Garbage is ultimately not a documentation of cognitive mapping as reading or critique of it as penetrating sight, but rather of the time a political action takes and the space it creates. It thereby traces the infrastructure of activism.

The complex temporality of the film’s audio aside, Garbage, like The Motherfuckers, presents Lincoln Center’s dumpster nature as self-evident. The film doesn’t exert any effort to create the formal or stylistic choices that would indicate that this is an act of redefinition, or even suggest that it’s aware that this definition is an inversion of the norm.[6] This trust in the obvious and the literal is so striking in part because it seems opposed to the assumptions often embedded in critiques of the moving image, or moving images we treat as critical in and of themselves. That is, how much of moving image critique implicitly or explicitly argues, in tune with Jamsonian cognitive mapping, that, under regular circumstances, we can’t perceive or see what’s actually important about, or being articulated by, an image? If we could, after all, why would we need critique?

Garbage is not impervious to critique and critique is not superfluous to it; the complex audio montage seems to almost solicit it. Moreover, as Leo Braudy notes, within the film’s extensive documentation of The Motherfuckers’ planning and after-action assessment, there’s a shot that calls attention to the Black custodial staff at Lincoln Center, who will have to clean up the dumped garbage, which apparently escapes The Motherfuckers’ notice or analysis.[7] That moment is a reminder that the film is not identical with The Motherfuckers’ action or even a documentation of it, but is a cognitive map derived from it. The film itself holds out a mode of critique that short circuits many of the assumptions at play when we approach phenomena that resist visualization, not least that infrastructure or meaningful critique of it is unsuited to the cinematic image. What would a tradition of moving image critique – of infrastructure or otherwise – built on Garbage’s use of the literal, the obvious, the non-tactical look like? How could it change our relationship to and assumptions about the moving image as critics of it? How can we think, research, and write in a way that brings the garbage to the place it belongs?


[1] Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992), 3.

[2] Matthew Hockenberry, “None Dare Call It a Supply Chain: Logistics as Conspiracy,” Roadsides 7 (Spring 2022): 8-14.

[3] A good example of this tradition is Lauren Berlant’s development of the “glitch” as a revelatory mechanism attached to infrastructural failure in “The Commons: Infrastructure for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 3 (2016): 393-419.

[4] Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Introduction Is About You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 1-40.

[5] Erica Stein, “De-Imaging New York: Cognitive Mapping and the City Symphony,” Geojournal: Special Issue on Film Geography (Spring 2022):

[6] Especially notable because Newsreel #17, The Case Against Lincoln Center (1968), does do all these things.

[7] Leo Braudy, “Newsreel: A Report,” Film Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Winter 1968-69), 15-9. My thanks to my research assistant, Chenkai (Bill) Yu for tracking down this source and for editing this post’s clip.

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