Conceptual artist Simon Weckert recently performed a piece titled ‘Google Maps Hacks’ in which he pulled a small handcart filled with second-hand smartphones around urban streets, in the process causing the appearance of wholly fictional traffic jams in Google Maps:
The piece struck me as a forceful illustration of the extent to which digital representations of the ‘real’ world and the ‘real’ world itself are now — at least in developed-world urban areas — so interdependent as to be barely distinguishable. Just as Amazon’s surveillance doorbell Ring affects citizens’ perceptions of their neighbourhoods and therefore their behaviour on the streets, so the data fed from individual smartphones to Google Maps in turn affects the behaviour of cars on the streets.
At another level, Weckert’s piece also struck me as a perfect metaphor for the defeatism encoded in postmodernist accounts of politics. “There is nothing outside the text”, wrote Derrida in Of Grammatology, a statement which has been widely understood by subsequent theorists to suggest that there is nowhere outside hegemonic accounts of reality from which we can challenge or transform that reality. As such, in the postmodern era political activism has to a great extent abandoned any vision of meaningful political transformation, in favour of a micro-focus on marginal disruptions and representation of diverse identities.
In ‘Google Maps Hacks’ we can see this worldview acted out, with Google Maps representing the all-pervasive, hegemonic status quo and Weckert acting the part of marginal disruptor. Here, Weckert is capable of effecting minor subversions at the edge of Google’s account of reality, but remains powerless to impact on the larger ideological structure. In the bigger picture, Google Maps is indifferent to his intervention and continues to exert its hegemonic power over reality.
Weckert’s performance is a picture of David and Goliath, except in this version of the story David’s slingshot could never be more than a minor irritant. This postmodern account of political possibilities, in which David can never do more than subvert and disrupt at the margins, is widespread in university humanities teaching. And given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that we are seeing an epidemic of mental health issues among young people at universities.
With young adults, at their most hopeful and idealistic, absorbing this profoundly defeatist account of reality as their core understanding of the world, is it any wonder student political activism seems by turns ironic and unhinged? Perhaps we should address the campus mental-health crisis not only with more pastoral care but also with a more grounded and hopeful story of political agency.