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Counterpoints is a remarkable collection of visual-textual stories that is at once deeply rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area, while also offering vital lessons for collectivities confronting the violent geographies of technocapitalism elsewhere. Organized around chapters on eviction, gentrification, environmental justice, Indigenous geographies of resistance and more, this collection weaves together maps, art, story, infographics, poetry, and myriad other representational and creative forms. The collection discernably constitutes an atlas, yet resolutely refuses any normative relation to cartography and its ongoing entanglements in racial violence and settler colonial dispossession. Through multimodal geovisual stories created by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and its many partners and collaborators, Counterpoints visualizes the pasts, presents and futures of struggles for land, life, and justice in the Bay Area by scholar-activists, artists, adults, children, community organizations and countless others.
The generative complexity of Counterpoints means that its significance and impact will land in many different ways for its interlocutors, as the commentaries in this book review forum surely reveal. I come to this volume through prior counter-cartographies work with anti-gentrification organizers many years ago, and through conceptual-epistemological lenses from digital and urban geographies and visual politics. Reading Counterpoints through these lenses, I see a text with profound and broad-reaching impacts. The durable impacts of Counterpoints will spring up from the complex set of political, theoretical and epistemological pedagogies it demonstrates, and the careful way these are presented, not for abstraction and generalization, but as lessons for readers to learn from, take seriously, and enact within the places and relations of our own lives.
Counterpoints maps, exposes and makes visible and tractable ways in which racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, settler colonialism operate through property, policy, enclosure, and a host of other specific techniques for enrichment and taking. Generations of community organizers know too well the ways that oppressive power secures itself through concealment and misrepresentation of these structures. Oppressive power tries to make these relations unknowable in ways that range from foreclosing the contours of our collective social and geographical imaginaries, to simply refusing to collect or share data. Against this backdrop, Counterpoints speaks truth to power by literally showing vital relations and processes that are too often made un-knowable from within social and political norms calibrated to white supremacy and settler colonialism. Yet importantly, the collection also explores forms of resistance, thriving, and reinvention that are still and always happening – it keeps the pasts, presents and futures of transformative struggle resolutely in view. The maps, infographics, artworks, and narratives in Counterpoints do not shy away from documenting structural violence and collective trauma. But they do so in a way that offers important lessons about how visual politics can speak with urgency and honesty about these things without cuing further damage.
For instance, “San Francisco Kids: Our Wanderland” (2021: 381-386), authored by fourth and fifth graders at Guadalupe Elementary School, their teacher and the director of the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, offers a narrative, artistic and map-based counter-cartography of place through the children’s poems and (geolocated) artworks. They rename the streets of their neighborhood for their food, their families, the things that make them feel at home, and the big and small rituals and histories that root them. They signify the spaces and places of their neighborhood through poems that all use the same narrative device. Each poem begins with “This is more than just . . . (a rose, a sunflower, a starry night, papa a la huancaina, etc.)” (2021: 381-386), and then narrates how this thing, encountered in their everyday neighborhood life, constellates their relations to families, places, histories, emotion and identities. The map-art and poems powerfully yet subtly signal what is at risk in the face of racial technocapitalist displacement in their neighborhood, yet do this by centering vital relations to life and land, not iteratively re-centering violent relations and their material and embodied consequences. As countless artists, activists and scholars teach us, visuality is so potent and so very challenging. Counterpoints handles this complexity deftly and beautifully.
Further, Counterpoints builds an innovative conceptual-political vocabulary for apprehending and representing the kinds of connections that white liberal governance and property relations typically try to obscure. The book is filled with examples, including Alex Schafran’s chapter on “Expensification.” In the broadest sense, expensification names the co-incidence of rising housing costs and stagnant incomes. Policy makers and economists name this as “inflation”, coding it as neutral, a-political, and technical. The shift to “expensification” instead directs our analytic attention to intersecting processes of enrichment that rely on property, land policy, real estate, labor relations and various spatial fixes. Said another way, expensification is a conceptual-political move to focus upon processes and relations that capital and governance try to hide, and to insist upon critical learning and action to dismantle these relations. Counterpoints demonstrates many other modes of relational analysis that thoroughly overspill political and theoretical reductionism. For instance, Finn Black’s chapter on gentrification, evictions and HIV theorizes unwellness and ill health as produced at the intersection of HIV status, racial gentrification, housing and social assistance policy, and techniques of surveillance and removal. Black accounts for premature death and profound ill health not as failures of individuals to appropriately manage a virus, but rather, as produced at the intersection of homophobic, transphobic, and racist health care systems; precaritization through punitive social assistance policy; and financial and legal systems that preordain eviction. These relational explanations are common sense to communities that have been living these scenarios for generations, but they completely confound liberal governance and much social science research.
At base, this project is a searing indictment of property and all the relations that property prefigures: Dispossession, taking, enclosure, capture, and so much more. Importantly, Counterpoints carries these same commitments into its epistemological and knowledge politics. Far too often, projects that self-identify with countermapping or critical cartographies have talked the talk but not walked the walk – reinventing property relations in their approach, data, maps, and the other artifacts. The transformation and reduction of participatory GIS to an apolitical ‘toolkit’ for the global project of ‘development’ stands as but one example. Counterpoints starts from the commitment that land must be engaged for social purpose through relations of mutual accountability, and takes this same position vis-a-vis data and maps. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, for instance, has long refused to engage data and maps through relations of property, for instance carefully vetting the provenance and potential impacts of eviction data to ensure their creation and use does not produce further harms for households and communities, and refusing data imbricated in the technocapitalist relations of data extraction, encoding, and profit (see Aiello et al., 2018).
This deeply held commitment to collectivity and mutuality is further evidenced in the creation and presentation of the entire atlas. A close examination of the editor/contributor pages and acknowledgements reveals a project that has made knowledge in relations of deep and abiding accountability to places, communities and people. The range of editorial roles outlined in these pages bespeaks the great care and intentionality with which Counterpoints has come together, listing countless student community partners, oral history coordinators, cartography and illustration coordinators, chapter editors, and many other kinds of roles. The eclectic polyvocality of the contributor bios suggests that contributors were invited to use this space to locate themselves, their contribution and their politics however they felt most important – a politics of self-determination this is urgent yet rare in published research worlds. The acknowledgements not only name countless people and organizations who contributed, but specify what they did and how their contribution advanced the project, and speak directly to what AEMP has learned from these interlocutors. In these ways, the acknowledgements detail the capacious intellectual and political inheritances across place, time and communities that have allowed Counterpoints to come into existence. In all these ways, Counterpoints models generous and humble epistemological politics that run deeply counter to the extractive relations that dominate so much social science research and academic labor.
Finally, Counterpoints offers a full-throated refusal of the epistemological skepticism that inflects so much social science and critical theory. Epistemological skepticism comes to us in many forms: Endless repetitions of damage-centered research (Tuck, 2009) and the disciplining effect of reviewers whose responses are thoroughly steeped in such framings. Conference Q&A questions that respond to vibrant stories of locally grounded action and lived theory by immediately asking whether it “scales”. Valorization of structural critiques articulated from afar, theoretically and empirically distant from vibrant geohistories of collective resistance, such that the continuous reiteration of structural oppression begins to seem inevitable. The stories, visual artifacts, and politics in Counterpoints refuse these foreclosures at every turn, and are especially powerfully charted in Magie Ramírez’s “Epilogue: Imagining Bay Area Futures”. Ramírez argues that just and sustainable life in the Bay Area will be realized by centering Black and Indigenous futurities that arise from longstanding spatial methodologies of resistance. She traces how collectivities like the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust and the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone Collaborative are envisioning and enacting ways of holding space collectively, autonomously, and beyond the grasp of property, and underscores the urgency of learning from and materially supporting these efforts and others like them. In this epilogue and indeed on its every page, Counterpoints shines a bright light on “the contours of a way forward”, as its editors write in the preface (2021: xxvi), offering myriad creative lessons for how we can understand and act “in constellation with” (2021: 392) the unfolding of these bright futures already happening all around us.
Aiello D, Bates T, Graziani T, Herring C, Maharawal M, McElroy E, Phan P, Purser G (2018) Eviction Lab misses the mark. Shelterforce: The Voice of Community Development, 22 August 2018. Aailable here.
Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (2021) Prefatory Note. In Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (ed).
Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance. Oakland: PM Press, p. xviii.
Ramírez M (2021) Epilogue: Imagining Bay Area Futures. In Anti-Eviction Mapping Project
(ed). Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance. Oakland: PM Press, p. xviii.
San Francisco Fourth and Fifth Graders of Guadalupe Elementary School (2021) San Francisco
Kids: Our Wanderland. In Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (ed). Counterpoints: A San
Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance. Oakland: PM Press, pp. 381-386.
Tuck E (2009) Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review 79(3): 409-428.
Sarah Elwood is a Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on relational poverty analyses, urban and digital geographies, and visual politics. She is co-author of Abolishing Poverty: Toward Pluriverse Politics and Futures (University of Georgia, 2023).