Map as Metaphor @ Center for Book Arts

Last Friday I joined Lize Mogel, Neil Freeman, and Heidi Neilson at the Center for Book Arts for the first in a three-part series of discussions about “Map as Metaphor.” I took some liberty with the theme and spoke instead about “Maps as Media” (besides, media are kind-of etymologically related to metaphors anyway). I drew segments of my talk from this “Gaps in the Map” essay I wrote, but never published, last fall, and I talked a lot about my student’s map-work in our 2010-13 “Urban Media Archaeology” studio and the more recent “Maps as Media” studio.

Here are my slides, and below is my script:

You may have noticed: we’re mapping everything: [2] our political allegiances, [3] our beer preferences, [4] our regional colloquialisms. Maps help our scientists better understand [5] the dynamics of climate change; [6] help our law enforcement officials predict and prevent urban crime; [7] help our lawmakers develop global policies that respond to patterns of refugee migration; [8] help to dispatch Uber drivers to waiting passengers; [9] and help us find the best dry cleaners and donuts in town. [10] The map, it seems, travels widely. It pops up regularly, as both material artifact and metaphor, in everyday conversations. [11] Our landscapes, rationalized via a universal calculus and rendered into normalized indexical domains, offer themselves up to be searched, tracked, coded, zoned, exploited. [12] The widespread availability of constantly-updated GIS data, and the prevalence of constantly-refreshing screens, means that more maps are produced, and more of them enter our lives, every day. And those maps-on-small-screens are doubly pervasive: both actively and passively, overtly and covertly present and active.

[13] Anthropologist Clyde Kluchhohn (1949), media sage Marshall McLuhan (1967), and his promoter, adman Howard Luck Gossage, have all been credited with acknowledging that whoever discovered water probably wasn’t a fish. The implication, of course, is that the fish isn’t aware of its aquatic environment, its medium, because it’s immersed in it. It knows nothing else; or, if it does, it’s probably not long for this terrestrial world. [14] We, however, live both inside and outside the proverbial and conceptual fishbowl: we live on the surface of the earth, but we’ve developed means of representing that territory to ourselves – and even seeing precisely where we lie within that territory: [15] “You are here.” Maps are, of course, one such representational, orientational, and navigational tool. [16] At the same time, the ubiquity of maps has, to some degree, naturalized them, made them banal. We’re often unconscious of their existence both because we’ve dissolved them into our everyday landscape, and because they’ve rendered themselves imperceptible, passively operational, within that landscape. They’ve become, in a sense, our aquatic medium.

All the more reason why maps are not simply a concern for geographers and cartographers and GIS engineers; or for the programmers and designers who’ve found themselves working in the robust GIS industry; or for the countless artists who’ve taken up maps as their subject. Maps are a foundational part of the wired world’s social, cultural, and political terrain; and they’re of tremendous political-economic importance to the non-wired portions of the world that cartographers often depict (often for “development” purposes). Maps always have been, but are now more than ever, media.

[17] The Mapping Mindset. Just has the aquatic environment has shaped the fish’s modes of cognition, our cartographic environments have their own intellectual foundations. We might attribute today’s mapping mindset to the rise of GIS, GPS, mappable data sets, Google Maps, and smartphones – but the intellectual ground was prepared, the field cleared, long ago to support today’s cartographic compulsion. [18] The humanities and social sciences, in one of their many purported theoretical revolutions, have, over the past several decades, made a “spatial turn” – a redirection of attention toward space, rather than time, as a key critical and analytical framework (among our many other “turns” have been the cultural, the linguistic, the sensory, the material, the post-human…). Globalization in its countless manifestations, post-colonialism, accelerated urbanization and migration, the rise of mass media and particularly networked telecommunications, growing concerns over the environment and an expanding ecological consciousness, as well as myriad other political, economic, technological, and cultural forces, have all been credited with bringing space into relief. [19] The rise of spatial theory was both incited, and then chronicled and molded, by a rising crop of spatial theorists. Among them were emperors Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau; deputies and protégés Marc Augé, Gaston Bachelard, Jean Baudrillard, Manuel Castells, Gilles Deleuze, David Harvey, Edward Soja, and Paul Virilio; with Doreen Massey, Gillian Rose, Saskia Sassen, and Iris Marion Young counted among the few female officers. As in earlier ages of exploration, this one was mapped out primarily by men.

[20] As an academic, I’m contractually obligated to cite Foucault – so, voilà!: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century,” he argues, “was history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle… The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. …We are at the moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.

But there’s a deep history to this new spatiality. Where it begins depends on how one defines a map – which is not an uncontentious issue. [21] We could trace all the way back to astronomical diagrams in cave paintings; [22] or to the Babylonians’ symbolic representations of their socio-political worlds; or to ancient Chinese plots of administrative units and natural resources; or to the sea-faring, [23] geometrically-inclined Greeks’ renderings of the earth in a variety of topologies – cylinders and plates and spheres. [24] Some more conservative histories tie the birth of cartography to the rise of the nation-state and national imperialism. Martin Brückner, who’s participating in the third “Map as Metaphor” panel on April 1, is much better equipped to map out this deep map history than I am.

[25] Yet even Foucault’s “present epoch of space” – and the compulsion to diagram and map it – saw many foreshadowings in previous modern ages. Polymathic scholar Tom Conley tells of a “cartographic impulse” in 15th– and 16th-century France, driven by the discovery of the New World; a growing interest in mapmaking, he argues, paralleled the rise of a new sense of self and new forms of cartographic writing that, in both their content and form, explored spatial ideas. [26] The expansion of global seafaring likewise inspired the Dutch to take up mapmaking as both a vocation and a pastime, and to regard maps as both a source of geographic knowledge and a domestic decoration. As art historian Svetlana Alpers explains, 17th-century Dutch artists succumbed to the “mapping impulse,” too, emphasizing landscapes as subject matter and often depicting maps within their paintings, thereby transforming themselves into artist-cartographers (the same could be said of many contemporaneous Italian artists).

[27] Scholars of the late 18th century, preoccupied with “accuracy, numeracy, and measurement,” also committed themselves to “mapping ‘anything and everything’” – and, as Lauren Klein argues, to taxonomic representations of data and other early forms of data visualization. [28] By the following century, widespread “fetishiz[ation] of the map” had become part of a larger “fetishizing of vision,” as evidenced by the emergence of panoramas and photographs and plate-glass windows, and the fascination with collection and display. The world itself became an exhibition. [29] Similar impulses, combined with a commitment to the late 19th-/ early 20th-century internationalist peace movement, fed Paul Otlet, Patrick Geddes, and Otto Neurath in their often collaborative experiments and grand proposals to collect, classify, diagram, and exhibit (in the form of “thinking machines” or “pictorial statistics,” or, as Lewis Mumford called it, “ideological cartography”) all the world’s knowledge. [30] With the Cold War, and its emerging communication and cognitive sciences and their new calculative and statistical techniques, those data maps increasingly took the form of cybernetic circuits and nets.

[31] Maps as Media. Through their studies of communication, which involved the creation of new topological diagrams, the cyberneticians were key players in the birth of media studies (McLuhan took inspiration from their work). What constitutes a medium has been endlessly (and often abstrusely) theorized. For our purposes, however, we’ll say that maps are media because they’re material (even the digital is a form of immaterial materiality) technologies and cultural practices of communication and representation. I’m not the first to make such a claim: some folks in the businesses of making and studying maps have argued that [32] maps are media because they’re composed of systems of visual language, or they’re means of propaganda, tools for the “manipulation” of meaning and the exercise of power.

Yes, maps are rhetorical and political – and by looking at the “medial” properties of maps, we can better understand how they convey meaning, exert influence, and carry bias. [33] Yet we can’t reduce cartographic artifacts to codes or semiotic systems, or to tools for propaganda. Maps, like the landscapes they represent, aren’t simply “texts” to be “read.” What’s more, geographer John Pickles argues, we “need an understanding of mapping that doesn’t reduce the work maps do to the repressive exercise of power.” Maps are more then hegemonic forces. Recognizing maps as media potentially opens up a more expansive understanding of how they operate.

[34] First, maps-as-media are material artifacts, or interfaces, that adhere to particular protocols of communication. Jacob traces the map’s lexical variations – including the French carte, meaning card; the Latin mappa, or tablecloth; the Greek pinax, meaning tablet or plate – and notes that, while there is perhaps no particular concrete manifestation that defines a map, this etymology serves to remind us that the map is given form, instantiated in some way – and, I would argue, the nature of that formalization, even if only fleeting or imaginary, matters. [35] Second, maps-as-media, like all media, are produced by myriad entities – today, by an increasing variety of individuals and industries – for various reasons, under particular conditions, and subject to both cartographic conventions and variable aesthetic or editorial choices. [36] Bill Rankin, through his Radical Cartography project, calls attention to those protocols and conventions by juxtaposing data sets, or rendering the same set of data in varying styles, thus “provok[ing] slippages, overlaps, and multiple kinds of diversity.”

[37] Third, maps-as-media are distributed among myriad “users” in particular ways; and they’re accessed, “processed” (do we still “read” maps?), and interpreted by those users in different ways. Whether we’re considering a 14th-century portolan chart or the modern-day Uber app, our maps-as-media arise, circulate, and get used within various “discourse networks” – webs of people, instruments, institutions, specialized knowledges, and power – that constitute their own topologies. [38] One such player in this network is, of course, Google, with its extraordinary cartographic empire that has acquired the authority to “define borders and boundaries” and has, “without having any legal, political and democratic mandate,” replaced national agencies and international organizations in becoming “the referential map of the world.” We also have to consider the rise of OpenStreetMap and other open-source initiatives, which represent vastly different collective values and spatial politics, but which still embrace a territory-based, God’s-eye orientation to space.

[39] The very existence of mapping as a large-scale media-production industry, and the means by which those maps are produced, raises questions about the values embedded in the system. Who has historically owned the means of describing space, and what have been their interests? What kinds of data have merited representation, and how have those data been generated? [40] What do we make of our contemporary interactive maps’ post-Copernican, egocentric orientation, which places you – not the earth, not the sun, not Jerusalem or Mecca – at the center? What happens when we hold in our hands manipulable maps that render space as something seamlessly traversable, rational, and exploitable? And what kinds of spatial “ways of knowing” are eclipsed by this new egocentric framing, or “self-centering,” and real-time navigational assistance?

[41] Cartography as Media-Making. For the past six years I’ve taught mapping studios at The New School. From 2010 through 2013 we focused on historical media infrastructures – the rise and disappearance of movie theaters in Greenpoint, the geographies of carrier pigeon networks and independent bookstores and newspaper delivery, the production and distribution of activist zines, the strategic siting of carrier hotels and data centers, the northward spread of Edison’s electrification – and plotting those infrastructures on our own open-source mapping platform. [42] We approached map-making as media design: the students used the map as a framework within which they could tell spatial stories and make cartographic arguments, which were illustrated with a variety of media: [43] “rectified” historical maps, archival photos, field recordings, student-produced video, interview footage, and so on.

[44] I could go on and on (and I have elsewhere) about the joys and frustrations — and all the painful epiphanies – we experienced as a result of building our own clunky, buggy, not-so-pretty mapping platform. Yet among our most resonant realizations – which are particularly relevant to our conversation here – were about the affordances and limitations of mapping as a method and a metaphor. [45] Many of our students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of “accuracy” and “exhaustiveness,” to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic “buts,” “ifs,” “howevers,” and other qualifying statements to convey the “interpretative nature of the mapping process.” Doing so on a digital map meant that they had to infuse a little poetry into their data models.

[46] But the challenges go beyond dealing with the database’s demand for spatial precision. Simply put, they discovered that not everything is mappable, and not everything belongs on a map. Framing all research questions, all narratives, all phenomena in terms of space, as the spatial turn inclines us to do, forces the territory – the phenomena we’re trying to represent, the histories and stories we’re trying to tell, the arguments we’re trying to make – to conform to the map in order to render itself representable. [47] That translation of physical and human reality into data models and plottable points and lines often results in the loss of something essential and irretrievable. [48] Such critiques have been lodged against “indigenous cartography,” or well-meaning development organizations’ promotion of cartographic literacy among indigenous populations in order to “empower” them to assert their own land rights. “The process of mapping,” Nancy Lee Peluso argued in an influential 1995 article, “almost forces the interpretation of customary rights to resources territorially, thereby changing both the claim and the representation of it….”

[49] Two years ago I retired that infrastructure-mapping class and documented our insights in a small book on “deep mapping” as a method. [50] And last year I introduced a new class focusing less on infrastructure, and more on the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of maps from across myriad geographic and cultural contexts. That new class is platform-agnostic; we talk about everything from satellites and geo-locative technologies, to sensory mapping, to indigenous cartography, to cognitive mapping, to time-mapping – and students are free to use any of those methods in their final projects, an “atlas” about any subject and site of their choosing. Interestingly, among the inaugural class last fall, very few chose to use GIS (although many were quite skilled). [51] Instead, most of these “born-digital” students chose to explore the affordances of paper and text as mapping media. They made palimpsestic artists’ books, paper sculptures, field guides, collages. [52] Inspired by feminist geographers, they sought to integrate “bodies, emotions, and subjectivities” into cartography by, for example, drawing inspiration from map artists and map activists, and experimenting with “more expressive and evocative forms of visual practice.”

[53] Yet they also recognize that the map is not just visual. In the preface to the first volume of the massive and monumental History of Cartography series, J. Brian Harley and David Woodward offer what is widely regarded as one of the most inclusive definitions of maps: “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.” Yet even this expansive, capacious definition limits the means of cartographic expression to the visual. Yes, graphic, from graphe, implies writing and drawing – but graphe is also at the root of telegraphy, phonography, and cinematography, all forms of inscription that when “played back,” or consumed, are experienced through vision, sound, and even texture. [54] Recognizing the sensory diversity of “graphic” media allows us also to explore the potential for more sensorially diverse maps – maps better able to capture the aesthetic richness of our experience of place, and that needn’t collapse that multisensoriality into a single-channel representation. This concern with aesthetics isn’t simply about creating more “realistic” or immersive or creative or beautiful maps. Rather, expanding the sensory repertoire of our mapping techniques and technologies allows us to sanction and codify the critical importance of “non-ocularcentric” modes of experience and ways of knowing. [55] What counts as a map – a term so capacious in its inclusivity of content – should perhaps be similarly inclusive in its material forms and sensory modes. If we think about maps as media, we can recognize the plethora of media at our disposal, all of which could potentially be marshaled to “graph” our spatial understandings.

[56] Maps are media: they make themselves both actively and passively present in our everyday lives. They codify and inscribe our contemporary, historical, and perhaps even future realities and imaginaries, and give them direction and meaning. They inform, persuade, and perhaps even manipulate. They validate or marginalize those to whom they do or don’t give voice. They embody our ways of knowing and relating to the towns, cities, nations, planets, and galaxies in which we live. They shape the politics by which we govern, shepherd, or exploit our environments, from the micro to the macro scale. And even in their gaps, they give shape to our limitations – to what we don’t and perhaps can’t know, at least not in the shape of a map. Those lacunae delineate that which can’t be pinned down – all the stuff that slips through the grand “graticule,” the epistemic grid of latitudes and longitudes. [CLICK]

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