Friday, January 5, 2007

Maps maps maps

I make maps for a living. I get up in the morning, go to work, sit down at my desk and make maps, or do back-end work for making maps, or edit my company's catalog which is mostly maps.

I go to map conferences (OK, I go to one map conference. I don't get out much.), where people talk about map-making techniques. Sometimes, to my great fascination, people talk about what maps are.

So what the heck are maps? My latest conception, which came about after doing some reading on Hokusai, the great, idiosyncratic Japanese printmaker and painter, has to do with traditions. In the west, the phrase "artistic tradition" is coincident with the baggage carried by the "fine arts" (see separate blog rant to come on maps and art), so I will simply posit "picture-making" as a broader field within which maps form a tradition.

There are those (hi Denis) who have proposed that maps are not pictures or representations at all. I find the argument baffling. I think what they are arguing is that there is a disconnect between reality on the ground and the expression of that reality on a map. But that disconnect exists with all representations and pictures. Even photographs. I think the problem lies not in defining maps as pictures, but in narrowly defining pictures as direct representations of optical phenomena. Pictures cover such a broad range of expressions... assembly diagrams and product beauty shots; cut-paper silhouettes and mug shots; petroglyphs and Mark Rothko paintings; my four-year-old's picture of a toilet on fire and 9/11's falling man.

Another part of the problem in talking about map ontology is the way we in cartogrphy have responded to charges of cultural imperialism. Instead of saying, "Here is a limited field within which we practice," we have opened up the definition of map to include all sorts of things which lie well outside the cartographic mainstream. Marshall Islands stick-charts. Performative geographies. Tibetan mandalas. All fascinating, all potentially useful eye-openers to us map-makers. But...

One of the things I was interested in about Hokusai is the way he studied western and Chinese techniques yet is clearly still within the Japanese picturing tradition. This is of course nothing new: outside influences happen in every cultural tradition no matter how conservative the gatekeepers. What struck me is how strong his received tradition was, and how clearly identifiable. He lived within closed Japan for most of his life, and his pictures are now iconic of Japanese visual identity.

I think we map-makers could learn from this. Instead of tearing down the tradition of cartography, simply accept that it is a tradition (one of many), with a somewhat more limited reach than every expression of geographic space created by anyone anywhere, and work within that tradition, while acknowledging and experimenting with techniques form outside it.

4 comments:

jbkrygier said...

Regarding maps as not representations and not pictures (or images):

While I have not sworn allegiance to the non-representational (non-picture, non-image) conception of the map (although I am guilty of propagating the idea) I must say that the one big reason I like it is that it directly undermines the very common belief that maps are "direct representations of optical phenomena."

My experience with students, colleagues, and many others is that they don't think much about map ontology (who the hell does?). When "representation" or "picture" or "image" is the basis of what maps are, the immediate assumption by most people is that maps are rather simple "direct representations of optical phenomena."

I have heard map ontologists (!) who want to stick with representation or pictures carefully define away all the common aspects of the definitions of these complex terms, so that what they mean by representation or picture, in the context of map ontology, is very different from what most people think representation or pictures are. So maps are representations or pictures but in a weird and obscure and intellectual way that only a few map ontologists understand. The problem is that most people, I think, get the wrong idea about maps when "representation" or "picture" is used. So maps as "representations" or "pictures" unwittingly propagates bad ways of thinking about what maps are.

Maps as propositions, on the other hand, is rather clear and people do seem to get the idea right rather quickly (whether they agree or disagree). Indeed, the response to the idea of maps as propositions, outside of cartography, is almost always favorable. I think "maps as propositions" may have the capacity to communicate to a much broader audience some complex ideas about map ontology that "representation" and "picture" just muddle.

natcase said...

I would say rather that all pictures (maps included) are propositions. No representation is free from human interference, even automatic, randomized photographs. We choose the wavelength to measure, we choose the sort of flash; our goal is always at least a legible picture. I commend trying to get student and general audience out of the idea that maps = the territory; my problem is when propositionalism becomes exclusive, because the construction of a map ought to have real connection with the ground it covers. (mental note: entry on the essential nature of fieldwork).


It feels like giving ground to fuzzy thinking to essentially say "people think pictures are reality, so let's not call maps pictures."

jbkrygier said...

NC: "I would say rather that all pictures (maps included) are propositions."

Hmmm...so maps are propositions, but you want them to be pictures first?

NC: "It feels like giving ground to fuzzy thinking to essentially say "people think pictures are reality, so let's not call maps pictures.""

"Picture" is a very broad and diversely understood concept (as is "image" or "representation") and that may invite fuzziness. Maybe "proposition" has a less fuzzy tendency, with its 2000 years of history (propositional logic), which leaves little room for the fuzzy (and provides, maybe, a very systematic evaluatory framework for maps - if that would be something desirable).

natcase said...

NC: "I would say rather that all pictures (maps included) are propositions."

Jbk: Hmmm...so maps are propositions, but you want them to be pictures first?

NC: yup. I think they are pictures first, and that the propositional quality they possess is not exclusive to maps and is not necessarily the primary function of maps. Maps in fact more often function as stage sets upon which the users’ propositions are played out.

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NC: "It feels like giving ground to fuzzy thinking to essentially say "people think pictures are reality, so let's not call maps pictures.""

Jbk: "Picture" is a very broad and diversely understood concept (as is "image" or "representation") and that may invite fuzziness. Maybe "proposition" has a less fuzzy tendency, with its 2000 years of history (propositional logic), which leaves little room for the fuzzy (and provides, maybe, a very systematic evaluatory framework for maps - if that would be something desirable).

NC: I would like people to really consider maps as pictures. I don’t think they really do. Both “picture” and “map” are, yes, fuzzy terms, and we should be honest about that. They are ontologically soft concepts. I actually think the arguments for “proposition” or “argument”—for a logical or rhetorical approach to maps—limit the scope of maps as much as the quantitative scientific view did 50 years ago, and end up seeming interesting but, well, kind of irrelevant to a lot of map makers.

The reason I keep pushing on maps as pictures is really a gut feeling: As a mapmaker, I want the field to simultaneously remain true to itself, and be as open to new ideas (I use this term very broadly) as possible. I just don’t see logic or rhetoric broadening my options; tightening up the loose bolts, but not actually making something new. Maybe it’s because of my time in the arts, but I’m a lot more excited about how maps can reshape their own ontological shape and morph off into new ontological territories.