Friday, October 19, 2007


For me, the most thought-provoking paper at NACIS was Dalia Varanka's paper "The Emergence of Plain-style Mapping in Early English Atlases, 1606-1729." Which may sound extremely dry and academic, but talks about our "cartographic" style from a perspective that had never occurred to me before.

I've always thought of the clean lines, stripped-down graphics and so forth of modern map style as coming out of a Modernist sensibility, and Varanka does tie it to Enlightenment-era scientism and "plain style" prose. But the timing of the stripping down of ornamentation on maps which she demonstrated suggests something else going on.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a Quaker. Most of us don't "dress Amish" anymore, but there is a long tradition of plain dress, which comes out of the Simplicity Testimony. This in turn reflects a religious/cultural trend in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: John Calvin and his followers, the Puritans, and a whole lot of Anabaptists of various stripes all had a habit of sober dress.

It makes me wonder about the received idea of scientific style as "streamlined" and "simple." There are certainly aspects of science that head this way: the Euclidean "first principles" way of thinking, in which the simplest explanation is preferred. And "elegance," as in a mathematical formula, is perhaps the dominant aesthetic of theoretical sciences.

[11/3/07: a couple weeks later I find out this connection between Puritanism and science is essentially the Merton Thesis, a central bone of contention in the sociology of science. Shoulda known this was nothing new...]

But there is also a Baroque quality to some science, especially to those sciences which come out of what used to be called Natural History. The infinite variety of life and so forth. So why has the ascetic aesthetic become so dominant? And why is it de rigeur in cartograpy?

Are we all a bunch of neo-Calvinists? (Then again, as my wife commented, if it ain't baroque, why fix it?)

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