Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reality Schmeality

This is partly in response to Joe's comments from two posts ago. Joe, you're taking the idea of frames a whole lot further than I was headed... but OK, I'll bite.

I think what Joe is saying is that our understanding of the universe is by necessity blinkered. It's how humans deal with the world -- they filter, frame and label it into if not submission, at least comprehensibility. Sometimes something in the world makes us realize those frames, but most of the time we just ride along happily (or unhappily) ignoring them.

Okeydoke, fair enough. It's not a generally accepted definition of "art," but I really like Duane Preble's comment in Artforms that "aesthetic is the opposite of anaesthetic." That was my quote in my senior college yearbook. I think that's what Joe is talking about: A work makes you realize that part of you has been sleeping by waking you up.

One of the main critiques of mainstream cartography by Denis Wood et al has been that by reinforcing conventional ontologies (this is a road, this is an ocean, etc.), it is in part responsible for that blinkering. That by positing propositions as facts, maps close off alternative understandings of the world.

Guilty as charged. I would point out, however, that this is true of all our conventions of communication. If I decide to abandon conventional English language, no-one will yoddle for you as you beezify them. Which limitation does in itself cause us difficulties unless we we step outside our native language (I really enjoyed V.V. Raman's recent appearance on Speaking of Faith on this subject).

As Joe notes, we kind of need to work within this system of frames and blinkers most of the time, if for no other reason than life is too short to reinvent language for every conversation and besides we'd go insane and starve. But, it sure is neat when we can be surprised and woken up even a little.

Can a map do that? I mean a cartographic map? Not a painting of a map (this example is getting hoary), or a picture that depicts the earth but outside the tradition of cartographic graphic conventions? I often come back to Chris Ware's book jacket for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World (the website for the book includes a teaser that incorporates some of the jacket art: click on the arrow near "It is now possible to proceed..."). Part of what works here, though, is that one of the main thrusts of the book is a sense of isolation in its characters, which placing them in a cartographic context makes seem inevitable. So perhaps it is specific wakings-up/deblinkerings that can be accomplished in a cartographic milieu. Perhaps a topic for another day...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

When I was in college, I had some peculiar ideas. OK, to be honest I was a little nuts...too much time rattling around inside my own head. The summer between sophomore and junior year I spent working in England, and reading some wonderful but pretty intense books: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Homeward Bounders and Keri Hulmes’s The Bone People are the two that come to mind. The former is about Real Places and how they become and stay Real, the latter about center and periphery, home and away, saved self and lost self. I recommend them both (I should re-read Hulme; I don’t think I have in the intervening 20+ years).

At the end of the trip, I spent a memorable week out on Scarp, an island off the northwest end of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. It’s a truly magical landscape, and I was particularly open to that magic. I wasn’t doing any formal meditation or anything, but there I was in a tent with the sheep and a few folks who had holiday houses out there. I mulled over questions of how I could find and be part of a Real Place; one of Jones’s points is that Real Places are made so through people being truly in them and loving them and caring for them; a viewpoint not dissimilar from The Velveteen Rabbit with all the treacly bits excised. An answer came to me there on Scarp: “I am real, I am here, I am myself.” Pretty basic stuff, but it was a good little mantra. Still is sometimes.

I wrote what was almost certainly a mad-sounding letter to Jones about all this, and received (after my return to the States) a kindly “calm down, it is just a novel” reply from her. And that exchange is really the point of this posting.

To approach it another way, I remember a session at the unfortunately now-defunct Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, a gathering of readers and writers in the fantasy genre. This would be in the early 1990’s. There was a session about “fantasy and religion,” and it became clear over the course of the session that there was a major divide in the group. People were being careful enough and polite enough that it never really became a full argument, but came close when one of the audience rose to ask about the relationship between the explicit cosmological content of the authors work, and the author’s personal religious beliefs. Diane Duane gave what I recall as a very well put response, noting that she was a pretty serious practicing Catholic. She does not believe in wizards or magic as practiced by the characters in her books. To paraphrase William Shatner in his famous Saturday Night Live skit, “It’s a show, guys. Get over it!”

To me this was kind of a revelation, because as a reader who did not interact with writers, I was working in a vacuum. Especially in literary genres where characters are looking at magic, hidden meanings, lost knowledge, etc., the line between fiction and non-fiction may be deliberately blurred for effect (see The Da Vinci Code, et al for similar effects in another genre). I was half-expecting that the writers of this stuff were themselves secretly, I don’t know, witches or something.

They aren’t. At least not as directly as I hoped or expected.

Writers and other creators of narrative forms have this problem all the time. Call it the Don Quixote effect: the writer urges readers through the narrative to open up their hearts to some transcendent quality: romance, wonder, courage, grace, etc. Readers do open themselves up, and are inspired. Readers then ascribe this opening to the work, and therefore to the authors, who must therefore be very wise indeed. But of course they are well-versed craftspeople, not warlocks/sages/prophets.

What the readers don’t realize is how everyday the process of creating the work feels to the creator. It’s a lot of fun and satisfying, sure, but the transcendent experience of reading the book is seldom reflected by a transcendent experience making it. Writers and other creators do talk about “characters writing themselves,” or about how “I am just a conduit for this stuff.” The religious ones praise their deity for the grace to turn this stuff out, the non-religious ones shrug and smile. But the creators also talk about the Butt-In-the-Chair principle, a corollary to Edison’s prescription that genius is 99% perspiration.

Which brings us back to the idea of frames. The construction of frames, whether literally in the visual arts or metaphorically in narrative arts, is a Butt-in-the-Chair craft and technique sort of process. Some of it is what fantasy writers call “world building,” and historical writers call “research,” learning/developing enough sense of the world within which the story will develop, that the writer feels comfortable having the characters hop around in it. This is important to remember; sometimes it feels to readers like the point of world-building/research is to create that world for their entertainment, but the point is usually to make a workspace for the writer to be able to comfortably work within.

This is why sitcoms are usually framed in such a limited number of spaces: the writers and actors can behave with much less inhibition-from-lack-of-knowledge when they know exactly where Archie Bunker keeps his keys and what time Meathead gets off work. And with this strong sense of “home,” they can feel free to introduce new characters and settings one at a time.
Next up: inspiration.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Imagine three frames, each on a wall, with essentially the same view of a landscape through them. The first is a window in a house, the second is a painting, and the third is a window on a theatrical stage.

In the case of the real window, the world seen through the window is in fact three-dimensional, and one can assume that clues in this window to what lies beyond the line of sight of the person inside will be largely confirmed in fact: a view of downtown New York will not be replaced by a view of rural Vermont if you stick your head out and look off to the left.

In the case of the painting, one can assume there was a model for the painting: what one sees is a fiction based on visual documentation. But even as a work of fiction, the conventions of landscape painting imply that if one could stick one's head through the picture-plane as if it were a window, one would have the same effect as above: the fictional landscape seen in the picture continues past the "window," while the painting itself probably doesn't continue much past the edge of the frame.

In the third case, a scene seen through a window in a stage-set, the set designer is portraying something similar to the first instance, but the portrayal is only as good as it needs to be to fool the audience. Beyond the sightlines of the audience, the backdrop with landscape painted on it is left unpainted, such that an actor looking through the window could clearly see the edge of the artwork, even the edge of the surface the painting was made on. The character that actor plays, however, has fictionally the same experience as the first viewer.

This framing effect, implying a world past what we can see, is basic to "realistic" arts in all their forms. Characters arriving into a scene in a movie or play in mid-conversation imply there actually was a conversation before we heard it. An apartment in a novel or an interior decorator's plan is assumed to be part of a larger building. A person whose mug-shot we see is assumed to actually have a torso.

And territory mapped is assumed to continue past the edge of the map.

The set designer, the landscape painter, and the cartographer are very much aware that their work is creating an illusion of continuity past the picture-frame, while the user does not need to be aware of the falsity of this illusion and in fact needs to ignore it in order to use the picture/set/map as it is intended. I'm thinking this is a major (the major?) divide between creator and user. More on that divide next time.

Friday, November 9, 2007

talk around the block all day and night

1. There's been a good discussion lately on Cartotalk on "bad maps," which touches upon some of the issues here.

2. My younger brother has been in geovisualization as long as I have (actually longer, I think), and we've been talking for a long time about doing a joint blog. We've finally gotten it up and running, I hope. Come on over if you are interested: the more comments the merrier! the address is

[Note 2/17/13: the blog never really went anywhere, so we abandoned it after a while]

Friday, November 2, 2007

Class Acts and Right Maps

[note: sorry to re-edit afterposting, but I just re-read this and parts make no sense even to me. Hence the rewrite —Nat]

I read The Invention of Art by Larry Shiner almost two years ago, and since then it's been at the center of my arguments, at first about maps and art, and more recently about cartography as a tradition. So I went out on the web recently to see what other folks were saying about Shiner and found... precious little. Disappointing. I did run across an interview by Stewart Home with Roger Taylor, who wrote a book almost 30 years ago called Art, an Enemy of the People. The interview is largely taken up with comparisons between Shiner and Taylor's approaches. The book sounded interesting, so I got it from the library.

It's been a slow slog. In spite of his goal of "writing for the people," the style is, well, thick. But it's an interesting read for all that. As the interview alludes to, while Shiner talks about the class-based origins of Fine Arts in the 17th and 18th century and then moves on, Taylor's standpoint remains rooted in questions of class (Shiner moves away from class discussions in discussing Art's alienation).

I don't think about class much as such. As an American, I've learned it's impolite to talk about class. I know class is a larger part of European public consciousness, but... I've never honestly seen it so starkly illustrated as when comparing the American (Shiner) with the Brit (Taylor).

Taylor's history of the rise of Art is a bit more nuanced than Shiners. He puts the initial formulation of Fine Arts somewhere in the sixteenth century. It was (he says) initially a theory grounded in the concept of "Truth": Art is Truth, non-Art is not-Truth. This idea supported the idea of hereditary of nobility. Art is Art because it is essentially truthful, and no context can make it otherwise, just as nobility are noble because they were born that way. The formulation was in defense of the bourgeois idea that quality can be earned,.

As the bourgeoisie burgeoned, and the art market became just that (a market), Art became a matter of "Taste" and then of "Beauty." No longer was art of the aristocracy being defended from bourgeois aspirations; now it was the art of the haute bourgeois being defended from common craft. Taylor's argument is that art is never about "the masses." To the extent that is it is advertised as "good for the masses," it is essentially reinforcing bourgeois values on the proletariat.

I like this guy. (Oddly, he's not a Marxist. Socialist, yes, but not Marxist. Whatever.)

OK, I haven't finished the book yet, so I can't summarize everything he says, but I started thinking ahead to how cartography would fit into this scheme. We are not a proletarian discipline. Not a lot of farm-workers and factory-workers at NACIS. But we also tend to have a relatively "proletarian" attitude towards our work, to wit: "enough with the theory, make the map they've hired you to do."

Which is pretty much the attitude of the colleagues I work with. And it's a lot of what drives Denis Wood and other theorists batty. You're oppressed, dammit! Shake off your chains!

More later.


Which brings me to Stephen Holloway's really wonderful "Right Map Making." Stephen presented it at NACIS this year. I appreciated it at the time, and then went off to listen to the other panels, but it has kept coming back to me. Which was the idea, I guess. It's a broadside in a couple of ways. First, it's a beautiful single sheet printed piece (a broadside).
Second, it neatly sidesteps the whole philosophical/ontological debate/sargasso sea and attacks the problem of ethics and maps and our effect on the world head on, a shot not philosophically across the bow but right into the heart of our day-to-day work, using the Buddhist language of "right practice."

Go read it, it speaks for itself.