Friday, February 29, 2008

Maps and Violence

I'm still working on Steven's comment a few days ago. The thing I found so hard to digest was the violence implied directly to "the grid." I respect Steven's work a lot (sorry, part of my initial confusion was also not knowing who you were, Steven), and actually knowing he was the one making the response makes it clearer where he is coming from.

I had a similar reaction to elin o'Hara slavick's Bomb after Bomb: A Violent Cartography, which she presented a selection of at NACIS last year. Her art is a deeply-felt indictment of bombing as an anonymous evil: bombs kill without the killer having to directly face the consequences. Her maps with stains and wounds painted over them were really powerful stuff. The problem I had was her equation of cartography with the violence it enabled: she spoke of hegemonic mapping, of mapping as the anonymous-making of space. Maps as implicit in murders and bombings.

So here's my question: when, in general, are whole abstract systems responsible for the evil that people do while using them? There's a lot of powerful arguments for language (for example) being responsible for violence and for other perversions of humanity (think Orwell's Newspeak in his 1984). But Orwell himself was writing in language to make this point, and was not indicting language per se, but the control and manipulation of language from above.

Much cartocriticism works from the vantage point of cartography as the exercise of such power: modern cartography arose out of military and political power-struggles, out of desire to control. But one of the peculiar things about it is that while power has been the sponsor of cartography, the resulting maps themselves were in a sense a democratic, decentralizing visual expression.

One of the huge cultural shifts over the last umpteen hundred years, but especially over the last 500, has been that of lord-and-vassal relationships to citizen-and-citizen relationships. Of course power still exists and is exercised, but in the West only the mad kings and their followers these days seriously believe that God gives rights of power to kings, and that it flows down from them like mana. I find it hard to imagine a world in which my basic legitimacy as a person was based in my relationship to my lord and master rather than in the assumption that "I am a person and so I count."

Modern cartography—including the grid—reflects this humanist point of view, in that space is not privileged. We don't just make New York City bigger because it's more important; a mile is a mile is a mile. Kind of spatial one citizen one vote. Classed information are made larger and smaller not out of ordainment, but out of quantitative measurement.

So. Maps and violence. Maps, the grid and violence I should say.

I feel the grid. I am frustrated by the inability of my pidgin graphic tongue to speak poetry. But, that isn't what cartography was built for, and almost no-one speaks pidgin as their first language. But pidgin evolved to deal with places like New Guinea with hundreds and hundreds of languages: sure it would be great to sit and take the time with everyone we meet and learn the nuances of their mother tongue, but we are here to trade our goods for a goat.

It is easy to work backwards from the horrors that have resulted from some uses of cartography (and yes it is true, bombing would not be possible in a modern sense without cartography). But I would suggest the opposite is also true. In my better moments making maps, I feel like a native guide to a new place. I don't speak my charge's native graphic tongue, but in my pidgin, I can get him or her to a warm place to eat and rest. At cartography's best, this is true in general: it is a plain language, reduced to the smallest vocabulary you can get away with, which lets strangers meet and be cordial and hospitable, and smooths whatever business they need to do.


Dug said...

You could sum it up with the standard NRA argument - "maps don't kill people, people kill people".

natcase said...

Well, I suppose you could, but I think you'd be overstating the case for dramatic effect.

Guns are built as weapons. To use them, you shoot (or threaten to shoot), and if they work, they kill people.

Paper maps give people the tools with which to point guns, bombs, bulldozers, and other weapons of destruction. The "grid" (we were talking about the grid here, not maps per se) is an even more abstract tool with which to make the maps (or other organizational tools) with which to engage in destructive activities.

Or pretty much any other large-scale communication and planning about geography.

So I'd suggest it's more accurate to say it's like "chainsaws don't kill people" or "butcher-knives don;t kill people."

Now, if we were talking not about the grid but about "smart bombs" and other means specifically designed to kill without having to actually witness the killing, then I think you'd be spot on.

Dug said...

I guess the point I was making poorly with that cheeky statement is that cartesian grids or maps, like guns are a tool and it's about how you use the tool. However, I guess my statement sort of falls apart when you consider that there really is no other use for a gun.

natcase said...

Cheeky is fine, I just hate being compared to the NRA. :-)

More in my next post...