Friday, October 24, 2008

The Power of Place

Harm de Blij’s new book The Power of Place is one half of an argument that I already agreed with at the first paragraph. As such, it didn’t do much for me in terms of changing my view of the world. It is essentially a challenge to the view that globalization has made the world “flat.” (as in Thomas Friedman’s best-selling The World is Flat, a title Friedman acknowledges as hyperboly).

De Blij is a professor at Michigan State and a public advocate for geography—his previous book was Why Geography Matters... Not someting I like I needed to be persuaded of, but I gather there are a fair number of people who really do think geography really doesn’t matter, so good for him.

I was attracted, honestly, by the title, and I was disappointed to find that place itself and its power was not really described. There is no topography (in the old sense) here, no “sense of place.”

What this book is about is the importance of location. De Blij’s point is that regional variations in health, religion, language, exposure to natural hazards, etc. are huge determinants in your economic and physical well-being—quality of life. Well, to coin a phrase, duhhhh.

The piece that stuck out for me the most was his approach to religion. De Blij is not a religionist, and he picks out religious conservatism, especially conservative Islam, for particular critique. Now, I’m no fan of Wahhabi ideology (or of the fiery fundamentalism of any faith), but that this sticks so especially in his craw I think relates to of the weakness of the whole book: a limit in scale to his view. In cartographic terms, he never gets closer in than 1:100,000, and mostly he’s hovering above 1:1,000,000 (the scale of a US state road map). When he does zoom in, it’s for a few peculiarly impersonal snapshots, in particular a view of his native Netherlands from below sea level.

De Blij sees local conditions as trapping people, keeping them out of the benefits of a global marketplace. He fails to address seriously the appeal of localism: the way a close relationship with a place can yield an understanding and an attachment whose richness can more then counterbalance the economic benefits of mobility.

The appeal of religion is in the experience, the day-to-day living it. Same thing with place: the appeal is getting to know the place, learning to see it not as a ground to put your feet on, but as ground that supports you, as a thing itself. “Religion” itself is an “outside” word, as I think I’ve noted before.In the sense we and de Blij use it, it is a name for a system, like a state. When you live within it, it usually is not the state you are paying most attention to, it’s the places within that state. And it’s the visceral love for those places that politicians use to translate into love of country.

Religion has much the same dynamic as place: when it develops deep roots (and de Blij advocates keeping children from being “indoctrinated” until they are old enough to develop judgment), it ties people to itself with roots of habit, knowledge, and comfort. This becomes a “trap” only if the basis of the person’s attachment is a lie (e.g. a prophet who it turns out is a shyster who runs off to the Bahamas with all your money). The same imbalance holds when a person’s attachment to place is physically unsustainable—the heartbreak of resource-extraction economies forcing families to move once the resource is tapped out.

Where people are seemingly traped by their geography or religion, it is not the place or the spiritual life itself that is the problem usually, it is the socal construct built up around it. And unless we learn to respect the deep connections at the core of that construct, we will be approaching issues of global culture and its effect in as dark an ignorance as a madrassa student approaching a Western university or a hick visiting New York.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Corlis Benefideo

I reread Barry Lopez's short story "The Mappist" on Thursday, and it grabbed me anew by the lapels.
It's a story about a cartographer—a sort of platonic ideal of a cartographer—and writer named Corlis Benefideo. If you haven't read it before, please do. You can read it in his short story collection Light Action in the Caribbean, or pay $2100 for the limited edition by Charles Hobson (again, scroll down), or (I haven't done this but I hear his reading is great) listen to Lopez reading the story.

Go on, read it.

OK, so when I talked about the story last year on CartoTalk, I was unsure about the whole cartographer as ideal hero thing. I'm still not sure, although as Martin Gamache said on that thread, there is a part of me wants to "drink the Koolaid."

What got me this time, in a way it hadn't before, was not so much the wonderful maps Benefideo makes, as it is his revelation of the narrator's situation. From near the end of the story, Benefideo says to the narrator:

“You represent a questing but lost generation of people. I think you know what I mean. You made it clear this morning, talking nostalgically about my books, that you think an elegant order has disappeared, something that shows the way.” We were standing at the corner of the dining table with our hands on the chair backs. “It's wonderful, of course, that you brought your daughter into the conversation tonight, and certainly we're both going to have to depend on her, on her thinking. But the real question, now, is what will you do? Because you can't expect her to take up something you wish for yourself, a way of seeing the world. You send her here, if it turns out to be what she wants, but don't make the mistake of thinking you, or I or anyone, knows how the world is meant to work. The world is a miracle, unfolding in the pitch dark. We're lighting candles. Those maps—they are my candles. And I can't extinguish them for anyone.”
There's a lot packed into that paragraph, and so it's easy to gloss over in the flow of reading fiction.

Benefideo is pointing out our love for "maps the way they used to be made" and that, to the contrary, he is making them not like he was taught, but as he thinks they ought. For all the trappings of old-fashioned tools and craft, he is in fact exploring new territory.

The middle bit echoed for me the old Quaker bit, Margaret Fell quoting George Fox's preaching "What canst thou say?" Except instead of scripture it's pointing to our received knowledge othe world. It's easy and quick to gloss over this as a typical challenge to go out and do good, but it's more subtle than that.

It's a conscious rejection of the idea of "reference" which forms the backbone of the idea of cartography—the idea that there is a certain set of facts about the world that we can start with. It makes reference a much more fluid concept. That bit about lighting candles in the pitch blackness reveals Benefideo not as some sort of super-perceptual being who is expressing what he knows. He is really an explorer who knows nothing but records what he finds.

[edited 2-17-13 to update links to the story]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I wish I spoke Hungarian

One of the principal disadvantages of being born American is that it takes a lot of effort to be exposed to non-English languages. Especially if you grow up away from immigrant, Spanish-speaking, or otherwise bilingual populations. Which I did. And I maybe speak German acceptably. Maybe.

Which is a long way of saying I have absolutely no idea what this fellow is saying about me or anything else. I like the picture though. And it is flattering to be noticed across languages and oceans.

Anyone here speak Hungarian?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dance the map

So the concept of a modern performative cartography has been much on my mind. Mulling over analogies, I am thinking about:

Gaming: my favorite example of maps functioning fully as fiction. Just as we use cartographic maps as a framework on which to find our way around the real world, gaming maps form a structure for fictional play. But the cartography itself tends to be pretty conventional. The idea is to provide a setting within which gamers can comfortably play.

Theater: Theater actually works pretty well as an analogy for how cartography functions today. There is an artificial representation of setting, which is as detailed as the performance needs to support it. But the problem here is that in the conventional theater setting, performance is distinctly separate from setting. A stage set can be said to “overwhelm” a performance if it dominates, which it should not. This means that voice as an element of setting (or by analogy, of the map) is just not part of the basic conventions.

Performance: In terms of formal structure, the art world has a lot of potential. I and a group of NACIS folk spent a day with Steven Holloway out on Clark Fork in Missoula, and then back in the U of MT printmaking studio pulling monoprints (which was absolutely wonderful; made me want to get back into the print studio. more later on the workshop). Here’s my problem with the artworld as a whole: it feels quite disconnected with how most of the world lives. It’s a little like quietist tendencies in anabaptist circles: if the world won’t be with us, then we will be our own world. What art cartographies I’ve seen have been like dada commentary: pointing to the inherent absurdities of our relationship to earth and place. An important role, yes, but I am interested in insider as well as outsider perspectives. I want to see performative cartography as integral to a place.

Dance: There isn’t a lot of place-dance, which seems weird to me. Formal performance dance (modern, ballet, etc) are relentlessly placeless, formed instead around choreographers and performers who could dance their specific dance in any theater.

There are some extremely place-related ritual dance traditions in older cultures. I think of the 'Obby ‘Oss of Padstow, Cornwall, or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. I’ve danced in American renditions of the dance form, and in one case (dancing Abbots Bromley at the Renaissance Festival in Minnesota) it really takes on the feeling of “blessing the place,” as I’ve heard that particular dance called. But the funny thing is, while a pattern has been set of regular performance (annually in all three examples above), there is nothing inherent in the dance that says it must be performed in that specific place. It may be more special or meaningful, but formally, ritual dance is as transferable as modern and ballet dance.

But again, it feels like dance ought to be a good place to start. Dance is so inherently spatial. It is fundamentally about attention paid and patterning formed in space.

Processionals: Parades ought to be place-based. They are in the same place every year, they are often organized for and of the community. But at least the ones I’ve been in are resiliently not about place. In Minnesota, the “royalty” of every little town goes and drives down main street of every other little town on the back of a float. Bands from all over come and march through, various Shriners groups do their thing... it’s fun, but it all ends up kind of generic. And it is certainly never about the space it passes through.

On the other hand, Catholic processions in Mediterranean and Latin American cultures are very specific, as they are tied to specific relics. There are formally similar processions in India (Ratha Yatra with its Jagganath carts, for example), and in Japan. And then there’s the Hajj.

Pilgrimage: The Hajj. Yep, I think we have at least one winner as a model for a performative cartography. Pilgrimages take place over long distances, and their routes are repeated so often and by so many, they become marks on the earth themselves.

Pilgrimage is not a modern idea, and while most of us make pilgrimages of one sort or another, They are rarely approached as such. The annual trip to grandma’s, with stops at that specific scenic overlook or that gas station. Some other momentous trip to a place of reverence (I’m visualizing a trip to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington). And there are individual traverses: the Appalachian Trail, biking across America...

Interestingly, the most compelling way of talking about pilgrimage in modern culture is not cartography but text, or film. It is through a voiced narrative that we understand this specific narrative. I remember a riveting slide presentation by someone going on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The setting clearly was important, but it was the total experience, personal social and environmental, that made it compelling.


Cartography separates space from experience, the same way theater separates stage set from performance. I think maybe we need to invent some sort of hybrid form that gives up the conventions of cartography, or anyway a lot of them, to allow for a real performative cartography.

One mode of thinking about this may be to turn the map inside out. Instead of attempting to dance a performance on a published map, make cartographic thinking part of a performance in the real world. The phrase “dance the map” comes to mind. Like processions to mark the parish bounds, perform out the lines we draw.

Over and out for now.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Painless maps and map opera


NACIS is usually my big idea overload binge of the year, and this year was no exception.

Margaret Pearce
and Mike Hermann did a really fascinating map of Champlain's travels in Canada, incorporating various kinds of text and map elements in a narrative shape that to me looked a lot like a cartographic attempt at Chris Ware's comic book experiments. But the really funny thing to me is how the whole thing felt like a script (Mike replied he was thinking storyboard, but same basic idea). It's like an outline for some sort of new performative cartography.

What on earth would a post-scientific performative cartography look like? I have no idea. I really am drawing a blank. But I think it is worth considering, and I willl try to suss it out here. I welcome ideas.

One of Margaret's students at Ohio U, Karla Sanders, made a fascinating attempt at melding cartography with personal poetic experience of space, a poster titled "When a Mountain Falls to Coal." It looks at the mountains of Appalachia as victims of a destruction created from outside the region, as a sacred space desecrated out of greed. The fundamental problem I have with both the Pearce/Hermann and the Sanders pieces is that they haven't really gotten over the constrictions that cartographic style places on personal expression. The intent is clear, and the text is evocative, but cartography as a mode of communication fights tooth and nail against expressions of personal emotional or spiritual experience. It denies the role of performer as an identifiable part of its performance.

A bunch of us went up to the Missoula Art Museum at lunch today to look at a display of Steven Holloway's artwork. Very nice stuff. Neat to see the observation notebook samples in some detail. I don't know how much of the change is NACIS's getting used to Steven, and how much is Steven's mellowing, but the detente between his art and the whole mappy thing seems to be getting closer. Like it's less weird. Anyway, enjoyed the show.

I was feeling a claustrophobic, and so went upstairs to look at parts of this very well put-together little art museum. I was especially struck by the exhibit of contemporary Persian photography. Lots of really powerful stuff. What really struck me looking at it after a few days of looking at maps was the element of pain. We don't show pain in our maps. Steven shows alienation from the land, but not (to my mind) real expressions of pain as such. A cartographic depiction, even of a great wounding of the earth like Sanders' poster, denies pain. It just isn't admissable as a mode of expression.

I think of erin o'Hara slavick's work on bombing we looked at at NACIS last year. Whole lot of pain channeled there, and in her presentation much of us was directed back at us mapmakers. But I want to see a cartography that permits expressions of pain, instead of accusing cartography of inflicting pain. I feel like we're aren't there yet, and beyond everyone's inherent desire (myself included) not to feel pain, I can't see why.

Tomorrow morning at 8am a few us are off on an adventure with Steven to make a map from direct experience. I believe it involves wet and cold. More tomorrow.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The world's a stage, and we are but poor stagehands

I’m having, as usual, a great time at NACIS here in Missoula (I'm writing this in the lobby of the Holiday Inn between sessions). We started with MapGiving, a new initiative to organize and collect efforts to create maps pro bono for good causes. Our kickoff event was a grueling 12-hour marathon, making what ended up as a first draft of a map for the Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee.

Oddly, what I keep coming back to so far, which has very little to do with any of the conversations I'm actually having, has to do with performance and stage setting. Now, in the Western theatrical tradition, the stage setting ought to be a neutral space for a performance to take place in. A big fancy setting requires a big fancy performance. In other cultures (I'm thinking here for example of the ras lila plays my mom spent some time among in Vrindaban in India), the setting is itself a sort of performance.

My view of how maps work increasingly works with this metaphor. The performance is the specific narrative information, the "story" that is being told. In the case of what we call "reference" maps, that performance is expected to be played out by map users identifying relationships, routes and patterns upon the stage setting of the map. For propaganda and other persuasive maps, the map itself makes a performance, enacting arguments as part of the product.

What Denil, Krygier and Wood and much of the rest of modern cartocriticism all have in common, is the realization that the western idea of separating stage setting from performance is an artificial one. The way we draw the setting for our argument is itself an argument for what background will be used in the discussion.

I still think there is a useful distinction to be made in looking at the stage and the performer as distinct, simply because they are experienced differently. When we look at even a Wagnerian stage setting, a ras lila with flowers pouring from the ceiling for an hour continuously, an evening at Red Rocks, we are in an environment. The performers, on the other hand, we perceive as persons. So perhaps this is a useful distinction: where is the thing we are taking in a "person", and where is it a "non-person."

More food for thought.