Sunday, June 28, 2009


I had a good exchange with John Krygier recently—thought-provoking as usual. It got me thinking more seriously about the experience of maps as performance. I know very little about performance theory, and much that I have seen I find frankly impenetrable. But I know a little about performance itself from having performed. So what I'm going to outline here is a framework that may well overlap what more experienced theorists have outlined. In any case, it's getting my thoughts down in a more thought-out form. Any recommendations of relevant and not-too-thickly-jargony performance literature is welcomed.


The aspect of performance I've been reflecting on is the centrality of the performer. Humans pay more attention to (and have more cognitive tools to explore) other humans than any other subject. So it makes sense that looking at another person is qualitatively different from looking at something that a person has made. An actor is different from a stage setting, no matter how elaborate that set.

I've made the analogy before of cartography being fundamentally about the "stage setting" for a performance about space, that perforance not necessarily being performed within the map. Well, any serious performer will tell you setting is an integral part of performance (for that matter, so is the audience). The whole thing, the entire constructed experience, is the performance.

And yet, there is something different about the designated "performer." It's a person, and so we instinctively pay more attention to that person. I think it may be that simple.

To me, this puts a new spin on the whole idea of attempts at "objectivity," in which the biases and idiosyncrasies of individuals are intentionally de-emphasized. The idea is, while maintaining a clearly human-made voice, to partly "un-person" that voice. It's not exactly the same as what I'm describing, but it is a useful device in a number of ways.

First, it allows the user to put her or himself directly into the performer role. Thus a "base map" is like a karaoke track. It fuctions a lot like the "voice" of a recipe. I had an interesting discussion with my wife Ingrid about this the other night. She reads a lot of food writing, and she confirms that it is common practice, even when the prose style is very fluid and personal, to then drop out of that personal voice into the "recipe voice", in which instructions are neutral. The goal is to de-emphasize the personal viewpoint of the author and to put the reader directly into the driver seat.

Second, it allows for the creation of the idea of a "common truth." This drives many contemporary carto-critics crazy, because they believe the common truths modern cartography has been emphasizing are fundamentally false, leading us straight to the destruction of our ecosystem and so ourselves. But on a smaller scale, it is often useful to have available a "referee voice." It's why we've always had a role in our societies for judges of one sort or another. And by putting off the personal voice and adopting an un-personed voice, we make that more possible.

I'll admit that second one is a loaded bomb. Before you all pile on, let me just ask you to consider, not whether it is right and good for us to do this, but whether it is a basic human reaction to seek someone speaking in an "neutral" voice.

I'm not sure exactly how the idea of anonymous monastic performances done for the glory of God (the Book of Kells, for example) fit into this, but I think they do.


Ther other thing that's been on my mind is the priveleged place of performance. Larry Shiner (whom I've discussed earlier) talks about the creation of contemplative frames for the fine arts (the concert hall, the gallery wall, the silent library) as being a big part of those fine arts distinction from "craft" or "artisan" work. Something analagous happens whenever we recognize a performance is taking place. It is different from ordinary social space: we do not expect performers to have the same relationship to those around them as they would when they are not performing. Some of it is a matter of allowing for concentration, but some of it is also that performances are specifically about "setting aside space" to allow for a different experience.

It feels very like the suspension of disbelief that is essential to fiction.


And that's all the ideas I have energy for tonight. I'm going to call it good.

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