Monday, July 20, 2009

Practice Practice Practice

In the carto-theory discussions there has been a lot of sturm und drang around the questions "what is a map?" and "what are cartographers?" — way more than I've seen in any other part of cartographic discourse. As soon as you start stating what cartography is and what cartographers are, you get yelps of indignation from folks who don't think that's what they do. This is especially true when you push the argument further, discussing what cartographers ought to do.

It's not that different in the liberal Quaker circles I'm involved in. We all gather in Meeting for Worship, and we have well-established frameworks for conducting our business. We even share a common gestalt sense, laid out in the Quaker testimonies, but just try telling a Quaker what he or she is...

I visit prisoners through Prisoner Visitation and Support (PVS). We are an organization which, while supported by a range of religious groups, does not have an evangelical or prosletyzing thrust. Our common work involves visiting prisoners, and talking with them. That's it. Now, many people do visit out of religious impulses (Jesus said, "visit the prisoners" and there are a significant number of visitors who work from this dictum). But I have been mightily impressed by how irrelevant to the common purpose that theological diversity seems at our training workshops. Practice trumps the specifics of faith.

So it's easy to come to the conclusion that we should all just ignore theory and theology and stick to practice. A lot of us do ignore it, but it is so centrally important to many individuals in their work, it makes it frankly dishonest to "leave out" of the discussion. And so we get tangled messes sometimes.

I'm thinking of situations where discord has invaded each of three three communities, and looking for a common thread in these discords. Can we get some perspective that works in general to resolve this kind of conflict on a structural level?

At PVS training sessions, people often give "personal stories" of why and how they joined PVS. I think because they are framed as personal, they are received in the spirit of personal testimonies, and I have never felt a sense of offense from the group. The only real offense I have seen taken at a PVS event was in an after-hours entertainment some years ago.

There was a recitation, clearly framed by the performer as one of her favorite poems, which involved racial stereotypes and issues of Native American suffering. It was explosive. Offense was taken. When the PVS board tried to distance itself from the performance and say it would not have allowed it had it known what the content would be, there was further irateness: some people felt that in distancing itself, the organization had betrayed the ability to speak one's mind. The whole event ended on a sour note, which is really weird for PVS. I think it shocked a lot of us, because it is normally such a "we're all in this toghether" kind of group.

What happened?

PVS does not advocate. It staunchly does not advocate. If you want to work for change in the federal prison system through advocacy or action, you need to join another group. PVS does what it does, and it is permitted access to federal prisoners because it so strictly restricts itself to this set of actions. One of the results of this non-advocacy is that the organization does not in any way link its actions to any specific theoretical or theological viewpoint. That is left solely to individuals.

Those who took offense felt that the performance violated that code. It was a statement framed not as a personal testimony, but as a performance. What caused the initial offense, I gather, was that it was seen as potentially a statement sanctioned by the organization, and there were those who strongly objected to its contents and wanted no part of such a statement. And the subsequent conflict was essentially between people who saw the performance (and perhaps performances in general) as representing the group vs those who saw it is solely personal.

In our Friends meeting, we've been wrestling for some time with a statement on theological diversity. Basically a way of saying, "the specifics of your faith are irrelevant to your being welcomed." An earlier statement was sent back, with a request to also address what it is that binds us together. A pretty broad statement was proposed this winter, and this was met with strong feelings, in large part around its deliberately non-Christian language.

The thing is, while issues of identity surrounding our Christian roots vs our non-Christian members have been brewing and percolating for some time, the meeting as a whole is steaming along. We are still a community. No real schisms. A few interest groups within meeting, and a worship group that budded off, but as far as I can tell no lasting ill-will. But the statement in question was (unintentionally) divisive. And I think the degree of passion in that divisiveness surprised most if not all.

Again, I think it was the idea that this was a statement of the whole that set things ablaze. We're used to individual statements, and have learned to frame them as such, so we can learn from them. And we do make collective statements, especially in the face of public injustice (I'm thinking here about GLBT issues, or issues around peace).

Here's what I think the difference is: We can make true collective statements if they are grounded in our collective experience. We can't make them if they are grounded in our separate experiences, even if those separate experiences seem to converge. Collective statements grounded in separate experience will be weak compromises.

The PVS performance was, I believe, not intended by the performer to somehow pressure us in to agreeing with her. I know her a little, and that's not her style. But something about the frame in which it was presented made it seem like a call to collective statement to some in the group, and I can see that standpoint too.

Likewise, the statement in meeting came out of the strongly felt sense by some members of the group which simply isn't felt by others. The group hadn't felt itself under the weight of collective experience, and so was divided on the statement.

Which brings me to cartography.

Cartography is a scattered practice. We each do our own thing, or we work within a small workgroup that does its own thing. We have common tools, mostly, and a recognizable "mappy" product, but how and why we get there are not as common collectively as we might think. And why we map is absolutely all over the board. We have assumed that there must be some commonality, but we have not really shared much specific experience as a group. And so any collective statement we made will be suspect and weak. And a proposed statement made by one of our number (or worse, someone who is not a practicing cartographer), attempting to speak for the whole, feels presumptuous.

I'm cogitating on this. Maybe hidden in this common practice are a variety of theoretical/theological types of personal bases to this practice. Maybe it would be helpful to open up the "whys" of cartographers in the same way that the "personal perspectives" pieces at PVS trainings and spoken ministry in Friends meeting can open up understanding. Maybe that would lead to a better sort of collective statement.

Or maybe it would lead to an understanding that at some level the only collective statement we can make is the practice itself.


Mark Wutka said...

Hi Nat,
I guess maybe I have at least seen you if not met you, since Ceal and I were at that PVS workshop - it was in Florence, right? I remember one of the board members saying that he came at it from the standpoint of not judging others. If we aren't supposed to judge the prisoners, or continue to hold their crimes against them, we shouldn't be advocating that in other situations. I'm not quite sure how applicable that line of reasoning was in this case. I agree it was a pretty surreal situation.

I think many Friends have trouble with the whole "collective experience" thing. Isaac Penington described the experience as "all that are of the
Lord of one heart, of one mind, of one judgment, in one way of practice and order in all things". If you ask someone to describe their experience of worship, how often will they talk about feeling oneness? I ask this because it often seems like Friends come to meeting to have separate experiences in the same place.

With love,

natcase said...

Mark: hunh! it was in Florence. Funny we haven't made the connection before.

What you say about Quakers and collective experience is true, I think especially with folks like me who come from an unreligious humanist background. I think collective experience gets lumped in with "groupthink" and mob mentality... the two are not totally unrelated, but the pernicious association between them in secularist culture makes it a hard concept to swallow. That's my theory anyway.

Dug said...

These days many maps are made by people who's "cartographic" training is one (or fewer) ESRI classes. Even some of us with cartographic training may not have much knowledge of geodesy or surveying (myself included). In other words the disparity of knowledge, background and purposes may be too much for a common cartographic ideal.

If there is an ideal or aesthetic that gets pushed on us, it's usually the non-aesthetic of Tufte - show only the needed information without embellishment or commentary. Like most Dogma, take what's useful but don't restrict yourself only to that way of thinking.

As for a common statement, perhaps a blog or site reviewing maps from popular media outlets would be a useful step. Various cartographers could weigh in on maps that are notable for good, bad or other reasons. If any of us actually have the time to do such a thing.

PVS sounds like a really worthwhile endeavor. Maybe we cartographers need visitors too!