Thursday, October 28, 2010

Volcanoes are not the same

I had a longish list of subjects to talk about in the wake of the NACIS conference, but what I keep coming back to again and again is the uncomfortable feeling that "map" is somehow the wrong ontology—the wrong conceptual category—for what I am really interested in.

What I mean is the sense that's been growing in me, kind of under the surface of my everyday cartographic life, that the thing I claim to specialize in is like a dolphin leaping in and out of the water. Or maybe more accurately, it's the way we call certain geologic phenomena "volcanoes" as if they're one sort of thing, based on what they look like, rather than what processes they represent.

"Map," especially when equated with modern scientific cartography, is a form of expression. It's a technique and style of drawing. And on the surface it seems to have a generally unified subject matter: the surface of our planet. That at least is the definition you get if you abandon the the search for a categorical definition and fall back on a cognitive, examplar-based definition (see my earlier blog post.

But in the end this posits maps as a kind of object, rather than a kind of function. And if you look at a tradition of mapping, any mapping, you end up finding curious gaps: I'm thinking especially of the gaps in early maps for navigation, which Catherine Delano Smith documented in her article in Cartographies of Travel and Navigation (James Akerman, editor), which I reviewed in Cartographic Perspectives a couple years ago (PDF here). As I summarized:
Catherine Delano Smith, in the second article, discusses the origins of the modern road network map in medieval and early-modern European itineraries. These were largely textual until the late eighteenth century and did not evolve into visual tools for independent way finding until the nineteenth century. This came as a revelation to me; an almost map-free travel network is hard to imagine today, but Smith makes it clear that the use of maps as a basic tool for land travel is a modern development.
And yet, there was clearly navigational knowledge being passed along. Presumably it was passed along orally, and more importantly through repeated action: palmers learned the pilgrims route by first being an assistant to a pilgrimage's guide, then eventually leading groups themselves.

So if we think of maps as function rather than object, they become part of a continuum with other sorts of things. All sorts of things. All sorts of unrelated things. "Geographical knowledge," as a concept is an ontological pea soup [insert joke about AAG conferences here] and not all of it relates to maps at all... as those who have looked at maps for expressions of poetic sense of space have found to their detriment—some kinds of knowledge are in fact mutually exclusive of cartography—again see my discussion of cartography and the fine arts (PDF here)

No, I think what we have is something a little like "publishing," an interesting term used to describe a particular way of distributing knowledge. Like maps, some kinds of knowledge bob up and down in and out of publishing, while retaining their integrity: poetry is poetry whether it is recited in a non-literate society, scribbled privately in a diary, or published in books.

There are some classes of knowledge that sometimes pass through maps, and which we've gotten used to almost equating with maps. Navigation, for example. Human territory. The shape and texture of the surface of the earth. How people are scattered around the planet. How would we talk about these ideas without maps?

We use the word "house" to describe a thing by its function: wasps' nests, tepees, chateaux, the inner sanctum of a temple. Can we think about doing that with maps? Can we, the map people. let go of the term in the way that most writers end up doing the work and not worshiping the object? Can we think about:

Guides: communicators and communications to help strangers find their way through unfamiliar territory—and most of our territory is unfamiliar, even most of the cities we call home. Hedberg Maps make maps that have helped me find things in my home town of which I was unaware. But so have pieces of narrative prose, signs and markings on pavement, conversations, tours, and just walking around and learning the landscape through repetitive exploration.

Territory markers: It's the claiming of areas of land that generally gets cartocritics most het up. The way people can draw a line across a map and so divide up the world, without actual engagement with the land itself. But people were claiming territory long before cartography; indeed the bloody wars of the early early modern period— the Crusades, the Hundred Years War—were fought largely based on non-graphic ways of understanding the lay of the land. We mark our territories in a variety of ways, both with "permanent" physical barriers and boundary markers, and by social communication. As with navigation, signs and other "on the ground" graphic and textual clues are a kind of counterpart to mapping, providing a "civilised" alternative to dogs chasing you out of the yard.

Travelers tales: One of the things maps do is tell us something about territories we've never visited. The stories modern cartography tells are mostly grounded in documentary factuality, but the way we can read shaded relief or a map of ruins can stir the imagination in the same way that tales of Prester John and the Unipods did people centuries ago. And there is no shortage of other material that does the same: nature documentaries, travel photography, the stories we hear from friends...

Economic planning tools: statistical maps are mostly about (in a broad sense) the economy. By this I refer the original source of the word "economy", the Greek word οἶκος — house, household or family. Oἰκονομία means "household management," and the way we understand what is where in our increasingly broad collective household is part of a larger set of tools that gets people fed, warm, clothed, and otherwise provided for. In this sense, a statistical map is part of the same toolset as a spreadsheet, a shipping container, or the Federal Reserve's policy: they are all about recording and moving value.

I could surely come up with more, but then so could you. The point is, we cartographers do end up often hanging onto our technical expertise at our proclaimed specialty. And maps are a valuable kind of tool to let us look at the world from a step back, to place ourselves in an ordered version of space, to make sense. But we would do well to be aware (and beware) how much we are focusing on the sense rather than the thing we are making sense of.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet

[Note: this article presumes reading the book, and contains spoilers]

I have a few things to say about The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.

The novel was a best-seller when it came out in June of 2009, and initially received press attention because of the monumental advance the author Reif Larsen received for this first novel ($1 million). The reviews were mixed: most reviewers wanted very much to like such an unusually eloquent and evocative voice, but several (notably the New York Times and Washington Post reviewers) found the latter part of the book, especially the parts where T.S. Spivet visits Washington, disappointing.

Well, to be honest, they weren't my favorite bits either. But then, they also weren't T.S.'s favorite, and it kind of shows. The book, like most maps, doesn't entirely work as a linear narrative. It's a puzzle in which the linear progression of time and plot, while certainly straightforward (this is no Memento), is not the dominant, salient feature. Really, the most important moment is about 2/3 of the way through, when, at the conclusion of reading his mother's reconstruction of his great-grandmother's early life story, she abruptly cuts off the narrative, writing the name of T.S.'s dead brother, who perhaps died as she was writing. In this sense, it's a little like the symmetry of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", where the second half of the novel has the character working his way from that crux point, the nowhere of a midwestern wormhole, back to his family. Coleridge's Mariner's return journey also suffers somewhat...

The way T.S. simultaneously orbits his brother's death and avoids it that forms the central motion of the book. And an orbit is hardly a linear path: we return again and again to the same basic relationships: T.S.'s distant, formal relationship with both his scientist mother and cowboy father, his typically exasperated coexistence with both his living and deceased siblings, his obsession with drawing diagrams and maps as a way of making sense of the world, and the utter senselessness offered up by the world that he tries to map.

This is the second book about map people I've read this year. Unlike the author/subject of Map Addict (see my discussion here), the fictional narrator of this book is consumed by the promise of mapping and more generally of scientific study of the universe. It's appropriate that the character be a child—a prodigy with an disturbingly grown-up diction (and who has not known children with disturbingly grown-up diction)—but it is also notable, and lovely, to see a cameo appearance by Corlis Benefideo, the subject of Barry Lopez's short story "The Mappist" (see discussion here). And it's clear that Larsen wants his hero to be like the narrator's daughter in that story—the promise of a new generation who will humbly carry on the Work of mapping the world, piece by piece.

It's not how us cartographers usually see our role, any more than "making myths" being how novelists consciously view their craft as they go about it from day to day. But Larsen is pointing in this circular, spiraling book to the same basic sense Lopez pointed to: the humble recording and exploring and searching and the piece-by-piece processing of it all, is a kind of prayer to the universe. It's a kind of love.

So it really is a peculiar novel. It points toward what it's trying to say, leaving the largest points mostly unsaid, like notes at the edge of the map saying this destination is a certain distance further. We find a genius cartographer running into things that are unmappable and yet that mapping is his tool. We see a desire to be part of a great scientific enterprise crumbled into disillusionment, but not disillusionment with the enterprise, just with the clothes it has to wear—T.S. may be saying goodbye to the Smithsonian and to Washington, but not to the idea of the Smithsonian.

I keep seeing these sorts of orbits underlying some of my favorite books. The orbit in Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock is deceptive—it's a love story that orbits a kind of modernist despair. Here, the obvious suppressed and not-so-suppressed grief over T.S. brother's death looks like the focus of the orbit. T.S. clearly thinks it's what he's circling. But in the end, what is revealed a kind of stubborn, slow trust that some of the world is comprehensible. Even the terrible, stupid meaninglessness of his brother's death. In the end, the author (and narrator) point towards the love of parent and child, the care even the most scientific of us end up showing each other, that he has been circling, unaware, for the entire novel.