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.

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