Tag Archives: Google Maps

Empire of All You Can Survey

In writing on Google Maps’ ambitions to map the world, Adam Fisher invokes Jorge Luis Borges‘ one-paragraph fable of how the Cartographers Guild “struck a Map of the Empire” at a 1:1 scale with its entirety, “On Exactitude in Science.”   Fisher evokes it in comparison to the massive collation of geographical coordinates in the virtual map Google Earth and Google’s project of remapping the world:  and although he does not note this, in Borges’ story, the map “which coincided point for point” with the empire is abandoned by generations “not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears.”

The map of the imperial cartographers Borges described stand as something of a reductio–or perhaps extensioad absurdam of the very sort of large-scale mapping that was first adopted in the English Ordnance Survey–a large-scale project of highly detailed national mapping begun in 1791 prototypically English in its character, ambition and scope.  What might be the largest (and longest lasting) mapping project ever undertaken might be worth some retrospective comparison.  The ambitious project of the Ordnance Survey of offering a highly detailed national map of six inches to the mile–since the 1950s, continuing at a scale of 1:10,000–set something of a standard for protecting the nation.  Originally aimed for one inch to 1000 yards (1:36,000), its framework was set by the Principal Triangulation of Great Britain (1783–1853), but its product served to record a legible record of all British lands.  The aim of the Ordnance Survey was to create a comprehensive record of Britain for ready consultation for defense against potential (French) invaders, and the instantiation of mapping of the nation has long been tied to military ends, whose tabulation of an exact correspondence to place provided an account of national resources and needs.  Borges’ evocation at the end of his tale of the continued presence of shreds of the paper map in remote deserts of the empire that he described is so very apposite because of how the comprehensive map-weaving in Google Earth renders any state-run project of paper mapping as so antiquated to be unrecognizable–and leaving any in shreds–although what the massive and glorious project reveals about map reading might be better explored.

The global map of Google assembles is of a qualitatively other order:   for one, it is an interactive exercise of letting the consumer decide what to map, or providing a selective map for their preferences or needs.  But more broadly, it is mapping for world-domination of the market for maps, which has no clear end-product.  And not only the market:  the interactive nature of Google Maps aims to make it inseparably fused to the minds of its users, suggests Michael Jones, chief technology officer at Google and co-founder of Keyhole, one of the first companies to offer online satellite views  suggests in a nice interview with James Fallows in the Atlantic.  For Jones, Google Maps  provide an “extra-smartness” due to their ready availability as interactive media,  effectively ramping up everyone’s IQ by 20 points and working toward offering a “continuous stream of guidance and information.”  Most users have so internalized the interactive map, the founder of Keyhole argues, that “they get so upset if the tools are inaccurate or let them down:  they feel like a fifth of their brain has been taken out.”  The aim is not to unfold Google Earth over a territory, but situate the map’s readability in our heads:  after 6,000-10,000 years, we’ve turned a bend and mapping has become both interactive and personal, or there is far less of a boundary between the personal and the map.

The map is no longer static, but both only and constantly being framed in an interactive fashion.  As well as change the nature of maps, it alters the nature of map readership in profoundly interesting ways, because of how it organizes and translates data into a new sort of platform.  Unlike a project of mapping national coherence, seems designed to offer a model for marketing maps that includes the ability to toggle directly into a visible record of place–“Street View”–that includes the now-familiar tagging of addresses, locations, and monuments that seemed once to be the semantic dominion of Facebook.  We can now see everything in the map, at incredibly high resolution, so we can prepare for trips of business, commerce, or pleasure by taking a look at the always-sunny record of the topography of wherever we might be heading when relying on Google’s Street View to take us there.

Whereas Borges described how the remnants of that hugely expansive paper map once coextensive with the empire that the cartographers created as lying only in the outlying deserts, Google hopes to overturn the notion of the paper map itself–leaving it shredded, or rather recycled–with everyone pulling up maps of their own on the screens of Android smart phones.  (Think of the cache of searched maps that one leaves, as a sort of paper trail, complete with search history and places navigated:  such information is not stored, Google says, but would give a veritable system of surveillance that the NSA must be eager to get its hands on, no matter what the recent ruling of Judge Richard J. Leon’s recent rebuke of mass surveillance practices, by questioning their violation of constitutional rights–no matter how ill-fated their attempt to mine big data to geo-locate global populations.  The “personalization” of the map as an interactive medium is widely seen as a surpassing of its static medium and becoming a web interface, introducing functions of zooming, panning, and rotating 360 degrees on a pin, qualitatively unlike a road atlas and even threatening to dethrone the TripTik.  For the “view” that Google aims to synthesize, linking the technologies of Keyhole and Google Earth and creates its illusion of continuity by how the alchemy of how digitized photography seamlessly melds images tagged with exact geographic coordinates.

The excitement of translating global meridians as a scheme of reference are gone, as are the excitement of working from a single base-line, to be extended outwards by triangulation, that so distinguished the Principal Triangulation and its American emulator, the Point of Beginning–a starting point of the calculation of rectangular land-surveying that took on somewhat suitable evangelical tones for the New World, after the Royal Society tracked the Mason-Dixon line.  For the mapping of the territory of the US shaped the configuration of states from the ascertaining of the base-line that determined the rectangular surveying of the United States further West–

 

map_point_of_beginning

 

One thinks of a similar line not at the Continental Divide, but the line surveyed dividing the continents of Asia and Europe at a precise point in Russian lands–a point that was cause for continued debate from the time of Catherine the Great as to the European location of Russia’s capital cities, viewed from a train on the way from Yekaterinberg to Vladimir, one encounters a simple obelisk to note the division.

 

obelisk:  Europe is to the left!Derek Low

 

The stem division is inscribed along this frontier in monumental form at multiple sites, or in elegantly neorealist terms at another site, similarly in a wilderness, as if a monument that few would view until they arrived to see it or passed by:

 

p1030748

 

These material markers use statuary monumentality to remind passersby of the definitive nature of the line between continents that they traverse.

Google Maps (and Google Earth) is less concerned to create a correspondence within the conventions of maps to order space within a nation than to create a map outside sovereign bounds.  If there is a clear spatial marking of the “Point of Beginning” where the survey that determined state lines and lots drawn east of the Mississippi, the folks at Google have no interest to place a place where their mapping project begins; the premium is rather to capture all the points of view so accessible a mouse-click away.  There will be no reason or interest to mark an actual boundary line, was the case on the centenary of determining the boundary of 1786:   the marker celebrated the triumph of the conventions of the cartographical line in ways that Google won’t ever need to do, since their world mapping is entirely virtual, dispensing with or downplaying conventions like map-signs.

 

 

Beginning_Point_of_the_U.S._Public_Land_Survey_Ohio

 

When Google maps, there is no need for mere monuments–or the practice of verifying base-lines.  The empire of the visible that Google aims to construct is animated by the indexing of digital photographs that can be reassembled at the viewer’s will; Google will offer them upon demand.  The paradox is that little actual measurement is expected, but rather that lines of data flow must be secured:  programs can synthesize the photographs that are uploaded into Google’s Street View or Google Earth, and provide a way of moving from the street map to a representation of what it looks like to be outside the map–allowing one to toggle between “Map,” “Terrain,” and “Street-View”–the holy trinity of their App–to immerse oneself in the map wherever one is, without any need for future surveys, and in ways that show to all who care the skeletal nature of a simple map.  The map is dead, in the sense of a drawn map whose conventions are about translation, but long live the map as a visual record!

There is something like a back-end move in Street View, or Google Earth, as the photograph (or a million digital photographs, seamlessly woven together) substitutes for and comes to replace the map.  The symbolization of space in a street plan or road-map becomes a heuristic device for exploration, in ways that is only a hollow echo of the photographs synthesized in Street View, which are so much more satisfyingly real:  the innovation of the satellite views of Keyhole, acquired by Google and the basis for Google Earth, allows the direct proximity for viewing place, and exploring space, that seems to go through the other side of the map itself, or be a proxy mirror on what the map maps.  Google began its quest to assemble the world on the slippy screen by downloading–or purchasing–the newly declassified LandSat satellite photographs of the world’s surface, and by purchasing and synthesizing the U.S.G.S. surveys of our nation’s road maps:  little was newly mapped here, but the world was newly mapped, in the sense that it was now made available to a larger audience than it had ever been mapped for.  The empire of map-signs did not live long, however, because the unique marketing vehicle of Street View, which set Google Maps off from others, afforded viewers something more palpable and immediate (and more gratifying) than a mere map, and whose skeletal form is revealed by toggling among alternative views:  the map as the ultimate eye-candy and as the vehicle of voyeurism, where one wouldn’t have to be content with lines on a piece of paper, but could gloriously pan around and, yes, turn one’s attention to a perpetually sunny record of whatever one wanted to see.  (“Keyhole” technology all too appropriately allowed the very zooming into high-resolution satellite views of Earth that Google now provides, as if to engage the voyeuristic interest in reading maps that the static map did not allow, and has become central to the interactivity of Google Earth.)

Why would one chose to go back to the map, or explore the map as a medium in itself?  In a neat slight of hand, there suddenly is no map, in the sense that the map is trumped as the primary register of negotiating with place, and one can suddenly see through it.  The question then becomes less a map that is co-extensive with the world, but an image-mine that dispenses with the need to make any maps.  Sure, Google is going around and checking the relations of roads and one-way turns on their road maps.   The end of doing so is to create for its users a point of view that never needs to be redefined:  much as Denis Cosgrove argued the point of view of medieval maps was often understood as the eye of God, Google Maps provides a point of view somewhat like a Leibnizian eye of a God ever-present everywhere.   OpenStreetMap is often cast as a competitor to Google Maps, is pushing in the quite contrary direction not only in the open-ness of its A.P.I., but in preserving continued relevance for the map as a collective compilation of data and meaning–and preserving both the activity of transcription we all call mapping, but is always also mapping to help us better figure out our relation to how we occupy spatial expanse.  For as much as Google Earth might be seen as the modern corollary to “the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City” in Borges’ story, geo-caching Street View images in Google Earth suggests another parable.  Much as Yertle the Turtle, King of the Pond, proudly proclaimed himself Emperor of All He Could See, until Mack burped, Google feeds our inner Yertles, more than maps the spaces we occupy.

While the evocation of The Principal Triangulation of Great Britain may seem odd, the massive project of data collation set a standard that has long driven our notion of the land-map.  Google Maps creates a persuasive illusion of totality of the visible world that often does not map human networks or their environmental consequences, and which may leave us blind to them even as it champions map-reading as something like a spectator sport.  Google Earth’s dominance as a medium raises questions about what other sorts of networks are left unmapped, or what other methods of dynamic mapping might represent social networks, but that are less clearly revealed in its maps–or are obscured–in the seamlessly knit sunlit world that we track in the slippy maps of the open screens of our androids and other Google Earth browsers.

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Filed under Google, Google Earth, Google Maps, Keyhole, OpenStreetMaps (OSM), Principal Triangulation of Great Britain

The Map is Dead–Long Live the Map!

Participants at the symposium Mapping and Its Discontents debated the benefits of the near-ubiquity of uniform mapping systems sponsored and orchestrated by Google in our lives.  Many of the wonderful papers tried to suggest the benefits that mapping served as alternate ways of making visible the unseen and giving voice to the silenced–but did so with deep skepticism of the dominance of Google Map’s blandly undifferentiated surface, both as a sort of collective erasure of knowledge, and a sinister synthesis of gathering meaning about individuals’ consumption habits.  In this somewhat hopeful symposium, whose speakers urged the audience to go forth and map, Denis Wood offered a skeptical history of mapping as a form of art, focussing less on its craft than on the contexts in which it was read and exchanged–and the historical “explosions” of map making as a tool of state-making.

Although Scott McCloud does trace comics back through cave paintings and the Bayeux tapestry, something we recognize as a comic book it to printing and mass-production of paper in the mid-nineteenth century, the printed ephemera Alan Aldridge and George Perry first identified as antecedents to  the sort of fantastic album art he produced, we don’t see much we would recognize as a map until printing, Wood argues–and that the fifteenth century is a good place to start the history of maps.  But rather than peg the map to the material practices of the production of information, the ways of embodying information and need to embody networks of spatial organization reflect the new need of an emerging modern nation-state–as well, he might add, though he omitted it yesterday, the need to straighten out clear bounds of contact and digest the discovery of new worlds.  (One might object that rather than leave this entity of the “state” so monolithic, dual origins of causation can be seen in the Renaissance, both as a period of contact with new worlds and that gave currency to the creation of newly imagined worlds–the “other Green world” of Harry Berger–as joint ground in the poetics of making, reading, and reproducing the map.)

As longtime interrogator of the power of maps and enfant terrible of the cartographical establishment, Wood’s opening salvo called attention to how print helped differentiate the standardization of shared practice of mapping space from the genealogy, charter, systems of notation, almanacs, calendars, or rolls, maps served to conjure the state to existence in its graphic performance–and to conjure the state, in ways repeated in histories of Japan, Siam, and the United States, as Elizabeth Berry, Thongchai Winichakul, and Martin Bruckner have shown, as a natural object, when it was not before.  Any attempt to naturalize the map either as a depiction of the world’s surface or universalize its documentary function, he noted, including the celebration of the recent democratization of mapping skills that seem to dislodge authority from the map’s form, passes over the map’s role in the state and state formation as a form of spatial intelligence and spatial intelligibility.

We might do well to look for origins, Wood proffered, by asking exactly when it became a slur on a civilization that it does not use maps–or couldn’t read them.  The question was enticing because of how it raised questions of the ties of map making less as an instrumental tool of dominance over space, than a standard of civilization and knowledge–a standard of the sort that Graham Greene evoked in his postwar visit to Liberia, Journey without Maps (1949).  Although Greene’s visit to the colonial outpost was certainly a product of Africa’s partial colonization by European industry, and the end of English empire, his account reflects Wood’s point that maps exists only where social relations call for them exist:  that where talk serves, maps are rare; but that when talk becomes inadequate, alternative graphic forms of communications develop within the state–of which the map plays a central role.  Greene beautifully if parsimoniously evoked the elderly toothless man with whom he shared a boat ride at the end of his 1946 journey who suddenly approached him with a piece of pressing news:  “‘Do you know that in Monrovia they have a map of the whole of Liberia?  I’m going there to see it.  It is in the possession of a family called Anderson.  They have had it for years,'” he says wonderingly, suggesting amazement at the foreign family of colonizers who possess a map of the entire country in which he lives.  “‘Sinoe is marked on it,'” he continues, “‘and Grand Bassa and Cape Palmas,'” repeating what he has been told by others, but never having seen a map of his entire land.  The encounter might well have been invented by Greene, but created a topos for the encounter between the map-literate and native that presumed an eagerness for encountering a map–the map seems a sort of lodestone–that might be either a western fantasy or a deeper discovery of a land where, absent the myth of colonial organization, the residents don’t know maps, or an illustration of deep ties of mapping to the civilizing process delineated by Norbert Elias.

Printing allowed the map to penetrate the lives of people about 1500, unlike other forms of data-keeping:  for the creation of a map that penetrated the lives of ordinary people and readers effectively under-wrote social relations of power in very concrete, linking territory to other things in ways that advanced the making of maps and shifted the role of mapping as an enterprise:  we count only a few thousand maps prior the growth of the nation, but an explosion of the production of maps in the sixteenth and seventeenth century occurred of the sorts of which was never known, and parallels the map’s entry into individuals’ lives to a degree that never occurred earlier–a notion, as Wood long ago argued, of “map-literacy.”

Nations were indisputably the new arenas of this move to mapping, unlike the printed maps that were widely sold in Italian city-states or the Netherlands.  Earlier maps such as cosmological charts, star maps, or property charts of the Babylonian period or in Japan and England had legal purposes, but quite different from large-scale graphic property function in varied places around the world, and without participating in a map-making tradition in projects such as the mapping efforts of Phillip II to create detailed records of imperial possessions in the Mediterranean, or the huge map making projects of Louis XIV and Colbert that are tied directly to the state and to the material recreation of state sovereignty.  (Of course, this raises the question as to why maps first emerged as forms for advancing epistemic claims and embodying places in areas that were less clear as examples of the modern state, like Italian city-states or sites without empires like the Netherlands or whether the imaginative ends of mapping can be separated from their administrative ends.  Wood sees them as being as tightly tied as the sides of the same Moebius strip.)

It is in this arena of the state, Wood forcefully argued, that we can see the inauguration of modern topographical functions from real estate, to prisons, to cellphone use, to voting practices, to states rights, to a point at which we can’t consider life without maps.  The date 1500, far from being one of convenience, is something like a benchmark or velocity point for the new roles that maps began to play and that they continued to assume today–a point of no return, as it were, of the sort Ian Hacking drew to mark the emergence of probability at the date 1660.  Only after 1500, or in later periods, did mapping emerge as a way of life, Wood insisted:  if some fourteenth-century monks drew plans of their monastery, the idea was not widely or even narrowly pursued as a basis for collating evidence, or followed up on in ways that reflect the multiple functions maps came to assume.  There is a bit of utopianism here:  whereas human societies didn’t need maps, and got on well without them before 1200, he argued, noting rights and properties’ specific attributes in other ways,  the map’s discourse-function failed to develop itself as a means to exploit strategic resources and to have operable use and currency.  While he recognized the evidence of the creation of maps in Song-era China within select parts of well-established bureaucracies, only later did maps gain a large discourse-function of operability.   This may be a bit of a slippery logic, but argues that the “map” had new meaning at a certain point as an object of exchange, and that no properties inherent to its design exist save as such an object of exchange.  So much for its formal attributes.

Wood marked the birth of the map that is now perhaps dead  at this sort of a watershed:  in 1400, few used maps; by 1600, maps became inseparable from social functions in a global context that is itself only beginning to be mapped.  The abundance of eighteenth-century maps in China, or in the seventeenth century in Japan, and in Vietnam from the 15th and 16th century, and Mesoamerican and Malay maps in 16th century, are traditions that inaugurated in the early modern state.  Indeed, there is a weight of evidence to shift this change in the growth of European knowledge, and it reflects a massive rise of needs for map making to ensure border control, water management, land reclamation, military needs that just exploded with the state.  If even in Florence, Italy few maps exist from before 1565, Florentine, Neapolitan and Milanese mapping projects all exploded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they did in seventeenth century Japan, when thousands of government maps issue in Japan, and maps served to perform the form of statehood.  

What changed, Wood argues,  was that then new political structure of impersonal construction demanded new forms for its embodiment, and gained a propositional function that was absent from earlier map making traditions–a propositional function that was necessitated and called into creation by the state.  He recalled how Martin Bruckner showed how the image of the national map of the United States staked the proposition that there could be a tenable unity among this expansive nation, much as imperial maps of Britain tried to persuade readers on both sides of continent of imperial possession of north american content, as an artifact of state–both of these cases illustrate the new tangibility that the map assumed as a means of calling the expansive relation of the state into existence by the graphic performance of statehood that was newly enacted in the printed map, and which the map served to make legible.  As Thongchai has shown in his work on Siam, maps served to produce the very “geobodies” that become totemic through the map’s presentation of the state, creating a sense of unity not familiar to many, but able to normatize a nascent polity, and to instruct countless participants in the construction of our country–even without a clear idea of citizenship.  The skill of state apparatus lay in bringing routine of state practices to a larger audience, as Valerie Kivelson argues in Russia, down to a lower level of reading–as the map served, both in Japan and elsewhere, multiple function to against the images of other states and other imaginative constructions.  Identical patterns of map-use can be found in these cultures, and, not surprisingly, in the post-WWII state of Israel, founded in part by European Jews:  in each place, maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map, summoning unity from . . . chaos.

The medium of the map and its power as a form of synthesis arises as a new form of narration when other forms of narrative do not suffice–it is both the master-narrative and originary myth of the modern state.  And, indeed, maps have become so powerful to bring objects into being in concrete terms, that it would be impossible to discuss otherwise in a multitude of ways–from the nation to the distribution of electoral politics to the spread of fires to the ozone hole to El Nino.

 

Footprints of Actively Burning Fires--Google Map

Ozone Loss Map

 

The credence that maps create by linking subjects of propositions to a specific code enables these new subjects to be discussed, and in linking subjects of propositions like the state to the code inherent in mapping, and to real relations in the world, maps can come to signify the world, and networks of causation within it, as well as prospective statements for its future.  As Wood wrote in an earlier context, “Insisting that something is there is a powerful way of insisting that something is.  Mapped things–no matter how conceptually daunting–possess such extraordinary credibility because they’re capable of propelling into popular discourse abstruse abstractions:  high-pressure cells, El Nino, seafloor spreading, thermohaline circulation.”  Or global warming, or the the expanding ozone hole, earthquake swarms, or the global threats of desertification of arable land.  These curious abstractions enter public debate as concrete terms, if never clearly grasped, based on their cartographical realization.  It is, of course, only because of maps that these very issues can become contentious foci of public debate.

 

Tracing Sandy--Time Map

Prognosticating hurricane_sandy_map

 

The map serves double-duty a representation or a cloak, Wood makes clear.  Its two-fold duties are so effective to make creative practices of map making disappear, to make states affirm their role as real things of nature–even as maps obscured their own existence in the reasons of the state itself.   And if it’s hard to imagine that these artifacts as nations or concepts like ozone could come into creation, without the creative functions of the map, the wonder of the map is to link subjects of proposition signified (State) with signifiers constituted by their code–and to signify the world.  This might explain their clear currency as a form of realizing the make-believe, or fantastic, with a sense of actual concreteness by delineating a credible topography with which we can visually interact–especially while reading a text, and in whose creation we can indeed vicariously share, so powerfully creative do they affect their readers.

The use of maps to lend credence to propositions in the early modern world led them to embody abstractions from the map of “Utopia” Thomas More pointedly included in his dialogue of the same name, the maps of emotions Mme. de Scudery devised as Cartes de Tendre, or Jonathan Swift’s maps of Lilliput and Blefescu or Gunniland in his “proposal for correcting modern maps,” or–and here we leap centuries–modern ancestors such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, whose fantastic claims to embodiment in maps extend all the way up to map of Middle Earth–and to those Christopher Tolkein subsequently expanded–whose publication and currency, he argued, led anyone with a computer software applications to make maps from Grand Theft Auto to map art, as map is congenial subject of exhibition.

More Utopia Map

220px-Moll_-_Map_of_Lilliput

Carte de Tendre

But are not these maps playful inversions of the operative roles of maps as tools of state–orchestrated by figures with close state roles, as More and Swift?  The role of middle-range cartographers from E.H. Shepherd to Christopher Tolkein to Jules Feiffer, to trace one genealogy, seems quite distinct.

phantom-tollbooth-map

 

Is the state’s stranglehold on cartography at last weakening, much as Wood asserts, even with the diffusion of mapping platforms and the availability of digital mapping tools?  Wood detects a twilight of the age of the paper map as leading to an end of the dominant role that maps of states once enjoyed as vehicles to view boundaries and confines of state possession and areas of juridical control.  This does not mean that maps are less used by the state.  But that the map is less the gripping tool of engagement whose history he has traced since circa 1500, the magic date from which maps were, he argued, so instrumental in conjuring the subject of the state and so successful in naturalizing its truth claims as part of our world.  This may be curious, because of the proliferation of digitized maps that defines potentially unwieldy concepts–global warming; the ozone hole; hurricane Sandy’s path; plankton algae bloom distributions–that can be latched onto in public debate and, occasionally, grasped.  Or, on a humanitarian level, the sort of crowd-sourced map of deaths in Syria’s civil wars, legibly tracking a succinct geographic table of the distributions of killings, rapes, revenges, and poisonings or the humanitarian disasters of the Syrian refugees whose number has far surpassed two million.

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of killings, rapes, revenges and poisoning

Syriatracker

Syrian Refugee Crisis

 

We can also distinguish better and worse attempts to map  tragic humanitarian disasters among these visualizations.

One may, indeed, ask what constitutes the state today–and try to map it–or try to define to the widespread distribution of mapping functions within states.  Wood presented the insanely rising prices of old maps sold at auctions today as making something of a mockery of the idea that states so monopolizes the use of maps that it cannot but illustrate state functions.  But are not these maps, now evacuated of meaning and illusions of power, disquietingly assuming a role, retrospectively, as images of a world where power worked differently, or of an age when the design of maps was performed with such due diligence and care?

But Wood is perhaps too happy to say goodbye to the map.  If this grammar is not that much less operative, is it true that the state’s stranglehold on cartography is now weakening or has weakened?  Or that cartography–and the illusion of the map–has outlived its function as a basis to visualize the nation?  Wood doesn’t find that the state can any longer repeat the trick of naturalizing its own presence through the operations of naturalizing with GIS tools, partly because of their lack of similar persuasive skills.  But if it may be argued that the state has no need for the same truth-claims any more, as they are, somehow, finding themselves to be outdated, that doesn’t mean that the collective power of mapping does not exist outside the purview of the state, and as an activity of resistance and calling into being new information, as several other papers delivered at the same conference by Annette Kim and Rebecca Solnit showed.

But although maps arose in needs of nation state to take on form, and organize its interests, rather than seeing some sort of triumphalism continuing in the use of maps to shore up the nation-state, from Raleigh, NC, Wood doesn’t see the map as doing that good a job even as a tool of surveillance.  And he sees the use of maps to call attention to historical practices, and even to restore historical landscapes, as well as address issues of social justice, as marginal to the disappearance of the map as a tool of state control.  The declining efficacy of the sort of operations that maps were able to accomplish, he notes, seem to have contributed–notwithstanding the omnipresence of maps in our lives–to its declining authority, more than a ‘democratization of mapping’ can be celebrated. But as the functions of state-power also seem to be less clearly visualized–and preserved–by means of maps in an increasingly interdependent world where the concept of the boundaries of a map have less meaning as fabricating a category or signifier out of whole cloth, perhaps the map would enjoy new versatility as a tool outside the rubric of the state that so long sponsored it.

If one can talk about a geohumanities that extends beyond those with digital expertise, who engage in studying and producing the culture, that would depend on understanding of ‘map making’ not only as a practice, but as a verb engages other contexts, and a verb that offers something like a grammar in conversation that is specific to the map as an object, distinct from other accumulations of evidence, as well as appreciating the role of mapping as an art.  If in an age of such widespread collations and ordering of evidence, the paper map–and the official map–is somehow rendered obsolete, even as multiple maps continue to wage authority in ordering our lives.  But the ubiquity of Google Maps can be resisted, if only by making its origins better known, and its the limits of its practices evident.  To be seduced by their objectivity is surely to ignore the continued power that maps still have.  If maps continue to offer such a pleasurable area of exploration in Grand Theft Auto and other media, it seems likely that personal meanings maps afford provide not just diversions in the esthetics of map making, but appropriations of an all too familiar authoritative form to define boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, trace networks of meaning, and give stability to collective entities, even in the age of the slippy maps fabricated by Google that convert declassified satellite photographs to easily downloadable tiles.

Wood’s prognostication of the death of the map seems premature.  Perhaps we, as consumers of digitized information, pay attention to its grounding in geographic reality and its operations, and are also less susceptible to the sequestered codes contained within maps, or the truth claims of a single map’s persuasive form.   Perhaps the map’s near-ubiquity cannot but decrease its authority.  But we do seem to stand at the brink of a future where mapping is ever-present as a form of surveillance; perhaps a society in which power has learned to work in new ways, unmoored from maps to define power and realize or recognize its bounds, but has adopted mapping forms as dispersive ways to organize power claims.  But in this society, maps can gain new power as media to realize networks of which too few seem aware.

Wood suggests that the map is dead, perhaps, as a useful tool of conversion in the arena of state.  If the act of mapping seems less clearly situated in the arena of the state, or less dominated by the state, this does not mean that maps are media that don’t still mystify relations of power.  And if the leaks of Edward Snowden have shown that the state is surveilling us to a far greater extent than ever imagined was the case, Wood found little evidence that that has made so much of a difference, or that that helps states do much of a better job.  The query cannot but arise in response:  did the map ever do that much of a functional job, or only a basis for imagining a state that performed its functions well?  Long live the map, perhaps as a form of counter-mapping.

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Filed under Google Maps, infographics, mapping state interests, maps and state formation, newsmaps

Targeting Sites of Attack in Syria

 

Syria, for now, remains on the map.  But in the course of over two years civil war aged across Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad has stock-piled chemical weapons as a last line of security in multiple sites.   President Barack Obama’s administration has made use of chemical weapons against Syria’s population a justification for military attacks against or intervention in the country.  But the prominence given to drawing this “red line” on the use of such weapons neglects to assess the pragmatic results of any intervention, and the nature of what form on-the-ground intervention in the relatively shifting state would take–or what ends such military actions would be able to serve.

The direction of the situation is not good, to be sure. The number of Syrians reported killed, abducted, gassed, or poisoned during the civil war over the past two and a half years, tabulated by Syriatracker, clearly centers the focus of violence around its capital city, Damascus, and is probably vastly under-reported:

 

Syria Tracker- Missing, Killed, Arrested

The on-the ground situation is more complex than this map of reported violence:  especially if one looks at the disparate groups that have independently continued (or sustained) the ongoing rebellion against the Syrian government, or, even more strikingly, at the huge number of internally displaced Syrians, a number greater than anywhere else in the world; and the  number of Internally Displaced People is difficult to count; estimates are 4.25 million–almost 1 in 5 Syrians.  The consequences of this displacement are impossible to map.

 

The situation on the ground has provoked this displacement through the fragmenting of the Rebellion into multiple fronts.    An important and informative interactive Al Jazeera map of groups in the Syrian rebellion provides a far more complex measure of divisions among rebellious groups that have attracted different financial and military backing to overthrow Assad also challenging to map:  rebels on different fronts include the large Northern Front near Damascus to Aleppo Front, Idlib Front, and Eastern Front, some in uneasy relations to one another, and is worth examining in depth at its website, in order to understand the mosaic of divisions in a landscape whose sectors are often pointlessly divided between “rebel-held” and those where Assad is dominant:

Mapping Interactive Map of Syrian Opposition
Al Jazeera English

The above image of the fragmented nature of local control, and the independence of each group from one another, suggests the difficulty of defining a clear point of entrance and reveals the nature of ‘proxy war’ that has expanded over two years since the Arab spring, as the response to the Arab Spring of April 2011 that challenged the Assad dictatorship were almost randomly attacked by a violent militaristic security forces that echoed the violent tactics of Bashar’s father, firing live bullets into crowds of protestors and unarmed civilians, killing many innocent children, in acts of carnage and terror documented by Human Rights Watch as killing 587 civilians and over 250 children that emulated the theatrical mass-assassinations orchestrated against Syrians by his father, Haifez al-Assad.  The repressive violence of these events, before civil war, increased the range of foreign bankrolling independent factions of rebellion, which is misleadingly cast as uniform by a map of anti-government forces as the below two-color map devised for Max Fisher of the Washington Post, which borders on intentional political disinformation:

syriaForMax-2

 

Despite using a uniform color to denote “rebel presence” as a single, uniform beige to mask divisions within “rebel presence” and the numerous individual deals that the Assad regime might make within them–and mask the actual of what David Brooks and others correctly identify as a “proxy war” between Russian planes flying from Iran over the nation, Hezbollah present in Syria, and with multiple “combustion point for further waves of violence.”   The war is, in fact, not properly “civil” at all, so much as a broader war for the realignment of Middle East politics–and despite the attempts of previous administrations to involve rebel groups within the negotiation, the readiness with which the Trump administration seems more ready to strike–or threaten to strike?–from the eastern Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, and Red Sea–with less attention to the ethnic composition of Syria, than its own show of strength.

 

 

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We have been particularly ill-served to understand the nature of this “proxy war” by the reductionist attempt to map ethnic diversities in Syria as if they revealed an internal fragmentation of a nation that is being driven apart by exterior forces.  Such a map implies that the many sectarian divisions masked by the creation of the Syria’s borders account for instabilities among rebel groups, as if they are inherent in a multi-ethnic state as an amalgam of faiths destined to implode, regardless of the brutality of the two generations of the Assad regime:

Levant_Ethnicity_lg-smaller1-zoom

Yet the divided nature of the country lies in part in the improvised nature of resistance to a totalitarian regime, and the culture of violence that has been normalized within the Assad regime and within Assad’s security forces–the notorious Air Force Intelligence (إدارة المخابرات الجوية‎), whose ties to chemical weaponry have been substantiated in the recent past.

The drawing of stark divisions between areas controlled by different fronts and subject to government control obscure the near impossibility of drawing these lines of distinction along clear territorial boundary lines–and prepare a deceptively simple image of Syria’s future.  One BBC news-map helpfully re-dimensions the local conflict, mapping government positions toward the coast and eastern cities, around holdouts and temporary redoubts of rebel resistance–although clear mapping of their division is difficult given the shifting landscape of alliances and lines of territorial defence among highly mobile guerrilla forces, who often tactically withdraw, rather than face military engagement, but can’t map the shifting lines of opposition or control–or the relations between the fronts that are themselves supported by different constituencies in a patchwork of strongholds:

Mapping Syrian Conflict BBCBBC/Syria Needs Analysis Project

 

The map poses deep questions of what intervention would mean without a clear map even available to be read.  They also reveal how much the debate about war is being waged not only in words, but maps.  The focus of global attention is not only on the violence that has divided the country for over two years, to be sure, or the humanitarian disasters created by the many refugee camps on Syria’s borders, but allegations of the use of chemical weapons.  Yet the mapping of Syria’s disasters and composition are central to any discussion of military intervention.

And we now have a map of where strikes might be directed against air force bases and sites of chemical production, courtesy Foreign Policy magazine, which uses a Google Maps template to mark the storehouses of potential chemical factories and air bases targeted as primary sites of missile attack:

Air Bases and Chemical Sites in Syria

 

What sort of a vision of Syria as a country does it describe?  The visually striking deployment of skulls-and-crossbones icons to designate locations of plants that produce chemical weapons is scary, and so much so that it almost evokes incursions by pirates along the Mediterranean coast–as much as sites of chemical weapons.  (Of course, such sites would not in themselves be targeted, but the decision to avoid them depends on the accuracy of military intelligence; the decision to target all pharmaceutical factories also poses a  future crisis for already over-crowded Syrian hospitals.)  But it suggests a rather blunt map of the notion of military intervention, and reveals the difficulty of projecting a limited surgical strike against selective sites that are removed from the Syrian population.

In the light of the relative military success of the long-distance bombing strikes into Algeria, it seems tempting and morally compelling option to end the violence and self-evident terror of gas attacks by unseating the Assad tyranny, or by providing Syria with a clear warning–although what it would warn we are not sure–against purposefully deploying chemical agents against its citizens.

The map raises many questions by marking so many facilities along Syria’s Mediterranean coast.  It makes one wonder how such a map became so easy to reconstruct–and the wisdom of allowing such a plan of attack to be rendered public on the internet.  For the map suggests that strikes can be easily launched, in a sort of war conducted from aircraft carriers at a distance against Iran’s close ally, firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at them from American warships moved to the eastern Mediterranean–although it’s relatively easy construction has led many to openly wonder why such a detailed range of options would be publicly leaked by the White House in such detail, even indicating the targets of a strike of one to two days against fifty specific sites.  (Reuters found redeployment of many key army, air force, and security headquarters buildings in central Damascus that might attract U.S. cruise missiles, and poison storehouses, if not sites of production, could be moved.)  Would it be worth the potential danger of hitting a storehouse of sarin or FX?

Targeting chemical factories, moreover, does not address the likely existence of available chemical arms–although attacks render their release more likely. Every chemical plant is not the producer of sarin and mustard gas.  In imagining the raids on the air-bases and potential sites of chemical weapons, the map takes advantage of a registry compiled by the  Nuclear Threat Initiative locating where weapons are either manufactured or stored.  Yet despite the offensiveness of chemical gasses, their repellent nature, and their close historical association with threats or attacks of terrorism, what sort of counter-attack on the Syrian population the government would unleash as a response to the attack is not clear.  The attempt to paralyze Syrian aircraft who might attempt to deliver them seems worthy, but the bombing of potential plants risky at best. Bombing sites of chemical production doesn’t sound like that great an idea after all, however, since this would most likely disperse the very gasses that they contain–with more dangerous effects than the uses of Sarin or FX against the Syrian population–if such targeting would of course not be intentional.

The incommensurable relation between an air-raid or selective missile strike with storage-sites of chemical weapons has led several to question the value of such attacks, even after knowledge that the government may have intentionally used poison gas against its own citizens.  There is a small likelihood of eradicating more than a small portion of stockpiled chemical weapons in the country, since, unlike biological weapons, most probably will only be widely dispersed by such a blast–and conceivably hurt civilians as they more widely and rapidly disperse, considerably raising the bar for “collateral damage.”

How any such sort of attack will change “action on the ground”–and the questions of what military strike can alter the humanitarian and moral disaster that Syria has already become–remind us of the pressing need to have a clearer map of the action on the ground than a Google Map can reveal, as we examine consequences of a “limited air strike” beyond the hope to cripple the Syrian airforce or discourage the terrifying possibility of further use of poisonous gas against an opposition–and ask if a “limited air strike” is possible in this complex geopolitical microclimate.

Lastly, the mapping of clear targets and divisions within Syria’s boundaries obscures a hidden–but important–map of refugees on the borders of the country.  As well as having internally displaced millions, the fragmentation of fronts in the country have created a growing humanitarian crisis in camps on Syria’s borders, and the 3.5 million refugees who are estimated to leave the country by the end of 2013 for neighboring regions, further fragmenting and dispersing the country’s population:

 

map refugees Syria by 2013 3.5 mill

 

Color-coded according to the largest number of Syrian refugees received in each country, we range from deep purple in Lebanon (more than half a million refugees dwell), and just less than half a million are in Jordan and Turkey, and smaller numbers in Iraq and Egypt  – 161,879 and 75,456.  This alternative geopolitical map serves as a negative view of the strategic relations between he nations.  It also poses a problem of how each of these countries respond to the crisis:  such a data-visualization fails to render the different immediate challenges of each refugee family, their poverty, and their amassing on the borders of each region, rather than throughout the country.  For this is a humanitarian disaster waiting to be mapped.

Given the difficulty in mapping the multiple divisions within the country into rebel and government forces, and the crises of internal and external displacement of Syria’s population, we must resist seeing mapping clear targets of attack.  The maps of clear divisions in the country as a clear opposition of forces are distorting filters that are more distracting than they are informative, with overly neat and tidy boundary lines.  The complex conflicting rebel factions supported by backers, and the sort of power vacuum that would be created by significant and serious destablization of the country or desperate responses (or the shifting of responsibility) that strikes against the country’s remaining inhabitants might trigger.

Syria’s conflict of course exists not only as a map of frontiers and inhabitants.  Worldwide, it should be remembered, there remains significant opposition to military intervention, charted by Mona Chalabi and Charlotte Henry in the The Guardian’s datablog–not only because of longstanding alliances between Iran and Syria, or Syria and Russia, but exceedingly complex questions of what ends intervention would accomplish–and what outcomes it would produce, as well as how it would be sustained.

 

 

Condemnation of Intervention

 

Viewing the conflict in Syria not only through the lenses of national alliances, but by what can be best mapped on the ground, must become more central to US foreign policy objectives.  We cannot “chastise” or “wound” the Assad regime without realizing that we may wound the country, or erase it from the map.

All too easily, from the point of the United States, at least, we risk viewing the conflict either too much on the micro level, or at a remove of the capacity of bomb strikes, paying far less attention to the delicate nature of the situation on the ground.  Indeed, the faux apocalyptic tenor of some maps of imminent war that is tragically advanced by right-wing bloggers, that strip the power of cruise missile strikes from their context–

 

image

 

–suggests a removed image of the ability to launch air strikes against a nation at a remove from the ground, and an ability to “target” strikes–the illusion of GPS–at a single dot, without registering the huge impact such strikes would have on a country and is inhabitants.  In an era of shooting first and asking questions later, by 2017 we use maps to fire from the hundred and five missiles on Assad’s “chemical weapons facilities” as “surgical strikes” by tools able to pinpoint chemical weapons storage and research facilities outside Syrian cities, as if they have a fixed non-human target to eliminate.

 

APTOPIX_Syria_US_88463-cf2b5Targeting of Syrian Capital on April 14, 2018/Hassan Ammar/API

 

Can the promise of mapping with such precision inflate a sense of the ability to intervene from a remove, targeting targets outside Damascus as the Barzah Research and Development Center, or the Him Shinshar complex outside Homs, without terrorizing the Presidential Palace, and without worrying that such armed interventions will not eventually escalate, as they dramatically change the experience on the ground?

 

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Filed under Mapping Chemical Weapons, mapping ethnic groups, newsmaps, Syrian Civil War

Mapping License Plates/Maps in License Plates

The politicization of the design of these most common designators of place on cars, the license plate, is hardly surprising.  After all, the rise of the proprietorial sense of designing ones own plates is not a far jump to that of viewing the format of the license plats as if this designation of plate were not forms of public writing.  Even without considering the broad notion of what sort of writing this constitutes, the readiness to treat license plate design as an avenue for freedom of speech as a form of expression reveals a pronounced shift not only in the aesthetics but in the use and construction of license plate design in the past.

For during the past twenty years, we have come to identify the content of one’s plates as transcends a tag of where one’s from, taking it as an occasion to raise state revenues and provide vanity illustrations of individualization on the highway and driveway at considerable costs.  Perhaps it is worth asking how this relates not only to freedom of expression, but to our sense of place.  It is perhaps on account of the massive growth of graphic designers and graphic arts, as well as the ease of printing airbrush designs on metallic surfaces, that the license plate, that modest of all surfaces, has recently become something of an advertisement–along the lines of U-Haul moves; the images on license plates have become evocative landscapes that almost embed viewers in their content, depicting a sense of place that seems more alluring than neutrally mapped.  Indeed, the growth of new landscape icons on the license plates that are seen on the road seems to have inspired the coterie of graphic designers at Ars Tecnica to assign an award for the “ugliest license plate” to appear, at the start of the new millenium.

The call to action was in response to the proliferation of digitized plates in what once was a stable signifier of location and regional provenance.  Beyond being a form of taxonomic classification, or an add-on for vehicle registration, the personalization of plates have brought a search to capture the essence of place of partly nauseating kitsch–

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–that summons the struggle for place to still exist in a post-map world, as much as it conjures a sense of place that we might really recognize, as if an affective image that tries to appeal to the state’s residents, but is removed from the geographical map.

Indeed, despite the radically limited cartographical content of the raised state pictured on the New York State license plate, a considerable effort was invested in affirming the iconic centrality of the state, even it it is a barely recognizable or distinguished blob of paint when raised metal when at close hand.  TO be sure, New York license plate design is distinguished by its ability to comprehend a broad geographic unity, and functions as a mapping as an illusion shrinking the geographical distances between, say, Niagara Falls and Manhattan in a somewhat short-lived attempt to spread across the economically and culturally quite diverse state–

ny_license_plate

–but relies on the map, as if an atrophied remained, as a hyphen between alphanumeric license numbers.  Although these dramatically reduced maps serve but as tokens, to offer a visual pause between digits, numbers, or letters, have lost the geographic identifying functions for most states, the token placement of small, raised maps in several northeast states–New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and, to an extent, but in a different fashion, Pennsylvania–suggests a survival of the cartographical as a remainder of which some states are not ready to let go or consign to the dustbin of history, even in an age of GPS and digitized maps.  Not really a visual fetish, but a designator of place, distinguished by an exaggerated appendix of Long Island, the New York image is no doubt the most familiar and recognizable, even if its edges are quite abstractly smoothed so that they provide little resemblance to an actual map, which is reduced to a mere token.

NY state blip on license plate.png

While the map is paired by a similar centrality of New Jersey in license plates in the greater metropolitan area–and in the image of the ‘keystone state’ that is used to punctuate Pennsylvania plates, the diminished centrality of the map in license plates suggests a certain sense of loss, and a sense of bolstering the symbolic meaning of the map.

NJ.png

To b3 sure, there is a survival of maps that seem to have migrated into some license plate templates, as if to curry favor among an older audience–that continue to try to reconcile the built horizon of Detroit and the bridge that spans the great lakes with the blue icon of those majestic bodies of water themselves, which, while in fact spanning several states and two nations, provide a symbolic shorthand for the state and its unity to the Upper Peninsula, as well as foregrounding or advertising its spectacular peninsulas–

–as the sun setting over Lake Michigan, in the prospect of “Great Lakes Splendor” shows a sunset through the iconic span of the bridge, foregrounds the landscape’s unity by cool blues lake waters.

The issue may be relatively pronounced. For unlike other states, save Hawaii, and no other non-cosstal states actually bridge bodies of water in their sovereign space. Indeed, if maps provide the most familiar and powerful ways of uniting space in a coherent fashion, the problem of coherence in the “other border state” are profound.

But the case of Michigan may evoke a sense of bucolic peace, increasingly common in other plates, that has displaced the map as if the license plate were. a form of travel advertisement, akin to those images on U-Hauls that one also sees on highways, as the available lingo for promoting an iconic and symbolic relation to place. And the Great Lakes do this well, as a surrogate for the natural that denies the increasingly athropogenic pollution in the pounds of plastic that enters the lakes as they truly are today, so removed from the pristine blue of a cartographic imagination.

Indeed, are these images of landscapes that adorn license plates not a form of collective denial of the huge contribution of crowded highways to the emission of carbon pollution that are a critical force in the crisis of climate change?

Or does a pronounced lack of adequate signifiers of place that plagues the range of new digitized images that adorn plates with a notional sense of place, something often borrowed form a tourist brochure crossed with a screensaver, rather than a map, only offering a sort of eye candy for the road? The arguments aren’t contradictory: after all, climate change is a global uncertainty that undermines the stability of place, or indeed the preservation of inherited ideas of place, and that we can continue to deny–even as we drive–by reminding ourselves of the shores that plates of coastal states as Florida often argue will always be there for us, as an endless summer just in reach for whoever drives or flies there.

510eU_2BGthnL_grande

The absence of better signifiers of place in license plates that evoke a purely decorative field seem in their generic nature to be sadly removed from place. Even as driving and petroleum consumptions stand to redraw the shores of the United States, and to threaten the stability of the coastal shores on which an increasing number of Americans live–both today and by 2100.

/Surging Seas (2100)/Climage Central

Even as we can examine, Seeing Choices, to see the possible dangers of a long-term rise in sea levels that would be locked in by different amounts of carbon pollution, and compare alternate possible scenarios that we would face after temperature rises of 0°C through h 4°C of global warming, the license plates of the cars we drive seem to offer a contrasting image of the relative stability, and perpetual peace, of place within a skewed or distorted spatial imaginary that prides its symbolic stability.

Perhaps this is the record that we prefer to see as we drive, moving at high speeds along national speedways, demanding consensus that what we do when we drive a lot in single-passenger vehicles is consistent with the stability of place that license plates promote.

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Filed under Free Speech, Freedom of Speech, license plates, mapping United States

Drawing Hypotheses on a Newly Mapped World

At the same time as maps offer guides to spatially orient their readers, they collect a record of known space for viewers to occupy, collecting and displaying relationships that allow viewers to draw hypotheses about their relation to a totality otherwise not able to be seen.  The format of all maps provide tools to understand and collate relations over an expanse otherwise not evident.  The possibilities or potentiality for such comprehension–or the experience of the knowable–is encoded in the directions that any map provides to better navigate space by ship, car, train, or plane, but its syntax is also an invitation to inhabit space to formulate a hypothesis about expanse; early modern maps are especially conscious about how they mediated a record of the inhabited world.

My interest in how maps make these relations evident in multiple ways has been a theme of earlier posts; I have elsewhere blogged about the spaces Google Maps present for viewers, and the limited frameworks they offer to occupy space.  Once might do well to gauge the productivity of how maps generate hypotheses about an individual relation to expanse by the unity by their  representational surfaces–although the pictorial aspects of maps are too readily categorized as qualitative additions, held in contrast to their quantitative construction or collation of precise measurements of terrestrial position.

Early modern cartographers in the Dieppe school, like Nicolas Desliens, adopted modern practices in the hand-drawn maps, typified by the below 1566 world map, based on Portuguese nautical charts.  The maps retained the format of projection, but offered a new way to inhabit the expanding world map for elite audiences–here by displaying a new region of the earth, Java la Grande, a mythical island that described by Marco Polo and perpetuated by the cartographers based in Normandy:  the green swirls on Java recall the engraved illustrations in works of early modern botany or natural history that Sachiko Kusukawa has argued constituted material evidence from the natural world.

800px- Globe by Nicolas_Desliens_Map_(1566)

Java la Grande is prominently labeled, and the undoubted centerpiece of this world-map by Desliens, even though it is not at  its center:  it is, rather, introduced as a new area of inhabitation, whose verdant interior is a seat of spices and potential wealth, as well as lying, cosmographically speaking, in a sense as a complementary counterpart to the Americas, echoing the harmonious balancing of landmasses from ancient geography.  But the map also advertises the region’s potential wealth to potential backers of voyages.  There are, however, limited use of formal codes to structure the map’s surface, despite its notation of tropics echoes of the formal structure of world projections, or other conventions that lend order by structuring the map’s surface for its viewer.

The circumscribed role of America in Desliens’ map is perhaps also striking to modern viewers because it minimizes the expanse of the Americas in a somewhat marginal manner, probably recalling the thin crescent of coastal archipelago in the multi-sheet wall chart the humanist Martin Waldseemüller designed, which did not even name “America,” and gave far greater place to South America

Waldseemuller-Map-631

–though Waldsemüller did name the region on the slightly later set of printed gores that he engraved for purchasers to use to assemble their own globes:

Wertvolle Waldseem¸ller-Karte entdeckt

Waldsemüller exploited the expansive wall map of twelve sheets as more compendious and expansive record than a globe.  The limited employment of conventions to structure their graphic surface might be explained to some extent by the use of map signs to comprehend a range of toponymic content and limited authority of map signs to structure their surface.

These images synthesize nautical charts in a comprehensive system of knowledge are at a remove from the ways that information is displayed about America–if still an empty land-mass– in later explicitly political maps that placed the Americas as an appendage of royal sovereign space, or as an area of self-government.  In an instance of the first case, Georg Bickham invited viewers of his 1748 “Chorographical Description of All the Dominions Subject to the King of Great Britain” to process their relations to its disparate dominions in a coherent ways as nothing less than a political space.  The conflation of a chorography of the national community with a global map is a classic conceit of empire:  but the below engraving suggests a wonderfully compelling way of reasoning across two hemispheres.

The map, engraved and printed in London for audiences far more familiar with maps, shows continents as unpopulated landmasses, but the relations of whose inhabitants were subject to the royal rule of George II, in a somewhat magniloquent statement of royal rule for its viewers to scan.  If the map reveals the expanse of Great Britain’s “Dominions in Europe, Africa, and America,” it is an optimistic knitting together of regions geographically removed, but subservient to the royal crown whose cartouche still occupied center stage.

Chorographical England 1748

To be sure, this image processes something of a cognitive map of the royal subject’s relation to the vast terrestrial rule of George II as a totality that spans no less than three continents.  The map is straightforwardly political, but conjures a land of royal unity that was geographically dispersed, and linked symbolically only in the map.  Indeed, the cartouche in which Bickham inscribed the “Lord Majesty” in relation to its subjects has greater prominence or centrality in the map than any place-name or region that is represented on its surface, as well as considerably more ornate a subject of Bickham’s burin in the acanthus-like flourishes and drapery:

Crest as Cartouche

The obedience by which the royal subject inscribed the expanse of the map is more prominent than its geographic content because the map is quite distinct from a geographic record.  The regions of North America are in fact rarely mapped in much detail aside from their shorelines; greater detail is accorded The Banks, shoals famously dangerous for nautical approaches, than other areas, and the ties to Britain confirmed more by toponymy than by qualitative detail or the density of its inhabitation, and other than its coasts is largely blank, suggesting greater habituation with nautical travel:

Upper Canada--1748

Curiously, in this map of British global possessions, boundary lines among the colonies are noted but seem almost notional than juridical, and far less fixed in space than the rivers with which they intersect, dotted lines that extend into an unknown interior before they peter out into a vast unmapped continent, as if inviting viewers into blank unmapped regions.

trailing boundary lines of political division

The map illustrates the invisible ties of power that united these regions, far-flung as they were, as an image of royal authority.  If maps were advertisements of power and illustrations of authority in the early modern period and Enlightenment, this map serves to create a set of fictive ties that united and oriented its viewers to a sense of disconnected space, which the cartographical content of the map was not in itself sufficient to process.

The map complements a written printed chorographical description, as much as it offers a strictly cartographical record, the symbolic use of whose conventions allows us to connect geographically removed regions in its pictorial space.

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Filed under Dieppe School, Georg Bickham, George II, Java La Grande, Martin Waldseemüller, Nicolas Desliens, pictorial space, Sovereign Maps

Mapping Worldly Entrances to Hell

We often carry our very own hells with us, and know not only their maps but even the routes of access to them.   But if the location of Hell has been mapped and re-mapped as a personal experience since the Renaissance, defining fixed locations of Hell projects something of a state of mind to the world’s physical geography.  If, to quote Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d/ In one self place; but where we are is hell,/ And where hell is, there must we ever be,” the places Hell resides is almost a practice of mapping that reflects a culture’s cartographical imagination.  And, it’s perhaps not a surprise that every culture seems to have its own notion of Hell but of where the location of hell and its entrance is.  If one can pinpoint and map it in an image of the known world, perhaps one can escape its presence in one’s own mind.  Czeslaw Miłosz wondered, in a very late poem of 2003, “Have we really lost our faith in that other space?/ Have they vanished forever, Heaven and Hell?/ . . . And where will the damned find suitable quarters?” and bemoaned almost tearfully the unimaginable proportions of the “enormity of the loss,” but there is considerable existential comfort in being able to map Hell with security.

It’s also a good way of saying that you know the lay of the land, and the parts you want to avoid. One-upping Marlowe, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley imagined “Hell is a city much like London— A populous and a smoky city,” to comment on the transformation of England; his belief that “It is not necessary to consider Hell and the Devil as supernatural machinery” is uncannily similar to the many maps that pinpoint Hell’s multiple worldly entrances for those eager to read them.  It has long been far more satisfying if one can try to pinpoint the entrance points in informed fashion, using some sort of knowledge or evidence to buttress the choice.  The location of “Hell” or the underworld was, of course, pre-Christian, even if it is now colored by Christian sources; Hell is a pre-Christian mental geography that was mediated by Christianity and its own specific notions of suffering  and remorse, but also is a place that we all know exists, and are eager to find–although not to go there ourselves.

According scripture, Hell is located deep down in the earth, without either geographic specificity and far more figuratively evocative than precise.  Hell is  reality and state of mind for the Gospels and Apocalypse; it is not a precise location:  it is a place where in “outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30), whose inhabitants are “in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24), surrounded by “the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).  The image of perpetual burning, self-consumed bodies has been embellished with extensive pictorial detail as a place of eternal punishment, and a site of the destruction of both body and soul and of unending separation from both; it was based on the Old Testament idea of  “Sheol” as an abode of the dead (Psalm 49:13-14)–or of those with no abode or place to be, but this place with no life was always seen as closely connected to our own.

Hell was deeply spiritual for Dante and in his age–the appeal that we had an informant who had in fact been their to survey its complex topography and descending rings of punishments bore the satisfying sense that we knew where we are in the moral compass of life.  The appeal of Dante’s map of hell is evident in the considerable care and detail which Sandro Botticelli and others used to delineate the space through which where Virgil led Dante and navigated among the inhabitants of hell’s circles–an image popular in the late fifteenth century–that could be examined with some recognition and even more amazement as a site of the afterlife.

 

Botticelli's Ms Map of Dante's Hell

When Dante’s Florentine editor Girolamo Benivieni’s prepared a printed edition including engraved maps, the portal to Hell was strikingly placed in explicitly modern geographic terms within the terraqueous sublunary world:

Benivieni 1506 Dante's Hell

 

The deep comfort of this clearly mapped ontology of the afterlife is to some extent preserved today.  Online, we can also navigate this image, thanks to digitization of manuscript images, on one’s very own, and explore the mind-blowing map that Sandro Botticelli drew as if confronting the page from inches away in all its gloriously imagined Dantesque details.  The mapping of Hell has taken off in ways that oddly reflects a pretty secular age; sites of anguish and suffering are, it turns out, still pretty compelling to map in a geographical lens.

Compelling woodcut maps described the topography of the realm of the Dantesque afterlife with exquisite geographic care:

 

1527_33.wc1.150dpi

 

Hell was long an individualized affair, and rightly so, the culmination to a balance of sins physical and of mind.  But the mapping of a public geography of hell–entrances to the underworld, now navigated not only but Virgil and Vulcan, or even Percy Jackson, but able to be pinpointed on a map.  There seems to be somewhat of a flourishing of the addition of “Hell”-sites on the web today, in fact, something of a response to the absence of this all-too-concrete state of mind from the reaches of Google Earth–not that some folks haven’t tried.  Perhaps the absence of hell’s location on Google Maps–or how Hell frustrates that portal promising ubiquitous coverage to any user–may have helped generate something like a proliferation  of on-line pseudo-erudition about Hell’s possible locations, and the curiosity that it could be in fact right around the corner in some pretty familiar sites.

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqdp_iEFRnA]

The appeal of mapping hell–and at looking at the sites where others map hell–is a branch of the Googlish compulsion to provide a total mapping of humanity, as much as a religious ontology, and is reflected in the proliferation of models of Hell that circulate online and provide some sort of satisfaction that we known where we are.

Witness, for one, the popularity of the recent ‘discovery’ by Italian archeologists headed by Francesco d’Andria of the location of one “Gate to Hell” in the Phrygian city of Hieropolis, a place where few would have much interest.  D’Andria fond “Pluto’s Gate” marked the entrance to a cave whose abundant mephitic vapors and carbon dioxide fumes make it impossible to sustain life–which found some confirmation in the detailed description left by  the geographer Strabo of the place as “full of a vapour so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground” where “any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” adding “I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell.”

Italians acknowledge this specificity of one entrance to Hell since they are familiar–through the poems of Dante and Virgil–with the location of Hell in the field of active volcanic craters bubbling with outside  Naples in the Phlegraean Fields, which Dante  located it in the extinct volcanic crater of Lake Avernus, or the Lago d’Averno, where Aeneas met Charon to be ferried across the underworld, and Romans at the nearby bubbling at Solfatara, a dormant crater emitting sulfuric fumes, which ancient Romans considered  entrance to  the Underworld.  The region of the Phlegraean Fields, site of the Gods’ war against the Titans, some 25 km west of Vesuvius, a region of some 24 volcanic craters that was first settled by Greeks in 730 BC, who called it the “burning fields” and may have associated the seeping grey and white smoke billowing up from its rocky terrain with Vulcan’s land.

But if the site of the former prison in Robben Island in South Africa has its own entrance to Hell–a likely place for one–www.entrancestohell.com lists many more–more matrixes of caves from the Cave of the Chorreadero in Chiapas to the Sibun Caves of Belize, entrance to Xibalba according to the sacred Mayan Popul Vuh, were believed entrances to the underworld, or the bubbling Lake Begoria in Kenya, where sulphurous fumes similarly seep from a volcanic crater in central Kenya’s rift valley, as flamingos fly overhead.  Lake Naivasha, northwest of Nairobi in Kenya, land of the Massai, was named by explorers Fisher and Thompson “Hell’s Gate” in 1883, probably due to the heat of its rocks and release of geothermal steam near the Suswa volcanoes; the region’s hot springs and geysers not provide the first center for generating geothermal energy as well as a popular tourist destination.  My favorite portal to hell is in Feng Du, in the Chongqing municipality–an actual ghost city, built in a way modeled after the Buddhist notion of Diyu, as a sort of theme-park, built over 1800 years ago, modeled after Naraka and including a bridge to the underworld as well as dioramas, buildings, and statues, whose ghost city is soon to be in large part submerged by the Three Gorges Dam–the “Door of Hell” will remain.

In the United Kingdom, folks have been accumulating actual entrances to Hell since 2002, racking up some 120, all of great names (Tooky; Famras; Bammy; Banu; Quetty OrarnaBenidormoVowo mi; Wheatle; Oilyn; SlipknotCrizzleUnderlow; Trensilon; Abracadansler; or Braaashteeefunorvallishhtuuu) in a format that is easily viewable.  The progressive discovery of new entrances reflects a realization about this site–a “constantly updated catalogue to Hell in and around the UK,” a sort of epilogue to Thatcherism; “Wheatle is gentle, luxurious and oozing with street-cred. This is the entrance from which Satan dispatches millions of useless inanimate objects to the gift shops and furniture stores of the UK. Wheatle is closed all day Thursday and is acoustically connected to Mkpg.”  Some of these places are perhaps better to visit than others, all connected to an invisible topography of Hell that the site does well to trace based on crowd-sourced observations with compellingly diverting detail:  “Vowo mi is the delivery point for the devil’s honey supply. The beehives of England have for centuries organised thrice-monthly deposits of best honey here in return for being allowed to live without satanic interference. The connection to the core is a simple plastic tube, 12cm in diameter. Scientists working for the government of Harold Wilson released a tiny survey vehicle into Vowo mi in 1961 almost immediately losing radio contact with the probe’s passenger the spider-monkey Kiki. Kiki is now the devil’s osteopath and can speak fluent Karatakak. Vowo mi has a good vibe and a pleasing aspect.” (Each has, conveniently, its own streetmap, if one is patient enough to follow the fictional geographies to the rather drab streetmaps themselves.)

This sort of collective authorship of locations of potential entrances seem pretty ingenious, if somewhat reflecting  J.K. Rowling’s whimsy in its identification of several sites:  “Asananc connects, via a big brass pipe, to an enormous frozen lake, fifty seven miles directly below. The explorer Lady Louise Kenilbaker was last seen alive here in 1924 as she entered Asananc, against all advice, on a personal quest to make contact with deep level ice-children. Asananc is not recorded on any OS map, but there are pencil sketches by Rushmount in the British Museum.”

We can now obtain adequate warning signs to post with adequate visibility:

picprodposter

It’s not a surprise that in the past century, “the number of persons being chosen by God to witness the reality of Hell,” according to one website that compiles accounts of visitors to Hell’s “Reality, “is greater then all prior centuries combined.”  This site argues that it seems that “as our world moves further away from belief in sin and punishment for sin, God increases His Divine Mercy by granting us more and more confirmations of that reality.”  The horrors of the twentieth century has led, even for more secular surfers of the internet, to a greater interest in noting that Hell has some plausible location after all.

For Blanchot, Hell was more of a state of mind, which one entered easily without moving anywhere as one struggled with the act of writing itself and was surrounded by the shadows that it summoned.

Is there an interest in relocating Hell with the illusion of precision of Google Maps?  It at any rate seems that the location of Hell is being more vividly redefined online than it had in previous years, as the topic of Hell’s location has expanded to the History Channel and also to Huffington Posteven more vividly than previous years.  The recent hell-sightings on the internet are even more concrete.  Atlas Obscura notes the existence of a recently created “Gates of Hell,” located near the small village in Turkmenistan of Derweze, a gap of 328 feet in width which has been on fire that stands in the Karakum desert, casting an unearthly red illumination for some forty years–since a Soviet drilling rig collapsed into a cavern of natural gas in 1971, creating an unknown entrance to hell that attracts visitors on the Silk Road.  An unnatural natural glow that can be seen for miles around in a crater that gapes sixty meters wide and is some twenty deep–a sort of surrogate foot of Mt. Doom that Peter Jackson unfortunately missed when scouting film sights, but which has made its rounds on the internet.  (This was especially unfortunate for folks who felt the films went over budget; I’m sure the first elected president of Turkmenistan, who has made the extinction of the fire burning since 1971 a priority for his first term–but despite the mandate first voiced in 2010, it is still generating its golden glow in Derweze.)

Derweze

The entire region sits on seeping natural gases, and many of the 350 or so local nomadic residents like to thrown their cigarettes on the ground to generate bursts of flame like small party-favors.  This photograph, which has made the rounds online with success, emanates otherworldly light that seems to migrate heavenward, inverting the origin of light from the sun, with an effect that is reverential or almost spiritual in tone.

But once we do locate hell on Google Earth, how can we plot its relation to ourselves?  or is locating the site only a moment of temporary relief from our daily grind?

dante

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Filed under "Hell's Gate", "Pluto's Gate", Aeneas, Apocalypse, Biblical Geography, Charon, Christopher Marlowe, Dante, Google Earth, Hell, Hieropylus, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Phlegraean Fields, Robben Island