Tag Archives: GPS

The Will to Map: GPS and its Discontents

Navigating the necklace of highways that hug the Santa Cruz Mountains beyond San Jose with a GPS map affixed to the windshield, you become both disoriented from the panorama before your eyes and quickly aware of the token roadmap GPS offers.  What is the map on the screen doing in the car and when do we need to look at its content?    The question emerges since it’s not clearly a partner to the voice-directions; the interface between isn’t evident or apparent:  the overlay of data on the terrain graphic of a Google Maps backdrop seems interactive, but shows a route, and not a guide or a means to explore paths of other possible travels.  There’s a need to offer a map in our map-saturated culture–but the map is no longer a clear way to translate familiarity with space to their readers, so much as an added document.

The difficulty of internalizing directions from the onscreen map derives from its limited use to orienting oneself, and is unlike the roadmaps that readers internalize over time.  It is not only ready-made and disposable, but seems to exist to satisfy customer expectations for a visual record more than offer users an actual guide.  It has limited relation to the injunctive directions declaimed by a Siri-like voice, and seems a source of ornament despite an absence of actual visual interest, as if it was designed to meet nostalgia for the visual records of automotive navigation on highways and interstates or for a time when we needed maps.  Some drivers might object to directions from a disembodied voice, instead of someone informed about the topography or terrain.

Without those over-creased highway maps in our glove compartment, one grapples with the minimalist Google Maps graphics before surrendering passively to the intoned directions, still frustrated that we can’t  transpose directions from the map, and conscious of being cognitively challenged, but perhaps pleased to contemplate a landscape of trees overhanging on each side of the mountain roads and to follow a course traced from on high.


Boulder Creek Map Traffic


The mechanics of the synthesis of a digitized map is of course completely different compilation of meaning.  But it is most striking that the map didn’t need to be there, and wasn’t that likely to be consulted as a navigational tool and of limited use if one strayed off course the curvy roads in the Santa Cruz mountains; if so, we’d be more likely to look at a paper map anyway, for the image provided little easily-consumed information of fine grain about the mountain roads; the verbal directions were so removed from the map as if to devalue the long history and use of maps as autonomous media: rather than provide the purification of spatial experience often attributed to maps, the schematic Mapquest image distances experience so abstracted from an actual route of travel to minimize our sense of reading space.

As well as a shift in how mapped information is synthesized, digitized maps mark a shift in reading terrestrial expanse and reading one’s place in maps, diminishing the relevance of a coordinate system or apprehension of spatial inter-relations.  Whereas the Mapquest route that defined a path of travel, navigation by GPS seems a new relation between map-use and environment.



The relation to its pixellated surface is rooted in fascination with the image that adjusts on one’s screen synchronized to one’s actual bearings, rather than reading one’s course and the options that it presents.  GPS was not made for wanderers.  The screen notes a route on a formal schema abstracted local terrain, which is replaced by a generic image, its data mediated at a remove from the world as if “flattened” to two dimensions, rather than the sort of surface that invited multiple possibilities.   The map produced on demand places cartography with limited sense of permanence; the personalized nature of the map it creates, as in a service economy, offers an image of terrestrial location that dazzles, but is only commensurate with a specific viewer’s specific needs, and as it is part of a system that provides on-demand maps that can be immediately generated for any global region.

Santa Cruz Mountains

The place of reading a GPS map in a car or a mobile phone is independent from the expectations for both providing and decoding the map.  How maps are read over time offers perspective on how maps address their readers by embodying a relation to space through their synthesis of spatial information.

Such an emphasis is distinct from, say, one on the mathematics by which cartographical projections synthesize data on a uniform graticule or techniques of transferring the curved surface of the world:  one can appreciate these precepts only in a very vague sort of way, similar to ignorance of how GPS generates a map, to read its organization.  As the video by which Google promotes Trekker as a natural extension of a user’s relation to their environment during a walk in the woods.  The mechanics by which the cameras stuffed into a bulky backpack remain both mystified and  outside of the average viewer’s appreciation or ken, but the user is amazed at how the digitized synthesis takes us through a mind-bogglingly detailed record of space.

One is awed by the alternative surrogate awesomeness that the map provides of the Grand Canyon.  The data such maps compile for readers implies a very different sort of map-reading from te far smaller-scale trail maps of a similar region which offers clues to travel on foot, rather than car, whose color-coded signs of elevation, trail lines, and symbols of orientation offer a semantic register to decode.


The legibility of the above map engages different cognitive skills to decipher our position than the plastic formats of mapping in GPS, which derives from a  dramatically different context of the corporate investment in map making, less dependent on attracting viewers than provide comprehensive access.

Google Earth’s data collection and synthesis is unlike that of the National Geodetic Survey’s mandate to maintain “a consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States” for the public, by which “everyone accurately knows where they are and where other things are anytime, anyplace.”  Criteria for mapping are now market-driven and based on providing information for consumers in an explosion of available maps.  Google acquired the digital mapping company Keyhole back in 2004, allegedly when Sergey Brin claims to have been so wowed by digitized maps of bombing Iraq he saw on television.  The digitized satellite maps that Keyhole provided afforded a new way of defining one’s relation to an over-mapped world:  Google’s vice-president, Jonathan Rosenberg, celebrated how the military-grade map-provider used by the Department of Defence was repositioned as it became “a valuable addition to Google’s efforts to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” allowing users to “fly like a superhero from your computer at home to a street corner somewhere in the world–or . . . map a road trip” by tapping information collected via satellite and airplanes through easy-to-use software.  The rhetoric was fulsome as the acquisition was completed: “The sun is shining brightly in Mountain View,” read the press release, describing Keyhole employees as “all smiles” and Google employees as “all open arms,” as the same software used by the US government to track the arrival of smart bombs to Iraq via a multi-terabyte database (and begun by a venture capital firm backed by the CIA) was re-deployed to dramatically expand the wide, wide world of GPS.

Driving through the region near Mountain View, one couldn’t help think of how the removed view on the GPS screen was a diminished share of the mapping tools Google had purchased.  It’s striking that even in 2004, Google felt the need to calm anxieties about the potentially intrusive nature of such satellite technology that would cover the United States, but was energized by the belief it could unseat Time-Warner’s Mapquest–as it has– in providing its users with a far more robust mapping technology to orient themselves.  “It’s not like you are going to be able to read a license plate on a car or see what an individual was doing when a particular image was taken” in ways that would violate their privacy,” Keyhole’s General Manager, John Hanke reassured the public.  The photographs, after all, were from a database generally six to twelve months old, rather than being real time.  But recent indications about intrusive surveillance suggests that such a project might not have been far from the CIA’s mind in funding the project, which Google rolled out as an innovation in both convenience and reach to craft high-tech maps for viewers from satellite views by its powerful search engine.

GPS  situated its customers into a culture already bombarded by images by granting vicarious participation in a Brave New World of digitized maps.  What is striking in the maps is the near-absence not only of textual but semantic content, which are dramatically reduced in its imagery to increase its ready legibility.  The ways maps were understood in specific sites of reading, argues the medievalist Patrick Gauthier Dalché, who examined the questions that readers from Italian humanists, monks, or the readers of marine charts had for maps, and called attention to the ways of reading maps as much as their semantic construction.

Considering the combinations and forms reading practices a printed map engaged opens interesting possibilities to understand relations of text and image in early printed maps whose readership is not known; it documents the cultural translation of mapped information from manuscript to print, and raises questions for the materials of reading we wax nostalgic when using GPS systems.  It is common to compare the shift in mapping space that digital  interfaces allow to the shift from manuscript and print in the European Renaissance, both as an increased legibility of space that maps diffused and the greater circulation of  maps as reproducible engravings.  We might take time to reconsider the different semantic varieties of map-reading print encouraged,  examining how early printed maps ask viewers to engage a representation of expanse to understand them as forms of spatial literacy.


Ptolemaeus Teutsch


Few land-masses are evident to modern viewers of this printed map of apparently spherical form, an early German translation of Ptolemaic precepts that transposes the form and outlines of a manuscript projection. Most likely adapting the semantic forms originating from a Ptolemaic codex its printer or engraver transposed the map onto the gridded surface of a globe to create the illusion of a mathematically derived spherical projection.  Although the spherical projection is but an illusion, the transposition of a Ptolemaic projection to a spherical grid provided a new way to read its place-names:  a few place-names on the surface of this printed map–“Europa,” “Asia,” “Ethiopia,” and a “Mare Indicum.”  Although the map echoed the tripartite organization of mappaemundi, numbers keyed locations to written descriptions unlike the ancient places listed in manuscripts of Ptolemy’s geographic manual:  the names were not only abstractions, but numbers provided tools to gloss a sophisticated primer of geographic knowledge, using Euclidean precepts to render global expanse on a uniform plane.  Readers would have seen the map and its accompanying German text–the map appeared as the fold-out endpaper of a book titled Ptolemaeus Teutsch–as mediating the ancient classical treatise of world-geography to a broader audience than a tradition of learned geography.

The map abstracted expanse as if to address readers familiar with single-line engraving by compacting of terrestrial relations–although it does not seem to have been as successful as a commodity as its printer hoped.  The limited success of the booklet may reflect the extent to which it dramatically and rather drastically condenses geographic data to symbolize measured expanse in a spherical format that imitated how globes prepared a surface for readers to  actively gloss, interpret, and reflect on its symbolization of expanse, and a dynamic tool to render and encode the distribution of worldly expanse.



The reduced size of the engraving encouraged its engraver to use numbers instead of bulky toponyms, in order to create an easily consultable spatial template for placing the known regions on a ruled plane surface which comprehended–and mimicked–the terrestrial globe.


Globe of Ptol Teutsche


If the GPS system made me think of the manner information was processed and distilled on the screen in a passive form of readership, the positioning of place on the globe suggested a combination of tools of single-line engraving and a facility to abstract a geometric record of spatial relations, often tied to a unique exchange between humanist and artists in Nuremberg’s visual culture that printers eagerly exploited to expand the book market.

The map recalls its rough contemporary, Martin Behaim’s Globe, celebrated for concretizing a “mental image” of a new relation to space and place in Nuremberg around 1490. Although it omits America,  the globe’s surface assembled an image of oceanic expanse that confirmed Behaim as master of crafting a modern relation to a  legible space from nautical charts circa 1492.


Behaim Vorstellung


This modern recreation of the Behaim globe’s underlying map suggests how the engraved spherical map reflects the status of globes as material records of regional relations, representing terrestrial curvature as much as to measure spatial relationships with precision or provide a guide for travel, and indeed to arrange the disposition of place on a globe.

The engraving reproduced skills of reading the commodity Behaim presented Maximilian I in 1492; it indicated appreciation of the material construction of the globe in imitating the epistemic claims and encyclopedic intent by combining visual and written on its surface, if in far compacted form.


Behaim's Globe


Behaim had earlier sailed with Portuguese vessels for several years, where he gained access to supposedly secret charts, and fashioned the globe from them, working with the painter, woodblock cutter, and printer Georg Glockendon to assimilate an abundant and expressive tradition of written geography even as they embodying expanse in a new form of material media. Earlier  publishers of colored maps for translations of Ptolemy’s ancient Geography unsuccessfully attempted to reach broad audiences; Behaim’s erdapfel provided a  materially impressive way to depict a comprehensive record of the inhabited world; if it exaggerated the world’s oceanic expanse, it  profited from empty oceans to inscribe written accounts of travelers from Marco Polo to Mandeville, in ways readily readable at a reader’s eye-level.



The self-standing globe attempted to replace written geographic media it amply cited in as a materialization of global expanse, as much as completing empty spaces on the map’s surface:  it suggested empty spaces as a way to pique interest among its readers.  Unlike scholarly editions of Ptolemy, the material condensation of Behaim’s erdapfel was a powerful painted media, juxtaposing huge continents with islands that spill across its surface, making less reference to meridians or parallels than texts to orient its audience and invite them to pour over its content.

Globe's Written Surface


The globe echoes imperial regalia.  Designed for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the modernity of the globe is thematized in a 1939 film about Behaim as a man of action, “Das unsterblich Herz,” portraying Behaim as a  precursor to Columbus, and a Germanic figure of modernity (rather than, say, Luther), whose will to map the world and African coast modernized the imperial heritage of Holy Roman Emperors:  no doubt his globe was imagined as something like a precursor to the Third Reich.  The cinematic retelling of how Behaim fashioned a globe of comprehensive coverage for Kaiser Maximilian I glorified the mapmaker’s imperial service.

The master of kraft, roughly contemporary to Columbus, is presented as conscious of the strategic deployment of maps as tools of dominance that broke with the medieval past:  this Behaim recognized the inaccuracy of sundials or timepieces at sea, and his decisive realization of the need for portable clocks enabled him to map the shore of western Africa, filling uncharted regions of the globe on account of his dedicated perseverance.  The film celebrated Behaim as a man of action and genius, representing the globe-maker’s craftwork and the material globe as an icon of modernity.  The Nuremberger’s skilled instrument making is indeed juxtaposed in the film with two other measures or standards of modernity, clocks and ammunition, which define a modern conception of time and finality that fundamentally broke from medieval conceptions of time and space; the globe-maker seems a figure who rises above medieval conceptions of the closure of the world’s confines, if not of the confines of an imperial expanse–if he also seems a bit manic in his vision than one might suppose of the historical Behaim.


Behaim--Unsterblich herz


The historical Behaim is far more complex, and so is his modernity.  Although the film lionizes a globe-maker who epitomized a way of being-in-the-world for its audience, Behaim worked from manuscript nautical charts to make his globe, and if he fashioned the globe was a modern way of interfacing with space by embodying it in concrete form, the globe provided a medium for reading space informed by multiple sources that its surface effectively synthesized.

Modern reconstructions of the globe and close-up photographs demonstrate how the globe creates a legible surface, a site of reading where place and space not primarily mediated  by meridians or parallels, as much as a grandiose modern conceptions.  Islands as those here around Taprobana suggest less of a unified than fragmentary regions for their reader to imagine, haphazardly situated on  the surface of the far-off the unknown shore of Asia, and as incomplete as closed.  Panels of text seem to anticipate the reading of a new notion of expanse, but treat the globe’s surface more as a composed text than a pictorial cartographical record.


Globe's Written Surface


The organization of meaning on the globe was no doubt in many ways understood as a site of writing, as well as a surface on which to trace extensive rivers, discovery lakes, or find move from the landscape to surrounding written texts.  Conceptually familiar sites like the rubicund Red Sea  provided reminders as much as depicting actual oceanic conditions–as is evident in this lovingly crafted modern facsimile of the globe in Alberta (Canada)–as much as a uniformly distributed graticule; the globe reveals the epistemic difficulty of synthesizing nautical and terrestrial maps even as it provides a surface for reading both in relation to one another.


Globe of Behaim- Africa

Interrogating the map as a scene of reading afford a lens to read the map than evaluating it as a purely formal geometric projection of expanse, but as a material interface.  Behaim’s stationary globe and the printed spherical projection both vaunted the map as a form of reading that its printers believed would reach a large audience.

The German translation seems less profitable as a printing enterprise, and survives in but two editions–only one of which includes the map, now stored in the New York Public Library which was discovered and squirreled out of wartime Europe by the book collector Erwin Rosenthal.  But it suggests a new consciousness of the map as a form of reading space, one that might be reproduced in the form of a German-language primer for a large audience of readers.  The preservation of a measurement of terrestrial relations is often argued to have redefined the map as an autonomous register.  But the sense of the globe as a legible space is even more apparent.  It’s not a coincidence that some of the first globes were donated to libraries, synthesizing written information that parallel the growth of early modern libraries; early globe-makers donated terrestrial and celestial globes to the Vatican libraries–still private, but a world-famous repository of manuscripts and codices.  If print was an early information overload in demand of new expertise to process, the globe was both an abundantly copious container of meaning and a particularly modern means for ordering terrestrial expanse.

Questions of legibility provided the engine for the reproduction of early modern maps.  Even as lines of parallels and meridians were foregrounded in this map by Peter Appian, amplified by Vespucci’s maps and those to include the Americas, reading a globe-like surface was more important for consumers than being able to trace terrestrial locations, although it clearly vaunted the indexicality of place as a basis to better organize place-names or textual content–which now seems subordinate to the disposition of a mapped expanse within a frame in this image based on Martin Waldseemüller’s 1506 wall map, which first named “America,” vaunting a new ability by which a framed expanse could be read, over which our eyes could skim in super-human ways, much as maps offer the neat trick of both embodying  space and allowing us to escape our own embodiment.


Iuxta Ptolemei Cosmographi Traditionem

It’s difficult to recast maps as other than sites of intensive reading. The digitized screen of GPS seems strangely disembodied because it lacks similar tools of decoding. For rather than a dynamic semantic surface, GPS provides limited visual navigational tools that interface with the viewer, even seeming to diminish its readers cognitive skills by replacing a legible register of space.  That is why the map is hard to replace as a material object or legible register.

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Filed under Google Maps, GPS, GPS maps, Keyhole, Mapquest, Martin Behaim, National Geodetic Survey, Siri, Trekker, user interface

Map-Inspired Madness: Mapping the Great White in the Solitude of Ahab's Cabin

The narrated search for the whale Moby Dick takes readers almost vertiginously off the known map, in an era of increased map-printing and the growing claims of map authorship, often insecure of the origins or coherence of their captain’s narrative design.  The quest for the elusive Great White takes readers literally off the map, as The Pequod leads readers off of map, in the  apparently unreliable narrative on a quest for Moby-Dick to areas less mapped as the almost  primal site of whale spawning, unknown to most, where the craft, itself adorned with whale bones—“tricking herself forth in the bones of her natural enemies,” bulwarks adorned with sperm whale teeth, rudder made from a whale jaw bone, seems to seek to arrive by human artifice, or be all too similarly cannibalized by its craft.

‘It is not down in any map; true places never are,’ Ishmael describes the mysterious origins of the real cannibal Queequeg in Moby Dick, who he calls “George Washington cannibalisticslly developed.   Queequeg hails from the South Seas, and his unknown origins betrays the fascination of unmapped spaces and the allure held by being “off” the map.  The concern with mapping places haunting the narrator of the novel obsesses the monomaniacal ship’s captain who leads his ship to the same area of the globe in search of the lone whale he seeks to lead an increasingly wary crew.  Melville wrote with a particular sense of spatiousness in a chapter that first tells the story of the Great White Whale–“Moby-Dick” (Chapter XLI)–poses the question of preserving collective knowledge to gain bearings on the location of the White Whale, that suggests the onset of the first mapped knowledge of whale routes.  If providing pictures of  the specter of the whale from from the point of view of the whale-man, the encounter of ships at sea at the start of the hundredth chapter betrays a  desperation to orient his ship on the high seas.

At the start of the hundredth chapter of the massive narrative, an obsessive Ahab cries hopefully to crews of a passing English ship monomaniacally—“Ahoy!   Hast thou seen the Great White?”   Ahab cries in biblical syntax in desperation to the approaching English ship’s captain and crew, showing his ivory leg to the ship whose captain barely seems to understand him, but improbably turns out to be his twin, having lost an arm last year to the very same white whale:  in a macabre recognition scene, the ships joined the two disfigured by the same whale clink ivory limbs, arm and leg, bound by both how their lives found new orientation after their encounters with the great white whale.  Ahab has prepared to track the whale’s course.    

While legends of sightings are dispersed among whaling ships “sprinkled over the entire watery circumference” in disorderly fashion, each “pushing their quest along solitary latitudes,” sharing knowledge about whales’ locations was prevented given the “inordinate length of each separate voyage” and “long obstructed the spread through the whole world-wide whaling fleet of the special individualizing tidings concerning Moby Dick.”  The sightings of sperm whales of uncommon magnitude provoked rumors and fears of encounters with the whale, as one might expect, even if they were recored at a fixed time or meridian.  For, Melville reminds us again of the unique space of the open seas, “in maritime life, far more than that of terra firma wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to;” in the “remotest waters” or “widest watery spaces,” whalemen are subject to “influences all tending to make his fancy pregnant with many a mighty birth.”  

Such an expansion of legends of the White Whale on the open seas contrast to the single-minded focus of Ahab’s tracking of Moby Dick, and the certainty that the Captain possesses of his ability to find Moby Dick on the open seas .  Such a fixation is opaque at the book’s start, but is perhaps most manifest in his obsessive desire to track the individual whale by the sea charts kept in his cabin, to which he retires to read each night, and seem to provide the first point of entrance into his psyche–and what Melville calls his “monomania.”  As the ship moves over the seas, Ahab returns often to his cabin to read charts, maps, and logs, as map-reading becomes a keen emblem of monomaniacal fixation–as the belief that maps will help him track the whale that he is committed to kill.  The maps may magnify the sense of monomania, the psychological diagnosis of an undue expansion of mental attention on one object; if repeated reading the maps serves as an emblem of the growth of his fixation despite the survival of his intellect; trying to pursue the whale on charts seems to serve to focus his vindictiveness, as if materializing how the “White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all this malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating at them, till they are left living with half a heart and half a lung.”  Ahab’s fixation on the yellowed charts he unrolled on his cabin table express the monomaniacal tendencies defined in nineteenth century psychiatry of how an inordinate fixation persists in an otherwise rational mind; the fixation on mapping the course of the whale obsesses his attentive mind.  

Is the hope of locating the White Whale by the rutters of past whaling ships and collation of mapped observations an emblem of nourishing an undue fixation of his pathological preoccupation, despite his apparent ability to reason the possible path of the whale’s path?  The extended narrative of the ongoing quest for Moby Dick on which Ahab leads Pequod that fills the content of the novel becomes a sort of psychic profile of the obsessiveness with which Ahab takes the Pequod, and the novel’s narrator Ishmael, to encounter Moby Dick in the South Seas–the site of whale -spawning where the novel culminates.  The retiring of Ahab to the solitude of his cabin matches his withdrawal into his mind and serves to nurse his preoccupations.  What provides a more gripping image of Ahab’s inner psyche than the obsessive attention that he gives to tracking the White Whale by maps?   Ahab retires to consult log-books and charts to cull sightings of sperm whales that almost substitute for an actual map or rutter–and for the trust that sailors might place in maps and charts to guide the ship.  The problem of locating the whale s underscored by mention of the “wild suggestions” of many ships that have given the whale chase of an “unearthly conceit that “Moby Dick was ubiquitous; . . .  had actually been encountered in opposite latitudes at one and the same instant of time;” if”the secrets of the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research,” Ahab seeks to challenge this sense of ubiquity through his obsessive consultation of charts, by following of the outlines of naval courses.  His intensity comes to transform his very brown and visage into a lined map, tracing out courses, so that his forehead comes to resemble a chart; reading maps with such obsessiveness to track his prey seems to remove Ahab’s single-minded pursuit from any oceanic transit, and from the common good of the ship that he commands.

Ahab’s monomania may seem sui generis.  But it is closely tied to the mapping project of Mathew Fontaine Maury and the contemporary project of collating open data on whale migration in Melville’s time, and the promise of investing legibility in a global space of whale migration.  Even more than the bodily injury of the loss of his leg that left him tormented with visions of the White Whale, the obsessive tracking and persistent consultation of charts and maps with other records manifests the idée fixe by which Captain Ahab is obsessed, and indeed the solitary consultation of these charts while his crew sleeps at night stand for the single-minded madness of tracking one whale on the open seas.  The folly of tracking the White Whale on a map embodies Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of a way to track its course by a paper map.   So fully does map-reading come to consume both his mind and his body as he ponders charts every night in his cabin, drawing new lines and courses by pencil, and revising them, “threading a maze of currents and eddies, with a veiew to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac though of his soul, so focussed on a map that, in a brilliant image, his tormented face even becomes a map, bearing the traces of the pencil lines traced on the charts, as if the subject of his fixation rises to the surface of his skin, so entirely consumed his mind by the conceit of mapping the course of Moby Dick.  The appearance of these self-inflicted lines as if engraved on Ahab’s brow–Melville’s image–echo the captain’s fixation with obsessively tracing multiple marine courses on the charts he keeps in his cabin; the courses that are so intensely pondered seem to rise to lines inscribed on his own skin as if in as a consequence of the imprint that tracing possible courses  of the leviathan has brought.  

The conceit of the tracking of whales on maps appears an emblem of Ahab’s madness, if it almost echoes contemporary techniques of Global Positioning Systems.  The utter hopelessness of locating one whale in an ocean map seems apparent; Ahab has indeed so often red maps to transform himself into a map hoping to locate Moby Dick, and the conceit of mapping whales has filled his mind.  Yet, as the “hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers, . . . the most curious and contradictory speculations regarding them, especially concerning [how] he transports himself with such vast swiftness to the most widely distant points”    Melville presents the problem of mapping the course of whales as one by which the crazed Captain Ahab is increasingly consumed, pouring over charts in the captain’s cabin, increasingly isolated at a remove from the crew including Queequeg and Ishmael, and the fate of his ship.  Although whalemen by their expert knowledge often came to the conclusion after the White Whale so often escaped their capture “Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” the presumption of mapping the course of the White Whale’s course is perhaps the clearest illustration and emblem of Ahab’s hubris, and monomaniac obsession with tracking the whale above the expert knowledge of his crew, as he “led upon the whale’s white hump as the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race,” so violently did he come to see personified in the whale that had once torn off his leg all evil in the world, and pit himself against it.  Maps provide Ahab with a basis to nourish and expand the “monomania  in him [that] took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment.”  If such a mania began he returned home, stretched in a hammock on his homeward voyage, swaying in a straitjacket in the rocking boat returning across the tranquil tropics, as “his special lunacy having stormed his general sanity,” he obsessed after returning to Nantucket with the one aim of hunting the White Whale.  Monomania had almost fallen out of favor as a diagnosis by 1850, when Melville wrote, but novelists from Balzac to Bronte adopted the image of mental fixation and unhinged rationality that Ahab’s reading of maps convey.  

Nothing in Mellville’s novel is so great an emblem indicating Captain Ahab’s madness than his obsessive consultation of nautical charts and maps of which he is a jealous custodian, and which provide the basis to nourish his determination to locate Moby Dick.  Maps may feed Ahab’s relentless compulsion to track the White Whale.  Ahab’s obsession with maps reflects contemporary attempts to map the open seas:  indeed, the superstitious value of the leviathan held a special place in the “wild, strange tales of Southern whaling,” and the deep sympathy of whaling men for their prey, who they know far better than those naturalists who have perpetuated false legends of their fierce animosity for humans, from Palsson to Cuvier, distorting the actual awesomenes of pursuing any whale tracking the Great White.  

Ahab’s obsessive reading of maps to track Moby Dick seems a figure for his monomania, but reflects an actual mapping project tracking whales on the open seas, which Melville knew well, and a project of mapping the logs of whaling ships in legible cartographic form.  Ahab’s use of maps to track Moby Dick mirrors the cartographical project of Matthew Fontaine Maury, the nineteenth-century Virginian polymath and early hero of open data, who in 1851 sought to map migratory routes of Sperm and Right whales or the benefit of the whaling economy.   If Melville often consulted histories of arctic searches for Northern Whales published from the 1820s, the appearance of an authoritative map of the courses of whales that Maury had accumulated from ships’ logs provided a model that attempted to impose human reason and fixed continuity on a whale’s migrating itineraries and paths, in order best to predict its actual location.

Ahab’s obsessive hope to track the course of the great white whale Moby Dick in the ship the Pequod may mirror the scope and ambition of M.F. Maury’s project–a project that led to one of the odder maps of marine population and migration that appears below, but which is one of the monuments of open data.   For Melville, however, Ahab’s mania seems driven by the hope the map carried for being  able to track  the course of the great white whale that his prey, and to arrive at the moment of confrontation that will in fact never appear on any map.  For unlike the observations Maury graphically collated, the specificity of Ahab’s tie to Moby Dick is not on the map at all.

Whale Chart 1851Maury’s Whaling Map; Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Ahab’s self-imposed sequestering on the voyage of the Pequod in his cabin, surrounded by a variety of charts, seems emblematic of his single-minded obsession to track the elusive Moby Dick.  It is emblematic of a uniquely obsessive sort of map-reading emblematic of his particular sort of hubris:  as he will never know the true path of the majestic whale, his study of the map symbolizes a contest between the mapping abilities of man and whale.

The private consultation of the map in the the secret space of the captain’s cabin reveals the sharp contrast between the whale as an innate cartographer who migrated across seas and the knowledge of routes inscribed in lifeless nautical charts, and the inability to plot or plan the intense longing for his confrontation with Moby Dick within the range of observations of all whales by traveling whale ships.  But it also offers an amazing fantasia of the reading maps and nautical maps as if they were guides to habitation, and a reflection on the nature of map-reading and the comprehensive claims of encompassing known space within engraved maps, and specifically of the colored charts of sea routes, whaling and sighted whales that the oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury produced in the 1850s compiling nautical logs of whaling ships, after having remapped the coastline of the United States from the geodetic Survey of the Coast by the Swiss Ferdnand Hassler, which had tried to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of a nation facing two oceans, before joining the Confederate cause.

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We have little sense of the amassing of data that existed in Ahab’s cabin, so much as the intense relation that the captain develops to his charts.  Melville describes how Ahab retires to his cabin to open “large wrinkled roll of yellowish sea charts, spread them before him on his screwed-down table,” ready to set himself to “intently study the various lines and shadings which there met his eye,” and escape into the paths that they trace.  The memorable episode in Ahab’s own cabin focusses attention on how the captain’s obsessive consultation of the maps, as a sort of emblem of his search to capture the whale in them.   Ahab processed information in the map as best he could, and “with slow but steady pencil trace additional courses over spaces that before were blank,” while consulting log-books of previous voyages and noted sightings of sperm whales in a desperate attempt to locate the migratory path of the white sperm whale Moby Dick–whose own route he so obsessively seeks to understand and on which he fixates so obstinately. The reading activity is isolated and isolation, because the map is essentially mute, a second order of spatial knowledge with which he has no literal traffic or exchange, but becomes a way to wrap himself in further isolation from the mammal that communes with the productive fecund waters of the sea.  “While he himself was marking outlines and courses on the wrinkled charts, some invisible pencil was also tracing lines and courses upon the deeply marked chart of his forehead,” as every night, “in the solitude of his cabin, Ahab thus pondered over his charts, . . . threading a maze of currents and eddys, with a view to the more certain accomplishment of that monomaniac thought of his soul.”

Such a collective map of the sightings of whales is both the focus and talisman of Ahab’s monomaniacal will:  both as the transcription of the paths of hidden submarine itineraries, “with the charts of all four oceans before him,” and the hubris of understanding the concealed migratory course of that noble whale with which he is so obsessed and that has long evaded his search.  For Melville confides that “it might seem an absurdly hopeless task thus to seek out one solitary creature in the unhooped oceans of this planet” to many; “But not so did it seem to Ahab, who knew the set of all tides and currents; thereby calculating the driftings of the sperm whale’s food, which whales were imagined to follow; and, also, calling to mind the regular, ascertained seasons for hunting him in particular latitudes; could arrive at reasonable surmises, almost approaching to certainties, concerning the timeliest day to be upon this or that ground in search of his prey.”  The privacy of the consultation of the tables that allow him to try to read this map, and to establish the position of the whale he seeks, becomes the basis for the captain’s obsessive hope to track the progress of the whale, better to interpret its location.

The intensive reading of ocean charts becomes a site of reading that obsesses Ahab as a means to determine and decipher the logic of its movement stand at odds with the description of the sublime nature of the sperm whale, whose own head cannot even be read without wondering at the majesty of the form of the “head of this Leviathan,” truly “an anomalous creature,” impossible to interpret or decipher, whose imposing grandeur is of such “god-like dignity” to defy human interpretation.  As the wonderfully described problem of the legibility of the “plaited forehead” of the Sperm Whale is a living surface that defies interpretation, inscribed with “innumerable strange devices for [its] emblematical adornment,” following not Euclidean mathematics, but rather “pure nautical mathematics,” the mapping of the course of the whale seems to defy tracking by Euclidean tools also defies reading, much as Melville described the sperm whale’s forehead forms a “mystically carved container,” the lines of whose face defy clear reading, as the “bumps on the head of this Leviathan” is a surface whose interpretation “no Physiognomist or Phrenologist has as yet undertaken,” and would challenge the abilities of Lavater–despite his study of animal faces–or Spurzheim or Gall, suggesting the intractable indecipherability of the whale, but whose “sublime aspect” and “added grandeur” Melville attempted, in the brow in which “mighty god-like dignity” is indeed “inherent” in a brow “plaited with riddles,” presenting Lavater’s mark of genius in the depressed crescent at its middle, in a brow “so amplified . . . you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcefully than in any other object in living nature.”

As the brow of the leviathan remains challenging to be read, any hope of reading the map of the path it takes seems, despite Ahab’s desire and Maury’s map, Melville appears to assure his readers, as futile as a way locating the actual whale Moby Dick, but becomes an obsessing act of tracing, retracing, and location, that becomes Ahab’s main interpretive project in Melville’s book.

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Filed under American literature, data visualization, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, open data