Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

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


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.



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


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

Re-Writing Mapped Space: Maps as Texts

The Atlas of True Names   (2008) promises a legible cartographical surface clarifying confusions–although this enterprise is, in fact, less of a rebuttal to the deceptions of maps than based on whimsical fancy, the placid surface and mutely authoritative capitals of its densely written surface are something like a response to the comprehensive coverage of Google Maps.  Here, erudition crowds the visual surface of the map that draws its viewer onward across its surface on something more like a treasure hunt for amusement than a normal trajectory through space.  The text-based format of the map, whose traditional appearance and muted topographic coloring are equivalent to a calm reassuring voice, are a very retro surface, but as one looks closer, familiarity gives way to surprise:  for the translation of each place-name into the literal meaning of its signifier unpacks the familiar surface of the map.  The product on view gives new meaning to legible cartographical representations of expanse–or for that matter to maps as texts–by providing a map of the “true meanings” of toponymy in other maps, by a kind of reductio ad absurdum of etymological origins.

As we look at it, to be sure, we seem to be falling down something of a rabbit-hole, of which maps hang on each side, as for Alice; for the map  retains few familiar names.  The maps in the Atlas of True Names remind us of the extent to which our understanding of mapped space is determined by the location of names we read on maps’ surfaces, as much as other map signs.  Rather than use big data, the map of North America boasts data as small, and apparently as old, as one can get:





There’s more than a bit of wacked-out humor in the map’s subversion of the schoolroom hanging map used to study the states’ capitals or high-school text of history.  But just as the notion of “United States of The Home Ruler” seems inconceivable in a pre-Homeland Security world, and independent of etymological reconstruction, between the staid “Land of Settlement” and prosaic “Navel of the Moon,” the politics by which this atlas retrofits the map as object merit examination as remapping an inhabited space.  As much as a novelty, the marketing of this atlas returns us to the map we grew up with, and winkingly suggests what good map-readers we are.

In recasting such a familiar region with “true” place-names, map-reading becomes an exercise not only of re-reading toponyms with a thesaurus in hand, but an exercise of refamiliarizing ourselves with the naming of places that we know.  The notion of locating truth in maps might unintentionally echo an eery undercurrent scarily similar to the right-wing thirst for transparency in politics:  the shifted place-names of this project of re-mapping boasts the title of the “The Atlas of True Names” as if to curry to a skepticism in how place-names determined by multiple interests–even if the exercise in whimsy also aspires to enchantment.  Replacing the names we’d expect encourages to read the cartographical surface with the sort of pleasure of discovery of place-names we might have while headed to a radiant Emerald City past Truth Mountain, Winkie River and Rigamarole.

1927 Oz Map


But we’re in Kansas; not in Winkie-Land.  For American readers, the flattening of places into a register of quasi-scriptural authority of place seems to be an echo of the sort of national essentialism of the map–even if this was far removed from what the pleasant couple who designed it in their native Lübeck, here the “Lovely City,” might have actually intended.  Indeed, the negotiation of place names that began from custom and usage, is all but erased in the replacement of toponymy with a “true” origin that leaves Texas “Land of Friends” and Maine the “Land of Folks” and just reminds us of the darned problems of relating signifiers to signified.  Cuba as “Place to Find Gold” is transposed from a treasure map, but once removed from “X-marks-the-spot” deictic pointers, seems robbed of meaning.

Consider, for one, the range of names that were lost or purged from the maps that we use to navigate the Bay Area alone, let alone the entire American West, in this intensive compilation of native names for place in circa 1760 since erased from our own cartographical records of the same area:




Or consider the active role of colonizers in the renaming of regions, places and islands over time and human history so evident in the band around the equator:



Colonization around Equator


Which brings us to the odd title of the atlas, sold for an unclear audience.  The claim to be “true” seems particularly questionable in its flattening of the historical richness  of the thick descriptions any map recapitulates.  While I don’t want to question or assail the attempt to “re-enchant” a space whose meanings mutated over time, the problem of viewing the layers of history as a matter of direct translation forgets that the past of any place is itself another country, if not a sequence of multiple worlds, that a one-to-one re-matching also threatens to impoverish at the same time as essentialize.   And as much as re-enchanting, there’s the sense that this pair of married cartographers, Stephan Hormes and Silke Peust, put their readers in the position of Alice, who “had not the slightest idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but she thought they were nice grand words to say,” but found the words compelling and so intelligent. Truthfulness and maps are an odd combination:  the map is a register of actuality, but a polyglot rendering of actuality.

Yet as if disclosing hidden knowledge, even while barely maintaining a straight face, the unwitting effect of the “True Names” project is to flatten the historical accretion but also multi-cultural negotiations that provide the back story of the formation of place-names on the map.  The heaviness of “The Land of Settlement” that overhangs the familiar forty-eight, and the prosaic “Land of Cloudy Water” and “Land of the Shallow Water” aside, and even the romance of the “Land of the People with Dugout Canoes,” or “Land of Folks,” the notion is that this map has the true stuff for its readers.  Like the “Houses at the Foot of the Mountains” or the “Land of the People with Tall Caps” north of modern Pakistan.

The Anglicized toponymy of place is not only an etymological translation, but a sort of re-rendering of loci that invests the surface of the map with a epic-like declarative identification.  Of course, you don’t have to wander far:  Paris is the “City of Boat-Men,” and England (Great Britain) “Great Land of the Tattoed,” as any reader of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars might remember his description of the blue-painted men standing on the cliffs of Dover.  Hormes created the map together with his wife with aspirations to recreate ” an insight into what the people saw when they first looked at a place, almost with the eyes of children” as they encountered its topography, as if wandering for the first time in a country before time and seeking to capture local particularities, or to see the place for the mythical primeval time.

The inspiration of this map, and indeed for the treatment of mapping as a commercial enterprise, is less a report actual localities or surveying, than a removed activity of toponymic transcription, here under the guise or mask of Teutonic erudition more than compilation of unknown spaces; the idea is to make known space unknown or known again.  The aim is a sort of time-travel and a wiping clean of the slate of culture:   “Through the maps, we wanted to show what they saw,” he explained, eliding the palimpsestic quality of the map itself.  But the standards are not particularly high, as the goal seems to be to amuse.  There’s a certain failure to capture the acts of translation whereby a current English or American name descended from a French or other place-name, as Buffalo NY from belle fleuve, or for that matter recast “Rome” which appears as “Central City,” or even New York’s stint as New Amsterdam until 1644:  and even as late as 1630, colonists noted the divergent spellings of Mattachusetts, Massatusetts Bay, and Massachusetts, without seeing the need to arrive at orthographic stability.  And so perhaps a history of toponyms’ mutation can be included in the online version, bedecked with hypertext.   But learning is not the point, of course; and neither is a history of usage.

There is quite a bit of fun in imagining the renaming of the continuous 48 states with new identities like recasting Illinois as the “Land of Those Who Speak Well” or “Land of the Pale Faces,” even though the latter might now cover the entire continent:


map detail North America


The imaginative etymological reconstructions are a source of delight, if they don’t always successfully re-enchant mapped space and may also raise eyebrows.  Few won’t love such place-names like the “Land of the Cloud Water” or “The Sea of Weeds” or “Navel of the Moon” that give a quasi-biblical authority to what we usually read on the surface of the map most of us have known from first or second grade. Even despite the familiarity of some names–“Oakland” and “Salt Lake City” among them on the map, the diversity and history of the transmission of place-names are somehow flattened out to a single surface in one fell typographical stroke. It might be, moreover, that the location of ‘trueness’ in the names suggests both a sense of what the surface of the map usually hides and a barely conceals the right-wing paranoia at a conspiracy perpetrated even against us map-readers–echoing if not somehow analogous to the fears of a conspiracy that the falsity of Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birth-certificate has been recently reconfirmed which vigilant readers of the Wall Street Journal continue to post in the responses to articles for whoever is listening.  The renaming of “true” place-names somehow contains an element of rectifying the deceits long perpetuated by state-trained cartographers obscure, with a healthy skepticism toward the authority transmitted in maps:  this almost seems  the latest echo of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid streak that shapes politics, in which politics was an “arena for angry minds” –if not in such Manichaean terms as Hofstadter argued, but rather a sense that the signifiers associated with the place might be better decoupled from them, lest we naturalize the map’s surface, or mistake it for the territory.

One can imagine the scriptural significance that certain readers would paradoxically invest in the 2008 corpus of maps.  Although the two practiced cartographers mobilized an array of Old World erudition, and they clearly took some pleasure in tracing back, from the port of Halifax, “Remote Corner where Rough Grass Grows,” the act of renaming was something of an inversion of the cartographer’s task of “put[ting] as much information as possible in a single image.”   For in this case, the image is not what makes the information assembled accessible after all, so much as a the quasi-scriptural authority invested, with some imaginative leaps, in place-names that repopulate its surface, and shift the ground beneath one’s feet.  How is Hudson’s Bay (and other places linked to proper names) given true immediacy when Heartion’s Bay? Quasi-scriptural is not a misnomer given the solemn intoning of places like “Land Towards which the Sea Flows” or “Mountainous Land” across the map.


Einfaches CMYK


The sort of transparent legibility of the printed word seems vaguely Lutheran in its notion of a return to a scriptural truth, and indeed it echoes the enjoyment Luther himself took in including in his German-language Bible a supplemental map of the Holy Land.  The map, derived from the circa 1509 map Lucas Cranach had engraved of the region, was intended to satisfy readers’ curiosity of Holy place-names.  The reprinted version of Cranach’s map, with its toponymy expanded, is an example of the promise print offered to the legibility of the surface of the map.  Here is a version reprinted in a Dutch Bible of the 1542, revealing the course of Exodus and lending concrete meaning to those temporally removed events so that one could witness them anew:


Cranach Bible Map Holy Land toponyms


The sort of legibility that print promised provided access to an assembly of spatial relations that was not earlier in the ken of most readers.  The landscape map that provides a basis to understand Exodus invested a material presence to a set of quasi-mystical names long transmitted without a clear sense of their actual locations.   We are now perhaps not reading a map, but playing something like a post-modern parlor game. In contrast to Cranach’s useful collation of toponyms in the sacred text, many of these etymological reconstructions are amusing to imagine as modern road maps.

“Mom and Dad!  We’re finally at the City of Many Fish!  And I can see the Peak of the Bearer-of-the-Annointed-One Dove in the distance!” “Hurray!  We’re at Place by the Meadow in the Land of Friends!  Let’s get out of the car!”  This is the absurdism of etymological archeology, erasing the traces of population or local history in the hopes of a new essentialism of world myth. While all this is overwhelming, a focus on one contested region of the world–and attendant diminishing of wacky amusement that comes with time and repeated map-reading–suggests the odd comfort that comes from an erasure of the multicultural contexts of the evolution of place-names discussed, among others, by how George R. Stewart famously romanced American toponymy in his historical account of place-naming that traced in a somewhat dry manner the negotiation of practices place-naming, ceremonies of possession, and textual corruptions mediated and brokered by inter-cultural contact and aspirations, documenting the translation of French or Indian terms to Anglicized place-names or orthographic shifts over time.

Indeed, a somewhat reverse pattern of trying to map primeval names for places from their modern proper nouns seem to cast some doubt on the philological rigor of the project as a whole:  the city first identified in the map’s first edition as “New Wild Boar Village,” was back-traced from “Nova Eboraca” (New York), despite the boar having questionable homonymic relationship.  (‘New Yew-Tree Village,’ reads the current map, although one isn’t sure how that relates to an earlier encounter with space not mediated by a number of encounters with lexicons; old maps, which might have provided “New Amsterdam,” are not noted or considered.)  Yet the prosaic image of yew-trees offer little sense of what York meant to the Romans or Britons, and the Latin toponymy might not even have been primarily vegetal in intent.  Other familiar places seem similarly distorted by an etymological imaginary or fanciful but sloppy erudition:  “Saint Little Frank One” seems a forced upstream etymology of “San Francisco,” inanely confounding “frank” as proper name and adjective.  And how does “United States of the Home,” with its unintended echo of the Homeland Security Department, line up with Amerigo Vespucci?   Why (on earth) is the city of fallen angels, “Los Angeles,” more transparently or truly registered as “The Messengers”?

What’s gained in the new linguistic transparency that this re-insertion of English toponymy for a rich cultural canvas of the surface of the map?  The more circumscribed focus on a map of the western US and southern California make more clear what’s lost in the flattening of historical encounter with space, however much it might satisfy the English Only crowd, a sanitized landscape where we are given the impression of being able to truly understand what the foreign tongue both mystified and masqueraded as euphonious for our ears, so present in much of the American midwest.




Some of the unsettling unheimlichkeit of the map may derive from the impression that the place-names have been taken off the map, put in a vat of acid, or a very hot rinse, and then put back in place on its surface.  Recasting the map as something like a Google Translator program’s reading of place seems to respond to fears of the messiness of globalization, by rewriting the maps in our own lingua franca to erase the multicultural messiness found on the map.  With everything has now been translated to English, at last, a properly legible text promises a true uniformity to project English only on any foreign labeling of place, extricating the map entire from its web of polyglot diversity in a newly proprietary way. The result is something of a comic fantasy of map-reading that has a somewhat J. R. R. Tolkein-ish tinge, or, in the case of the Land of Five Rivers, Horsemen, and Turtles, the sound of Dada-ist language poetry that calls into question the cultural specificity of very process of naming places on maps.  “Once the names have been taken back to their roots and translated into English,” Hormes and Peust boast, “it is immediately apparent that our own world has an extraordinary affinity with Middle-earth,” we learn, “clearly rooted in Man’s observation of his natural environment and [the] physical location of a settlement.”  (Holmes admitted that his own interest in maps can be traced back to a childhood obsession with The Lord of the Rings, which presents a toponymy “so clear that  every child understands it,”–even before the cinematic recreation of Mt. Doom let it enter most kids’ imaginations–in his map the Mediterranean is after all “The Sea of Middle Earth.”)

Am I wrong to see something monolithic and oddly neo-fascist in their alleged “re-enchantment” of a drawn, or re-written, cartographical space?  The sort of verbal dominance over localities may be less explicit, but it is somehow just as insidious, if not tongue-in-cheek about the authority maps hold. I don’t mean to be so harsh.  Although its authors openly aspired “restore an element of enchantment to the world we all think we know so well,” and allow readers to “take a look at the world with fresh eyes,”  even the Atlas of True Names “United States of the Home Ruler” or “Great Land of the Tattooed” playfully suggests a level of transparency to the map that seems to push  back against globalization by returning to a familiar idiom and tongue.




If Stewart’s classic study of American toponymy traced the negotiation with American Indian place-names, the reduction to one language is a cultural flattening of the surface of the map, in a somewhat paradoxical Enlightenment project of making inhabited space visible–or lisable–in the sense that legibility trumps space or cultural remove.  But the mobilization of this linguistic erudition into an enterprise pushing back against the world connected by the internet to restore wonder of creating an identifiable relation to space onto the surface of the individual map. The problem with attempting to restore such a sense of wonder is magnified when we deal with other cultures, where one finds echoes of the land of Marco Polo on the Spice Route, from the “Land of the Tribal Homelands” and “Land of the Fire-Keepers” (Azerbajan) along the “Golden Mountains” to “Riceland” (China); the “Town of Happiness” lies comfortably near the “City of One Who Aspires to Enlightenment,” perhaps the city of naked philosophers or gymnosophists inhabiting the edges of the worlds mapped by medieval men.




There is a certain Teutonic Enlightened strain in the bleaching of past history in the name of one mother (or father) tongue.  Shifting the names of places is a way of getting you to pay attention to the entire surface of the map for something surprising or out of the ordinary, but also flattens the aura of far-off places in a sadly normative fashion, creating something like a new level of two-dimensionality by robbing places of the imagined accretions and associations all place-names have.  There’s something sad of the absence of the romance of the map that results, in which even London seems pretty absurd as the “Unfordable River Town,” though the unaffordable river town it might be.


England--IMpotance of


Indeed, the romance of space is entirely tied to the euphonious nature of place.  Even Frances Mayes herself might have trouble writing about the Tuscan Sun by living outside The Blossoming One, in the sun-drenched Hilly Mountains–the very practice of cross-cultural translation that she professes is itself flattened by the absent assonance in the  toponymy that these maps of Italy and Tuscany afford budding poets.  Even though “The Land of Calves” and “Rainland” seem romantically appealing in their own right:  but they don’t sound like the euphonious landscape filled with ginestre and tromboni, as well as the lovely vibrant tastes of basilico.


Italy in English


White-washed to an English rooted in etymological derivations, the landscape is in an odd way de-peopled or depopulated as it is removed from how place is spoken, and re-mapped, by the people living in its landscape.  There’s a child-like naiveté we get from reading the maps’ place-names, which mystify even the locations that we know all too well. There is the odd sense that from a space in fragments, these cartographers are trying to create a new wonder of the whole, arrogating authority of naming to themselves in the name of recuperating an initial primeval confrontation with a topographic landscape.  The task seems in part to invest immediacy in the world as it is encountered in each place in a comprehensive topographic map–without considering the synthetic nature of the fabrication of cartographical space, and although this seems at odds with the synthetic construction of a uniform distribution of spatial relations.  It seems the cartographers took a digitized image to re-write the toponyms they found with evocative substitutes, but chose to keep some, as “Oakland,” “Riverside,”  “Long Beach,” or “Salt Lake City,” as such were sufficient topographic descriptors in themselves.  In seeking to preserve the essence of each name as much as they can, they may unwittingly undermine  forging continuity in the heterogeneous surfaces of mapped space.


Filed under "Atlas of True Names", cartographic whimsy, Frances Mayes, Google Maps, historical maps, Middle Earth, native toponymy, Winkie-Land