October 13, 2008

Krygier’s are maps autistic? and other musings

Filed under: Uncategorized — ubikcan @ 7:00 am

Over the last year John Krygier has given a couple of talks that ask if or how maps are autistic. Here’s part of his abstract for a conference paper he gave in Boston:

Are maps autistic? Autism is a spectrum of neurological conditions, distinguished by varying degrees of impaired social interaction, rigidity, repetitiveness, and emotional detachment with, paradoxically, the potential for unusual creativity, talents, and high intelligence. Debates rage over the origins, nature, cognitive foundation, and social construction of autism (as they do with maps). There are curious parallels (and differences) between autism and maps which, when explored, may help gage the characteristics and potential of maps as subversive objects. Maps may interpellate disparate human subjects: what kinds of “map people” do maps make us? Do such tendencies operate in the map creation process, or the map reading process, or both? Might maps “autistic” tendencies, if they exist, subvert subversive intent or enhance it?

When I first heard these arguments I must confess that I wasn’t quite sure what John was doing, or how they could be useful. John points to a basic ambiguity at the heart of maps and mapping: that they are creative, yet suffer from a curious lack of affect, and of being able to grasp meaning. John has not yet published this paper.

I think that he is on to something here, and to try and make sense of it I will recast it somewhat, and put it into my own frames of reference. This is not to take away from John’s points and in fact only arises because he has opened up a fundamental line of thinking. Here are some questions and observations.

1. Is he talking about map as objects, or the process of mapping? At first it might seem he is talking about maps as objects (their form, design, topics they cover etc.). Some maps are creatively designed (see Danny Dorling’s great series of maps at Worldmapper, or the blog Strange Maps). At the same time there is certainly a ritualized, textbook based set of design rules we are enjoined to obey (figure-ground, color, text etc.) Like an autist’s “ticks” we ritualistically have to touch the same points over and over again.

But the more interesting sense (given that creative works more generally work within received traditions [cf. the “anxiety of influence“] that they have to either overcome or work within) is that the process or practice of mapping is “autistic” not maps as objects. I mean more here than just how maps are used, though what used to be called “map use” is a good start, but that mapping while it might be good at piling up a lot of correct (more or less) facts is less good at grasping their overall meaning. In fact we might unthinkingly accept that by mapping and using GIS we are doing enough, but what if mapping can only as it were accurately count the number of matches thrown on the ground (viz. a scene in Rain Man) but not grasp the meaning of smoking, fire, warmth, cooking–or even the labor process of match production?

2. Lately there is a lot of talk of mapping as performative, mapping as a practice. Perhaps Kitchin and Dodge go furthest here when propose that mapping is of the moment and fleeting; we are constantly making anew mapping (.pdf here). They draw here on an old distinction in philosophy between being and becoming (see Plato Republic, and the Timaeus). Normally we associate being with something static and permanent, while becoming is at most only partially real. Kitchin and Dodge, like other anti-Platonists before them (Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari in Thousand Plateaus) want to assert the priority of change over permanence, and especially the lack of inherent qualities of a map. Therefore there is a shift from the study of maps as objects to the study of mapping as a practice. (Perhaps this just drives us back to the question not what is a map, but what is mapping, and whether there is some commonality, some inherent quality of mapping that allows us to compare it across long time periods? I think the answer to this is that a historicised analysis of mapping is possible, on the basis of our understanding of mapping–a somewhat presentist or Whiggish approach admittedly, but I don’t know how else it could be done.) I have other problems with Kitchin and Dodge which I’ve documented in print in other places.

So the upshot is that Kitchin and Dodge want to talk about ontology, not as beings, but as becoming. Getting back to Krygier then, is he saying that if mapping is where the action is (not maps) that mapping is autistic and if so how?

As I mentioned above I think this has something to do with map use. I think we would have to show that mapping in practice has fallen into “autistic” or inauthentic (in Heidegger’s sense) modes of knowing that rely too much on facts and too little on meaning. This might involve some fairly detailed examinations of how maps are used in practice, for example of the kind that Eric Laurier and colleagues have performed. Or in an example I’ve used before, of examining how mapping is constituting the world as calculable resources, which come under threat and this need to be securitized. Another example is the dramatic leveling down we see in the usage of the words “terrorist,””resources,” “security” where all sorts of dubious moral equivalencies are involved. For a contemporary example see how the press equates Obama saying McCain is “erratic” with the McCain-Palin campaigns invocation of Obama as a “man of the street” who “palls around with terrorists”–Palin’s words.

On the other hand, there is a lot of interesting mapping practices being done in another direction, that of map art, counter-mappings, and other forms of “mapping without a net” as I’ve called it.

Here’s an illustration to indicate these different tensions in mapping practices right now. It tries to summarize what’s happening with mapping knowledges. This is my Grand Summary of the different directions mapping is going in right now. We find these tensions to all be going on at once, even perhaps within the experiences of an individual.

Toward the bottom left (no significance, just the way I drew it) we have movement toward securitization of knowledge, locking it down in bodies of knowledge and certifications (and textbooks) and so-called “ontologies.” The latter are the abstract formal definitions that computer and GIScientists use to characterize things and concepts. They are attempts to create semantic webs and often consist of “triples” of subject-predicate-object, for example “flood” “is a” “weather phenonenon.” These are the pilings up of facts I alluded to above.

Toward the top right are the possibilities of mapping practices as critique (exploring new possibilities, subversive cartographies), map art, mapping in everyday life and so on, which overall I give the name “resistances.”

I think I’ve now been able to reconcile Krygier’s claims within my own thinking by reinterpreting it as commentary on mapping practices that could go either toward “securitization” (the known, ritualized stilling of concepts, obligatory “ticks” and gestures toward the known) with the creative resistances of say map art, refusing to play by these rules but to make new rules.


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