(Courtesy of Wood's Lot)
Imaginary Maps, Global Solidarities
Piet Zwart Institute
Introduction: The Social Imaginary
Incommensurably large with respect to human perception, what we call "the world" appears first in the domain of representation – most concisely in the form of maps. For the literary mind, a map is the round earth on a flat sheet of paper, the planet at your fingertips: an invitation to dream of far-off continents and climes. In practical terms, a map is the graphic or computer-generated depiction of a clearly outlined territory, with features that are natural (mountains, oceans, rivers) or artificial (highways, cities, borders). Most people use these printed or pixellated guides to get somewhere, asking only for effectiveness in motion. Yet so-called "thematic maps" (or "information graphics") carry a far wider range of knowledge about human beings and their activities, their relations to each other and to the environment (demography, industrial production, political orientation, cultural and linguistic grouping, educational levels, infrastructure, etc.). What's more, topological figures, derived from landforms and mathematics, are now used to chart processes and relations outside any geographic frame, the most obvious example being the virtual realms of the Internet. In these representational adventures we rediscover the terra incognita of the ancient cartographers. By condensing complex information about the human world, thematic maps can have the uncanny effect of making us feel disoriented – lost amidst the flows and the conflicts. In a period of political, social, and technological upheaval like the one we're living through now, when ordinary people find themselves entangled in processes of global scale every day, maps can help us to expand our perception of ourselves, of our present situation and our closest or most far-off possibilities. The stuff of dreams then mingles with the challenge of reality. But how to meet that challenge, the way one meets another human being on common ground?
My conviction is that we need radically inventive maps exactly like we need radical political movements: to go beyond received ideas and orders, in fact, to go beyond representation, to rediscover and share the space-creating potentials of a revolutionary imagination. In the thoughts and images gathered in these pages you will find an extensive, intensive and sometimes borderline-delirious exploration of the ways that maps allow us to constitute an image of the world, to move through the physical world that confronts us, and to exchange our worldviews and our experiences with the others whose solidarity we depend on.
Where do maps meet the intricacies of minds, bodies, aspirations? The interaction between mental conceptions and graphic representations can be studied beneath the heading of "cognitive cartography." As Daniel Montello writes: "Map design can be thought of as mind design; the way a map is designed will influence the views of the world it stimulates or inhibits." (2) But cognitive cartography as he presents it is concerned with the psychological mechanisms of perception, what is called "psychophysics." The cartographer uses empirical observation and analysis to determine the most effective means for the representation of data – measuring the perceptibility of shades of color, dot size, line thickness, etc. These mundane questions of graphic design, which are directly faced by the practical map-maker, become immediately relevant when you want to "get somewhere" in the world, or to "get some information" from a map. With the advent of Geographic Information Systems, typically combining the resources of satellite imagery, geographically indexed databases, telematics and global positioning technology (GPS), the problem of cartographic information design is burgeoning into a major new industrial field, mobilizing thousands of digital artisans for the creation of products whose efficiency will be "tested by the market." But just what is the market testing for? If you reflect that the basic elements of Geographic Information Systems, and of GPS-based "locative media" in particular, were developed by the US military for the tracking of enemy movements and the targeting of missiles, and if you further reflect that the same systems are now being massively adapted by the private sector for the management of mobile workforces and the statistical targeting of consumers, a feeling of deep disorientation may arise, concerning "the efficiency of efficiency." What kind of world do contemporary maps represent? What is it good for? What is the use of "getting some information," if the results are commercial or military propaganda? Or of "getting somewhere," if the destination is worthless, even repulsive? What shall we make of the contemporary design of our own minds?
The feeling of being irretrievably lost in the process of planetary integration – or "globalization" – is not new. Twenty years ago, the American Marxist Frederic Jameson wrote of the urgent need for "an aesthetics of cognitive mapping" to resolve "the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects." (3) That phrase, "an aesthetics of cognitive mapping," is at once immensely suggestive and at least partially misleading. It is suggestive, because the word aesthetics evokes an experiential and experimental domain, whose questions are both theoretical and sensual, fully embodied and self-reflexive. The notion of aesthetics points to all the formal, emotional, and associational dimensions that come into play when we ask ourselves questions about a particular artifact that we find in front of us: like a map. What is it? What isn't it? Is it good? Why? What for? How does it relate to other, more familiar things? How can it be played with, reinterpreted, turned upside down? How can it be reworked, reframed, refolded – estranged and transformed for another use? Twenty years ago, Jameson pointed to the striking absence of aesthetic objects, and particularly maps, that could both mediate the debates over the globalization process and help the participants to internalize some of their results, so as to create intuitive, embodied representations of the contemporary world. Cognitive mapping in this sense is about orientation, about situating yourself, achieving a better fit between your body/mind and a mutating earth. In fact, the major intellectual project of the worldwide Left in the 1990s was to map out the political economy of neoliberal capitalism, which had literally produced a new geography. In that respect Jameson's question was a decade ahead of its time. And yet his phrase was also misleading, because the word "cognitive" tends to reduce the interaction of mind and map to the level of individual contemplation, or even to psychophysics – as though it were a matter of a purely functional nervous system staring into its cartographic mirror. Whereas recent history, since the massification of access to the Internet, tends to show that the aesthetics of cognitive mapping only becomes effective, only opens up a public inquiry about the ways the globalization process can be conceived and embodied by its subjects, when it actually transits through the "great global multinational and decentered communicational network" in which we are individually and collectively caught – both as moving targets and as potential actors, that is, as political beings.
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