A as in Atlas

von Daniela Bär Daniela Bär, *1989, ist Kulturpublizistik-Absolventin und Zollfreilager-Mitgründerin. gepostet am 15. Dezember 2014

Atlas was a titan. But measuring the world would have had – to visit, for example, the old customs station Dogana da Mar in Venice, where the Canal Grande meets the Canale della Giudecca – serious consequences for him. He who had to support the heavens of what was then only the known world would today have to hold up more than before. And he would probably have some serious spinal damage to complain about. Atlas, however, is no stranger to chiropractors; if not as a patient, then as etymologist: the first cervical vertebra is called atlas. He also has a supporting role in architecture: as an atlas, he functions as a manly, muscly column that bears the weight of the structure above him.

In cartography, an atlas is a collection of maps, assembled according to a variety of content-driven criteria. The term first appears in this form in Gerhard Mercator’s posthumously published work Atlas, sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura (1595) (English: Atlas, or the cosmographic view on the architecture of the world and the shape of the same). Well into the 15th century, atlases are assembled more or less arbitrarily, and each country maintains its own cartographic traditions. The beginning of the great expeditions ushers in a new era of atlas composition: specifically selected maps, whose order follows a certain intention, are published in definitive editions and uniform formats. The first atlas of this kind to appear in book form is the 70 tome Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570) (translated: World Stage), by Abraham Ortelius (1527 – 1598). All atlas publications of this kind until the present suffer from the same contradiction: their world respresentation is supposedly scientific and universal, whereas in the concrete case it is relative (in most of the cases: national).

With the 2005 launch of its maps service, Google has undermined the very idea of an atlas by presenting the surface of the Earth as a map that users can zoom in and out of at will. In a recent hackathon co-financed by the Knight Foundation and the software community Mozilla, Internet activists showed how Google Maps plays fast and loose with national boundaries: depending on whether a map of Crimea is accessed from a Ukrainian or a Russian server, the peninsula will appear to belong to Ukraine or Russia. When technical innovation satisfies our need for cartographic information, why still turn the pages of an atlas?

Denis Wood, American author and former Professor of Design at North Carolina State University, sees narrative potential in every atlas. Together with the moral and intellectual integrity of their selection and arrangement, the graphical power of the maps generates a polydimensional narrative potential that surpasses prose and television. According to Wood, atlases contain nothing less than cartographic energy: an attitude that doesn’t have to wait on passive consultations, but that can be read as an active and relevant conglomeration of information.

Quellen zum Text:

  • Denis Wood, Pleasure In the Idea: The Atlas As a Narrative Form, 1987. (www.deniswood.net/papers.htm)
  • Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Google zeichnet die Weltkarte neu, 25.06.2014.

Translation: Sophia Cosby