C as in Critical Cartography
“At his father’s request, while he filled the tank, Jed bought a ‘Michelin Departments’ road map of the Creuse and Haute-Vienne. It was then, unfolding the map, while standing by the cellophane-wrapped sandwiches, that he had his second great aesthetic revelation. This map was sublime. Overcome, he began to tremble in front of the food display. Never had he contemplated an object as magnificent, as rich in emotion and meaning as this 1/ 150, 000-scale Michelin map of the Creuse and Haute-Vienne. The essence of modernity, of scientific and technical apprehension of the world, was here combined with the essence of animal life. The drawing was complex and beautiful, absolutely clear, using only a small palette of colours. But in each of the hamlets and villages, represented according to their importance, you felt the thrill, the appeal, of human lives, of dozens and hundreds of souls – some destined for damnation, others for eternal life.” (Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory, 2009)
Reducing complexity and providing orientation, making flat whatever is hilly in the area, without negating the hill in the process: maps separate the wheat from the chaff. They show streets, contour lines or metro stations, depending on why and by whom they were created. Google and GPS move maps and territories closer and closer to each other until they begin to overlap – and produce, in Google Street View’s case, a strange hybrid. Despite their exactness, maps are always still interpretation, by cartographers as well as by explorers who, map in hand, find their way through a territory – in case that is even the goal: American cartographer Denis Wood has spent the last decades surveying the Boyland Heights district in Raleigh, North Carolina. Not the street or the green spaces, but the mailman’s daily route, the houses, that have been mentioned the most in newsletters of the past 25 years, the houses that displayed lighted jack-o-lanterns on Halloween. Thus maps can also initiate complexity: they can show nothing but trees in a forest, reveal inter-human networks, “awaken the cry of dozens of human lives”, to say it in the words of the character Jed Martin from Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Cartography as a narrative technique, the ethnography of everyday life. But where stories are told, lies are sometimes being told as well: In his academic life, Wood was a pioneer of something called “critical cartography”, a discipline that deals with the possibilities and limits of maps as guides: Knowledge (production) is always power. Borders can be placed, [excluded] or moved. The power lies in the hands of each cartographer. Following Roland Barthes’ Everyday Myths, Wood writes that maps are never free from the producer’s motives. It’s good to know that, in addition to the academic Denis Wood, there is also the poet Denis Wood, who introduces these motives in his maps in a wonderfully absurd manner.