Mapping the imaginary, part 1

Updated: Aug 1, 2018


Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty: "My mother drew this map for me. This is the world through her eyes."

What I love about maps is that they are products of multiple concerns: as objects, they are aesthetic, ornamental, decorative; as tools, they are aspirational, we see the places we have been, the places we might go, and the places we may never get the chance to explore; they’re also aspirational in the sense that they depict a world that does not - and cannot - exist; as metaphors, they are fearful of losing control, of not understanding, of realizing how their black ink boundaries are so fluid off-paper; as the state, they are all these things, but also the people, landscapes, and other things that live within, cross, and defy those borders every day.


This is an adaptation of a short presentation given as a response to three readings: James C. Scott's “Nature and Space” and “Cities, People, and Language,” from Seeing Like a State, Edward Dallam Melillo’s “Mountains of Infamy, Vines of Plenty” and Karl Appuhn’s “Inventing Nature.” I chose to focus on the idea of "mapping the imaginary" -- what does it mean to map what doesn't exist?


Though physically bounded by highways, roads, and its natural landscape, the state can be navigated through much more intangible boundaries. In James C. Scott’s chapters, “Nature and Space” and “Cities, People, and Language,” he explores how, alongside language, roads, and the creation of surnames, the “ordering” - or “legibilization” - of nature is a crucial part of the state project. This desire to make things "legible" [or rational] is explored further in Edward Dallam Melillo’s “Mountains of Infamy, Vines of Plenty” and Karl Appuhn’s “Inventing Nature.” Complicating the narratives of “man against nature,” these readings discussed the national and transnational stories of forests, landscapes, and the bugs, disease, and organisms within them. If the language of rationalization - things like weight, measure, property, ownership, product, profit - makes the illegible, legible, it certainly doesn’t make it more controllable or comprehensible.


We don't actually have to go somewhere to 'see' it: “At the limit, the forest itself would not even have to be seen; it could be ‘read’ accurately from the tables and maps in the forester’s office” (Scott 15). But what do we lose? What lies outside the lines, beyond the paper or your gps? The map - what we usually see as 'the big picture' - might actually miss the big picture completely.


It's not just about trees -- it's about our stories and the questions we ask. Because when we accept something as is, then we don't question the thing itself. We make it halfway without even knowing there's way more to go.


But sometimes, along the way, we find ourselves tumbling down the rabbit hole. And it's both scary and exciting.

“The 'naturalization' of maps - the myth that maps show the world the way it really is - veils the fact that maps are cultural and even individual creations that embody points of view. [...] If maps exist to order and reorder the world, the world fights back" (Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local). Reading this was one of those rabbit holes for me. 


Maps order and reorder the world. Maps make the world legible. Maps make the world manageable.


But the world fights back.


The Surrealist Map of the World from 1929 special essue of Variétés magazine, on the theme of surrealism.

The world defies the map, it goes off the grid. The world moves. Things in the world move. This idea of making nature, the landscape, and the environment, legible is also an aesthetic choice. And you could see this in the language we use: order, straight lines, and uniformity are beautiful; and (irrational) chaos is not.


Maps are political. Maps have goals. Maps don't show us the world, they tell us what we should think it looks like.


So about the imaginary...

Athanasius Kircher's map of subterranean fires from Mundus Subterraneus

Map from My Father's Dragon (1944) by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett

Kircher's map of the interior of the earth, like the one that opens this post, is of a place familiar to us. But neither of them show what we've come to accept the U.S. or the inner planet to look like. Gannett's islands, though, don't neighbour any country and can't be explored geologically or geographically because they don't actually exist anywhere on our physical world.


Umberto Eco suggests, in The Book of Legendary Lands, that these two cases are fundamentally different: lands of legendary illusion, like Wild Island, are separate from lands of fictional verity, like Kircher's subterranean world. The difference, according to him, is that lands of fictional verity are - yes, legends - but imagined as part of the real world we inhabit.


But I'm left here, at the end of part one of this journey down the rabbit hole, thinking back to the first map in this post. Maira Kalman writes: "This is the world through her [mother's] eyes." Why is it so easy to dismiss the way she sees the world, and so easy to imagine a world where the Scottish Highlands house the Hogwarts castle (still waiting for that letter...), or where Wonderland borders Whoville?


What does it mean to map legendary lands and environments? What can these “possible worlds” offer us, as historians?


What's your favourite legendary land and why? Comment below.


#history #mapping #imaginarymaps #imaginaryplaces #artistorian

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