A Theory of Maps

26 February 2009


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From Epistemic Space to Abject Technology

Recently in Epistemic Space I wrote that, “A map represents a special kind of knowledge, and indeed a special approach to knowledge — a bird’s eye view of knowledge in which epistemic space is plotted out in a scheme that is both abstract and synthetic.” Not long after posting that I came to realize that the special kind of knowledge represented by maps is a function of maps lying at the intersection of hardware technologies and social technologies.

What do I mean when I say that a map lies at the intersection of hardware technologies and social technologies? I mean that a map is a little bit of both, and not precisely one or the other. In other words, a map is abject technology. A map is both a fact and an artifact. People use a map as a tool in order to find their way; they also use a map as a basis for constructing and extending their knowledge base, and to organize space and time. And for a group of elites to organize space and time is no abstract exercise. It involves who remains “free”, who is in prison, who can travel where, where you can build what kind of structure, where you can camp, where you can ride a motorcycle and whether or not you have to wear a helmet. And in so far as we cooperate with these principles of organization, we realize in fact a social technology conceived in the minds of political elites.

Ontogenic Mapping Conventions

Maps are more than colored outlines of nation-states and street indices. Flow charts, also mentioned in Epistemic Space, are maps of time and of process. Clocks, calenders, and schedules are also maps of time. Organizational charts are maps of the structure of a given organization. Politicians speak of a “roadmap” when then refer to any sequence of steps intended to achieve certain results, i.e., an algorithm.

A map or a schedule or a calendar (all of which below we will simply call maps) is what philosophers call a convention. For philosophers, a convention is not a bunch of drunk doctors at a Holiday Inn, it is an agreement among a number of people to do things in the same way. It carries the connotation that doing things in a given way may not represent any great truth (although, then again, it may), and it may not reflect the natural order of things (again, it also may do so), but it may nevertheless be an orderly and systematic way to go about things.

Maps, understood in the broadest sense, create facts. A map can become a model by which we construct our lives, governing when and how we move, and how we distribute our time. In order to describe conventions such as maps that create, or contribute to the creation of, facts I would like to co-opt a term usually used in biology : ontogenic, the adjectival form of ontogeny (The origin and development of an individual organism from embryo to adult; also called ontogenesis). That is to say, maps are ontogenic; maps generate facts; maps create truths. There is even a sense in which we can say that a map projects facts and truths.

Degrees of Ontogenesis

We can distinguish between levels of human participation in the constitution of facts. Some facts are more given and less created, others more created and less given. I am skeptical that we have access to the purely created or the purely given. Some facts which we participate in creating are nevertheless opaque, but I don’t think that this is always the case. Among created facts are airline and train schedules, or maps of all kinds, for example, and though they may often appear unreasonable to those of us who don’t like getting up at 5 am to catch a plane, for those who master the logistics behind transportation even the details can be made transparent. Certainly the facts of transportation schedules, which we play a large role in creating, are more transparent than the facts of the weather, which we play a very small role in creating.

It would be awkward to call a bus schedule a “fact,” although it is closely connected with many facts. A schedule is, rather, a convention — a map in time — and facts follow from a decision to order things in a certain way. Some of the facts which follow from conventions actually follow logically: if a subway is to start at 6 in the morning and stop at each station every five minutes, then we can conclude that it will stop at each station at 6:05, 6:10, etc. However, many of the facts involve intensional contexts, i.e., they involve further human agency. A schedule cannot guarantee that the subway will stop at 6:05, as the subway employees may not care about being on time. In this case it follows logically that if the subway has not arrived by 6:05 it is late, but little else follows logically. This additional human involvement makes conventions continually subject to human agency and variable in light of the possibility of interpretation.

As for Time, so for Space

All that we have observed in regard to time and the establishment of temporal conventions in schedules applies, mutatis mutandis, to space and the establishment of spatial conventions in maps. There are levels of human participation in maps, and the greater our level of participation, the greater the ontogenic role of the map. We have rather less control over a topographical chart, and rather more control over a street map. We can physically change the facts on the ground that the street map is supposed to depict. We can also physically change geographical features, though we are perhaps less likely to do so. But we may be motivated, in some cases, to call a stream a seasonal trickle or to call a seasonal trickle a class-one stream if there are legal reasons for doing so (which, in logging country, may govern whether or not you can log and how much of a buffer you will need to leave on each side of the stream to protect riparian habitat).

The existence of ontogenic technologies such as maps calls into question the simplistic division of philosophical theories of the world into the constructive and the non-constructive, the anti-realist and the realist, conventionalism and Platonism, because the recognition of a category of the ontogenic is a recognition of things that are partially made and partially given, but not wholly made or wholly given. Given that our world is as it is, that it is a compromise through and through, and that little in it comfortably falls under a clearcut category (except the category of the abject), we ought to openly recognize this in our conceptual scheme. There are stubborn facts that are not social constructions, and there are social constructions that cannot be reduced to simply facts. But more common than either stubborn facts of social constructions are pliant facts and impersonal constructions.

The Map Makes the Territory

While we know that “the map is not the territory” guarantees that any and all maps must be, at least to some extent, abstract, because of the ontogenic nature of maps we can, however, say that the map makes the territory. Because two nation-states agree on a boundary, they build fences and towers and keep guards with guns and dogs on their side of the agreed line. This is the concrete realization of a formal convention, specifically, the formal convention of mapping.

There is an amusing and oft-related story that Louis XV, after having financed a geographical expedition to map his kingdom the more accurately, discovered that his kingdom was rather smaller than he had supposed, and he remarked that he had lost more territory to his cartographers than he had ever gained in conquest. That surveyors, cartographers, geographers, and astronomers have been representatives of the crown, and their findings given the force of law, is one manifestation of the Scientific Revolution.

The territorial nation-state — hence the entire nation-state system of the contemporary global political order — cannot exist without precisely defined geographical borders. By the same token, the territorial principle in law is meaningless without a defined territory within which the national law is to be enforced. Thus the nation-state system, and every particular nation-state, rests upon the regime of cartography, which is to say that it rests upon a convention. And for that reason it is also as much to say that a nation-state is the relic of an abject technology; in other words, the nation-state is an abject institution.

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