Friday, May 4, 2012

Imaginary Maps

We had a marvelous symposium last night at the Museum of Culture and Environment (here at Central Washington University) on the theme of "Mapping Power: The Power and Politics of Cartography", marking the opening of our first student co-curated exhibition, "Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey through Imaginary Worlds."  Marna Carroll (Anthropology) explored Native American indigenous and early contact cartographic or wayfinding forms, which tended to function as what might be termed phenomenological icons of experience, emphasizing the dynamic subject position of the map creator, the shifting human experience of mobility, and protean inter-personal and inter-community relations: thus, in an early Chickasaw map, fully drawn pathways between locales indicate positive political and economic relationships, while broken path lines evoked the rupture of productive relations of alliance and reciprocity. An indigenous Rhode Island area map inscribed on stone, in turn, foregrounds human maritime pathways through Narragansett Bay, not directly marking terrestrial features or human settlements, which were much less relevant to the mobile indigenous subject. (Marna noted that other indigenous maps render the birthplace of their creator larger than other sites.)  In contrast, emerging European maps from the Age of Exploration, while highly political in terms of their underlying ideological agendas, increasingly presented themselves as objective, rationalist and universal, divorced from the active subject positionality of their creator. These Western maps, it occurs to me, were thus consistent with what Martin Heidegger terms "the age of the world picture", exemplifying the ideological practice of positing the world as (square or rectangular) picture, subject to (ostensibly) rationalist and objectivist modes of knowing.

Steve Hussman, the university archivist, then presented on the turn-of-the-century corporate coal mine maps of nearby Roslyn, Washington, in its time one of the most significant coal-mining sites in the Pacific Northwest.  Steve contrasted the objectivist logic of these maps, emphasizing coal seams and major underground tunnel systems, with photographic documentation of the mines and the mining communities. The maps function, in effect, to exclude all traces of human subjectivity, including the physical agonies and hardships of underground labor.  Steve opened his talk with an evocative passage from Upton Sinclair's novel King Coal (1917): "They were old mines—veritable      cities tunneled out beneath the mountains, the main passages running for miles…and (Hal) got     through his physical senses a realisation of the vastness and  strangeness and loneliness of this     labyrinth of night.”  This is precisely the texture of lived, laboring experience that is excluded by the highly abstracted maps produced by the company, which were active technologies of control and regulation.

In this sense, it occurred to us in conversation afterwards, the coal maps were consistent with the logic, in Marx's terms, of commodity fetishism, which tends to mystify or render invisible underlying conditions of labor, namely the systematic extraction of labor power under capitalist modes of production.  Indeed, these maps appear to have been closely guarded secrets, held by the management of the Northern Pacific Railway company and not accessible to miners themselves. As was the case for early maps produced by David Thompson of the Northwest--produced for the Hudson's Bay Company in the interest of their fur trading operations-- the primary logic of these maps was commoditized resource extraction, in which the sensual and subjective experiences of work and movement were emphatically excluded from representation. (And yet, as my colleague  artist Gregg Schlanger noted, the company's coal mine maps are still strangely beautiful; it is sometimes hard, even in the context of rationalized corporate capitalism, to evacuate the aesthetic impulse entirely!)

We then moved on to a public conversation with our students Heather Hansen ('13)  and James Grandon ('13), the co-curators of the museum's delightful new exhibition on imaginary maps, "Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey through Imaginary Worlds." The show emerged out of a joint project they undertook this past Winter quarter in my Exhibition Design course. They've brilliantly realized and transformed their initial exhibition script to engage visitors in a projective experience of fantasy travel: on the gallery walls we follow their mythic hero, the white rabbit Ethel, through an imaginary(and quite intertextual) quest, encountering silhouetted figures from beloved fantasy books as well as commentaries on the nature of imaginary maps. The exhibition's "journey" concludes in a reading nook filled with works of fantasy fiction (themselves containing imaginary maps) encouraging visitors to travel internally, within the realm of imagination.  Appropriately, the students placed over their reading nook a quotation from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings about travel, which could equally be read as an epigram about the nature of reading itself: "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Rather unexpectedly, the exhibition, once physically completed, came to function as an intriguing riff on Plato's famous cave in The Republic, in which shadows cast from an external light source come to take on life of their own: our Collections Manager Lynn Bethke arranged a spotlight so that the rabbit hero appears to be walking across a shadow of a rope bridge (itself inspired by Indiana Jones' bridge.) On the wall of the reading nook,  museum visitors are invited to hang their own fantastical maps of imaginary worlds, so that the shadows of our minds, in effect, are continuously projected onto this dynamic exteriorized space of imagination.

In our public give and take with the student curators, it occurred to us that the genre of the imaginary map, which itself emerges early in the Age of Exploration (most notably in the maps created to illustrate Thomas More's Utopia from 1516 onwards) could be read as partially contrastive with the dominant sensibility of emerging western cartography, which increasingly emphasized the disenchanted objectivity of the mapping project. In Michel Foucault's terms, mainstream maps exemplified the emerging rationalist 'order of things', compartmentalizing various orders of experience in the interest of a supposedly transcendent universal subject. In that sense, modern western maps are consistent with the Foucauldian project of "governmentality", reducing human communities to "populations," subject to modern systems of classification, power/knowledge and control.

In contrast, most imaginary maps, it would appear, push against the dominant western (or global) tendency towards disenchanted modernity.  In a manner somewhat analogous to the indigenous map forms discussed by Marna, imaginary maps usually set the stage for a heroic journey by the hero or heroine, and actively invite the viewer to project her or his subjective experience of the world into them. Many fantasy maps emphatically signal that they are not purely rationalist modern representations, by including fanciful images of dragons or other mythic beasts, as well as other archaic images, and by striving for a hand-drawn look and feel that nostalgically summons up the pre-modern. 

This tendency towards emphasizing the human hand in fantasy maps, we noted,  is exemplified by the magnificent opening credit sequence of HBO's series Games of Thrones, an enormously complex imaginary map which, while created through Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) provides the illusion of being comprised of hand-made machinery, modeled on Leonardo da Vinci's hand drawings of intricate cogs and wheels) [See for instance, ]

Having said that, there may well be features of the Foucauldian "gaze" which are partly preserved in most fantasy maps, from Tolkien's maps of Middle Earth to the enormously complex ramifying map spaces of the on-line game Skyrim. Objectivist conventions, positing a rationalist mathematical mapping between the map and external territory, are usually preserved. (A fantasy gamer explained to us that a fellow gamer recently 'walked' on line across the entire universe of Skyrim, which took him nine hours.)  It would be worth pondering carefully the ways in which Heidegger's "Age of the World Picture" is both exemplified and subverted through the genre of fantasy maps!


  1. Curious about the redrawing of districting maps for political gain. Also wish I could stay to draw out more comments about the aesthetics issues around maps. Sand painting in Australia for instance but even the beauty of cartography of any sort. Thanks to the presenters and organizers of this event and all the events at the museum.

  2. Confusing the map for the thing (theory for practice) is central to our currently instituted 'world picture'. Particularly in the virtual world, the map is the reality, the model the thing.

    For a model/map in a video game incorporating a degree zero of fantasy I suggest Penn and Teller's brilliant Desert Bus. Real time and real space in all their boredom.

  3. Great post. I find explorations of the relationship between physical 'real world' environments and maps fascinating. Recently posted on self-created/imagined maps and mobile technology, you might find it of interest: