“We can no longer have this old Marxist confidence that we know
where history is going. History is going into an abyss.”
- Slavoj Žižek
We may, perhaps, map the abyss. And we may, perhaps again, be consoled or inspired or transported by the mapping. This is Jason Cohen, Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow, and that’s what I discovered a few weekends ago at a workshop sponsored by Duke’s BorderWork(s) Lab, and what I’m here to dilate.
The workshop was called “Cartography and Creativity in the Age of Global Empires.” Its participants came together to consider maps and counter-maps, narratives and counter-narratives, and the visual cultures of cartography. I won’t try to summarize the full day’s events - that would lead me, like the scholar whose attention is fixed on successively smaller details in Borges’s spectacular map, to unending meditation - but I will offer a few reflections on some of the shinier facets of the day’s discussions.
In the first panel of the day, Pedro Lasch, John Pickles, and Ben Schmidt touched on the broad issue of national borders and security, often in tightly connected and provocative ways. Lasch has regularly used the border as a site of artistic inspiration, and the piece “Latino/a America” (below) interrogates not only the northern bias that the US assumes with its appropriation of “America” as a national adjective, but also the very country, region, and state borders (and their negotiation) the piece intentionally obscures.
Pickles’ focus was on the border as well. His discussion of Eurozone protections was frankly intimidating for the scope of surveillance, security, and containment measures it revealed — FRONTEX, project Sea Horse, the Schengen economic area and other programs that span the continent. The most shocking detail, at least for me, was the extension of the “border” to include vulnerabilities that are far from any legally defined border and tied instead to the boundary between desirable and undesirable sources of social change. The “border,” according to this mindset, encompasses the remote routes, locations, and economies of perceived security risks.
In its historical vein Schmidt’s fascinating paper, “Exotic Pleasures,” traced the images and implications of cartographic exoticism. His particular focus was the allegorical cartouche image of “America” as a woman (or man) protected by a parasol. Like Pickles and Lasch, Schmidt was also interested in tracking the movements of these material and imagined objects across national, affective, and conceptual lines.
Katherine Harmon, Neil Safier, and Dennis Wood anchored the day’s second panel. Harmon’s presentation, I think, gave us all a sense of the vast range and appeal that map art continues to generate in the US and globally. I laughed, for instance, when she told us “It never takes long to get to the moon” with Geogoo (see image below), a playful website that riffs on the superabundance of map tags, geo-referenced information bites, and the proliferation of maps themselves across contexts.
Safier asked us to rethink the sertão – the Brazilian equivalent of frontier / wilderness / backwoods – and, along with it, the judgments that enter into determining the extents of civilization, whether through colonial or indigenous perceptions.
Wood’s frame of reference — perceptions of the riparian map of the Cuyahoga River as it flows through Cleveland to Lake Erie — was whimsical but acute. His map contained his own history. Its site of recollection was his childhood home in a now dilapidated housing project called Lakeview Terrace during the 1960s and 70s, when the Cuyahoga captured national attention by catching fire a few times and went from being “the crooked river” to being “the burning river.” In a city that answered NYC’s “apple” campaign with the questionable reply, “Cleveland’s a plum,” the name stuck as a point of odd pride — as late as 1999, I played ultimate frisbee on a Cleveland-based team called “Burning River.”
From nostalgia to creativity to historical recollection, the panel explored ways of recapturing maps of the imagination. I came away with a refined understanding of the relationship between the material map and its reconstructions in the mind of an individual or culture. Sometimes, it seems, the contours of cartographic recollection are the most direct way to access the past.
The day’s final session focused on John Selden’s Map of China at the Bodleian library, which Robert Batchelor came to discuss. Batchelor brought the map from obscurity to recognition in early 2008 with the assistance of Bodleian librarian David Helliwell. In his talk, Batchelor laid out his analytic framework for reading the map, comparing his approach with the Chinese encyclopedic tradition. He followed with contextual notes on trade, ecological motifs, cartographic errors and revisions, and most notably, the map’s singular inclusion of trade routes on its sea surfaces.
I was one of three respondents to Batchelor’s presentation. My comments focused on the international context in which the map circulated — I talked about commodity exchange, sovereign vectors on the sea, the power projected across maritime spaces, and the relationship between central administration and coastal merchants. Jonathan Ocko’s response offered more focused reflections on Chinese history and culture. Victoria Szabo’s comments on the digital life of the map, however, were the most provocative. She helped us to think about how we interact with the map in real time and about the limitations, potentials, and challenges of the digital-humanist paths we were following in our intellectual pursuit of the map.
It was the Greek debt crisis, seen as symptomatic of a general breakdown of neoliberalism, that gave rise to the characteristically drastic comment from Slavoj Žižek quoted at the top of the post. His bleak certainty about the present state of liberal economic and political institutions is, perhaps, understandable. But by offering the abyss without contemplating its shapes or contours, he relinquishes the territory of the counter-map, counter-narrative, and micro-history. Perhaps, our colloquium suggested, even an abyss can be mapped according to contexts supplied by art, history, and experience. Žižek’s conclusion may be inescapable but in the absence of clearly legible cartography, charting its implications could be an unending proposition. To move across spatial metaphors, that position might avoid a check, but whether it can escape checkmate remains obscure in a game already being played.
First, a quick introduction. Greetings, I am Jason Cohen, a visiting faculty fellow in the first cohort of Duke’s new Humanities Writ Large initiative. My work at Duke examines how early modern cartography reveals or obscures the social, commercial, legal, and historical premises undergirding the sovereignty of the seas. In the first month of the HWL faculty fellowship, my project has moved in a direction I could not have anticipated because of the archival strength at Duke in New World cartography and environmental studies. Given these fantastic holdings and resources, my focus has shifted away from an original intention to investigate Mediterranean and Islamic connections with early modern Europe. Ah, the pursuit of the archive’s riches and vagaries – I am happily traveling under that spell once more. But let me track backwards a little to give some context for this project. Of the three faculty brought to Duke for this year’s semester-long version of the fellowship, I am the only one striking out for essentially new territories. Obviously, Sharon and Tess were far more prudent in their projects, but I am incredibly excited by the possibilities this project holds for my research on emerging international law as well as for the classroom and research implications of digital humanities instruments for the study of Renaissance literature and culture.
The unexpected turn in my approach to this project has already had significant implications for this work, even though I have been building on research I’ve been developing over the last year. I came to my Duke proposal, “Mapping Sovereignties of the Sea,” through an interest in Francis Bacon’s strange and ineffectual intervention in British policy on the law of nations, circa 1621. His white paper, titled Aphorismi de jure gentium maiore sive de fontibus justiciae et juris [Aphorisms on the Greater Laws of Nations], attempted to lay out a taxonomy of legal decision and jurisdiction for new world encounters. I call it strange not only because it evinces a particularly Baconian style of legal policy written in aphoristic fragments, but also because of its timing. It was certainly written after his indictment for bribery in 1620 and still more than ten years prior to the publication of John Selden’s seminal Mare Clausum. (Pure conjecture here: given that Selden prepared his document c. 1619, and that Selden served as Bacon’s amanuensis, perhaps Bacon saw the Mare Clausum in draft? Impossible to determine.) In any case, Bacon’s untimely work had a very quiet afterlife: it was never mentioned in surviving correspondence or referred to in later policy tracts; finally it was lost until 1980, when Mark Neustadt discovered a fair-hand copy buried in the library of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. So, I came to this project on the law of nations and the sovereignty of the seas by way of thinking about what kinds of hypothetical situations Bacon’s aphorisms were attempting to imagine, and for what reasons.
The materials I’ve discovered with the help of Duke’s fine librarians and my excellent colleagues have been remarkable. I expected the ethnographic, nautical, and natural components of early maps, but the legal materials directly inscribed on maps produced during the 1650s and later are surprising, at least for me as a scholar of the earlier seventeenth century. The remarkable function these maps assume as instruments of statecraft complements the exacting relationship they describe between the commercial and legal worlds of these growing empires. [Note the description in the cartouche of fishery limits as well as national interests on the map above.] One recognition I have made recently involves the function of inquiring about longitude among captains and officers: because they were so literally lost at sea so much of the time, the verbal and mathematical calculus involving longitudinal ranges in which two ships met provided them with a platform for discussions that implied competition and negotiation without ever having to mention the language of nation or sovereignty. In this way, I think, the formal mechanisms of nautical sovereignty we might find in court documents is enriched by a proto-Lacanian discourse about the sea as Imaginaire, in which each ship projects itself as an image whose location and signification remains as yet under-determined. Anyway, that’s my working hypothesis for the day.
One final note before I pass the mic: this project is working toward the development of an interactive and dynamic set of digitized maps that will feature layers, annotations, historical and spatial data, and perhaps a timeline. My interest in making this instrument accessible to undergraduate research as well as advanced scholarship remains one of my core commitments as a teacher and scholar of early modern literature, and for that reason I aim to make it interactive in ways that encourage others to use these maps, mark them up, export the markups, or import their own data onto the map interface. I am driven by a model of peer-use and -access involving undergraduate research, a model I began working with in another project, Apollon eJournal, online at www.apollonejournal.org. Let me know if you or your students would like to be involved, or if you can think of better ways to promote these kinds of collaborative endeavors to generate and disseminate knowledge.
I look forward to more reports on the progress of this project in the coming months. Ciao!