“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.