The Impossibility of Maps

Michel de Certeau‘s famous description of looking down from the World Trade Centre illustrates the opposition which he explores through ‘Walking in the City’ between the ‘ville-concept’ and the real, organic city as experienced at ground level, by those who live and walk in it.  From such a vantage point, the cartographer can map on to the constant motion, the indistinct sea and fog of the city, a ‘terra cognita’ of recognisable taxonomies (see White, on Zola’s Paris).  Even the most complex maze or labyrinth seems straightforward when one can see the whole.  But once we’re walking in the city, rather than gazing at it from on high, all of the means we have to make sense of it rapidly reveal their limitations.  Maps sooner or later are  ‘interrupted by an encounter with the unmappable’  (Hillis Miller).

An early review of Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps claims that ‘if [its] explicit geography … does not make that story an excellent guide to the back as well as main streets of Manchester I should be very much surprised’ (Frohock).  One hopes he did not make the attempt to navigate the Manchester streets armed only with the book, and a map which marks those streets and landmarks encountered by the novel’s hero (and not all of those).   The frontispiece map was prepared by Butor to guide him through the cityscape he was creating.  It indicates the relative positions of the key locations as anchorage points – the stations, the homes of the various characters, the cathedrals, restaurants etc, but there are gaps where streets and buildings must be but are not recorded.   Resemblances to the layout of Manchester’s city centre seem pretty much random and coincidental – for example, as noted elsewhere, the star shape of the prison is replicated on the map, but it does not sit in relation to the river, the University or any other features of the city as it does in reality.   So we can dispose of the frontispiece map as a lightly disguised map of Manchester.

The other thing the frontispiece is not, is the map that Revel buys and uses to get his bearings in the city.   It is like a map drawn from memory, where some configurations of streets are recalled in detail and others only vaguely. Thus it mirrors the text which is an act of resistance against the forgetfulness that Bleston’s fogs engender.   Just as the text does not and cannot record everything that happened even to Revel, let alone the things that he did not witness, the map only records his experience and first-hand knowledge, and as such we are aware that it may be partial both in the sense of being incomplete, and in the sense of reflecting subjective perceptions and priorities.   It recalls the famous surrealist map of the world, whose proportions relate to the cartographers’ cultural ideals rather than to geographical reality, as well as the first medieval maps, which were records of journeys taken, rather than attempts to objectively encapsulate space.

Revel’s experience of Bleston begins with him losing his way, and his failure to grasp its geography leads him to see it anthropomorphically as trying to evade him, hiding from examination as if the light burned it, or camouflaging itself  as if in the folds of a cloak.  Purchasing a map is the first of his tactics.  However, it is apparent from the beginning that any one source of information will be insufficient.  The map gives him the aviator’s or bird’s eye view but does not tell him how to make his way around the city.  For that he needs the bus timetable.  Taken together, these tools do not help him to find lodgings – for that he needs the intervention of a fellow exile, using informal local knowledge.   To make sense of the city he needs to engage with its inhabitants, indigenous or otherwise.  (See Annie Lovejoy & Harriet Hawkins‘ project Insites on ‘deep mapping’).  The journal, as it logs street names and bus numbers, weaves together his sources, unreliable or partial as they are, in an attempt to encompass the reality of the city. Revel’s fight back against the city culminates in his burning of the map (one of many fires which punctuate the narrative).  But that ‘profoundly irrational act’ is both negated and emphasised when he has to buy another to replace it.  The map is inadequate and misleading, but essential nonetheless.

Maps imply a knowledge which denies their selectivity.  They make the city readable, or purport to, and so slough off the city’s complexity and freeze its opaque mobility in a falsely transparent text. But the phantasmagoric city, in constant flux, is the antithesis of the guidebook/map representation of the city which fixes locations, connections, distances. It is this city that the text invites us to see, recognising the inadequacy of the map, showing us an inferno, a necropolis, a temple of war, a prison.  It is its own past, and its own potential futures, which we explore as physiognomy, as mythology, as history, as politics, as text – a secret text, which we need to decipher, from signs and symbols, a palimpsest where what has been erased can still be traced.

See my only published paper on line here!

Robert Alter, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005)

Jeremy Black, Maps & Politics ( London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997)

Gary Bridge, Reason in the City of Difference: Pragmatism, Communicative Action and Contemporary Urbanism (London: Routledge, 2005)

Mary Ann Caws (ed), City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)

Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1990)

Mike Crang & Nigel Thrift (eds), Thinking Space (London: Routledge, 2000)

Christian Emden, Catherine Keen & David Midgley (eds), Imagining the City, Vol. I (Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006)

W M Frohock, ‘Introduction to Butor’, Yale French Studies, 24 (1959), 54-61

Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge:  Polity, 1996)

Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (London : Continuum, 2006)

David Frisby, ‘The Metropolis as Text’, in Neil Leach (ed.), The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis (London; NY: Routledge, 2002)

J. Hillis Miller, Topographies (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1995)

Nicholas White, ‘Reconstructing the City in Zola’s Paris’, Neophilologus, 8 (1997), 201-14

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  1. #1 by PlastiCités on February 23, 2012 - 10:28 pm

    Reblogged this on occursus and commented:
    Another fascinating blog post from Catherine Annabel

    Like

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