June 12, 2012

Map Porn (and Our Constructed Reality)


Naturally this made me think of the Sad Bear. I suspect the particular collection shared by @pourmecoffee runs a bit ancient for sad bear tastes, but I love this stuff.

Some folks will look at these maps and see "how far we've come." For these people the collection tells the story of progress. The insufficiencies and inaccuracies of the map serve to solidify our superior reality--our more accurate, informed, and scientific sense of the world. I am not so interested in the shortcomings or imprecision of the ancient maps. Instead, I try to appreciate the different ways of imagining at work in mapmaking.

To be clear, I am not so much stressing how impressive the maps are within their various historical contexts. That's true enough, and it's a point I constantly make to my middle schoolers: you have to examine things, so far as possible, in their own historical contexts rather than your own. Judging an action or assumption "stupid" simply because the actor did not have access to the same information as you is, well, stupid. True as that is, it is not what I find most compelling here.


These ancient and early modern maps can and should upend our assumptions about the way things are. They have the potential to expose our own models of reality for just that--models. We construct these models to explain the world to ourselves, but we often forget that our models are not reality itself. They often become synonymous in our thinking with the reality they attempt to portray, such that we forget and sometimes simply deny the creative and constructive activity required to form the models. We look at the model and see it as reality itself.

The world, however, is not a map or even a globe, no matter how accurate, precise, and detailed it may be. Maps--just like models of atoms and molecules, just like mathematical formulas, just like grammatical schemes, just like historical works--fundamentally rely on the constructive power of human imagination. Alternative imaginings like those found in some of these maps can expose the invisible bonds between model and reality, can show us how clearly our imagination is at work shaping reality into something intelligible and legible.

Consider Anaximander's map (on the top left). I'm not interested in accuracy or inaccuracy but in the work of imagination evident here. It seems to my eyes as though Anaximander has twisted or stretched our map 45º clockwise (besides leaving out the Western Hemisphere, of course). Asia has migrated down and right. And then compare this to the T and O map (bottom right), which inverts that motion to my thinking.

While we might be tempted to scoff at the rudimentary imprecision and obvious failures of "realism" in both of these maps, we should also note how arbitrary our assumptions about maps are. Why is north always up, east always right? Given that question, I am actually surprised by how many of the maps reflect those assumptions about orientation.

My Google search for "world map upside down" led me to wonder, of course: what makes this map upside down at all?

11 Comments:

Blogger Joseph said...

The fact that its title is "Upside Down World Map" would be why it is upside down :P

June 14, 2012 at 12:03 AM 
Blogger goat said...

Cool post. I hadn't seen those maps before, and they certainly illustrate show not only that representation of land differs from time to time and place to place, but that those differences are interesting. I've been bothered by representation lately, so I'll list three things that your post made me think about.

1. I'm always interested in what it means to say that reality is constructed. No doubt models are all constructed, but that's like saying all novels are written. Prima facie I'd want to say that all models are constructed, but often what they model isn't constructed. Sometimes this isn't the case, as with architecture and literary criticism, but in lots of other cases, e.g. maps, the representata aren't themselves constructed.

2. So there's the point that aspects of maps are conventional. I think that the conventionality of some things, like maps, can go unnoticed, but I wonder whether we could curtail the broader conclusion that one map isn't more accurate than another. (I'm not sure whether you actually made this point, but what you wrote sure made me want to challenge it). Surely the globe could just as well be represented as the other way up, but its direction of rotation and axis of rotation are matters of fact, right? We could all turn our desk-top globes upside down (with respect to the direction of gravity), but surely spinning globes in either orientation represent the actual motion and topography of Earth more accurately than other representations do.
Once ancillary point: sometimes people say something along the following lines: the rotation of Earth, and the principles of geometry are themselves parts of systems of representation, so therefore it's representation all the way down. I think this is wrong because, for instance, physical geometry doesn't itself purport to represent a representation.

3. What exactly is this business about reading in a context different from one's own? I can never tell whether the following criticism is pedantic, but it was well-received last time I voiced it. Good history courses, or good courses of any kind, will remind students that events happen in an historical context. Histories are written in historical contexts, theorems are proved in historical contexts, persons are hopeful in historical contexts, and so on. But what does it mean to read something else in a different historical context than one's own? It seems to me that the very idea that events are always (historical) context-bound means that I can't read anything in any historical context than my own.

June 14, 2012 at 12:19 AM 
Blogger Porter Perkins said...

Interesting points. Here's a tome I just wrote instead of real work.

Per 1 & 2:

"all models are constructed, but often what they model isn't constructed."

In theory maybe that's true, but I'd suggest that, for us, we can't get from here (our minds) to there ("the representata") without a creative exercise of construction. This means that all these constructions are inherently defined and limited by the intentions, perspectives, and consciousness of the mapmaker and the mapmaker's historical context. Yes, one map is more accurate than another--but that depends on what each map is trying to do. One could deride a T and O map for it's, uh, lack of topographical detail, but that'd be silly. The mapmaker wasn't interested in topography.

"I wonder whether we could curtail the broader conclusion that one map isn't more accurate than another."

I certainly agree, but I would want to further ask, "Accurate to what?" To some extent at least, evaluating the accuracy of a map requires accepting certain established premises. Stupid metaphor: you can only tell how accurate a marksman is by knowing his target. You are, of course, free to question whether some targets are better (truer?) than others, but I don't think it's the case that one target is automatically better than another. So you can evaluate accuracy within a discipline, an accepted system, but the premises of that system are themselves open to question.

"its direction of rotation and axis of rotation are matters of fact, right?"

I would say no, or not really, or not the way I take you to mean it, and would probably gesture towards the "representation all the way down" idea. Facts don't exist independent of our expression/explanation of them, which is inevitably a constructive process, which means that there aren't pure, undiluted facts unsullied by our consciousness. You can't have a model without a perspective

To clarify: I'm not running around crying that there's "no truth" or "no reality." Lots of people make this leap from "constructed" to "arbitrary," and I don't want to do that. People say, for instance, that gender is constructed and then assume that the conversation is over. Because gender is constructed, the reasoning goes, you can construct whatever the hell you want. This assumes, of course, that anything constructed must therefore be arbitrary.

I don't buy that. The constructed nature of reality should probably require more caution and more care, rather than less. I tend to agree that gender is constructed rather than innate, but that doesn't mean there can't be better constructions... and worse constructions.

June 14, 2012 at 11:31 AM 
Blogger Porter Perkins said...

For #3:

You are absolutely correct in pointing out that we cannot at all escape our own historical contexts, our own perspectives. No matter how sophisticated, nuanced, erudite, and empathetic a historical account is, it will always ultimately be bound to its own historical context. I may have unintentionally implied that we can escape our own context and should try to do so, but I do not believe that.

What I do believe is that we should be very much conscious of our own limitations. I am making the simpler point that since we are all bound by our own historical contexts we should offer our subjects the courtesy of evaluating them in their own context so far as possible rather than measuring them by our contemporary standard.

There's some interesting work going on about the "authoritarian underbelly" of 19th-century liberalism that pokes and prods at liberalism's limited tolerance for diversity and difference. The "progressive liberals" typically lauded for their defense of minorities--philosemites, abolitionists, advocates for Indian rights--almost universally predicated their defense of Jews, blacks, and Native Americans on each group's potential for assimilation. In other words, their equality and rights rest in their potential to assimilate into white, European, Christian civilization. Equality depended upon the potential for the erasure of difference.

The point is that while liberal attitudes towards differences tended to be milder, they were no more ready to accept difference and diversity than their conservative counterparts. There were plenty of abolitionists who saw educated free blacks as their equals, but there probably existed not one abolitionist in America who would say the same about people in African tribes. To put it very crudely, German philosemites would have zero problem embracing Woody Allen but would have nothing but scorn for Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

Most scholars doing such work imply or outright state that we should probably be more cautious in our admiration for liberal heroes of the past. I think, instead, we probably ought to reconsider the paradigm that separates the past into heroes and villains in the first place.If even the most tolerant figures of an entire generation fail to meet our standards for tolerance and acceptance, we should probably stop expecting those in the past to measure up to our expectations.

Instead, we should try, so far as possible, to place our subjects in their own context. We should ask if Abraham Lincoln is racist not by the standards of 2012 but of the mid-19th-century. We should consider the maps virtues not by the standards of contemporary cartography but by the premises and tools of mapmaking at the time of the maps themselves.

[The lesson for us in our own time: given the absolute inevitability of incurring the negative judgment of our progeny, we should probably not worry so much about appearing or being "ahead of our time." Sorry, progressives, your judgy grandkids will not be impressed by your forward-thinking.... as I've written here before...]

June 14, 2012 at 11:32 AM 
Blogger goat said...

I'm stunned at this lack of realism. I will respond to claims that there isn't reality.

June 14, 2012 at 1:42 PM 
Blogger Porter Perkins said...

I did specifically say: "I'm not running around crying that there's 'no truth' or 'no reality.'"

I am willing to say that human beings don't have the privilege of experiencing unmediated "reality" apart from our own consciousness.

June 14, 2012 at 2:26 PM 
Blogger StewieChris said...

The USA looks weird upside down. Like an elephant squatting on a flat surface.

Generally, what fascinates me most is the conglomerate shape of the landmasses. When north is up, the general impression, I think, is that the countries in the upper hemisphere are the most prominent and, maybe, most important. (I'm sure, on some subconscious level, this has affected the way people link a country's geographical location with its importance.) South America and Africa both seem mere drips running down and off the world from the bigger blobs of North America and Asia. But upside down, Canada and Russia appear to be dripping, while other places seem more prominent--Australia, especially.

Oh, and China looks weird, too.

June 14, 2012 at 3:50 PM 
Blogger K. Harvey said...

Fascinating stuff! So do animals make maps? I know bees do a little dance to show others where they've found good flowers. Apparently it's unique in nature. That's a kind of a map, but a very functional one. I wonder if we can make a distinction between functional maps and maps that are purely for...mm, intellectual purposes. There's a difference, I think, between making something to categorize or comprehend reality and making something for a specific use. Why is it important for humanity to comprehend its environment in that way? And why does that not seem important to animals? Does this mean that animals have a pretty good grip on reality as it really is? And is that somehow inaccessible to humans? In other words, can one relate maps to clothing--an inability to be naked in the cosmos?
Also, sometimes I wonder how the Apollo 11 astronauts simply didn't lose their minds when they saw Earth as a little ball in space. Ron Howard's "In the Shadow of the Moon" documentary is interesting in this regard. Essentially, the astronauts refer to the Earth as a jewel--"pendant world" in Milton--which, to me, is a narrative comment, a constructed perception. What does a map of space look like?

June 14, 2012 at 9:16 PM 
Blogger Porter Perkins said...

Interesting observations Chris. I actually think the "upside-down" map looks somehow more "natural"--more earthly. Upside down, North America and Eurasia provide solid foundations, while South America and Africa have a kind of fat-at-the-base looming tower or tree look. Looking at the map normally, everything seems lopsided and top-heavy.

And yes, the land down under is suddenly the zenith of the map.


Kyle, that documentary sounds awesome. I have a hard time now getting into space sci-fi like Star Wars or Star Trek or Firefly--because I have a distinctly geocentric view of the Universe. Earth is the center of our universe.

June 15, 2012 at 12:58 PM 
Blogger goat said...

I should have promised to address the claim that there is no direct representation of reality, not the claim that there is no reality. Phrasing things as I did was sloppy at best. That said, I think there are plenty of instances of representation that do not involve the complications your broader proposition relies upon.

Kyle’s point about representation in non-human animals is decisive, in my opinion. A lot of work has been done on animal representation, and one of the classic lines of argumentation against the claim that all instances of representation are conceptualized relies on the prima facie compelling claim that lots of animals that do not appear to have conceptual capacities are capable of representing distal affairs. Honey bees are capable of representing location of a food source by representing distance from the dancing bee and direction of the source relative to the current position of the sun. These capacities had better not rely on any richly cultural or intellectual capacities, because bees do not have them. (There are is a minority opinion that bees do not represent location in this way. If that’s the case, change the example. Macaques represent predators, for instance.)

Now, I think that there were some points on which I was unclear. First of all, I don’t want to say anything that that commits me to a “one right description” of the world. I don’t think that belief in accuracy commits me to anything of the sort. Representations, or systems of representation, specify accuracy conditions in virtue of being representations. Different systems of representation can be accurate even as they represent the same things in different ways. I get no mileage from “facts” to which one maximally precise representation accurately corresponds. I don’t understand how this sort of pluralism threatens the notions of accuracy or objectivity that I tried to elaborate and defend. I agree with, if not construction, then plurality without arbitrariness. I also want to defend some notions of accuracy and objectivity. Again, the honey bee example is a good one: the representation has only two variables, and a bee’s dance is accurate insofar as the values it gives for those variables correspond to the location of a food source in physical space, distance and direction relative to the sun. At the same time, lots of other representations of the same states of affairs are possible.

I’m somewhat confused about your overall position. If you doubt that there is such a thing as direct representation of the physical world (and I’m not sure you’ve committed yourself to this, but if not I don’t know what you mean), then I think there are plain examples of such representation, and not just in theory. If the claim is just about our reflective confidence in such representations, then I totally agree that that is always circumspect and often spotty. In epistemology, there’s the so-called “KK” thesis, which claims that to know one necessarily knows that one knows. I completely reject the KK thesis. If this is a point we disagree about, I would enjoy discussing it, but until such an occasion I will simply state my allegiance.

On a closely related point, I wonder what you think the modeler is doing in relation to the models. In my view, modelers could be honey bees or thermostats as easily as they are human beings. Honey bee dances are probably close to one end of the spectrum with respect to the intellectual and cultural capacities of the signaling organisms, human language is on the other extreme. I would emphatically reject the claim that minds must be involved in modeling, if only because no one knows what minds are, what they do, or what properties they have. Minds are bad news for a theory of anything.

June 17, 2012 at 12:10 AM 
Blogger goat said...

Finally, since we started out talking about maps, I want to suggest that maps are closer to honey bee dances than they are to human language. What makes accuracy such a clear-cut concept in bee dances is its inflexibility between different token bees. I think that, physically speaking, we can come up with plenty of senses in which one map is a more accurate representation than another. But, according to Elisabeth Spelke’s research, human children are capable of using maps with minimal training. In such cases, the maps are just simple isomorphisms between things in the child’s environment, e.g. a triangle on a piece of paper might be isomorphic with a triangle on the floor of the room. But “accuracy” is simplest with simple isomorphisms, and I think I think these are cases where distal reality is accurately represented without a lot of complication or intellectualization. Maps can be a good example of this simple sort of accuracy.

P.S., I think we agree about historical context. The point I made smacks of verbal pedantry, but the ensuing discussion is often worthwhile. I think this was one of those cases.

June 17, 2012 at 12:11 AM 

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