The many aspects of Cartography

FINAL-WORLD--300x300.jpgThree stages in the history of Greek cartography invite us to reflect on the nature and power of these drawings that made the ‘inhabited world’ both visible and thinkable. Maps reflect, above all, our specific ways of seeing and our intellectual practices. Through graphic mediation, the latter aim to subject the world to a geometrical order or trace the progression of the quest for knowledge and wisdom. The history of cartography cannot avoid a fundamental question : Why is our representation of space graphic ?

Although the answer varies according to the culture and society, it cannot be reduced to mere practical ends, i.e. travel, location or territorial management. The cartographic stroke is a gesture that creates a new space instead of representing it. It produces a new intellectual object whose meanings, cognitive effects and potential uses are not merely the sum of local information, measurements and empirical locations mobilised in its genesis. The visual appropriation and intellectual approaches that give maps their meaning cannot be reduced to mere signs, but rather rely on cultural categories, educational schemes, contextualised semantics, fields of knowledge, beliefs regarding worldly materiality and ends and, more fundamentally, the aptitude of the human spirit to master and model the world. The map is thus an interface, both a symbolic object that generates a sense of recognition and belonging among those who master its codes ; as well as a screen upon which a society’s history, vision of the world, memory, axiology and very organisation are projected.

The Map: a complex object

4925267732_492be0075f_o.jpgWe cannot fully grasp the power of maps by analysing them from a geotopographical standpoint alone. A map is not a reflection of knowledge outside of itself, for which it determines the successive steps of its construction. It constructs knowledge, produces it and gives it form, meaning that the geography of maps is not the same as the geography of travel tales or descriptions. The map introduces a new object to the field of human vision that likewise becomes an object of thought and discourse. The map is a visual matrix of complex intellectual operations – remembrance, syllogism, spatial construction, planning, foresight, location, information research – correlating different semiological elements between itself and its discursive, descriptive and fictional context. By breaking the mimetic protocol that links the map to a representation of actual space, maps can be used in conjunction with other visual devices to construct knowledge and meaning, inducing specific cognitive effects by relying on evidence from a graph. Maps share certain fundamental qualities with diagrams, tables, technical graphs and anatomical drawings: they make the invisible visible, combining various empirical, limited, and successive perceptions in an overall image, a ‘mind’s-eye view’. They are the culmination of a set of observations, discoveries, calculations, and hypotheses whose technical bases and logical processes can be obscured by the final result. Maps have both the power to persuade and affirm along with a rhetorical efficiency in the larger process of constructing collective knowledge and scientific communication.

Revisiting the history of cartography results in an increased awareness of the complexity of the maps-object. We will therefore analyse the levels of language and expressions specific to maps as well as the figurative codes that lead readers to use particular strategies for reading and (re-)constructing images. By exploring how writing, geometry, figurative drawing, and random topographical plots interact, we can better understand the purpose and intent behind maps in addition to the semiotic skills necessary for reading them.

Maps, like certain images, are an important component of a society’s visual culture. Their construction and graphical content are strongly determined by context. Yet, the ‘poetics’ of maps also reflect the intellectual effects and conceptual, symbolic and social context that motivates their production and use. The map-object itself – a mere by-product – is not sufficient for reconstructing this intellectually pragmatic exercise, or for understanding the thinking or thought processes that underlie it.

In this chapter we will discuss three ways of thinking about maps based on three stages in the history of Greek cartography. In all three, the physical image will serve as a basis for understanding specific thought processes and for defining its relationship to reality, its ontological status and understanding it within the larger context of codified intellectual practices. From the first Ionian physicists to the philosophers of the Greco-Roman era, the map has seen profound changes not only in terms of geographical content or visual organisation (which is nearly unknown to us), but also in terms of how they are used, with what intent, and their intellectual efficiency.

Thinking in figures: Anaximander of Miletus

Greek tradition attributes the first map of inhabited lands to Anaximander of Miletus, a disciple of Thales, one of the pre-Socratic philosophers who developed a new type of rationality in the cities of Asia Minor. Anaximander lived during the first half of the 6th century BC. Only fragments of his work remain, mere vestiges of a treatise On Nature, cut out, rewritten and interpreted through layers of antique doxographic tradition. Starting from the time of Aristotle’s school, in fact, philosophers and physicists have re-examined the tradition as an instrument of their own reflection.

The doxographic tradition irremediably deconstructed Anaximander’s treatise into a mere set of assertions, or theses, reduced to their most factual statements. Yet it is striking to consider that Anaximander’s philosophical doxography (of Peripatetic origin) makes no reference to his cartographic work. It was, however, mentioned by geographers who undertook the archaeology of their discipline, starting with Eratosthenes of Cyrene (3rd century B.C.). This dissociation of traditions is instructive and suggests that perhaps cartography was only marginal in the spectrum of philosophical interests of those who reread the Presocratics, either in their original versions or via the first doxographies.

For the contemporary historian, the goal is to understand the map’s role in Anaximander’s work: Was it simply a technical digression in an intellectual process governed by pure speculation, or was it a key step in the overall understanding of Nature and the Cosmos ?

From the Muses to a citizen’s discourse

Anaximander was one of the first Greek writers of prose, along with Pherecydes of Syros. The transition from poetry to prose marks an essential difference in how knowledge was expressed, with one form of truth being exchanged for another – from words inspired by the Muses to writing by ordinary individuals who taught about the world, its genesis and the visible and invisible phenomena found therein. Anaximander’s work brought about a new social and political context wherein individuals could express their opinions on city affairs and the genesis of the world alike, opening it to discussion by making it public but without investing it with supernatural authority and thus closing all debate.

Such subjects did indeed involve debate and persuasion among thinkers as a way of stating their vision of the world and as a way of distinguishing themselves. Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes succeeded each other as master and pupil, answering a same set of fundamental issues : the origin, organisation, and nature of the cosmos and the origin of meteorites. Ionian physical thinking, which was not yet an established area of knowledge, developed in a different manner. The recourse of writing gave new status and substance to its doctrines.

Anaximander’s work retraced the origin and organisation of the world, from the first principle of all things to the apparition of animal and human life. The author described the world by recalling the principle constituents in its genesis. Thus, the Earth was formed at the centre of a flaming sphere, which became the sky and was to be found at an equal distance from all points on this sphere. However, Anaximander’s Earth was not spherical but rather a cylindrical volume, similar to a section of column whose height is equal to a third of its length, whose dimensions are expressed in a proportional relationship. Such descriptions are recurrent in Anaximander’s fragments. For example, ‘Anaximander said that the sun had an equal size to that of the Earth. However, the circle from which its exhalation was produced and in which it moves is 27 times bigger than the Earth’.

This is not so much a graphic description as a linguistic one, nor so much a question of measurements as of proportion and commensurability. Yet the comparison with the stone column offers an additional, critical element as regards the cylinder’s geometric form ; it brings the invisible into the sphere of the visible and experiential. It is also a technical reference, as it refers to a manmade object created by a stone worker – an assemblage. That is common in Anaximander’s fragments : The flaming sphere around the Earth resembles bark around a tree trunk. The openings in the air allowing for a view of the stars are like the holes in a flute, with the sun projecting fire through small openings similar to the mouth of a bellows, etc.

Analogical thought

978-2-94022-270-4.pngHere we find a form of analogical thinking whose importance in Greek science and philosophy Geoffrey Lloyd proved indisputably. Analogies are tools for domesticating the invisible or the infinitely distant, great or small. They bring the inaccessible into the realm of everyday experience and transform incomprehensible phenomena and entities into physical, objective realities. Technical metaphors, moreover, introduce the dimensions of assembly and construction.

Metaphor gives new visual content and mnemo-technical anchoring to a complex, speculative view of the world by moving from one register of reality to another. By making the Earth and cosmos intelligible, visualisable, and measurable, metaphor transfers these fragments of statements to us through the ages. These statements are not the result of observation but rather of deduction. Anaximander used two different types of metaphors : descriptive metaphors (the Earth is like a stone column) and functional metaphors (explaining the processes, mechanisms, and phenomena of exhalation and the diffusion of solar fire). Metaphors open the way for imagery and visualisation.

Comparing the Earth to a column or cylinder, and showing the relationship between height and width, makes the Earth a measurable object. The cylindrical shape of the column has its own intellectual purpose – in this case, founding a space where a volume and its geometrical surfaces are the basis for subsequent phases in the cosmogonic narrative.

This is the intellectual context in which Anaximander’s map, which belongs to the same category of intellectual processes as analogies and metaphors, must be placed. No longer are we in the realm of mental or discursive images but of an actual graphic projection on a tablet. The map was part of the overall modelling process of the cosmos ; Anaximander’s disciples were able to understand its architecture and assembly, from the concentric circles surrounding the Earth’s cylinder to the centre of the celestial sphere, to the map of the Earth itself, which corresponded to one of the two flat ends of the column’s section.

Geometric thought

Nevertheless, a map involves moving from a volume to a plane, and thus transferring technical objects and processes in the abstraction of a drawing made geometric. Anaximander is representative of this early Greek geometry, where the use of graphic figures was extremely important. His teacher, Thales, is typically credited with the creation of a set of applied and theoretical works. The latter is depicted as having both the qualities of an engineer interested in the flow of rivers, the Nile’s floods, and olive harvesting and those of a geometrician interested in the basic properties of figures (the triangle, circle, and line), independent of any materialisation or empirical reference. For instance, it was his abstract reflection on geometric shapes that enabled Thales to recognise the ‘similarity’ of regular figures, such as equilateral triangles. Observation and the drawing of figures played an essential role by isolating part of an object, superimposing two forms, placing one within another, or dividing a symmetric figure into two equal halves. It was through these graphic exercises that the general properties of figures were defined.

Anaximander’s map is nearly completely unknown to us. From Herodotus’s critique of mid-5th century maps, it can be deduced that the latter were very geometric (e.g. a circle drawn with a compass that an equatorial line could divide into two halves). Miletus, a Greek city at the frontier of the Persian Empire, was an important base for colonial expeditions and a commercial hub between the Aegean and Black Seas. Moreover, legend speaks of an Anaximander of Miletus as leading one of these expeditions. Even if much geographical information about Miletus exists, we cannot assume that Anaximander’s map successfully synthesised all of this topographical information and was destined for use by travellers and navigators.

What is known of Anaximander’s work suggests that his map was part of a greater movement of logic that sought to model the world, domesticating the invisible and unthinkable through geometric figures and empirical objects that allowed for better understanding of that which was seemingly inaccessible. Moreover, Thales’s interest in applied geometry and measurement (e.g., estimating the distance of a boat on the high seas), leads one to believe that Anaximander’s map may have also fulfilled such practical ends. However, it is likely that the first tried and tested map in the Greek world was part of a larger speculative project and that the geometric drawings (namely the circle and line, as well as perhaps a sketch of the three-continent cut-out) played the same role as metaphors in cosmological discourse. Thus, the map is an excellent example of the thinking of Pre-Socratic physicists. Tradition attributes the expression, ‘Apparent things provide a vision of that which is hidden’, to Anaximander. This lapidary expression emphasises the power of inference, allowing human intellect to reach the inaccessible through the mediation of the visible. One may ask if modelling and, in particular, maps may be two such forms of mediations, making the invisible visible, something that can be experienced, and allowing one to ‘see’ that which lies beyond the reach of the senses.




Excerpt from A Cartographic Turn
By Jacques Lévy
Published by Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes (PPUR)

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