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Finding the Way

Par Gunnar Olsson
Publié par Clifford Armion le 17/03/2014
Gunnar Olsson explore l'influence du vocabulaire et des méthodes des géographes sur la pensée, la création littéraire, la religion et les arts. "How do I find my way in the power-filled world of hopes and fears, truths and lies, love and hate, freedom and repression? By approaching it as if it was made of sticks and stones, mountains and rivers, as if it could be captured in a coordinate net of up and down, front and back, left and right."

Olsonn Gunnar©Tommy Westbergr
Gunnar Olsson (né en 1935) est actuellement Professeur Honoraire à l’Université d’Uppsala. Dans le passé, il a été Professeur de Géographie à l'Université du Michigan (1966-1977), Professeur de Géographie Economique et de Planning à Stockholm (1977-97) et Professeur de Géographie Economique à l'Université d’Uppsala (1977-2000). Novice dans le régiment de géographie quantitative en début de carrière, il s’était donné le but de traduire le monde des interactions sociales dans le langage cumulatif des équations mathématiques.




How do I find my way in the power-filled world of hopes and fears, truths and lies, love and hate, freedom and repression? By approaching it as if it was made of sticks and stones, mountains and rivers, as if it could be captured in a coordinate net of up and down, front and back, left and right.

Thus guided by the principles of cartographic reason I discover not only where I am but whence I came and to where I should go, and that holds for the untouchable universe of social relations and the tangible world of material relations alike; as the anecdotes have it, no one was admitted to Plato’s Academy who did not know his geometry. The message was, of course, that the rules of geometry and the rules of thought are one and the same and that whoever holds the keys to the former automatically knows the way also to the latter. Immanuel Kant was therefore well aware of what he did when he approached the world with the mind of a land-surveyor, his entire philosophy focused on the staking of Schranken (limits) and Grenzen (boundaries), the former negotiable, the latter not. Therefore, show me your map and compass and I shall tell you what and who you are: a palimpsest of impressions; a library of the unconscious; a self-referential story written in the mixed code of genetics and socialization; an over-painted canvas, the erased always leaving a trace. Such is the taboo-laden nature of cartographic reason.[1]

And for these reason the map comes off as a rhetorical tool of unsurpassed strength, a document of imagination all compact, a fusion of picture and story, indicative and imperative in the same breath. Now, saying that every map is a picture is obviously for anyone to see. But in which sense is every map also a story? Because its very purpose is to charter the way from here to there, to take the user from the this of a to the that of b, every narrative structured as a travel story, deductive logic and axiomatic geometry outstanding examples. Here you are, there you should go, such is the instruction that takes us from the truth of the premises to the truth of the conclusion, the paradoxical expression a = b exactly what mathematics is about. The geography of cartographic reason in practice, triangulation the name of the game, every map a trinity of fix-point(s), scale and mappa, these concepts directly related to the geometrician’s point, line and plane.

In addition, and perhaps more remarkably, the mapmaker’s primitives are connected also with the three (or is it four) words that were etched onto Moses’ first stone tablet, arguably the most influential codification of the relations between the self-appointed dictator and his subjects ever formulated. The prototype of constitutional law, a genial work of political science.

First thing first: the fix-point, the hook on which the world is hung. In the conventional case this is presently the magnetic North Pole, but in the medieval mappae mundi it was Paradise, by general consent located in the east, the land of milk and honey which no one had ever seen but that everyone dreamt of. Quite revealing, for the cartographer’s fix-point is in effect nothing less than a condensation of the concept of power itself, that invisible force which never sits still, its behavior predictably unpredictable, its well guarded palace located in the abysmal void between categories. It follows that God’s name – like the personal pronoun I – may be treated as a linguistic shifter. And that in turn explains not only why what I happen to see depends on where I happen to stand but also why the prepositions (literally the positions assumed in advance) are the most crucial words in the power-wielder’s vocabulary; to wit, there is a profound difference between being inside a thought-position looking out and being outside looking in, between being at a limit, on a limit, in a limit. And no matter how well you master a foreign language, a faulty preposition will eventually give you away. Therefore (Exod. 20:3), you shall have no other ruler above (or is it besides) me. Thus I decree, because I am who I am, a = a, a tautology, hence by definition always true but never informative.

Then comes the scale, the translation function through which one centimeter on the map becomes one kilometer on the ground, blue changes to water, a line to a rode. The cartographer’s scale is in deed deeply ingrained in whatever I think-and-do, for in my mind human action is best understood as a magic game of ontological transformations, one type of being turned into another, word into object, abstract ideology into concrete reality, invisible meaning into touchable thing. The trick of the trick is to claim that something is something else and be believed when you do so, the expression a = b the formula which in its minimalism captures it all. Let there be, and there is! But just as no magician would tell how he managed to pick the coins out of our noses, so no spin-doctor will ever reveal his trade secrets. Likewise, the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-7) may be read as an all-embracing censorship paragraph, the ban on every possible translation the lawmaker’s way of ensuring that of the rhetorical arsenal with its various tropes will never fall into enemy hands. Therefore, of the Almighty you must not make a graven image and his name you must not use in vain. The critical point is, of course, that without the scaling translation function there would be neither picture nor story, hence no cartography either. No wonder that even the most innocuous map risks taking its holder to Siberia.

Finally – and most importantly – the mappa, the cartographer’s version of the painter’s canvas, the tain of the mirror, the wall of Plato’s wall, in short the screening screen onto which all translations are projected. But while for the conventional land surveyor a high quality paper is good enough, for the critic of cartographic reason the mappa is one with the taken-for-granted and in that sense inseparable from the socialization processes which make us so obedient and so predictable. That in turn explains why the order to keep the Sabbath day holy is frequently considered the most crucial of the Ten Commandments, the ultimate guarantee that the Abrahamitic practice of monotheism will survive. Thus (more forcefully stated in Deut. 5:12-15 than in Exod. 20:8-11), you must never forget who liberated you. And to that end you must attend all services in my own honor.

[1] For a more sustained treatment see my Abysmal: A Critique of Cartographic Reason (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Pour citer cette ressource :

Gunnar Olsson, "Finding the Way", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2014. Consulté le 18/03/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/finding-the-way