Geography and measuring the Earth
BATESON: “The map is not the territory.” And yet the idea that geo-graphy, writing the earth, corresponds to the grandiose centuries-old practice of surveying the earth’s surface, the idea that geography equals cartography, is still preponderant in the collective imagination.
The global phenomenon of webmapping – of interactive satellite maps – shows that every day and at every moment millions of people cast an instant enquiring eye across the crust of our planet.
This intensive sort of voyeurism on a global scale, by raising the technical possibility of instantly focusing and zooming onto any point of the earth, in fast vectorial movements, is rapidly resetting our perception of the world’s image. As a result we feel that we have somehow almost gained a universal key to the metaphysical perspective of the great divine eye.
And yet, however much the highly sophisticated digital simulation may increase the difficulty of distinguishing the difference, a map is not a real place. It is only an image of the world. What the satellite shows us is the artificial version of a concrete place, except that the place has had its physical and social qualities removed and is reduced to just the two dimensions of its flat surface. Carl Schmitt has taught us that to survey and register space geographically is never an innocent pursuit, but an act of production and selection, a declared exercise of power. Mapping means giving the imprimatur to a place, marking it out by taking possession of it.
A fact is therefore ascertained, which had seemed implicit but is not. Geographic space is fiction, an operating concept with no existence of its own. Nobody in fact tries it out and personally experiences it. When we talk about instruments like atlases, maps and insets, we only evoke devices that are useful for registering and graphically organising the space-environment we live in. The possibility of access to webmapping offered by them has certainly helped to make such instruments more democratic and approachable, by starting a dynamic of free collective cartography, a sort of wikimapping. With the undeniable advantage of being able to produce maps that can orient us perfectly, in every circumstance.There is nonetheless a risk that this surveying of points or persons on the surface of planimetric space may belittle the polyphonic approach to geographic development. A long time has passed since the ancient discipline of drawing the earth ceased merely to list the physical features of the planet’s lands. Instead, it is now concerned with the actions of human societies that transform natural space into social space: the dynamic of urban contrasts, the relations between a society and its landscape, the combination of phenomena recorded in real places.
To represent the earth today, to practise geography, means switching from the satellite scale of the planisphere to the anthropological scale of inhabited space. Descending from an aerial perspective to a human one, the horizon of experience depicts a space without the Euclidean characteristics of measurability, homogeneity, constancy and necessity. Every day we experience Husserl’s paradox, whereby la terre ne se meut pas. We move in a space-environment perceived with our whole body and not only through sight. Geography, which in its natural evolution has now become bio-geography, anthropogeography and anthropo-geo-morphology, crosses and registers all the scales and perspectives of space. It also touches other disciplines, notably town planning and architecture.
Each of the spatial scales can produce eccentric atlases, anomalous representations of the spaceenvironment. These, moreover, are just as coherent in their logic as cartographic objects are: as atlases of sentiments, maps of passions, places of memory. All these figures speak of the practices of the earth’s space, of the phenomena that occur on them, and not only of its images. Objectifying, expressive and emotive, these morphemes of the earth’s inhabitation are never neutral, because space is not an ab-solute physical dimension. It is not independent of the people inhabiting it. But every individual occupation of that space is the expression of a personal power through which everybody connects with a place. In this Intersections, Domus sets out to illustrate the multiplicity of senses attributed today to the term geo-graphy.