Opinion Society

Cultural Cartography

Written by James Curcio

We’re suckers for simplistic, captivating pictures, mostly because we don’t even realize that we’re being sold a “frame”; we think we’re just seeing “the way things are,” when, in fact, we are buying into a paradigm. That’s why, all too often, while trying to talk our way out of a problem we only dig deeper holes.

… Now imagine the picture holding us captive is a conceptual map that carves up the boundaries of ideas and disciplines, charting the course of intellectual history. A faulty map is the kind of captivating picture that is bound to mislead us. In that case what we’d need is a therapeutic cartography.

— “A Therapeutic Cartography,” James K. A. Smith.


In the previous essay in this series, we looked at how we interact in a marketplace where surface identities drive our purchase choices. We have a very peculiar relationship with the things that we buy — both through and with our iPhones and cars, and soon enough, our sex robots.

More broadly, we identify ourselves and each other through the consumer choices we make, or even the ones we don’t make. This is often called signaling, and it’s an important part of nonverbal and implicit social communication. That’s what the lifestyle brand is all about — integrating consumer choice with our lives, becoming grinning robots in some Orwellian hellscape ourselves, and so forth.  

Thankfully that’s not entirely how it plays out. Theories about the pervasiveness of brands and media brainwashing fall short of reality. Nothing is quite so simple as the behaviorist “image in, behavior out.” We may signal our queerness or our religion through what we wear and buy, but that isn’t all we are. We still have inner lives, and an experience that can’t enter into this marketplace, and our identities and beliefs are shifting landscapes more than fixed, binary wastelands.

The idea of Qualia refers to the irreducibility of this inner life. The world of surfaces may be superficial, but there is something lurking somehow beneath all of that, that’s somehow authentic. Erwin Schrödinger, creator of the famous living/dead cat thought experiment, said the following in What is life?: The Physical Aspects Of The Living Cell,

The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.

But this way also points toward reductive either-ors. If we’re going to distinguish between the commodifiable “dead shells” referred to in the previous article and some kind of deep seated, internal identity, what is that identity? How do we know it’s authentic? We are wandering dangerously close to a schema of the false and replaceable versus the fixed and true, and that is not a frame that I’d like to imply. This has become a common sense distinction for most of us: surface and interior. Fake hipsters, and real trendsetters. But the distinction itself is superficial.

Another way of contrasting the idea of real and false self, the figurative and literal, is through mimesis. Here we must challenge the “tyranny of the literal”,

In ‘Realism,’ the opening chapter of J.M. Coetzee’s most recent novel Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous heroine, a successful Australian novelist, gives a speech in which she ironically likens herself to a talking ape from a short story by Franz Kafka. The story’s ambiguities lead her to reflect on this historical loss of certainty, the way it seems to have undone the very possibility of direct communication and unproblematic representation. There was, she argues, ‘a time when we knew’: 

We used to believe that when the text said, ‘On the table stood a glass of water,’ there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken irreparably, it seems. ... There used to be a time, we believe, when we could say who we were. Now we are just performers speaking our parts. The bottom has dropped out. 

Her speech is not well received. Elizabeth Costello spends most of Coetzee’s novel acting the role of a celebrity writer. She travels the world making appearances, delivering lectures, fielding questions about the meanings and motivations behind her writing. It is not something she enjoys. Often her appearances do not run smoothly; her ideas tend to provoke dissent and dissatisfaction. ... The audience wants literal confession; but Costello’s aim is to keep ‘her true self safe.’ Or so her son John believes; for Costello the issue cuts deeper than this. She has come to doubt the very existence of such a thing as a ‘true self.’ The word-mirror is irreparably broken, yet she is compelled to appear before an audience. Inevitably, what she presents them is ‘an image, false, like all images.’

So, we are drawn to question the authenticity of both surfaces and interiors. The mirror itself becomes the closest that we have to any kind of certainty — as the image and its reflection can both be called into question.

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We have to contend with this tension between surface and interior, and amongst all the principalities thereof. That’s true, even in the face of such uncertainties. Many of us struggle against these seemingly geological forces, without even knowing what we’re struggling against.

The self and society as landscape is a frame suggested by Structuralism, and later by Post-structuralism when written in relief. Both position history as structure composed of geological flow rather than events; this was done, in terms of the latter, because the very structures imposed by theory could reify imperialist “grand narratives.” For example,

The  history  of events,  Braudel  was  to  scathingly  write,  were  merely  the  history  of  “surface  disturbances, crests  of  foam  that  the  tides  of  history  carry  on  their  strong  backs”  (Braudel,  1980:  10). The  outcome  of  the  struggle  for  supremacy  in  the  Mediterranean,  then,  was  viewed  by Braudel  as  the  outcome  of  longer  term  structures  (political,  social,  economic  and geographic)  and not  at  all  the  result  events  or  the  actions  of  individuals.  —Extending the Longue Dureé: Manuel De Landa and a Thousand Years of Nonlinear History.

The tension of surface appearance against deeper identity, and the constant anxiety that there is such a thing as a central or deep identity, drives the tectonic forces between what I’ll be referring to later as cultural borderlands and centers. We needn’t know which is authentic, but merely recognize the tensions between these principalities. This might still seem a baroque metaphor, even if it’s far from unprecedented in the social sciences, but it’s nevertheless apt. Dynamism in the self or the state arises from difference, conflict from too sudden changes; often arising where one identity abuts another, and all are also ever changing.

This is borrowing from the frequent use of geological and even cartographic metaphor in such works. These metaphors are essentially impersonal, even when they refer to parts of personal psychology. For this reason, they have been vastly preferred within post/structural analysis, over the earlier mythopoeia of Freud or Jung, for instance, which paints all inner experience as personal, in reaction to a mythologized external world.

Manuel Delanda’s odd but brilliant 1000 Years of Nonlinear History is possibly the penultimate example of this sort of device. In fact, the entire book is constructed as a series of geological, biological, physical-psychological-historical metaphors (even if he is insistent that it is not a metaphor but rather an “engineering diagram”),

We live in a world populated by structures — a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history. Immersed as we are in this mixture, we cannot help but interact in a variety of ways with the other historical constructions that surround us, and in these interactions we generate novel combinations, some of which possess emergent properties. In turn, these synergistic combinations, whether of human origin or not, become the raw material for further mixtures. This is how the population of structures inhabiting our planet has acquired its rich variety, as the entry of novel materials into the mix triggers wild proliferations of new forms. ...

And so on. It’s important to recognize that all the structures on these these maps ebb and flow, empires rise and fall more less the same as colonies of coral might. More prosaically, just as one might stand on the Pacific rim and hundreds of millions of years later, they might spy a new continent on the horizon, a 19th century American Republican might find more in common with many of today’s Democrats. Our labels are not what ultimately defines us. After all, nothing is fixed. And what of the center of the world?

Thus, all domains are conceptual maps, even including the inscrutable, uncertain, and ultimately implicit world of qualia. A map does not provide a certificate of authenticity, of course — as so many counterculturists are bound to point out, “the map is not the territory.” But without it, we can’t begin to track our way out of the shifting hinterlands. We cannot properly understand society, or ourselves, until we’ve charted the surfaces of this never-ending symbolic fault line. But we mustn’t find ourselves limited by the names, labels, and borders that happen to be written in this fleeting moment. So let’s look at an example framework…

This is a multi-part article

About the author

James Curcio

Our editor-in-chief is a bewildered madman with a sledgehammer made of words. He has been producing fiction, non-fiction, and graphic novels, essays, audio, art installations and gallery shows, ARGs and occasional video shorts since 2001. His most recent novel was "Party at the World's End".

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Cultural Cartography

by James Curcio
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