Recently I’ve had maps on the brain, both because of things I’ve heard about and because of work I’m doing myself. “Mapping” seems to be a useful way to approach a lot of things I’ve come across recently, from literature to art to music. There is now in my mind such a wide variety of maps that finding some way in which to link them all together, and create a navigable space for them to populate, will in itself be an exercise in cartography.
First, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading Koffi Kwahulé’s Babyface. The kind of reading I’m doing is not for plot, but instead for structure: as I go along, I take into account things like the trajectory of voices, their interaction with each other, repetition and the appearance of leitmotifs, and changes in rhythm and tempo insofar as they are interesting in their ability to give the reader a feeling of proximity to, or distance from, the realtime (“real” time) of the narrative. In short, I am investigating the potential of the novel to be visually plotted, and more specifically, musically scored. Based on the knowledge that Kwahulé uses jazz as inspiration for the structure of his writing, using the vocabulary of the former to redescribe the latter seems natural. Inherently, the study of using the vocabulary of one field to define another has borrowed its process from that of mapmaking, which is based entirely upon clarification through recontextualisation. When you use musical conventions to give structure to your writing, you are borrowing not only the vocabulary of music but also that of cartography.
The trick of maps is their ability to clarify a foreign idea by placing it in a familiar context. If we can’t quite fathom the depth of a valley in relation to the height of a mountain, it becomes easier when we can see these comparisons in color (based, arguably, on our association with dark colors and depth, light colors and height, and etc. with the spectrum between). So we substitute color for space, and voilà! – topographical maps. The same principle applies when we visually represent sound, heat, or movement.
// TripTrop map of the distance between my old apartment and other places in NYC.
// Topographical map of the eyeball of one Murray McFadden, Surrey, England.
Cabinet magazine has a particular fondness, it seems, for writing about this process of substitution. In his (?) article “Utterance is Place Enough,” Frances Richard describes the process of mapping conversation, while here D.G. Burnett and W.J. Walter point out the “set of symmetries between the act of literary creation and the playing of a game of chess” and create for us a computer program that actually allows us to play out this system of substitutions. Elsewhere, Haemi Yun’s installation project Da Capo, Layered visually and aurally represents motion on an output monitor.
Watch the video of the Da Capo, Layered installation
It’s clear that people find some value in this kind of substitution, and understandably: it is always interesting – and sometimes quite necessary – to see one medium represented as another (that’s why we need metaphors). To me, though, the more interesting question then becomes: is it possible not only to redescribe one medium using the terminology of another, but also to redefine it, in the sense that to redefine is to give new meaning or significance?
In his piece on mapping conversation, Frances Richard points out that “In its objecthood, the map detaches from whatever landscape it purports to render; it slips into its own register as a freestanding unit, a self-enclosed area operating by reflexively validated rules. The tropes of mapping—including scale, legend, color, the use of contour isobars and other conventions for translating three-dimensional elevation into two dimensions—are no less stylized than the parameters of any other discourse.” Thus, we could argue that yes, in developing its own vocabulary and tools for success, a good map not only serves the utilitarian purpose of explaining the nature of something that is not itself, but that in doing so a map becomes its own autonomous work. A map is both the fulfillment of a goal and the product of its own success.
So how can remapping one medium in terms of another lead to a product that is more interesting than simply a new representation of an older idea? Only if in doing so, the map in itself becomes a freestanding work that expresses something that neither of the previous media were able to. In short, a good map must be greater than the sum of its parts.