Mapping the Known World, and Interpreting Maps

Her face is a map of the world
Is a map of the world
– KT Tunstall, Suddenly I See

What it must have been like to try to map the world, when it was still young, in the infancy of its civilisation.

from Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, Heinrich Bunting. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singaporefrom Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae by Heinrich Bunting

Well, just a little before being plunged into what we now call the “Dark Ages”. But still, that’s alot of cheesy romanticism isn’t it? Who’s to say if the world was young in the second century A.D.? Perhaps it was merely a period that supervened the dark ages which occurred when the most advanced culture of that day died out and/or had its records irretrievably destroyed, so, as with the Mayan codices, we are now none the wiser as to their existence.

Regardless, in the second century A.D., Claudius Ptolemy, whose name betrays the Greco-Egyptian influence in his life, put a grid on the world, assigning latitudes and longitudes to known places. His treatise on cartography, Geography (or Geographia or Cosmographia), contained principles for map-making that have been used throughout the world till this day.

sea monsters! Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeI’m not sure how common this is, but quite a bit of my misspent childhood was taken up with mapping my immediate neighbourhood – the best BMX bike routes featuring steep hills which you could ride down without hands on the handlebars (and probably later, without front teeth), secret shortcuts on the mossy sides of hidden drains, “here be dragons” warnings for kampongs guarded by fierce sharp-teethed mongrel dogs, etc. I did not need latitudinal/longitudinal grids but had to think of a way of depicting the features I wanted to record.

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula Asiae XI, Arnoldus Buckinck (1478 edition of Ptolemy’s Georgraphy!) featuring towns marked as “emporium” (places for trading) and current-day Malayan peninsula marked as “Aurea Chersonesus” (“Golden Peninsula”)

Tabula Asiae XI, Johann Reger (1486). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula Asiae XI, Johann Reger (1486 edition of Ptolemy’s Geography with current-day Malayan peninsula marked as “Curracherson”)

Tabula XI Asiae. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula XI Asiae

Undecima Asiae Tabula, Martin Waldseemuller (1513). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeUndecima Asiae Tabula, Martin Waldseemuller (1513)

It wasn’t until 1507 that Martin Waldseemüller broke away from the received wisdom of Ptolemy to incorporate up-to-date information in his world map, showing, for example, the Americas as a separate land mass.

A Map of Ancient Asia, Edward Wells (Oxford, 1700-38). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeAnd by the 1700s, Edward Wells could state that his map depicted “Parts Unknown to the Ancients either Greeks or Romans”.

So like historical accounts, maps aren’t particularly objective – map-makers necessarily need to make decisions about what to include in their maps. As Alfred Korzybski says: “the map is not the territory”. Otherwise, you get the particularly Borges-ian ideal of “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it” (On Exactitude in Science).

depiction of a transpeninsular waterway. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singapore
depiction of a transpeninsular waterway. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singapore
depiction of transpeninsular waterway. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singaporedepictions of a supposed transpeninsular waterway from Malacca to Pahang

Tabula Asiae VIII, Sebastian Munster (1545-52). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula Asiae VIII, Sebastian Münster (1545-52)

Sebastian Münster, in decorating his maps of south-east asia with a variety of monsters, demonstrated how the Germans viewed the rest of the world in the mid-1500s.

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeEek, cannibals!

L'Asie dressee sur les observations de M.rs de l'Academie Royale de Sciences & de Sanson, Nolin, Du Fer, De L'Isle & principalement sur la carte que monsieur N: Witsen Bourgemaistre &c. &c. a donnee au public & sur les memoires les plus recens et mis au ja bunch of exotic people from Johannes Covens and Cornelis Morier’s L’Asie dressee sur les observations de M.rs de l’Academie Royale de Sciences & de Sanson, Nolin, Du Fer, De L’Isle

And since Google Earth had yet to be invented, you could tell the provenance of maps by the inaccuracies that were reproduced:
Tabula Geographica Hydrophylacium Asiae Majoris, Athanasius Kircher (Amsterdam, 1665). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeAthanasius Kircher’s proposition of an underground reservoir (the apparently fictitious Chiangmai Lake or Chyamai Lacus) that he thought lay beneath Nepal and Tibet and fed great rivers that ran into the Gulf of Thailand, was depicted on maps for the next 200 years.

Depending on its audience, maps could also serve to chronicle political and/or economic influence in the world of the cartographer, possibly for the purposes of propaganda or advertisement:
Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeIn Indiae Orientalis, Insularumque Adiacientlum Typus, Abraham Ortelius (1579), the names of the five spice islands important to the Flemish are highlighted within a red banner (the original banner ad?).

Or help pirates navigate the islands in search of seafaring prey:
Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singapore
Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singaporeas might have been the purpose of this 19th-century chart with place names in Bugis.

So maps are: (i) a historical chronicle of prevalent ideas and interests in the society of the cartographer; (ii) because of the information conveyed, educational (for better or worse, depending on the accuracy of the knowledge being relayed); (iii) necessarily political.

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeWhen did map-makers start to delineate territories ruled by particular political systems on their maps? Did the discrete political-geographical units exist first, or were the contemporary maps complicit in the creation of separate nations and countries? Perhaps the simulacra (the map) the superseded the real at some point, a la Jean Baudrillard?

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeThe Northwards Embassy by Land and Water from Hanoi to Beijing (1880s). Basically, head out the door and walk straight?

And does this suggest that the interpretation of maps cannot be limited to merely understanding topographic symbols, but must necessarily include the context in which the map was made?

* photos were taken with permission from person manning the Geo|Graphic exhibition at the Central Lending Library, National Library of Singapore. “Just no flash photography!”

Conspicuous Authenticity, but not in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLondon -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

What was refreshing about Ho Chi Minh City (aka. Saigon) was the continued lack of conspicuous authenticity. Being a city just getting a dip into the conspicuous consumption pool, it was still way behind the next wave of status competition: conspicuous authenticity.

park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
songbirds in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
crickets as food for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
mealworms for songbirds, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercising in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
dance practice? Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
broom and basket, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
more dance practice, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
exercise equipment in a park, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn contemporary advertising in other cities, a fundamental marketing technique is to appeal to the authenticity of the product.

Andrew Potter, in The Authenticity Hoax: Conspicuous Authenticity,suggests that it is Denis Diderot’s portrayal of the titular nephew in Rameau’s Nephew that transformed authenticity from a quest for individual freedom and self-fulfilment into a marketing strategy. His awareness that his sponging off various rich people was “the beggar’s pantomime”, said G.W.F. Hegel, made him “the avatar of a new individual consciousness” that “looks upon the authoritative power of the state as a chain…obeys only with secret malice and stands ever ready to burst out in rebellion.”

Now however, such awareness is so familiar and ubiquitous that there is no one who does not consider himself to be as Rameau’s nephew, an anti-hero of authenticity. Inauthenticity is a cuss word we use on other people – office drones, government lackeys, yuppies etc.

Perhaps, Joshua Glenn argues in Fake Authenticity, the nephew’s “cultivated alienation and easy nonconformity”, far from making him an anti-hero of authenticity, makes him the archetypical hero of fake authenticity, “the face of hip capitalism, and an architect of consumer dissatisfaction and of perpetual obsolescence”. If one defines authenticity as “a struggle against received truths, inherited contingencies, any ideology (in the Frankfurt School sense of the word) which impedes the possibility of freeing oneself — and others — from all forms of oppression”, then authenticity itself has become an ideology.

Elsewhere, simulacra is what Jean Baudrillard famously calls things that aren’t copies of the real but constructed to resemble expectations of what that the real is to look like, and therefore becoming real in themselves while bearing no connection with the thing it is meant to resemble in reality.

And there is much demand for such simulacra.

tea and sweets, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
flowers, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
alleyway of pedicure and manicure shops, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
paintbrushes for sale on a street, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Over the course of the twentieth century, the dominant North American leisure class underwent three distinct changes, each market by shifts in the relevant status symbols, rules for display, and advancement strategies. The first change was from the quasi-aristocratic conspicuous leisure of Veblen’s time to the bourgeouis conspicuous consumption that marked the growing affluence of the first half of the twentieth century, a pattern of status competition commonly referred to as “keeping up with the Joneses”. The next change was from bourgeois consumerism to a stance of cultivate non-conformity that is variously known as “cool”. “hip”, or “alternative”. This form of status-seeking emerged out of the critique of mass society as it was picked up by the 1960s counterculture, and as it became the dominant status system of urban life, we saw the emergence of what we call “rebel” or “hip” consumerism. The rebel consumer goes to great lengths to show that he is not a dupe of advertising, that he does not follow the crowd, expressing his politics and his individuality through the consumption of products that have a rebellious or out-of-the-mainstream image – underground bands, hip-hop fashions, skateboarding shoes”. [Comment: oops, i guess that’s all tired and old mainstream now.]

“Norman Mailer set the agenda in the 1950s when he wrote that society was divided into two types of people: the hip (“rebels”) and the square (“conformists”). Cool (or hip, alternative, edgy) here becomes the universal stance of individualism, with the hipster as the resolute non-conformist refusing to bend before the homogenizing forces of mass society. In other words, the notion of cool only ever made sense as a foil to something else, that is, a culture dominated by mass media such as national television stations, wide-circulation magazines and newspapers, and commercial record labels. The hipster makes a political statement by rejecting mass society and its conformist agenda.”

“Cool fizzled out when it was exposed as just another consumerist status hierarchy, and when it passed so deeply and so self-consciously into the mainstream that it became simply embarrassing.” [Comment: hence the very popular threadless T-shirt “I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet“]

“But status, like power, abhors a vacuum…The trick now is to subtly demonstrate that while you may have a job, a family, and a house full of stuff, you are not spiritually connected to any of it. what matters now is not just buying things, it is taking time for you, to create a life that is focused on your unique needs and that reflects your particular taste and sensibility.”

“Do you subscribe to an organic-vegetable delivery service? Do you believe that life is too short to drink anything but wine straight from the terroir? Do you fill your house with heirlooms, antiques, or objets d’art that can’t be bought anywhere or at any price? For your next vacation, are you going to skip the commercialised parts of Europe or Asia and just rent yourself a cabin in British Columbia or a farmhouse in Portugal, away from all the tourists and the people trying to sell you stuff? Welcome to the competitive and highly lucrative world of conspicuous authenticity.”

“Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet.”

Andrew Potter then uses organic produce as case study. About 15 years ago, organic food was exclusively consumed by certain enlightened people. It was essential to authentic living and, to quote Mark Bittman, “the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically”. When organic produce became so popular that produce was easily obtained in huge stores like Whole Foods and Walmart, the standard of authenticity shifted: locavores started to extol the benefits of locally grown food as tastier, fresher, more environmentally-friendly (all of which are subject to debate). The 100-mile diet, says Potter, is an illustration of this one-upmanship, “the trend of turning environmental authenticity-seeking into a competitive anti-consumption publicity stunt”.

Authenticity is a “positional good that derives its value from the force of invidious comparison. You can only be a truly authentic person as long as most of the people around you are not.”

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
cooked snails, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamIn other news, please note how eating local food with the locals makes my travels oh so very much more authentic (tone: dripping sarcasm):
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Bún mắm stall, Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamBún mắm stall, Bến Thành market

iced Vietnamese coffee, iced Vietnamese tea, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnamiced Vietnamese coffee, to be washed down with complimentary iced Vietnamese tea, on a sidewalk

Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo). Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
fried crickets, Luong Son (Bo Tung Xeo), Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), VietnamLuong Son (Bo Tung Xeo)

(On the way home, a Vietnamese girl stopped me to ask for directions in the vernacular. Again, I unthinkingly replied in English. She was so shocked she giggled into her hand and fled.)

Now this guy was authentic:
evangelist, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam“Hello,” he said to an American backpacker waiting for her bus,”I am Vietnam evangelist. I want to tell you about Jesus.”

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore