Three new ground-breaking books on spatial reason

Three new books on spatial reason and politics have recently appeared. Remarkably, they all come from a single publisher, the University of Chicago Press in the last year or so.

The History of Cartography Vol III, Cartography in the European Renaissance (edited by David Woodward).

Abysmal, by Gunnar Olsson.

The Sovereign Map by Christian Jacob.

Abysmal is a huge, exploratory chunk of a book; Olsson’s magnum opus. It begins with the epic of Gilgamesh, and ends (almost) with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its modernist collection of Duchamp, which Olsson first visited in October 1963.

Olsson’s work is not always easy to understand. He writes in a lyrical, Joycean style, evoking and playing with images from Saussure to Kant. But this much is clear. For Olsson, missing from Kant’s trilogy on reason (Pure, Practical, Judgment):

is the mode of understanding itself, a volume devoted to the rhetorics of how we make sense of the world and how we share that sense with others. Its provisional title: A Critique of Cartographical Reason (Olsson 1998).

This “cartographic reason” Olsson has located in the work of Franco Farinelli, in Bologna Italy.

Farinelli argues that Greek philosopher Anaximander drew the first map in the western tradition (debatable but beside the point). He was also the first to write on nature: this logos and pinax (the table he drew on) are the same

and therefore…Western thought (reason) is nothing else than the protocol of geographical representation, that is of the cartographical image (Farinelli 1998).

For this reason argues Farinelli, “the house of Being is not language, as Heidegger maintains, but the map.”

Farinelli in turn draws on Jacob’s book (possible because it is a translation of a French original in 1992) but his argument is startling and highly original. Unfortunately, while I appreciate its reach I don’t find it convincing or all that meaningful.

We get a more familiar description from Olsson:

Let it be said again: The sign is a map, a weaving together of picture and narrative, a power-filled statement which tells me both where I am and where I should go, indicative and imperative in the same breath. Squeezed into its own minimum the map is a double-fold, verb turned to noun, noun to verb (Abysmal: 115).

This leads him to discuss Shakespeare’s “most imaginative play” Macbeth (“Life’s but a walking shadow…/it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing”).

This imagination then is strong enough to deal with things unknown and not present; without imagination

there would never be any maps, for the characteristic which maps and imaginations share in common is that they let me know not only where I am but whence I came and whither I must go.

imagination…fills the abyss [ie abyss-mal] between the sensible world of things and the intelligible world of meaning–and that explains how Shakespeare in the same play could produce both candles and walking shadows, both kings and idiots, both sound and fury.

Olsson’s riffs on these topics are more reflections than argument, and he allows but does not require you to walk down the same path. It can be heady stuff, even if you’re more than half-convinced that he’s half wrong. But it’s a pleasure Gunnar, thank you.

Farinelli, F. (1998). Did Anaximander Ever Say (or Write) Any Words? The Nature of Cartographical Reason. Ethics, Place and Environment, 1(2), 135-44.

Olsson, G. (1998). Towards a Critique of Cartographical Reason. Ethics, Place and Environment, 1(2), 153-55.


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