Under Construction

Under Construction

Getting my hands dirty with Illustrator, sketching a fuzzy vision for a someday course on Rhetorico-geographical Positioning Systems (RPS). I never do this, but I’ve missed self-set deadline for proposing the course at least twice in 2011, which suggests the only felt urgency for such a creation is my own. Now–and publicly–setting a third deadline for real-izing this proposal by, oh, the 8th of Wheneveruary, 2012.

The City & ytiC ehT

Late last week I finished China Mieville’s latest,
The City &
ytiC ehT
. TC & CT is a detective story,
it’s not just any detective story (what
Mieville calls
a "police procedural"
). In terms of theoretical richness, this one holds
even with Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Mieville creates a
pair of cities fraught with boundary in.discretions. Citizens from Beszel and Ul
Qoma pass by each other every day, but as they do so they must unsee people and
things from the other city. Even where the borders become confusing
overlaps, in cross-hatched zones likely to draw heavy traffic from autos and
pedestrians, unseeing remains a necessary tactic (sort of the opposite of
panoptic conditioning; unseeing here as deliberate, uneasy negligence).
Political, jurisdictional consequences are of course tied to this cities-wide
condition. Within this intricate third-spacious scene, Mieville works up a novel
that jets along with surprising acceleration: mystery elements, hazy figures,
and ethereal domains, also detective work that relies on the knowledge available
even while deliberately unseeing and smudge-remembering what is present
(that is, a kind of audiovisually unconfirmed felt sense).

I’d say more, but I already returned the copy to
Collin, who both recommended it and lent
it to me, and since it was a borrowed copy, no margin notes, no dog-eared pages.
But this entry is to say, pick it up. It’s a lively, quick read, very much the
sort of thing you still have time for even if you feel summer fading to fall.

Method’s Con-trails

Caught a small
blip of discussion
yesterday concerned with whether or not Google Earth


the lost city of Atlantis
. Remnants of the elusive, underwater cityscape?

According to Google Maps Mania,


It’s true that many amazing discoveries have been made in Google Earth
including a pristine forest in Mozambique that is home to previously unknown
species and the remains of an Ancient Roman villa.

In this case, however, what users are seeing is an artefact of the data
collection process. Bathymetric (or sea floor terrain) data is often
collected from boats using sonar to take measurements of the sea floor.

The lines reflect the path of the boat as it gathers the data. The fact
that there are blank spots between each of these lines is a sign of how
little we really know about the world’s oceans.

How little we know, indeed. Is this Atlantis? The conspiracy doesn’t interest me all that much.
Instead, I’m struck by the impression: the stamp left by the "systematic"
tracing, the residue of the surface-to-sea-floor method (a term others
have smartly untangled it into meta-hodos or something like ‘beyond
ways’, even ‘ways
beyond’; this etymological dig lingers with me). The deep blue grid of
"bathymetric data" elicits questions: why don’t we see these in the adjacent
areas? What was it about this boat, this collection process,
translation from sound to image, that left behind the vivid trails?

Robert Sarmast
elaborated on the image’s trail-grid, noting:

The lines you’re referring to are known as "ship-path artifacts" in the
underwater mapping world. They merely show the path of the ship itself as it
zig-zagged over a predetermined grid. Sonar devices cannot see directly
underneath themselves. The lines you see are the number of turns that the
ship had to make for the sonar to be able to collect data for the entire
grid. I’ve checked with my associate who is a world-renowned geophysicist
and he confirmed that it is artifact. Sorry, no Atlantis.

More provocations here: the grid’s unevenness, its predetermination, the
inability of the sonar devices to see (erm…hear) directly below. And
yet, a telling illustration of method alongside method: seems to me a subtle
allegory in the adjacency of ocean floor imagery with lines and without.
Presumably, the surrounding ground was measured similarly. Why no lines?

Primary Flavors

Primary Flavors

So that the sweet tooths of the house (my own included) would stop gnashing
at me about how little we have on hand to please (and also to rot) them, I
boiled together three half-batches of rock candy early this afternoon:
peppermint, anise, and cinnamon. Can you tell from the photo that I’ve
never made rock candy before?

Continue reading →

Chamber of Absences

I haven’t been taking great notes while reading Prairyerth, but I did
dog-ear a page for this:

There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is
with your eye on a far goal, because then you begin to believe you’re not
closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland
sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering
whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and
the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as
difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of
absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I
raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot feel just where it
had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people:
circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me
lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on–that place you have
to get through, that purgatory of mileage. (82)

"That purgatory of mileage"–the horizontal vista of Chase County draws Least
Heat-Moon in. The expanse of long grasses is at times disorienting.
He feels lost, but knows that no line can be walked for five miles without
crossing a road. He is a journalist, a chronicler, a gatherer of stories.
Sometimes he consults a map, such as when he stands in Cottonwood Falls with "an
1878 bird’s-eye-view engraving of the town" (52), but he also–sector by county
sector–sketches his own. This last point is important, I think. It
is the practice where his methods live up to the "deep mapping"–an ethnographic
presence in graceful suspense (not unlike North’s ten years of "walking among"),
part Geertzian "thick description," but also meta-, also interested in the up
and out–the topography. This prairie topography can be experienced on

I’m mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon’s "chamber of
absences"–the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet
) de Certeau’s "wave of verticals," the "scopic drive" he chides after
looking out onto NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. What
is strange–exciting, even–is that Least Heat-Moon cannot figure out how to
organize his book until he appropriates a form from the grid of his hand-drawn
maps. About maps, de Certeau says, "They allow us to grasp only a relic set in
the nowhen of a surface of projection…. These fixations constitute procedures
for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice" (97). If
I may put that last sentence through a tumbler, what if, "the trace left behind
is the practice" or "the trace left behind invigorates the
practice (of walking in the city/prairie)"? This windy adventure forks yet
again at the distinction between the general-use map (with common place names,
consensus, etc.) and that other, more self-selective attunement (an
experiential, even egotistical sketch).

About my own chamber of absences: I am warming up to the idea that none of
this belongs in Chapter Five. But I nevertheless find myself happily stuck (not
stranded) on the problem of "What about maps as a (databasic, interested)
writing practice?". I don’t know. Yet there is a promising something
(a fantastic thingamabob) at the theoretical fulcrum between de Certeau’s
high-up perch (fraught with verticality) and Least Heat-Moon’s more moderate,
walking-the-prairie sensibility (fraught with horizontality). I would be
thrumming again on matters of scale, I suppose, to wonder whether that’s all it
amounts to when Least Heat-Moon breaks into his intimate portraits of
people and places, interrupting with his private, deliberative excursions to the
various plateaus or flint shelves for reorientations from time to time.
Don’t we all need (or at least desire) such reorientations?

Certeau’s Sieve-order

Lately I’ve been puzzling over de Certeau’s theorization of maps and what they risk
obfuscating (e.g., stories, minutiae, detritus, etc.) in The Practice of Everyday Life. His pedestrian rhetoric affirms the viewpoint of the "ground level" over the observation
of the whole from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, from which he once
experienced a curious pleasure while looking onto Manhattan–seeing it as a "wave of verticals" hovering
distantly above the city’s "paroxysmal places" (91). De Certeau wonders about the
pleasure he felt and, as well, what this bird’s-eye viewpoint, with its "scopic and gnostic
drive," obscures: "When one goes up there, he leaves behind the the mass that
carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators" (92).

From the observation deck, De Certeau says the mass is left behind, that it
"carries off and mixes up." Reasonably true. Looking down on the ant-like taxis,
the city appears different–further away. But in another sense, the urban
observation deck is not less local than the sidewalk, is it? Also, marveling at
the city does not make its streets more readily navigable (whatever compels you
to go out and about).

Certeau goes on to critique maps, traces, place-names, and flattened
projections, lumping them together as totalizing devices: "The surface of this
["suspended symbolic order"] is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses,
drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order" (107). The sieve-order favors
stories and localization, and these are thwarted by intervals of distance, from
those viewpoints at which the "world’s debris" disappears.

Later he admits an oscillation between the local stories and "rumors"
(presumably reinforced by a desire for totalizing representations), he is
concerned that the relationship between the two has become stratified: "Stories
diversify, rumors totalize. If there is still a certain oscillation between
them, it seems that today there is a stratification: stories are becoming
private and sink into the secluded places in neighborhoods, families, or
individuals, while the rumors propagated by the media cover everything and,
gathered under the figures of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the
substitute for all proper names, they wipe out or combat any superstitions guild
of still resisting the figure" (108). The overwrought substitution of the one
(i.e., totalizing view) for the other (i.e., everyday practices) is troubling:
"The trace left behind [on, say, a map] is substituted for the practice. It
exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able
to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in
the world to be forgotten" (97).

Might the projection–and even the written account–also rejuvenate the action, renew its circulation, and cause it to be remembered again? Specifically, I am thinking about this in relationship to distant reading methods that translate large volumes of data
(mined from texts or activities) into visual models–projections in which we can
apprehend patterns not identifiable at other scales of contact (such as the
"ground level").

Maybe there is a place for de Certeau in Chapter Five. I haven’t decided
yet. But I am discovering the faint separations between my dissertation and the
walking rhetorics he advocates. Something tells me these can be bridged (or filled),
but I am still reaching for ideas about how to do that (and also still thinking about
whether it is even necessary).

And Now Here

A week ago Thursday we stopped through the closing reception of a show at the
Delavan Art Gallery here
in Syracuse. Hadn’t been to the gallery before, but several pieces produced by our
friend (and former neighbor), Amy Bartell, were on display (some of it by such
enigmatic and inventive techniques I can’t get my mind off of it). I don’t have a
program with me now, and I couldn’t find the exact title for her exhibit online,
but I think it was called "Archeological Memoir." Basically, she works with
various materials (impressions, overlays, exposure, stamping) to layer together
what I would describe as ‘geographic impressions.’ They’re not
impressionist, in the sense of that tradition; rather they involve the plying
(layering, doubling over, folding and folding) of found things (symbols and
materials)–a sandwiching effect by which their pressed-ness amplifies the deep
entanglement of place, object, and spatial imagination. I was struck by the
collection because it resonated conceptually with some of the stuff you would
find in Harmon’s You Are Here and at
Strange Maps. This it to say it
hooked into the same way-finding attitude or manner I continue to find
tremendously appealing. But the pieces were also detailed and varied–as
pastiche: almost imaginary maps, almost documentary,
autobiography. Digital versions of two of the pieces are online–Travelogue
and Your Call
Cannot Be Completed At This Time
–but the entire exhibit is worth
experiencing in its entirety, and because she does at least one show each year,
there is a decent chance of catching it again in Central New York.

Poetics of Cartography

I finally got around to listening to “This American Life” on mapping. Seems like someone mentioned the program when it aired last month (I remember looking at the accompanying images in Flickr). The program, a replay of the broadcast from 1998, covers mapping across the five senses, beginning with Denis Woods on sight and his neighborhood maps that take into account things like how often addresses (or names of residents) occur in a neighborhood newsletter and how the geolocations of jack-o-lanterns (photographed and layered onto a black background) correspond to the places references in the newsletter. He describes this fascination as a “poetics of cartography” and proposes that there isn’t anything that can’t be mapped. Brief thought it is, Woods opening piece gave me a boost for thinking about chapter five in the diss, even if I’m still two or three months from drafting the chapter on mapping. Hearing him talk about his mapping practices made me want to drop everything I’m doing (right now, on tag clouds) and re-read The Power of Maps.

The rest of the show is worth a listen, but I didn’t find the later sections to be as impressive as Woods’ bit. There’s a piece on mapping soundscapes (not far off some of the things Jenny has discussed re: documentary, although this guy finds musical notes in the drone of his microwave and CPU cooling fan), and there are also short segments on mapping with smell and touch–both of which reminded me of conversations in the cybercartography seminar I took two years ago.

Chreod: Alignment of Set-ups

Reading more than writing today, I planned to get down notes on another run
through Porter, Sullivan, et. al.’s "Institutional Critique," (re: my own little
life raft in postmodern geography) the same for Richards’ short piece on "The
Resourcefulness of Words," from Speculative Instruments (re: wandering
resourcefulness, another spatial, and I would say networked,
consideration) , and the same, yet again, for Miller’s latest (Spring
2007) RSQ essay on automation, agency, and assessment, "What Can
Automation Tell Us about Agency?"–not for the diss., this last one, but because
I need to know more about it before responding to an email marked urgent.
Only, rather than note-making, the day turned to night, and my efforts grew more
digressive when I sought out one of Miller’s references to Latour, an article I
hadn’t heard of called, "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of
a Door-Closer" (Social Problems 35.3). Here is Latour, er, "Jim
Johnson," at his most playful. Terrific. Coincidentally, I also have an
special place in my heart for compression

Continue reading →