Feb 15, 2010

You are and are not here

They needed a new map.

Trying to explain the election and the state of the nation and, as with any map, answer the question, Where are we?, the political pundits and TV commentators felt like the map they had wasn't enough. In addition to the traditional cartography of land mass and jurisdictional lines, they charted the country again according to color-coded political preference, and suddenly we were all red and blue. As a map, it wasn't much, but it did show us a new way to think of ourselves, and did give us a way to represent what we already knew, already felt.

Of course that didn't quite work either. Each map has its own errors. Each map has its own confusions and misrepresentations and ways of misleading.

In the second season of West Wing, there's an episode where the White House Press Secretary, C.J. Cregg, meets with a group complaining about the biases of the world map. Even judged by how it measures what it's supposed to measure, the map has problems. France, the socially-concerned cartographer says, isn't as big as you think it is, and it isn't even where you think it is. Also, why is up up? The orientation is arbitrary, but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.

Maps are always flawed. Always biased. They always, in attempting representation, contain certain structural, intrinsic errors. We use them, though, not because of their truth, but because of their usefulness, because they help us construct a scheme of coordinates, a complex of relationships and place names that help us understand our relationships and where we are.

But the errors and misrepresentations remain. And we always need new maps. And the errors are also there.

For every map is imaginary, and every map, in saying You Are Here, puts each of us in two or more places at once, and every map always leaves some things out. But maybe it's by paying attention to these spaces, the virtual places, the multi-places and the no-places, that we can more fully ask the question of where we are and understand the answers we give.