To Spatiality and Beyond

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In my last post I was hoping to discuss Litmap, but I ran out of space (spatiality is infinite, but attention spans are not) so it gets its own post.

Litmap is an application created by literary scholar and software developer Barbara Hui, with the aim of allowing literature to be read spatially.  Hui defines spatiality on two levels: the first is geospatial, the shape of the narrative that emerges when place names and addresses are plotted on a map; the second refers to the ‘more subjective, slippery – yet no less real – spatialities’ of the narrative – or, networks.  This resembles the dichotomy between ‘absolute’ and ‘navigable’ space that Melba Cuddy-Keane observes, where the closed paradigm of the geopolitical, defined as it is by the geospatial, must give way to cartographic practices that recognize the multiplicity and kinetic nature of globalized networks, which ‘erode notions of fixed space’.

Networks, according to Hui, can be both physical – road maps, subway maps, flight plans – and abstract.  We have networks of colonialism, of migration, linguistic networks, anything that maps the paths of ‘people, goods and ideas across geographical space’.  Straddling all this we have the Internet, for which the term ‘network’ has become practically metonymous.   When William Gibson first tried to conceive cyberspace in Neuromancer, he chose to concretize that elusive network in cartographic terms:

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

I have argued earlier, of course, that cyberspace is now a redundant notion; however, if anything this means the Internet as network is an even more relevant construct for concrete spatiality.

So: geospatiality and networks: a fork in the previously homogeneous road of mapping I have been wandering along.

And now for Litmap, where the two collide. Hui is adamant from the start that while inspired by Franco Moretti’s brand of literary cartography, Litmap is not meant to be a distant reading tool; it can only be used in conjunction with one text at a time.  Litmap – at least, in the iteration that has been made available on the Internet – seems at first glance to be taking its cues from geospatiality still.

Hui’s first project is mapping The Rings of Saturn, a 1995 German novel by W. G. Sebald, a novel structured around a Suffolk walking tour that in Litmap is shown to have a vaguely figure-of-eight shape.  Along the way, the narrator recounts stories that are spatially removed from his geographical location, such as the introduction of silkworm cultivation to Europe or the life of Joseph Conrad.  In Litmap, Hui is able to link these stories with the points on the walking tour they correspond with, creating a vast web of connections that demonstrates how a local place (Suffolk) has a history of a global scale.  Sebald’s work is mapped as a ‘spatialized view of history that shows the local as globally defined’.

Hui admits the limitations of the existing Litmap, particularly when it comes to Sebald, who has a ‘cosmological’ notion of historical space, in addition to the local and global – something which Google Maps API is quite unable to illustrate.  ‘It would be awesome if Google Maps could map cosmological notions of space though,’ muses a commenter on Hui’s website.  ‘I’d use it to have Google map out the path the soul takes after death as described in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, complete with estimated travel times and traffic conditions.’ The path of the soul is an abstract network that existing technology may not map.

Another example of an abstract network Hui uses is from Steven Hall’s experimental novel The Raw Shark Texts, in which ‘people throw off both tangible and intangible linguistic traces of themselves, and are hunted down via this stream of bait by terrifyingly real yet otherworldly “primordial thought sharks.”’  Like if Derrida had a nightmare about Jaws.  Hall conceives of a person’s linguistic output – speech, letters, memories – as a ‘fundamentally material extension’ of that person.  Theoretically, you could create a network of these imaginary traces, which would enable you to map ‘un-space’, the parallel thought world of Hall’s novel.

If Hui has succeeded in mapping Hall’s novel, she has not made it available online, which is a pity, because I feel that would be even more fascinating than the Sebald map of local/global connectivity. Cuddy-Keane makes the call for new tools to map what she terms ‘imaginative geographies’, a perspectival shift in cartography that she hopes will hinge on inclusivity and empathy.  I doubt she was thinking of voyaging souls or cognitive fish, but in terms of the imaginative those certainly qualify.  We know the geospatial is no longer enough; how long till we work out how to map what lies beyond?

  • Cuddy-Keane, Melba. “Imaging/Imagining Globalization: Maps and Models.” Discussion Paper for MLA Convention, New York, 28 Dec. 2002. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.
  • Gibson, William. Neuromancer.  New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
  • Hall, Steven. The Raw Shark Texts. New York: Canongate, 2007. Print.
  • Hui, Barbara. Litmap. Web. Oct 23, 2013.
  • Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn: An English Pilgrimage. Trans. Michael Hulse. New York: New Direction, 1998. Print.

The title image is taken from Clement Valla’s Postcards From Google Earth series.

 

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