Saturday 30 January 2010

"The Area Told as A Story"

Oyvind Eide 'An Inquiry into the Relationship Between Verbal and Map-Based Expressions of Geographical Information'

From the Centre for Computing for the Humanities at KCL, Oyvind has to bring in many different different disciplines to answer his questions about how people understand and represent geography and geographical identity.

The Notaricus Publicus of medieval Marseille, a document regarding land ownership, which discussed much about landscape never once used a map. The Sami used orally chanted representations of geography for spiritual and cultural means, but not as navigational devices. Why? Using theory, historical research and computer based models of the sources, Oyvind intends to investigate the reasons behind the different ways in which people have thought about the landscape and how they have represented it, and situated themselves within it.

Firstly, what is the difference between a geographical text and a geographical map? Is it connected to the semiotics, the meanings of a document, or is it to do with the methods of reading? There is some argument for both - the objects themselves might remain fixed, and their meanings might always exist, but where those meanings lie and how they are manifest is also very much to do with the audiences' engagement with it.

Given that a map is an image and a geographical text is...well, a text...Oyvind turned to a comparison of painting and poetry. The work of Lessing was key to this. What we can really learn from this is that both forms have their advantages - there are certain things that one or the other of them does not provide which the other does. It just shows you that you cannot rely on only one source of information. But he does suggest that while a text can explain all that a map can, a map cannot explain all that a text can.

One of the interesting historical points is that in many cases where landscape information is gathered, the people it is gathered from are considered valuable for their knowledge, not for their status. These sources of geographical information may be hugely varied in terms of their social status, ethnic group, type of work and geographical associations. How the information was collected is also particularly interesting - who was collecting, for what reasons and how. It is this kind of information that can perhaps be more easily expressed in a text.

Nonetheless, I do feel that there is value in maps beyond this. As cultural and historical artefacts, as symbols of social status, social conditions, as representations of belief, as art, they are extremely valuable sources. They served different uses to different people at different times. We retain many of these methods of understanding - Oyvind, interestingly, links the medieval practice of telling stories through images to modern graphic novels. Forms of understanding are not always textual, and people do not operate always in a textual manner. In terms of how people formulate their sense of self and place, no source should ever be discounted - but neither should it be taken as the only route to knowledge. As technology changes, as Google Streetview changes our ideas of the map as media, and as augmented realities arise, these questions of source differences become increasingly vital and difficult.