Friday, June 3, 2011

Exalting the Useless and Derelict

On a recent trip to Takamatsu to renew my visa, I came across this old map in the window of a redecorating store:
What does it depict? A section of the town I presume, but I was more attracted by the shapes and the orientations of the writing, radiating outward from the center, than trying to decipher its historical significance.

Its artistic sensibility made me think of an old This American Life episode I had heard about mapping; how "every map is the world seen through a different lens."

In that show, Ira Glass interviews a geographer named Denis Wood who maps unconventional aspects of ordinary neighborhoods, like pumpkins on porches or "patterns of leaf light on the neighborhood."  He wants his maps, bundled together as an atlas, to be seen as a "collection of patterns of light and sound and smell and taste and communication with others."

Ira, ever the realist, points out that maps by and large are functional tools. They have a purpose. They are a way to describe the world. They get us from point A to point B.

Wood, not to be deterred, says he is on a mad search for a "poetics of cartography," that he exists "in a dream of maps" where "useless knowledge is exalted."

And that's right where I think I stand sometimes — exalting the useless and derelict.

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