Martha Blassnigg – Maps and the Cartography of Time and Consciousness – 2006

Cultural Anthropologist and Film and Media Theorist,
1969 – 2015

First published in the conference Expanding the Space, in collaboration with the
Octubre Centre de Cultura Contemporania, and IAA, Valencia, 2006

Maps, like any text or cultural production, carry political motivations, generic conventions, and symbolic associations within them and pertinently reflect the position of the observer or in other words incorporated subjectivity. I have elaborated the interrelation of popular culture, film and space science elsewhere, but to start I would like to cite a quote by cultural anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall and in the reading of it replace the word ‘film’ with ‘maps’: “Film is [Maps are] capable of presenting complex networks of images within which a variety of ambiguous cultural constructions and resonances are understood but which are never explicitly acknowledged, or which recur in different combinations.” (MacDougall 1998: 80) What MacDougall describes here with reference to film has a bearing on maps too in that they also present complex networks of images and signifiers that carry cultural constructions and resonances within them while these are not necessarily accessible or obvious for those unfamiliar with the cultural or historical context.

In the following I would like to propose the consideration of two moves in a discussion about maps; one is based on the necessity to recognize the map-maker in the map and the inherent significations and implementations that interact with the interpretative processes and perceptive experiences of the audiences. The discipline of Cultural Anthropology proves useful to this investigation, and as films and maps analogously can be understood as cultural interfaces interrelating the maker with the content and the beholders/audiences, the quote by anthropologist and filmmaker David MacDougall (1998) provides some useful insights to start with. The second move introduces the aspect of time to our reading of maps referring to Bergson’s philosophy to illuminate the process of perception for this context.

To start with the first aspect, as previously mentioned, the discipline of Cultural Anthropology acknowledges the observer as part of the observed, consequently subjectivity constitutes not a defect to be overcome or effaced, but an instrument to be used. As much as the maker of maps unavoidably is incorporated in the very object of her/his investigations, so are the spaces given to the interpretation by the beholder an intrinsic part of the production process and inscribed in the cues and signifiers of the map. This aspect is enforced by MacDougall who reminds us that in recent anthropological writing there is an undercurrent that just as the anthropologist must insert him- or herself experientially in the process of fieldwork, so the audience, reader or beholder must be inserted into the production of the work (1998: 79). The trick of making good maps (or similarly successful films) is not simply to understand the shared codes of representations in a particular cultural context, but also to allude to the relationship of time and space, so as to enable the audiences to engage. Alongside cultural codes such as conventions of significations, desires and expectations, it is above all the sense (position, perspective, place, meaning, etc.) of the ‘self’ within the universe or wider context of the map (or film) that plays a crucial role.

Maps generally not only incorporate the observer and the cultural context of their audiences into their production (implicitly or explicitly), but also need to be understood in relation to the way heterogeneous audiences read them remote in time and space. Detaching space and location from the context of the beholder (when taking a god-like viewing position or vantage point) constitutes an operation based on a perspectival illusion; according to Sam Rohdie: “Space and perspective so conceived are fictive.” (2001: 81)

Homogenous time and space as chronology or linearity relating to this illusion of perspective became unsustainable toward the end of the 19th century as a consequence of artistic, philosophical and scientific interventions in a period of profound shifts and re-organizations of ideologies, epistemologies and political regimes against the background of the transition from colonial imperialism toward economical empires and so called international affairs. The object-subject relationship, the perception of self versus other, which was rooted in the distinct dichotomy since the enlightenment project, became deeply shattered and challenged by modernism at the beginning of the 20th century. In philosophy one of the key thinkers for this rupture of homogenous time and space, who has been influential ever since in a variety of disciplines and also in popular culture of his time, was the French philosopher Henri Bergson. His philosophy emphasized the uncertainty of reason, the insertion of the subject into the scientific discourse, and the occupation of philosophy with the uncertainties of time and the non-linearity of memory.

In Bergson’s philosophy space and measured time are understood as quantitative and time as experienced duration as qualitative. If we were going to introduce the aspect of time to the topic of maps, as I am suggesting in this paper, the qualitative aspects of maps in a Bergsonian sense lie entirely in the perceptions of the beholders. Since in the beholder, these spatial exteriorities merge with internal imaginary worlds, memories and projections and turn time frozen (past) into temporal flows of memories and movement of virtual images. In this way, the past touches and actualizes in the present where spatiality becomes temporality, and quality and intensity through an interplay of forces. And reversely, with regard to the map maker, maps render the observer’s present observations of space, ideas and imagination into the past by displaying spatial coordinates.

Rohdie, who is informed by Bergson’s philosophy, has pointed out that “this rendering of the past in space is not memory that flows and overlaps and is temporal, but the absence of memory, a dis-place-ment” (2001:80); instead he concludes, it is necessary to think of a relation of the “past in the present” rather than a relation of “past and present”, since the first constitutes a relation of locations, while the latter is a relation in time. According to Rohdie “to place the past in space (where it does not exist) and remove it from time (where it does) removes us from time (where we exist) to place us in a relation of exteriority to objects so spatialised (where we are not).” (2001:81) Consequently when the beholder merely places himself in the spatial exteriority of the objects in space, he does not place himself within things (or the “other”), but above them, when for example the beholder assumes a birds-eye-perspective. This is an operation, as mentioned earlier, that Rohdie called a “perspectival illusion.” (2001:81) Maps in a traditional way constitute birds-eye-views and this is frequently repeated in the contemporary visualizations and imaging when looking from outer space onto earth. (See for example Google Earth, Google Moon or Google Mars)

In order to make time perceived as flowing in relation to maps it is necessary to undergo an experience, to place oneself within them, to render associations and memories into a becoming in the present moment. As Bergson pointed out, time as duration has no spatial coordinates, thus if we measure time in minutes and hours, time becomes space (and ceases to flow). (See Bergson [1889] 1919, [1896] 2002, [1907] 1964). Maps that do imply time coordinates, such as for example maps for navigation at sea and the air, measure time, too; and in doing so they again represent merely spatial maps: by quantifying time they deprive it of its quality (flow). Hence maps in themselves are frozen time. If one accepts Bergson’s distinction between this externalized measured time in space (the map) and the internalized experience of time as duration (in the observer), then I would like to suggest that it is our memories themselves that can constitute exemplary time-maps in the sense of flowing time; continuously changing and evolving in the virtual realm, constantly overlapping in the motion of ‘becoming’.

Consequently the following question arises: how can subjectivity and the subjective experience of time as duration be used as an instrument to create maps of time in motion that can more fully represent the experience of spatial and temporal embodiment?

In the following I would like to point to a few examples that in various moments in history have attempted to express certain immaterial qualities; they still formally apply spatial coordinates and therefore do not answer to the posed question, but they do substantiate my argument in that they manifest a desire to map internal worldviews in ways of shared consciousness .

The mapping of desire and the imaginary has preceded Freud in his mapping of the unconscious as a geography of desire, as it is obvious in Medieval maps which in most cases were works of art, such as illustrations in manuscripts describing the characteristics of Creation. These maps were primarily about imagination and internalized perspectives based on the experiences and cultural/ideological/religious framework of the observer. They were able to incorporate time as quality; for example in Hildegard van Bingen’s celestial maps, angels constituted the coordinates for heavenly maps drawn from divine inspiration. Maps in this sense represent composites of the material and the immaterial and constitute multiple realities from the perspective of perception. In medieval world maps some of these qualitative aspects are attempted to recover, as for example in the obvious dynamic affords of angels blowing their breath (spirit) onto earth, whilst this turns into wind that finally is quantified by the various geographical directions it takes. To leave a Western centered perspective, there are many examples to be drawn from various cultural contexts and their cosmologies around the world, such as dream time stories of Australian Aborigines, which traditionally do incorporate or even entirely consist of time as duration and provide a syncretism of both location mapping and mythologies, continuously recreated as oral histories through dynamic self-reflexive processes incorporating subjective experiences and ever new emerging imprints onto the pre-existing ‘maps’.(1) In more recent examples in European popular culture and literature such as the Meteor Press Atlas publications, the subjective perspective is constructed in a radical constructivist context and cosmologies are built around worlds of experience and imagination as pseudo-psychological cartographies. Imaginary worlds and virtual coordinates of emotional states have been transposed into spatial landscapes, taken out of the present movement of experience and time flowing, these imaginary maps express intensities and qualities through analogies in geographical measurements.

Once relativism took its place amongst other in Continental philosophy, the scientific paradigm of time as quantity could no longer be sustained as a homogenous concept. Bergson’s anticipating views have gained new recognition throughout the 20th century, re-emerging with a new fascination with relativism and a discourse of “becomings”, obliterating the concept of representation. In the context of map-making it is worth remembering that Deleuze, who invigorated Bergson’s philosophy in the 1960’s, has been described by Didier Eribon as a “cartographer of becomings”. Deleuze (1995:30) emphasizes Foucault’s understanding of surfaces, in which surfaces are not opposed to depth but to interpretation; maps in this sense encourage to creating new surfaces of experiences and experimentation. In this perspective the earth’s geographical maps become an analogy for a skin, an interface, inscribing experiences of our perception as new layers. In an extended analogy we humans become walking landscapes, folding, enfolding and unfolding our experiences on our continuously changing surface: life-size virtual tattoos of conscious states in flux, resurfacing from the depths of our memories in an endless recycling process. Could this be called the micropolitics of internal cosmology in which the cultural interaction between the reader and the represented are always expressions of another set of relations embedded in our consciousness? Furthermore how could such maps of consciousness be created as artistic expressions without freezing time again into spatial coordinates?

Situating this discussion in the theme of the conference Expanding the Space, suggests that we draw a line of thought traveling from a geography of outer space to an anthropology of (outer and inner) space, and a philosophy of time and memory, placing our human perception and imagination into the centre of the investigation. It also proposes that the role that space art plays in the wider context of the space adventure might perhaps consist of charting lived experience of the present onto space ‘exploration’ – beginning with time: not time as measured chronology, but time as duration and as the vehicle to travel through and confront the uncertainty and historical instabilities of cartographies of outer space. In this sense this might encourage us to reconsider maps as travels in time rather than in space, through our conscious experiences in the duration of the present as the only reliable coordinates. Film is exemplary in allowing this kind of time travel in the minds of its audiences by mediating these experiences from outer space into the audiences perceptions and conscious (mental and emotional) interactions. No matter if we talk about two-dimensional maps, moving images or even 3D-representations of space, Bergson makes us aware that an exteriorized time always obliterates the experience of time as duration. If we look at films about outer space (documentary and science fiction alike), we are again reminded of the fact that similar to maps, “Much of the film [map] experience has little to do with what one sees: it is what is constructed in the mind and body of the viewer. Films [maps] create a new reality in which the viewer plays a central role, or at least is invited to do so.” (MacDougall 1998: 71) – What MacDougall suggests in my reading is that by excessive investment in textual analysis, and I would like to add materialist interpretations, we have lost sight of projected film (or maps) as a catalyst for fully sensorial experiences which are used by the viewer to construct new realities at the core of their perception process, or as Constance Classen has put it, to explore worlds of sense:

“When cultures are approached on their own sensory terms rather than through the paradigms dictated from the by the West, what we discover are not world-views or oral/aural societies, but worlds of sense”. (Classen 1993: 137-138).

Some links from the original article are no longer valid. This text has been
revised in this respect by the editor.

(1) – There is of course more to be said about comparative cosmologies in intercultural contexts and the mapping of consciousness as well as landscapes; these aspects are taken up in a current research project of Trans-technology Research called “Comparative Cosmologies” (for more information please contact the author or visit www.trans-techresearch.net)

Bergson, H. [1907] 1964. Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell [L’Evolution Creative]. London: MacMillan & Co Ltd.

___[1896] 2002. Matter and Memory, trans. N.M Paul and W.S. Palmer [Matière et Mémoire]. New York: Zone Books.

___[1889] 1919. Time and Free Will, trans. F.L. Pogson. London: George Alenand Unwin. [Essai Sur les Données Immédiates de la Conscience].

Classen, Constance. 1993. Worlds of sense. Exploring the Senses in History and across Cultures. London and New York: Routledge

Deleuze, Gilles. 1995. Negotiations. 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press

MacDougall, David. 1998. Transcultural Cinema. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Rohdie, Sam. 2001. Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism. London: BFI Publishing.

© Martha Blassnigg & Leonardo/Olats, November 2006 / republished 2023