Denis Wood: The Power of Maps
The recently released Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas considers Boylan Heights, a neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, in grand detail, mapping everything from radio waves to Halloween pumpkins. Denis Wood, the leader of the collaborative mapping project that resulted in Everything Sings, has for several decades been one of the most exciting and approachable writers about maps, mapmaking and the history of cartography. His Ce N’est Pas Le Monde was probably the first comic book ever given as a paper at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting. This February, fellow radical cartographer Tim Stallmann talked with Denis Wood at his home in Raleigh about the nature of maps and the history of the Boylan Heights mapping project.
Let’s start with a something that’s been nagging me lately. What is a map, anyway? What would you say a map is?
I usually answer that question by pointing to the nearest obvious map! I don’t define maps. A map points to the world. It points outside of itself to the world, and then it points to something else—the subject of the map, and it says that that subject is linked to that place in the world that it’s pointing to. That linkage carries juridical, economic, and other kinds of authority. The map links things to places, so that [through maps] you become linked to a school, to a tax code, to a set of laws that prohibit this or permit that at different ages, you become linked to a system of conscripting for the army, et cetera.
You could record all this information in tabular form, obviously. Prior to the 15th century, in fact, much of this information was kept that way. It’s kept that way as we move into the 16th and 17th centuries as well, but increasingly it takes map form.
I’ve argued that it takes map form because what we know as the modern state is taking shape, and the modern state has uses to make of the map that it doesn’t have to make of other forms of tabulation. Primarily, that is that the map gets wrapped up in the geo-body of the state.
That’s something you discuss in Rethinking the Power of Maps, the way the fact that the modern nation-state has specific borders makes it particularly suited to being mapped, and how the mapped outlines of states become icons for state power. In addition to the iconic nature of national maps, what is it about the map as a medium that makes it so compelling? Why this shift from tabular data records to maps?
Well, the other side of it is you’ve moved to another medium. You’ve moved to a medium that is coterminous with painting. [Maps are] a flat surface, you move lines around. Painting and drawing, mapmaking, other forms of graphics, printmaking—these constitute a whole slither of technologies that inevitably drift from one onto the other. So painting drips onto mapmaking, and drawing drips onto mapmaking, and mapmaking drips onto painting. . . . Needless to say, all the things that you bring from painting are going to find themselves in some way on a map.
So the map becomes really complicated. On the one hand, it’s got this ability to fall into a set of tabulations of latitudes and longitudes, and on the other hand it’s got this ability to fall into the world of fine art painting. It slips and slides between them like somebody skating with his shoes on a piece of black ice.
So much of your work over the past twenty years has been as a theorist and critic of maps, not a mapmaker. It’s interesting to me that, with the release of Everything Sings, you are coming to be known, primarily, as a cartographer!
Which is totally bizarre! Since I don’t even think about myself, or haven’t thought about myself until very recently, as someone who really made maps. I talked about maps, I looked at maps, I caressed maps. But I never thought about myself as much of a mapmaker. It’s been a startling change . . .
I woke up—in fact, it was just five or six weeks ago. I woke up and I went to the bathroom. And I’m coming back from the bathroom and about ready to get into bed, and I had this thought. I said: “You’re a cartographer! You’re a mapmaker!” And I just laughed and laughed as I got into bed. I mean, it was the funniest thing in the world. That me, who has spent all of this time lambasting cartographers and mapmakers, is now being accepted and understood in some bizarre way as a mapmaker.
But, in fact, I’ve made maps since I was ten. Reading The Hobbit, and reading The Lord of the Rings. And maybe even more important, not Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, but . . . it’s not Katy the snowplow, but somebody the snowplow. In that book the map element is that there’s a snowstorm in the town. The snow comes, and it’s white. And this snowplow now has to dig out all the streets so that the fire engine can go, and the postman can go, and so forth and so on. As the day goes by, the snowplow draws on these pages a map of the city. That really excited me as a child.
But there’s a big difference between the kind of imaginative sketch maps you talk about making as a kid and professional cartography. How did you get started making the maps in Everything Sings?
So when my students start making maps in 1975, at the school of design, I’m certainly not thinking of them making maps in, let’s say, a very professional kind of way. My first interest was: what the hell am I going to do with these students for three hours a day? Four hours a day in the beginning, for three days a week. . . .
The typical studio instructor sets them a project—design a building or something—and then disappears. I had never heard of a studio. I had no idea what kind of a classroom situation it was. I didn’t know anything about projects when I started this thing. I was a geographer and I knew something about thinking about the land. I knew landscape architects wanted to shape the land, so I thought: wouldn’t it be useful if they knew the land, and could attend to the land in some rich kind of a way? So I thought, why don’t we just go out and map neighborhoods? Like, my neighborhood?
So we started mapping with two motivations: I wanted the students to see, and I wanted some way of interacting with them usefully in the studio context. As I write in the introduction to Everything Sings, one of the key problems was to get the streets off the map. Landscape architects relate to subdivision design as a street-drawing exercise. They look at the environment in terms of streets. It’s a depressing reality, but I think it’s undeniably true. And consequently, it gets hard for them to see what’s going on free of the framework of the streets. So for me, an underlying goal became getting them to think about the land in a way that didn’t depend on the streets as a form-giver and as a meaning-maker.
Of course, one of the things I wanted to do was to drive them into other senses than the visual. I wanted them to think about what it felt like to walk the land. I wanted them to think about the smell, how they reacted and dealt with the smell. The sounds. The taste was always hard—I never really knew how to deal with the taste. But we did have people licking the environment . . . and of course, that turns out to be very complicated.
So your students were out making maps of neighborhoods all over Raleigh. When and how did you come to the idea to focus in on Boylan Heights and make an atlas?
When we came to the 1981 studio class, I was determined to make an atlas this time, not just to do a bunch of maps. We wanted to compile the maps into an artifact that we could hand out to the residents of Boylan Heights. Because the atlas was going to be reproduced on the cheap, and that meant Xeroxing it, it was going to have to be black and white (this was 1981), and that was a limitation that I found extremely powerful.
Out of that, we began the experiment that led to the streetlight map. That was the first map where we really managed to get the streets off the map entirely, and to evoke in some kind of graphic way the phenomenon that we were dealing with, and to make a really cool map, and to make a good page spread. It was a big double-page spread originally, it’s all black. You have a copy of the original atlas, don’t you?
Yeah, it’s gorgeous!
[pointing] It’s got the one streetlight over here, and we’ve got other streetlights running across. That was a great page, and that was really exciting to make, and we were really excited. And then we realized that we could actually make some pages. That’s what set the whole thing in motion.
After several years of work back in the 1980s y’all had a half-finished set of page layouts, but Everything Sings is a whole different book—it’s got some new maps, different layouts, and new text. You were telling me how the Boylan Heights atlas project slowly died out. Your appearance on This American Life in 1998 was what really brought it back to life.
The maps were sitting in a box in my closet, and then Ira Glass calls. Actually, this producer calls from WBEZ. I’d never heard of Ira Glass, I’d never heard of This American Life, I’d never heard of WBEZ. They wanted to talk to me, just on background, about maps.
I went to the [WUNC-FM] studio in Chapel Hill. We walked in and they were like “Yeah, okay. Sure. Who do you want to talk with . . . . Ira Glass?! Oh! Well come with me, we’re going to set you up in our best studio!” It was a big deal. Ira Glass was a name already. This was in 1998, and he was already a name. We do the interview, and I do my usual talk about maps. At the end of the hour he says, “So, do you make maps yourself?” I say no, not really, I’m a map critic . . . but I have been working on this atlas of my neighborhood for the past twenty years. And he says, “Wait—what? Okay, we need to book another hour here in the studio.”
And since then it’s been this careening road to publication. The book was just nominated for the essay prize that the University of Iowa grants, and I’ll be reading at the LA Times Festival of Books in late April or early May. This has all of a sudden gotten some bizarre traction, which I don’t know what to make of.
Now that Everything Sings is starting to get traction, what’s next for you? What other projects of yours should we know about?
John Krygier and I have just finished the second edition of our intro textbook Making Maps. This time it really is almost entirely graphic. It even opens with a sort of graphic novel. And it jettisons even more of the old cartography text crap that was really in there solely to buttress cartography’s claim to being a “university subject” (rather than the craft it is). That comes out this spring. It’s going to be interesting to see how well it’s received.
Beyond that I’ve got a couple of things in hand. The first is a project with John Fels on map signs, sort of exploring the implications of the semiologist’s claim that the relationship between the signified and signifier is arbitrary. At this point it’s purely exploratory. We have no idea where it’s going. The second is a series of papers trying to keep the critical project focused on what it is that has made maps what they are in the world today, that is, their ability to define, underwrite, and project the authority of the state and state power.
I guess I’m seeing this dispersion of map criticism as yet another way of, as it were, protecting the map’s core mission. I could be wrong. All these new developments could signal an actual dispersion of map energy, one perhaps capable of defusing the map’s power. That would be spectacular. But so much of it barely rises to the level of frou-frou that I have my doubts.
Denis Wood online:
Everything Sings at Siglio Press:
Ce N’est Pas Le Monde (PDF):
Rethinking the Power of Maps:
Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton: