We Need a Map: Navigation, Travel, and World-Making

maps support navigation and travel, both literal and spiritual
Photo credit: Shutterstock


Lately, in the house, we’ve found a number of maps. In the attic, my girlfriend found a series of old framed ones, in another language, depicting lands with names we have yet to decipher. Lying nearby, we saw some educational maps, also old, but somewhat more recent; in an endearingly dated way, they refer to the now-split up “Czechoslovakia” (particularly endearing for me, as I came to love the cinema of the former Czechoslovakia while spending time in the contemporary Czech Republic in 2003). Finally, I rediscovered a G.I. Joe artifact from my childhood – a “Top Secret Invasion Map” for Cobra Island – which for my seven-year-old self must have been a piece of art unrivaled in its magnificence.

In fact, for many people, maps do serve as a medium of art: as a feast for the eyes, as a portal to other lands and cultures, and as a canvas with which cartographers, professional and amateur alike, can uniquely depict a slice of the world around us. As such, when finding appealing-looking maps, I am quickly tempted to hang them up on the walls.

The activity of it, as well – the gathering and displaying of maps – echoes a concept I’ve recently explored: the Jewish mystical process, based on the Kabbalah, of tikkun. Again, using Margaret Cohen’s definition, starting with the separation of God’s “attributes” to the four corners of the earth, tikkun describes the act of “collecting the scattered fragments in the hopes of once more piecing them together.” Finding and bringing together maps, though admittedly on a smaller scale, reflects the tikkun process conceptually – gathering fragments from “the four corners of the earth” to piece them together, in this case, on a wall.

So far, then, we’ve looked at maps as 1) artistic, and 2) symbolic. But I’ve conveniently ignored perhaps one of their most important functions, the province of road and Google maps alike: to find one’s way.

This concept reminds me of another tikkun, or rather, the French version of it, Tiqqun, in this case adopted for a radical French journal and collective. In Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War, the collective discusses maps in a lyrical essay entitled “How Is It to Be Done?” Against critical theory and the idea of critique in general (“Critique has become vain because it amounts to an absence”; “It speaks to us from where we are not. It drives us somewhere else. It consumes us.”), Tiqqun says we need new cartographies, maps:

We need navigation maps. Maritime maps. Tools
for orientation. That don’t try to say or represent
what is within different archipelagos of desertion,
but show us how to meet up with them.
Portolan charts.

In some ways, Google Maps actually fits this definition of maritime “tools for orientation,” that “show us how to” get places, but I think Tiqqun has a bit more in mind, and not just the “archipelagos of desertion.” The key may lie in the definition of portolan (which, in fairness, I had to look up): navigational maps based on compass directions and estimated distances observed by the pilots at sea (italics mine). In other words, portolan refers specifically to the act of map making through and during the journey itself. In this way, portolan stands for quite the opposite of Google and road maps, where the map already exists, and the only information needed is where to go. Portolan needs the journey itself.

With that idea, perhaps we have a fourth kind of map, partly a combination of the first three (involving the artistic aspect of creation, the symbolic aspect of searching for something, the physical aspect of going somewhere, and even the tikkun-esque process of bringing together other maps), and partly a reaction against them: Tiqqun would argue, and I might agree, that with this fourth kind, we can escape the territory already charted by art, symbolic representation (and critical theory, for that matter), and Google.

Put another way, we can make and use maps that show us how to live in the world around us.

About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.