Writing has nothing to do with signifying. It has to do with surveying, mapping, even realms that are yet to come. — Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 4-5
The aesthetic, pedagogical, and political focus of this series of commentaries is a set of documents we call counter-maps. The term comes from critical cartographer Denis Wood, who provides a lineage that includes early twentieth-century map art, the mental maps movement of the 1960s, Indigenous and bioregional mapping, and the traditions of Parish Mapping. For Wood, “[I]t is counter-mapping that shows us where mapping is heading” (111).
Our contention here is that counter-maps also suggest a direction poetry may take in the digitally driven, multimedia information economy that pervades all aspects of 21st-century collective creative life. In this series of commentaries, our examples, both pre- and post-1995, come from a handful of subgenres—tactical, forensic, locative, cognitive, and ecological counter-mapping—that mix the graphic syntax of cartography, the rhythmic patterns of language, and an urgent interrogation of the processes and institutions of global capitalism.
If not always immediately identifiable as “poems,” the constructions we’ll examine are enough like poems to point to one among many futures for imaginative life. Like mainstream poems, each of these constructions brings together a specific site, a moment in time, and a motivated subjectivity; like innovative poems, they trouble the conventions of their medium to trigger new modes of thinking; and like avant-garde provocations of every kind, they are unabashedly pedagogical and political. In contrast to conventional poetic forms, however, the syntax of counter-maps—their logic, order, and arrangement—is predominantly spatial. As visual forms of knowledge production, they belong to the generative, diagrammatic, and dynamic practice Johanna Drucker calls graphesis.
Just as changes in pitch are part of musical syntax and the slope of a roof or cut of a door are part of architectural syntax, counter-maps manipulate an array of recognizable conventions. Usually aligned to true north, framed with a distinct margin, and drawing on an array of colors, they delineate states and borders, mark seas and shores, and trace urban networks of streets and paths, strategically situated entries and exits, commercial, residential, and transitional zones, and the green spaces and landmarks by which passersby chart their routes between and among them.
For Wood, a map is a plane with propositions that have traditionally had to do with claims to territory, administrative functions (voting, tax-paying, zoning and districting), and the larger mechanisms of colonial and imperial enterprise. The work of maps, for Wood and other radical cartographers, is “[t]he ceaseless reproduction of the culture that brings maps into being” (1).
The material practices that distinguish maps from counter-maps resemble the practices that differentiate mainstream from experimental writing, conventional from innovative syntax. Like innovative poems, counter-maps are differential documents: they disturb, distort, or disintegrate familiar forms in order to challenge habitual modes of thought. Their warping or torqueing of form—their fragmentation, superposition, polyvalence, zooming in, zooming out, and/or jamming of codes and scales—are agents of the drive Barrett Watten calls negativity: a critical alterity and interpretive openness that both exposes the assumptions through which a culture claims, zones, occupies, and navigates space and proposes new forms through which it is possible to understand our positioning within local, national, international, and/or global totalities.
In addition to the “legend” that sets a map’s scale and indexes its icons, conventional maps rely on a myth fundamental enough to escape attention. Maps, the story goes, are unproblematic representations of an objective and persistent world: whether sketched, printed, or pixelated, they appear to reference something “out there,” something real as a rock. As critical cartographers have long insisted, however, this mimetic conception of mapping overlooks two key factors: whether on a rock wall, an animal skin, a page, or a screen, a map is a two-dimensional abstraction of multi-dimensional space; it is, therefore, by necessity, significantly less dense, deep, and detailed than the territory it purports to represent. To properly interpret a map or a counter-map, it is crucial to understand the technologies and codes by which it is produced, to see these codes as parts of larger ideological systems, and to ask what social spaces they promote, what forms of subjectivity they construct or thwart, what powers they serve, and, with accelerating urgency, how they position us within the postmodern complexities Fredric Jameson calls the global system.
The commentaries to come pursue these questions as they become legible at the turn of the 21st century. Although commentaries, by definition, will not allow for extensive elaboration, our larger points are these:
- that counter-maps are semiological systems with verbal and visual logics that are as legible, flexible, and generative as conventions of innovative writing;
- that learning to read maps and counter-maps is crucial in a world newly observed, mapped, and manipulated through remote sensing satellites, Global Positioning Systems [GPS], and Geographic Information Systems [GIS];
- and, finally, that counter-maps, like innovative poetics, can be used not only to expose forms of exploitation but to propose alternative forms of thinking, feeling, and dwelling in the worlds we inhabit.
Deleuze, Giles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translation and Foreword by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. metaLABprojects. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Wood, Denis, with John Fels and John Krygier. Rethinking the Power of Maps. New York: The Guilford Press, 2010.