The mirror, the map and the photograph have all at one time or another served as emblems of the yearning for a representation so faithful and so complete that it can't be distinguished from what it represents. Of the three, the map might appear to be the odd one out: the mirror and the photo may be two-dimensional illusions of a three-dimensional reality, and both are notoriously prone to distortion, but they operate by optical mechanisms that apparently guarantee a slavish fidelity to what can be seen. The map, in contrast, must select, symbolise, abstract and contract the reality it represents. There may well be artistry in the creation of mirror-images and photos, and in ways of interpreting them, but maps require making and reading in a more obvious way. One has only to be confronted by a map that employs unfamiliar conventions - for example, Leonardo da Vinci's sketch (1502-03) of a plan to regulate the River Arno, or the world portrayed according to the currently controversial Peters projection (in which southern continents appear considerably larger than they do in the familiar Mercator projection) - to realise how much maps depend on conventions for their intelligibility and utility. All conventions have their history, their rules of legibility, their implicit and explicit biases about what is significant and what negligible, just as languages do. Not all languages develop a refined vocabulary for colours: not all maps record the locations of parish churches or the manor houses of the gentry. Conventions are the precondition for parody, and maps lend themselves as happily to spoof as any literary genre - perhaps even more effectively, since the visual elements of caricature can be enlisted along with words. Saul Steinberg's map of the world according to New Yorkers (in which Manhattan looms large, and everything west of the Hudson fades into unsignposted insignificance) neatly makes the point about maps being rooted in their cultures.
LRB 1 November 2001 | PDF Download