How do representations of space affect our relationship to a place? To answer this question, we should perhaps ask ourselves an equally important question: how can we probe nature to learn about it without changing it. By analyzing this question using six main representational themes – cartographic, political, Cartesian perspectivalism, optical, transcendental, and biological – we will answer the original question. I believe that there are no representations of space that would not in some way affect our relationship to a place. Likewise, there are no representations of space that do not alter the perspectives of everything and everyone around us. Human psychology and its biological representation of space force us to interact with nature and influence our relationship to places.
Before we begin, we must be clear on the definition of our terms. Space in this context is any real or imaginary area with real or artificial boundaries. Space represents a place, which is a tangible entity in reality. There are several ways in which spaces can represent places. We will analyze the representations with regards to cartographic, Cartesian perspectivalism, political, transcendental, and biological points of view. Cartography, the study of maps and surveying, is an ancient science and is mostly a thing of the past. At one time cartographers possessed much power and were held in high esteem. Kings and lords would patronize cartographers to draw out maps of their lands. Due to benefaction, cartographers would often embellish the area of the land on the map to favor the patron.
These incidences led to a variety of political silencing, omitting, and highlighting in maps. Eventually because of human nature, what started out as a scientific study became a corrupt and political practice as the people in charge of making and distributing maps hold all the power. J.B. Harley takes note of this phenomenon in his “Maps, knowledge, and power”: The map served as a graphic inventory, a codification of information about ownership, tenancy, rentable values, cropping practice, and agricultural potential, enabling capitalist landowners to see their estates as a whole and better to control them. (285) As a written document, maps contain a certain authenticity and demand reverence; those who hold the maps also hold the power because land that is claimed on paper is considered legitimate. Harley states that “[Maps] are regarded as refracted images contributing to dialogue in a socially constructed world” (278). Maps, in society, are often used for communication.
One facade of cartography is Cartesian perspectivalism, which was coined by Martin Jay. This “abstraction that transforms the land into a landscape for the viewer” has an emphasis on the underlying geometric nature of the land (Broglio “The Picturesque and the Kodak Moment”). Followers of Cartesian perspectivalism believe in a close relationship between nature and mathematics. This intellectual view changes the simple act of observing nature into a science. One example of Cartesian perspectivalism is Mercator’s projection, which is the two-dimensional projection of the Earth, stretching some areas and condensing others so that the latitude and longitude lines run in a rectangular pattern. In many ways, this scientific representation is opposite to transcendentalism.
As maps represent an area on a two-dimensional surface, photographs also capture the essence of a place but go further to give a lifelike visual. The higher quality visual comes at a price as one only sees a part of the whole area in a photograph. The problem that arises is that people tend to stereotype and conclude ideas about that location without all the details. If someone sees a picture of China without prior knowledge of the country, they might be inclined to think that all of China looks that same way. This optical view of space is demonstrated in a different way in Jonathan Crary’s “The Camera Obscura and Its Subject.” The camera obscura, a device precursor to the photographic camera, refracts an image upside down through a small hole into a dark room.
When one views a place through this optical representation, he is isolated providing a strong feeling of individualism. “In order to regulate and purify one’s relation to the manifold contents of the now ‘exterior’ world,” one can reflect more clearly on life around him because he is not in any way attached or involved with the scene (Crary 39). As Gilles Deleuze states in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, “machines are social before being technical” (504). The camera obscura alters the perspective of one’s view of the world in a way similar to a transcendental standpoint. Transcendentalism is probably the purest form of spatial representation of a place. Based on solitude and a close relationship to nature, transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson see the world differently from most people. He believes to truly experience life, one must submerge himself fully in nature.
“But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars” (Emerson, Nature 2). Not all transcendentalists are as pure as Emerson; William Wordsworth, a fellow transcendentalist known for his poems, seems to have ulterior motives. Similar to the political overtones in cartography, sexual implications are evident in transcendentalism. One cannot help but notice the sexual connotations that underlie the great number of poems that he writes to the many women in his life. I believe that Wordsworth uses nature as a tool to get sexually “involved” with these women by naming private, monumental landmarks after them. After all, is not everything, especially in nature, about sex? The question still stands, “can we probe nature to learn about it without changing it.”
Human psychology will not allow us to leave nature alone. We must observe it, learn about it, and ultimately make it easier to understand by creating representations of spaces. From a biological and environmental perspective, our need for land creates a necessary relationship to the places around us. Therefore, we are compelled to create places and spaces. Like many animals mark their territory by peeing on trees, humans mark their territories with buildings, roads, and maps. Our curiosity forces us to probe nature and create representations. Maps, for example, should be honest representations of land; however, our greed, thirst for knowledge and power, and sexual inclinations force us to change these otherwise forthright representations of space. The answer to the latter question is now clear: we simply cannot probe nature without affecting it.
Once again, how do representations of space affect our relationship to place? There is no one aspect, which causes a great change in our representations of space. Different representations affect our relationship with that place in different ways. A specialized cartographic map inclines us to view that place with an emphasis on a certain aspect. Another map, with a political undertone, of the exact same area, could perhaps incline us to see that area completely differently. Cartesian perspectivalism affects the way that we observe nature in the exact opposite manner that transcendentalism does, and the camera obscura and photographs affect us in a different sense altogether. However, all three often have impure implications. Many times when the representation is altered, we cannot help it or just do not know any better. It is because of our instinctive thirst for knowledge and power – that need to know that there is more to this life than meets the eye and more to this world than what we know and have – that compels us to distort representations of spaces.
- Broglio, Ron. “The Picturesque and the Kodak Moment.” Romanticism and Contemporary Culture. Romantic Circles Praxis Series. 15 June 2003 <http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/contemporary/broglio/broglio.html>.
- Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987.