Saturday, August 18, 2012

Deconstructing Enbridge

The Douglas Channel and Kitimat are making some headlines this week after Enbridge produced a 'flyover video' including a classic propaganda map.  Below is a reaction, found on youtube and disseminated through participatory mapping and geoweb listservs (which is how I received it).  I am immediately drawn to the controversy because the Douglas Channel is a half hour drive from Terrace, my home town.

I finally located the original video on the Enbridge site. There is a disclaimer right at the start that states "The animation is for illustrative purposes only.  It is meant to be broadly representational, not to scale."  This, however, is an obfuscation if not an outright lie.  The disclaimer is repeated three times, once at the beginning, once at the appearance of Douglas Channel, and once at the end.

It is interesting to see how various interests are squaring off around a proposed pipeline and how obviously ideologies are coming to the forefront.

The geopolitics of the Enbridge pipeline are complex.   Environmentalists stress how the Great Bear Rainforest will be affected by the proposed pipeline, but those same environmentalists rarely include images of Tsimshian or Haisla livelihoods (including logging) in their propaganda.  Further complicating any easy positioning, indigenous peoples in the area are taking sides.  The Gitksan seem to have flip-flopped in their support of Enbridge due to internal dissent.  The Wet'suwet'en (allies of the Gitksan in the historic Delgamuukw case) seem to be in solidarity against Enbridge.

The premiers of British Columbia and Alberta are squaring off as well.  The Vancouver Sun has reported that some BC First Nations are outraged at Christy Clark's putting a price tag on traditional Dene and other lands.  Clark has made it known that she believes British Columbia to be taking all the risk and Alberta to be getting all the gain.  The Calgary Herald has retorted that Clark might be doing Albertans a favor by polarizing the debate and driving moderates into supporting positions (as against the opposition which is now, according to the Herald, made up of extremists).

What is important for this blog are the maps upon which all of this is based.  So, getting back to 'that map' the one shown in the Enbridge video.  There is another very interesting video that appears to the right of the video tour.  This link shows Enbridge's justification for 'looking west' to the northern gateway of Douglas Channel.  The video is so packed with propaganda it makes the head spin, and most of it has cartographic and geographic content and overtones. But take note, at 4:33 in this tanker safety video, Enbridge includes a proper map of Douglas channel with all islands included and a detailed plan for addressing safety issues.

This blog post is more a compendium of links to information about the pipeline and its controversies.  It is also a prelude and invitation for beginning to sort out, by writing about it, thoughts about this debate, and what various parties' maps say that is unspoken in their actual verbiage.  Maps, like actions, speak louder than words.  A map is worth a hundred thousand words (or more), and more than that is likely to be spilled before we see the end results.  Should this spillage of words be seen as foreshadowing of things to come?  Who will then be to blame?  Can we blame it on the maps, or should we blame it on those who so adeptly twist their original purposes?  How can one twist a map's purpose when all maps are propaganda to some extent?  These and many other questions remain to be sorted out.  They are not new.  We are back to ground zero in terms of critical cartography.  Break out the Harley and let's have a heyday.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Navigating the Geoweb by Periplum

I first learned of the word 'periplum' from a book about Ezra Pound written by Hugh Kenner.  From what I can gather, Pound used periplum as a method for composing his Cantos, and in his usage the term means something like a bird's eye view, or the view from the crow's nest of a ship.  The last part I gleaned from Wikipedia, but there are echoes of Homer's Odyssey, on which the Cantos were based, and which definitely has a seafaring trope running through it.

My idea is to take the method and apply it to theorizing about the geoweb (a definition of which appears in my last blog post 'Geowebs').  When navigating from a metaphorical crow's nest while on, for instance, Google Earth, this hypothetical navigator might take a variety of veiwpoints from vertical, high elevation to oblique, low elevation.  The alternation between these two viewpoints as a method for navigating Google Earth is what I would call navigating (part of) the geoweb by periplum.

This is in fact how I tend to use Google Earth, but I'm not sure if others who use the program use it in the same way I do.  Today I read a Harper's book review of Jennings' Maphead in which the reviewer noted that Jennings failed to mention the Rumsey map collection, citing a major oversight and silence (and I tend to agree).  The reviewer described how you can view the Rumsey collection of maps, georeferenced and/or 'rubber sheeted' to conform to the Google projection and/or datum (or lack thereof).  I found myself quickly zooming in and out, giddy at the possibilities of mixing old maps on a new geoweb platform.  I was navigating the geoweb by periplum and doing so in a particular way.  I was zooming back and forth in time, gauging the distance each time by the dates included on layers added each time the center point of an old map was clicked.

I would like to extend the metaphor of periplum and to make it political at the same time.  When navigating by periplum, one is always measuring the distance between two things and in the classical formulation this means, as much as anything, the distance between prominent points on a coastline.  Imagine fog and rain rolling in, and the seafarer up there at the top of the mast communicating what he sees to those on deck below.  In terms of high geographical theory, there is something to be made of the high/low aspect of periplum.  I noticed that (admittedly non-geographical) theorists like Zizek and Nietzsche tend to alternate between a 'view from above' and a 'view down below' full of particularisms, parables and apocrypha.  A bit like Google Earth.

This blog post is part of a line of inquiry extending back to a response I wrote to a Kingsbury and Jones Geoforum article that appeared in 2009, in which I criticized (or critiqued, I'm not sure which) the 'double binary' the authors had set up for themselves in trying to combine left/right sensibilities (Benjamin and Nietzsche in their case) in a 'playful' and 'Dionysian' deconstruction of Google Earth.  My response will, in a full length article, attempt an alternative reading that will avoid the double bind they set up.  The periplum is playful but it is also serious, and it is political in a robust way by which I mean, it seeks to see deeply into things through the smoke and mirrors.

I found that Google Earthing things (just like Googling, but on Google Earth) associated with left/right divides resulted in some interesting results.  I Google Earthed 'gulag,' 'concentration camp,' and 'art,' as an initial query designed to mirror communist, fascist and artistic political sensibilities.  The results are forthcoming as I write up the article.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


"geocoding of Web content to specific parts of the earth surface
driven by a combination of automatic and user
generated efforts and resulting in a growing body
of content with specific spatial references (Graham et al 2012, 3 citing Turner

The quote above is a definition of "a geospatial Web ( or 'geoweb')" given by Graham et al (2012, 3).  In the past I have made an argument for a plurality of geowebs.  While the paper in which the quote above appears admits the possibility of multiple geowebs, I have yet to see anyone venture the possibility that multiple geowebs currently do exist in different forms and with varying degrees of power over geocoded lives.

The main problem in the above definition for alternate, or even counter-geowebs, lies in the word 'automatic,' and not for the reasons that might be easily inferred.  A counter-geoweb might include automatic elements that counter-map an existing geoweb by overlaying opaquely coded spatial references lacking precise coordinates or obfuscating their origins.

An almost 'artistic' geoweb might then emerge, driven by generalized angst, decentralized protest and hope for a future free from the control of (geo)code.

The word 'automatic' is problematic instead for an alternate geoweb of my own theoretical construction, but not of my own making.  The alternate geoweb (or counter-geoweb) I posit to exist is that of indigenous peoples that has existed from time immemorial, or at least for several thousand years, and many many generations.  The toponymic surfaces of being and place, the depth of place-based knowledge in landscape that, for instance, the Cree have accumulated over centuries are in a sense coded references to specific places that are driven by bottom up processes of knowledge accumulation.

In my PhD dissertation I posited a two part geoweb, one ancient ('traditional') and one postmodern ('local'). Constant references in my reading to 'webs of knowledge' amongst the Cree of eastern James Bay led me to believe that there is no real fundamental difference between older and much newer 'webs of knowledge' (Carlson 2008).  Subsequently I received some reviews challenging my theoretical construction.

Thus, the present blog post.  An ongoing thread of research will involve picking apart differences between indigenous and postmodern ways of knowing, and ways in which the former adopt the latter and vice-versa. A mutually constructed and hybrid 'web of knowledge' is growing as indigenous cultures around the world adopt geosocial media and geospatial technologies in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In the end I do not really have a problem with indigenous knowledge being considered automatic as long as it is not constructed in behavioralist (Skinnerian or Pavlovian) terms.  The 'memetic' aspect of places means that, to a certain extent, geospatial knowledge might indeed be 'automatic' in the sense that, for instance, in wayfaring across the land, the hunter knows how to get from a to b by following an explicit or implicit set of directions or even 'spatial recipes.'  These recipes, explicitly formulated or implicitly copied through performance, facilitate and ease the intergenerational transmission of place based knowledge systems essential for the survival of younger and future generations.

The idea that the Cree, for instance, should use cell phones and GPS to augment such processes should neither shock nor surprise.  Cree, Inuit, and many other northern and indigenous cultures have survived through the generations in less than ideal conditions and in changing environments 'from time immemorial' precisely because they have an ability to seize upon and adapt new technologies to those conditions and environments.

Carlson H  2008  Home is the Hunter  UBC Press, Vancouver

Graham M, Zook M and Boulton A  2012  Augmented Reality in Urban Places: Contested Content and the Duplicity of Code  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers  Online first in advance of publication.

Turner A  2006  Introduction to Neogeography  O'Reilly, Sebastopol, CA

Monday, August 13, 2012

Names, Places and Persons

It would be interesting to see a study of place names testing the question of whether or not toponyms are culturally selected.  Place names might be demonstrated to be chosen in conformity with cultural expectations about ways in which names normatively describe places to which they are applied.

A similar study was done on personal names (see Hahn and Bentley's 2003 "Drift as a Mechanism for Cultural Change: An Example From Baby Names" in Proceedings of the Royal Society B), concluding that fashions in personal naming (i.e. proper first names for individuals chosen at birth) are subject to random drift, and thus are not selected based on past frequency of occurrence.

Essential to my (hypothetical) study of conformity in place naming practices would be the use of GIS, which could facilitate a 'spatialization' of the phenomenon in question (i.e. naming practices).  This top-down approach could be balanced and made critical by the production of in situ ethnographic case studies of selected named places.  Such a qualitative/critical GIS project would use a mixed methods approach to fill in gaps left open by either a strictly quantitative or a strictly qualitative approach.

So, this is a call for proposals (probably aimed at myself, but also at interested collaborators) to find a method or procedure for carrying out such a study.  My paper Toponymic Constraints in Wemindji gives some idea of where I'm coming from, and hopefully where I'm going, with this idea.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The 'Place' Meme

When does 'place' become 'space'?  At what scale of analysis, visualization or conceptualization do a set of places form a region?

I would argue that a too rigid adherence to 'place' as nested in scalar or conceptual hierarchies contribute to reification of the idea of 'place.'  To regard 'place' as a taken-for-granted category, as materially given, without considering place-based ideologies and imaginaries is to contribute to a negative form of what I call the 'place' meme.

Jeremy Crampton (in his paper on race in the edited volume Rethinking Maps) and Edward Casey discuss how Greek philosophers, including especially Plato, set in motion a modern concept of place as a sort of predicate of existence.  In other words an object may not exist without a place in which to exist.

A very similar notion pops up in the writing of Martin Heidegger, who was of course very interested in Greek philosophy, time and notions of place in the form of 'clearings' in which horizons for being become thinkable.

Contemporary manifestations of the 'place' meme show up in geographical theory.  Mobilities, rhizomes, 'routed' places, movement and other terms are applied in increasingly sophisticated ways to demonstrate how the idea of place is evolving.

A current emphasis on 'mobilities' lends itself well to the idea that routes and pathways for the propagation of 'place' memes happen at two levels: a 'meta' (and more academic) level and a 'lower' level as practiced and replicated in everyday life 'on the ground.'

Of course such a hierarchy and strict division is problematic.  In reality academics experience everyday places 'on the ground' every day; publics and individuals in all walks of life have diverse senses of place at rest and in motion.

As I gear up for some exploration of places and locales in London and surrounding areas, I hope to complicate and interrogate easy or taken for granted categories of spatial thought.  I want to examine how place memes and scalar fixes are linked (if at all); I want to experience the 'everydayness' of life in London and other cities and towns; I want to see the countryside for myself with my own eyes whether walking, on a bicycle or in a motor vehicle.

Only in this way will I be able to make of my own mind about all the questions and ideas raised above.

Friday, August 3, 2012

(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66

"Get Your Kicks on Route 66" is an example of a horizontally transmitted (and rapidly disappearing) place meme.  I call it horizontal (i.e. transmitted between peers and members of the same generation) because, in its heyday, this song was a hit.  Young people these days (I'm speculating) probably don't know what this phrase really means, even though some may have heard the utterance of the actual phrase.

"Route 66" itself is an example of a vertically transmitted place meme.  I call it vertical because the actual route and physical infrastructure (though rapidly degrading now) have existed over several generations.  The essential meaning of the place name, "Route 66," has not changed over that time.  In one sense however it is changing or, to be more precise, evolving.

In biological terms, evolution results in new species.  In toponymic terms, evolution results in new places (but not necessarily in new names for them).  I would argue that Route 66 is evolving into a new place.  The route itself is a series of linked, named, places that, collectively, 'add up' to Route 66.  Historically (roughly from the time my grandparents parents were driving until the time when my grandparents were passing away) Route 66 was continuous, stretching from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Now the route is fragmented and the role it fulfills is a hybrid of actual road travel and commemoration.

As is well known, Route 66 is a symbol of American Freedom (see Jack Kerouac or the TV series "Route 66") writ large.  My grandparents experienced freedom along this route, trailblazing their way across the midwest and southwest well before RVs and car camping had become popular pastimes.  My grandma and grandpa would drive from their home in Stigler Oklahoma all the way to the Mojave Desert just for the fun of it.  Back then the journey took four or five days.  Now the same journey can be done in a day and a half.

If this is all more bewildering than illuminating, perhaps it will help to have a look at my paper Place Memes or even this one: Cree Ethnogeography.  I include the latter mostly because I'm proud of it after months and months of revision and editing.  The two papers were originally one.  But the combination of the two proved theoretically convoluted, so I split them.  But I would still maintain that Cree place-based practices and knowledge are memetic in nature.  Memes are discrete (but overlapping) 'units' of cultural information.  Place memes are similar 'units' of cultural information about place.

The 'unit' we call "Route 66" is a large, cumbersome, unit but it does refer to something real.  It also refers to something imagined and in this sense memes (this is the first time I've made the connection) enter the realm of 'thirdspace' as theorized by Soja, especially in his books Postmodern Geographies and Thirdspace.  A time or two I have been taken to task for sprinkling the word 'thirdspace' too liberally in my writing and theorizing.  I do think, however, that this particular place meme warrants its invocation.