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.

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