Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Counter-mapping and The View From Nowhere

This post consists of images presented at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) midterm conference held at Royal Holloway University of London on the 19th of April 2018.

In this presentation I place myself in the 'Philosophy in Geography' camp, a group that includes Gunnar Olsson and John Pickles, but also decidedly outside the more recently formulated (and much more nihilistic) non-representational-theory (NRT) geographies movement that is still very strong in the discipline.

The reason I consider myself an outside to the current mainstream of geographical thought and NRT is that I still believe in this existence of objective physical reality, one that lies outside of what the human mind can know in its entirety, or even in significant part.  I am informed in my thinking by Kant's idea of The Thing Itself, a philosophical and dialectical formulation of the unknowability of physical reality due to the limitations of the senses, and to the fact that space and time are projections informed by the structures and tendencies of the body and the mind.

Adam Roberts and Olaf Stapledon come to mind.  Two very philosophical science fiction writers who wrote stories inspired by Kant (in the case of Roberts's book The Thing Itself) and about a roving Lockean punctum (in the case of Stapledon's book Star Maker).  Both were challenging ideas of absolute knowledge (aka The View From Nowhere) by structuring some written speculations in fictional form (with characters, plots, and conflicts) for exploring, critiquing, and taking to absurd (but at the same time very believable) logical conclusions the implications of literalizing what it might actually mean to be able to access The Thing Itself, or to act literally as though one were a roving punctum, unbound by both space and time.

I would like to apply, here at first in an academic setting, and perhaps later maybe even as a work of speculative fiction, the idea of a View From Nowhere.  My source text for this idea is Nagel's book by the same name, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.  I have an idea of how a short and deceptively simple participatory mapping exercise can be structured around such an idea; it will take quite a bit more thinking and writing to begin to write out a set of science-fictional stories around the same.  We will work together today (time permitting) to work on a few maps.  Rest assured I'll be pondering the second problem at length in my study later.

"The natural place to begin is with our own position in the world.  One of the strongest philosophical motives is the desire for a comprehensive picture of objective reality, since it is easy to assume that that is all there really is.  But the very idea of objective reality guarantees that such a picture will not comprehend everything; we ourselves are the first obstacles to such an ambition" (Nagel, 1986, page 13).

The quote above comes from the opening paragraph of part II of Nagel's The View From Nowhere, and what I find striking about it, and what drew me to the book initially, is how much it resonates with what we have come to associate, in geography, with methodological reflections (often of a poststructural variety) on positionality and reflexivity of the researcher's position in relation to their subject and/or co-participants and fellow knowledge discoverers and constructors.

But note, Nagel is a liberal individualist, practically speaking a literal neo-liberal of the kind that we might find being vehemently battered by critique from the (admittedly often very obscure) halls of academic geography.

But what many might dismiss as preliminary material or as a 'housekeeping' issues, I take as my central concern.  We cannot dismiss Nagel or his thought because of who he is; we must also take seriously and at some length issues around what the subject's position is in relation to the subject matter, how it is that the 'subject' comes to know, through what cultural lenses, and indeed, what mappings their knowledge is constructed.  As a liberal, white, individualist (because I'm really not much of a communitarian, life has taught me this if anything) I must examine both my love of Nagel and what I see as his objectivity and his rightness, and how it is that I've come to know this way of mapping my own knowledge (as a privileged, white, academic) onto the world and its subjects, objects, in the very limited set of times and spaces with which I've interacted and perhaps in part constructed.

My research has taken place mostly in Canada, amongst its First Nations and Inuit cultures, the former with whom I did a great deal of growing up, and the latter with whom I completed a postdoctoral project that wrapped up just a few years ago.  In between and since I've begun to research ideas of indigeneity and the postcolonial in Scotland, now that I live in the UK, all the while retaining a transnational focus that has become increasingly complex, especially from the perspective of someone who is an outsider trained in an anthropological tradition, now in a very geographical milieu among those both more, and less, like myself than those I found myself among back in Canada.

I will introduce the idea of Televisual practices, a concept I introduced in a previous presentation to the Cultural Knowledge Workshop at Cranfield University in Shrivenham not long after I arrived in the UK just under six years ago.  Televisual practices, or systems of communication through the use of visual materials and visually interfaced technologies of surveillance and control, are posited as the mechanism or link between various systems for producing, and mapping, The View From Nowhere.

In that previous work at Cranfield University, a work that by the way was received very positively by an audience employed for the most part by the military, including several affiliated with the UK's premier military mapping outfit, the Defence Geographic Centre, or DGC, I presented the idea of counter-mapping (defined as mapping against hegemonic or authoritative maps) as a 'thing' or phenomenon that has shifted in part now, and in practice, to the popular idea of 'blurring', or taking steps to conceal one's identity generally, but quite specifically as well, from mapping platforms like Google Street View.  The DGC manager who had initially invited me to speak admitted only after the presentation that he had himself requested that his house be blurred out from the Google Street View map of his street.

I presented the idea of blurring on Google Street View as having specific historical resonance in places like Germany after reading several stories of anti-Google protests reported in The Guardian.  It should not surprise us that Germany would react this way, or at least that they would react at the level of the neighbourhood, a scale that seemed to work effectively in this case, and whole blocks were blurred.  This is the country that had the Stasi, as I know only really from a single cinematic reference, The Lives of Others.

To construct my ideas of blurring and mapping I used the philosophical writings of Nagel, specifically his book Concealment and Exposure, in which he examines from, as mentioned earlier, a liberal-individualistic perspective, a growing puritanical urge in the US.  Nagel's primary example in one of the essays of which the book is comprised is the exposure of Clinton's personal life and sexual behaviour during the Monica Lewinsky affair that nearly brought Clinton down in the 1990s.  That we subject public figures personal and sexual lives to such scrutiny was (and still is, if we think of Trump and the new scandals that are arising) part of a growing trend to discard considerations of privacy to some perceived greater ends.

For counter-mapping, and the indigenous populations for whom the idea has had most usefulness over the past four or five decades, the ability to conceal sensitive information has been crucial, and was achieved in past by the cartographic sleight-of-hand known as selection.  The cartographer presents only a systematic selection of spatial information but does so without mentioning the fact that it is merely one subset of information about the world, all while, through the power of cartography, making it look like the view within the frame is comprehensive in nature.  It is no small irony that surveyors from European countries originated the idea, selectively surveying out (mapping out) the indigenous populations of the 'new lands' they explored in the national interests of their homelands and colonial bodies.

So, there is a dialectic between concealment and exposure that indigenous North American groups became adept at manipulating, in no small part due to the ready availability of mapping software, in order to portray their own interests in the land in face of historical and ongoing colonisation, all the while concealing the location of key resources that, were they depicted on the map, would be left open to exploitation by 'outside' forces.

To push things further, and I have begun to do so in my forthcoming monograph Contrapuntal Cartographies (MQUP) in which I push Nagel's philosophy further into counter-mapping territory, I have created what I call a 'ladder of objectivity' inspired by another of Nagel's works, The View From Nowhere.  I conceived this ladder as a sort of tool for examining various cartographic and visual hierarchies of mapping, and its starting point is what John Pickles so ironically named the 'Ground Truth'.  These ideas are already worked out in the ongoing writing of the monograph, so what I'm presenting here is a sort of 'preliminary' findings of my research and theoretical framework construction.

One of the key questions that I think naturally arises when reading Nagel is: does the View From Nowhere exist?  I think that Nagel believes that it does: that somewhere out there is a big map of the whole universe and that with better philosophical and scientific techniques we can access it, a bit like Stapledon did in Star Maker, or like Roberts (in a more poststructural and Kantian vein) hinted in The Thing Itself that we might be able to do, but only in the realms of the mind, because we can never really know The Thing Itself, out there, in all its raw and un-representable power.

Going up the ladder, it isn't too hard to say, even for a hardened skeptic, that the other levels 'exist.'  The lower-most of these is itself quite contentious, and that is the idea of 'ground truth', which has the same kind of feel to it as 'thing itself'.  It is essentially unknowable, but I would put it to you that 'ground truth' is more knowable than 'thing itself'.  We can after all, in physical geography, undertake a ground-truthing operation to compare the results of running a model to what we see directly 'on the ground' (empirically).  This is established scientific procedure, and there is no similar procedure for undertaking what we might call a 'thing-itselfing' (except of course in Roberts's The Thing Itself, a sui generis work right up there with Philip Dick's VALIS, but I digress).

Up another step, we arrive at what I like to call 'The View From Somewhere' which at least is empirically accessible, even if only subjectively so.  This is also the starting point from which Nagel takes off in The View From Nowhere, and it is the limit at one extreme of what he constructs as a sort of spectrum running along a subjective-objective axis.   The View From Somewhere is where the artist and the anthropologist reside, it is the individual consciousness in its cage of time and space from which there is, ultimately, no escape, except perhaps through art, science, and philosophy.  In other words, inter-subjective knowledge.

If we move up the ladder and begin to combine views and viewpoints, we can think of what things must look like from the point of view of the CCTV operator's concealed vantage point, the one that lets him or her see, using technologies of the televisual and televisual practices, to begin to select features in the landscape for scrutiny.  These kinds of operators do not work alone.  This is an ethical consideration, for there is always a group pressure to conform to established practice, whether in security or in science.  In art we know, from Denis Cosgrove, that landscapes are similarly constructed through the lenses of class, land, and power.  The counter-mapper, the artist as cartographer, walker or psychogeographer is subject to counter-practices no less than the hegemonic mapper is to those of the state or para-state corporations like Ordnance Survey.

And from there we arrive at the penultimate step, the one at which we hover when we read a map, the classic View From Above, which is so close, but so far from The View From Nowhere.  This is where map enthusiasts reside so much of the time, and it is an oddly hollowed out view, shorn of its 3-dimensionality, frozen in time, a time-slice for all intents and purposes.  Think of a Google Map, or of Ordnance Survey.  These are the classic example.  We tend to confuse, however, the View From Above with the View From Nowhere.  We do this all the time, even though (I would argue) The View From Nowhere does not exist.

That's a nice theoretical framework upon which to hang some fairly abstract examples.  Let's move to something more tangible, more hands-on.  Here I introduce the idea of the name, which is such an important part of mapping, and which was the subject of my last book, The Geography of Names.  Imagine a map without names or words with which to describe features.  The names are very important, but for counter-mapping, in which so often what is at stake is a home-land of some kind, what the locals call the land and its features is just as important as those 'things themselves'.  Reference and referent exist in a dialectical tension that exists along Nagel's subjective-objective continuum in many forms.  An informant who names a feature may be one of only a handful to have that knowledge.  How many people know the name Bealach na ba?  In the far northern Highlands of Scotland, quite a few, it turns out.

My latest ethnographic and geographical research endeavour involves exploring a quite recent tourist route called the North Coast 500.  You have here two views of it, one from the so-called View From Somewhere or even 'ground truth' perspective, and another a GPS-derived Google Earth View From Above.

The five images shown above represent a selection from all along the ladder of objectivity, and they move us closer to being able to discuss the idea not only of The View From Nowhere (a concept I would argue that the Cree have, or at least they have analogous beliefs of a metaphysical nature) but also of Televisual Practices, in both cases grounded in 'truths' of Cree knowledge systems, beliefs, and experiences on the land.  The Cree, with whom I worked from roughly 2007 to 2015 when my monograph Maps and Memes was published, have lived in a settlement referred to as Wemindji after having relocated from a location farther south, which was itself a kind of centralisation in response to the economic activities introduced by the Hudson's Bay Company over several centuries.

The commemorative cultural event referred to as kaachewaapechuu means 'going offshore' and it is a return to the older settlement, whose abandonment was forced by both economic and physical pressures.  Caribou and indeed the numbers of large mammals in the area have been subject to drastic fluctuation and this, in combination with isostatic rebound and subsequent emergence of treacherous shorelines and shallow waters meant the old site was no longer tenable.  But so much of the old site represents a link to traditional knowledge and the distant past that revisiting it is considered by the community to be an important undertaking.  I participated in kaachewaapechuu in 2010 along with several Cree, half-Cree, and white individuals from the community.  I was the only one not strictly speaking of the community, though my presence was part of a Wemindji-McGill partnership ongoing over several years.

The first few slides show images of the long (40km) walk offshore back to Old Factory Bay (Vieux Comptoir in Cree), and the final image is that of the art contest.  Both events, the walk and art contest are part of cultural awareness week in Wemindji.   The final slide above depicts a GPS track of the journey that I entered into the art contest alongside several art works depicting bird's-eye perspective landscapes, maps, and grounded-view perspectives of Wemindji Cree lands.

One of the arguments I'm trying to make here is that the production of the idea of The View From Nowhere relies upon televisual practices for its effectiveness.  There is a visual trope at play that is simultaneously very literal in the sense that the authority of the knowledge relies upon its visuality and visual nature in order to be taken seriously.  The art contest in Wemindji is no less a part of this kind of knowledge production than is a (hypothetical) mock-up of a new map design at the Ordnance Survey.  Both use the televisual, or the communication of visual information through cultural practices and technologies, in order to effectively convey powerful knowledge, or knowledge that has the ability to persuade.

Drones and big data are two hot topics, and are more than just names for trendy things.  They exist on the ladder of objectivity.  I have placed televisual drone productions just below those of so-called 'big data' precisely because the latter are more abstract, and tend to represent what we might call The View From Nowhere, and might indeed incorporate into big-data the images derived from drone flights.  Think, for example, about what a company like Cambridge Analytica is doing with data right now (or did just before the UK voted for Brexit and the US voted for Trump).  The harvesting of massive datasets to which facebook users did not consent with the goal of producing an all-encompassing objective view of reality in order to then influence and change that reality is hubristic to say the least, and at most it is to say it has changed the course of history (should the evidence be shown conclusive in this regard of course).

But stand back for a moment from the big pronouncement and we have another side of the thing called Big Data for producing 'truth'.  This is the idea of metadata, which is really close to the idea of the name.  You have a name, the place where you live has a name, and you can therefore be located.  For many, the idea of being so 'Exposed' (to use the title of Bernard Harcourt's book) is unproblematic.  For many others, and in the wake of Cambridge Analytica and facebook, we are starting to think twice about just giving away that information for free.  It has, and will continue to, influence elections, for example, when in Iceland recently a 'vote now' button started appearing on people's facebook pages, with instructions on how to get to the nearest voting booth when they press the button.  This icon has been seen the world over, and it is essentially fake (but horrifyingly Real at the same time, in the sense of slightly traumatising) news.

So let's step back and look at the idea of names for a moment (this is a segue into the mapping exercise that, if you want to know more, you need to attend my session at the RGS-IBG midterm conference this week in the department of geography at Royal Holloway University of London located in the Queen's Building of the Egham campus).

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