Nightfaring & Invisible Maps: Of Maps Perceived, but not Drawn


Cartographies With No Remainder ///
Carl Nilsson Linnæus published his Systema Naturae in 1735. He proposed a system of hierarchical classification of the natural world built upon the division between the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms. In the first editions of his work, there was a section within the animal kingdom division called Paradoxa. It held everything that did not fit elsewhere. It was mostly populated with fantastic creatures: the unicorn, the satyr, the mermaid and the phoenix, as well as the pelican. This category disappeared in the sixth edition of the work published in 1748. The modern era demanded clarity and sharpness in its limits. While philosophers and scientists alike still treasured the idea of mathesis universalis, (i.e. a universal science of order and measurement modeled on mathematics), the box of paradoxes subjected Linnæus’ edifice to a dangerous kind of tension: it could make it all collapse. Thus, having done away with the uncomfortable “remainder” represented by the Paradoxa (that residue or excess left over while looking for a mathematically precise division of the real), this tension was overshadowed by the illusion of an absolute, stable and apprehensible order.

Jalon Oyarzun Funambulist (1)
Table of the Animal Kingdom (Regnum Animale) from Carolus Linnaeus’s first edition of Systema Naturae (1735). The Paradoxa box appears in the third column, beneath Amphibia.

Until the end of the 18th century, maps of the African continent appear filled with different kingdoms and monsters. When imperialism implemented the colonial expansion of the 19th century, they were suddenly emptied. Maps such as “Africa, Performed by the Sr. Danville Under the Patronage of the Duke of Orleans,” from 1766, or the 1790s “Sketch of the Northern Part of Africa,” engraved by Joseph Rennell, showed a blank continent. They feel like images that have been overexposed to erase all the differences deemed insignificant; an effacement of all trembling lines in order to highlight only those validated by Western geographic knowledge. Paradoxically, many of these maps emerged out of indigenous knowledge and ephemeral plans drawn by local inhabitants on the ground, deeply effective despite their alleged inaccuracy. Europe’s’ cartographical endeavor was one among many of modernity’s optical apparatuses. In their mission to conquer the real, European cartographers and geographers ended up overexposing reality to erase all possible remainders and eradicate all traces of haziness, by extension, eliminating the Other.

Jalon Oyarzun Funambulist (1)
“Sketch of the Northern Part of Africa: Exhibiting the Geographical Information Collected by the African Association,” engraved by Joseph Rennell in 1790.

Cartography’s role as an instrument of conquest and its relationship to power has been widely studied in recent years. With this article, I do not seek to expand on that criticism nor to suggest any improvement of said forms of representation in order to reveal hitherto suppressed realities. My interest is, instead, directed towards the latent power of the “remainders” silenced by cartographic overexposure. My intention is not to reinstate them to the regime of the visible through their representation, but rather to understand how they tell us about another kind of orientational system- of maps perceived, but not drawn, capable of making a reality present without necessarily making it visible.

Nebulous Images ///
In order to speak of a presence that is felt even while it remains invisible, we need another working concept for the term image. Could we understand the image as an affection that goes beyond the visual? In his Ethics (1677), Spinoza defined the images of things as “the affections of the human body whose ideas present external bodies as present to us, though they do not reproduce the figures of things. And when the mind regards bodies in this way, we shall say that it imagines.” In contrast to the well-defined image advanced by cartography, this is a nebulous representation that functions as an affective extension mapped onto the body — the expression and knowledge of a complex spatiality that traverses and weaves the fabric of our experience.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1882) emerges out of a map bearing a red cross signaling the place where a treasure was hidden by a certain Captain Flint. The map, in the possession of an old sailor, passes, at his death, onto the narrator, the young Jim Hawkins. At the beginning of the novel, Jim and a heterogenous crew begin a journey to recover the gold. Once on the island (and after several setbacks), they are confronted with the previously unquestioned accuracy of the mark. Uncertainty engulfs their senses because “the red cross was, of course, far too large to be a guide; and the terms of the note on the back, as you will hear, admitted of some ambiguity. They ran, the reader may remember, thus: Tall tree, Spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point to the N. of N.N.E.; Skeleton Island E.S.E. and by E.; Ten feet. A tall tree was thus the principal mark.” Faced with a lush plateau on which, “every here and there,” emerged a large tree, they understand that only on the spot, and reading the signs of the place, could the treasure be found.

The clash between Flint’s representation and the crew’s direct experience of the place not only reveals the breach that will always exist between these two realms, but also excites these men-senses. Confronted with the reality of the island, Jim, Long John Silver et al., conjure up a hidden map, invisible, yet absolutely alive in each of their actions. A map drawn out of the careful attention to the signs offered by the island in different perceptive dimensions. There are actual signs to be read, right there in front of them, like the skeleton/compass they find when looking for a tree — “the man lay perfectly straight — his feet pointing in one direction, his hands, raised above his head like a diver’s, pointing directly in the opposite” — , but there are invisible signs too, virtual signs, as when Jim’s alertness allows him to listen to sounds of the past. Different times survive together on the island and their effect on Jim’s body enhance his image, his map, of the island: “this grove that was now so peaceful must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.”

This vigilant attention to the signs, that is, to every material event — i.e. bodies, expressions, accidents, gestures, etc. — , which in turn imply the presence and effects of other past, present or future events, threads the nebulous image of the island, the affective map of its complex spatiality. The fiction driving the principle of representation has often rendered invisible the discontinuity between cartography and experience. Blinded by this fiction, cartography and its apparent precision prevent a free unfolding of our senses. Embedding our perception within a contained image of the world anesthetizes our bodies: as we operate under an illusion of order, we ignore the complex textures of the real with all its remainders. Nevertheless, a certain disquiet remains, for the world does not acquiesce to this fiction; it goes on wavering, the Other is always there even if we reject his presence, and our bodies necessarily feel it. In order to pay attention to this vibration and the nebulous images it produces, a certain rekindling of our senses is necessary. A renewed ability to explore the relations mapped by experience and memory onto our bodies must be reclaimed.

Invisible Maps ///
Historically, literature has paid more attention to the affective dimension of the real than geography has- its skills relish in the description of the endless signs that thread any kind of situation to another. Hence we go back to it, specifically to Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). In this unexplored treaty of minor architecture, we turn to the events that follow Ursula’s loss of vision.

Jalon Oyarzun Funambulist (2)
“Map of a Tuareg Transhumance Zone,” originally drawn in the notebook of geographer Edmond Bernus by Kill Kilu Ag Najim,
and later modified by Bernus himself for Les Illabakan (Niger) Une tribu touarègue sahélienne et son aire de nomadisation (1974).

Ursula, the matriarch of the Buendía family, is aware of the “progressive breakdown of time,” though she “resisted growing old even when she had already lost count of her age.” Any accurate measuring or sharp definition dissolves as the cataracts blur her vision and dilute her surroundings: “quite soon she began to realize that she was irrevocably sinking into the darkness, to a point where she never had a clear notion of the invention of the electric light, for when they put in the first bulbs she was only able to perceive the glow.”

Out of reach from electric light, a symbol of modernity’s visibility economy, and without the knowledge of anyone else, for “no one discovered that she was blind,” Ursula builds a kind of clandestine space out of memory and intuition. It grows from the deeply engaged presence of her body at every single moment, perfectly aware that there is power in vulnerability. This care for the invisible signs of reality empowers Ursula to radically reorganize her affective maps. This, in turn, allows her to navigate with a new-found clarity in between the most immediate everyday events as well as the ghosts from the past:

“She concentrated on a silent schooling in the distances of things and people’s voices, so that she would still be able to see with her memory what the shadows of her cataracts no longer al­lowed her to. Later on she was to discover the unforeseen help of odors, which were defined in the shadows with a strength that was much more convincing than that of bulk and color, and which saved her finally from the shame of admitting defeat. […] Quite simply, while the others were going carelessly all about, she watched them with her four senses so that they never took her by surprise, and after some time she discovered that every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour.”

The surfacing map speaks of space not as a fixed scenario where relations are deployed, but as the threading of these relations; of the different rhythms, repetitions and divergences in place — for instance, when Ursula manages to find Fernanda’s lost ring, it is because she has read her regular behavior against that day’s deviations. The echoes of these rhythms and movements beat with living energy and time as Ursula’s map incorporates, not only the reality of the different inhabitants of the house, but also of the earth. A telluric being above all, when the sun changes, Ursula’s orientation system must also be readjusted: “that day she began to realize some­thing that no one had noticed and it was that with the passage of the year the sun imperceptibly changed position and those who sat on the porch had to change their position little by little without being aware of it. From then on Ursula had only to remember the date in order to know exactly where Amaranta was sitting.”

Ursula does not feel only the rhythms of the present; the unraveled map condenses different durations and eras. It helps her traverse and read into the territories and echoes of all times past, still alive in her body: “she had such clairvoyance as she examined the most insignificant happenings in the family that for the first time she saw clearly the truths that her busy life in former times had prevented her from seeing.” By discovering a new lucidity in her blindness, Ursula has transformed darkness into an opportunity and given herself the tools to inhabit it. While Ursula’s darkness comes to her unwanted and unexpected, there are many other situations where it is intentionally produced: construction of night in broad daylight to inhabit the remainders and raise our nightfaring bodies.

Nightfaring ///
Taking the clandestinity of Ursula’s blindness further might offer us a good framework for considering night production and secrecy as an architectural endeavor — the composition of spaces beyond the reach of the visible that rebel against high-resolution measuring and overexposure. These spaces are produced in the balance and agreement between different bodies, materials, and rhythms. Their unstable equilibrium must be constantly (re)modulated and the individual and collective maps — that is, the affective images tracing relations, knowledge, memories and practices that compose the spatial fabric of both individual and collective bodies — reimagined. And while this movement renders the representation of these images impossible, it is their incorporation in a nightfaring knowledge that matters.

During France’s Ancien Régime, the city of Lyon became the country’s main manufacturer of clandestine books. Cities are privileged spaces for any activity seeking invisibility. The multiplicity of times and spaces create useful gaps allowing for disappearances and duplicity (Sylvie Aprile et al., Clandestinités urbaines: Les citadins et les territoires du secret (XVIe-XXe, 2008). In Lyon daylight marked the space of the sanctioned book while nighttime offered the perfect refuge for any forbidden activity. Nonetheless, books, materials, and communications had to be both organized and kept secret during the day and that activity involved an extensive network of agents, both human and non-human. Authors, editors, printers, bookbinders, etc., were obviously involved as were their families and neighbors, with their knowledge of the town and its everyday rhythms. The city and its architectures, with their overlapping nature, became accomplices as well. Active parts of a complex spatial assemblage that shows clandestinity not as a place or state but as a practice that is simultaneously architectural and political.

Clandestinity’s political dimension does not end in this collective quality. Within its darkness, survival is always at stake and that renders everything instantly political. Decisions can not be postponed, for there is always impending danger. This narrows the space and presses everything closer to the body. This can be seen in the rival geographies deployed in the US South by African American men and women of the 19th century (Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, 2009). These geographies did not define bounded territories but alternative strategies and practices deployed by slaves in the plantations of the South. They allowed for the creation of small spheres of freedom beyond the control of the white man. These circuits did not require lines or borders; on the contrary, they represented an embodied knowledge honed by reading the medium, sharing information, and composing trajectories as a balancing of forces. The discovery of a passage, a hiding place or a threat must be instantly incorporated. While the representation of a territory demands a deferment, for information must be collected, prepared and rendered visually available, for the body whose survival depends on the production and preservation of that invisible geography, there is no possible deferment, only imminence. Each sign must be instantly thread into the map that runs through his or her body: “All that I heard about liberty and freedom to the slaves I never forgot,” wrote Henry Bibb in 1849 when recalling his flight from the South.

Certainly, some exercises of representation that render visible power suppressed realities manage to transform and strengthen our knowledge of the world, but it is not less certain that there is potential in invisibility. It restores a certain tremor to the clear image produced by capitalist realism (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 2009), an image that narrows the world and whose lines press onto our bodies and block our senses under the weight of inevitability and disenchantment. By affirming the value behind these invisible maps, affective images mapped onto our bodies, against the clear-cut image of representation that close down the possible, I have tried to defend the role of nebulous imaginaries that widen our world. For, as Kierkegaard exclaimed, “the possible, the possible or I shall suffocate!”