Alessandra Ponte – The Map and the Territory

Lecture date: 2011-11-08

The lecture is organised around a series of statements that articulate contradictory accounts of the relationship between maps and territories. The entry point is the title of a novel by Michel Houellebecq, ‘La carte et le territoire’ (2010). Commentators of Houellebecq’s controversial narrative, in which an artist achieves fame thanks to huge photographic reproductions of fragments of Michelin road maps, have remarked upon the obvious allusion to Alfred Korzybski’s dictum ‘the map is not the territory’.

Korzybski, founder of the discipline of General Semantic (that acquired popularity in architectural circles immediately after WWII), publicly formulated the statement for the first time in 1931 to summarised the central thesis of his philosophy, i.e. that the concept of a thing or our reaction to a thing are not the thing itself. In the case of maps and territories, according to Korzybski, models of the real are mistaken for the real itself. Korzybski’s propositions were re-visited by anthropologist-cyberneticist Gregory Bateson in ‘Form, Substance, and Difference’, an essay published in Steps to an Ecology of the Mind (1972). In this text,  after emphasising the validity of Korzybski statement, Bateson affirms: ‘We know the territory does not get on to the map [ …] What gets on to the map, in fact, is difference, be it a difference in altitude, a difference in vegetation, a difference in population structure, difference in surface or whatever […] But what is a difference? A difference is a very peculiar and obscure concept. It is certainly not a thing or an event[…].’ More recently (2003), in an essay devoted to recent developments in mapping technology, Denis Cosgrove, evoking Jorge Louis Borges well known tale about the map at the scale of an Empire, wrote: ‘the only true map is the territory itself’.

Finally, the title of a provisional version of an article by Bruno Latour, Valérie November and Eduardo Camacho-Hübner (2010), that proposes a navigational as opposed to mimetic interpretation of maps, dramatically stated that ‘the territory is the map’. The lecture will attempt to map such puzzling and thorny issues.


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