Maps of Meaning

Bunting Clover Leaf Map

The Bunting Clover Leaf Map is one of my favourite maps, for obvious reasons.

It’s frequently brought up to illustrate how terrible folks were at map-making back in the day; a child could draw a better map from memory, right?

Yet the fact that it’s so obviously out-of-sync with the actual shape of the world is a clue to what this map is meant to do. The fact that it’s plainly and obviously not representative of physical reality should be the first signal that it’s not meant to be representative of physical reality.

We’re used to maps that “map” (thus the name) onto the geometry of reality. These maps are functional. They are tools. They are more or less accurate depending on the type of map, whether a flat projection or a round globe.

In that sense they’re still only representative of physical reality to a point. At some magnification or for some purpose they become useless. Outside of the scope of their instrumentalization, all maps collapse into the category of a bad map, because they can no longer be used in the way that you wish to use them.

So look at the map above. As an instrument, what does it do? Well, it’s plainly not useful in any navigational sense. So its instrumentalization must not be in the category of navigation, at least not physical navigation.

Instead, it’s a map that seeks to represent the meaning of the world as the illustrator understands it. It doesn’t represent physical reality, but instead conceptual reality. This is a metaphysical representation. It shapes the world into something that can be understood as having a focal point.

But there are also glimmers that this map is unable to do what its author intends. Notice America off to the left. What is this place? How does it fit into the author’s conceptual framework? Clearly, it doesn’t, and the author has made no attempt to try to integrate this new continent into their map of meaning.

Here we see a conceptual paradigm ripe for change. The world has gotten bigger and they’re not sure how to deal with it.

This map is a fantastic analogy for our own conceptual categories, whatever those might be. We are gifted a certain worldview or conceptual framework by the cultures we’re born into. Yet we live in a fast-paced, ever-evolving world where new discoveries, new science, new thought, new metaphysics, new cultural experiences and so forth are always popping up on the edges of our maps of meaning, and it’s not always obvious whether our existing maps are capable of integrating them.

At some point it becomes untenable to continue using our inherited maps. At some point we have to recognize that there’s some territory off the right. The world can no longer be represented neatly with Jerusalem as the focal point. This is a difficult position to be in. Inherited conceptual frameworks are comforting. Things that poke at them can feel like attacks.

The thing to know is that friction doesn’t go away. Once you’re aware of America hanging out over there on the edge of the map, you have to do something.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.