A Gebserian Note on the Word “Map”

Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes, Axelle Gérgoire, The Soil Map (detail), Terra Forma, manuel de cartographies potentielles, 2019. © the artists.

It is worth considering the word’s etymology. A quick search yields humbling results: mappa, meaning napkin, cloth, or sheet. Mappa combined with mundi in the late Middle Ages to connote the familiar (modern) meaning, i.e., a map of the world. 

From dinner scribbles to maps of the world. 

Associated words like cartography give us another word, charte, or a sheet of paper intended for navigators, and the Latin chartula/cartula, “little paper.” There’s a diminutive, crumpled-in-the-back-pocket, food stained and salt sprayed sensual richness to this word’s history that intuitively feels of some import to us. 

Even -graphy has a craftiness to it. Before it was commonly used to mean “writing or recording,” it meant “to draw, represent by lines” on clay tablets, “to scrape, scratch,” and finally, from its root *gergh-, or “to carve.” The word may have come to mean something more abstract, but I am delighted by its navigational, tool-oriented, and craft-focused etymological origins, which emphasize what maps still do in the mental structure, albeit on a much more grandiose scale: a blade that cuts the clay, presses the cloth, makes space, and shapes the world. 

In this making of the world there is not only the shaping of the image (mythic) but the activity of making, magh (magic) itself. There is also the possibility for artistry here: carving as a process not only for revealing or making, poiesis, but making-with, a sympoietic relationship with the world. Deer leaving their marks in the mud, shaping a path through the forest.

It would seem to imply that aperspectival map-making involves a transparency of these structures, which are always at work in the process of spatializing, but a transparency of time and space is also required for this intensified participation with things in their aliveness and relations: sympoiesis as the creative and spiritual process of making-with, worlding-with our more-than-human kin. The mental structure is welcome here, but it no longer resembles an industrious state of hyper-inflation. It is delightfully brilliant in its diminutive size–a tool in the hand, a hoof in the mud–that cooperates with planetary kin in the becoming of the living world.

Leave a Reply