(after Terra Infirma, by Irit Rogoff)
“Cartography is the signifying practice of both location and identity, a mode of writing through which we can uncover a set of general laws” – with this statement Irit Rogoff opens Chapter 3 which is devoted to the subject of mapping in visual arts. She deals with “un-mapping”, “re-mapping” and “counter-cartographies” that can be found nowadays in contemporary art practices. She looks into the signifying systems by which “knowledge is organized and conveyed” (73).
Rogoff considers “re-reading” and “re-writing” (and by extension, un-mapping and re-mapping) the contestation of post-Enlightenment theories of cognition. As some elements of mapping are starting to appear in my paintings I eagerly read this chapter for a broader view of similar practices and their rationale.
One of the aspects that I saw as the most important for my own thesis development was the “resituating a theory of cognition within lived experience” (74) as it entails examining the experience of concrete, qualitative subjects rather than seeking formal, transcendental conditions of subjectivity. An epistemological shift like this grants the interpretative authority to an actual subject, as opposed to an ‘objective’ system of knowledge.
Another aspect is mapping as an activity carried out by the subaltern, the marginal – the collective histories of those who “have not fitted into patterns of agency within universal, overarching histories” (74). Rogoff believes that mapping as an activity from the margins is “exceptionally instrumental” in re-situating of cognition. The author regards re-mapping, re-situating, and translating – a transfer - a form of claiming the original for other purposes, quoting Derrida :
Within the limits to which is possible, or at least appears possible,
translation practices the difference between signified and signifier.
But if this difference is never pure, translation is no more so and for the
notion of translation we would have to substitute a notion of transformation:
a regulated transformation of one language by another, of one text by another.
We will never have, and in fact have never had any ‘transfer’ of pure signified
from one language to another, or within one language – which would be left
virgin and intact by the signifying instrument or ‘vehicle’ ( as quoted by
The author sees transfer as a form of ‘claiming’ of the original for other purposes.
One of the most interesting concrete examples of how “narrative structures have the status of spatial syntaxes” Rogoff offers one doctor’s account of the spread of AIDS in rural Tennessee and his own tracking and mapping of the phenomenon . With this example she illustrates how narrative structures (reified as spatial syntaxes) regulate changes in space by whole new systems of codes, ordered ways of “proceedings and constraints” (80). Dr Verghese’s account of mapping and spatializing an epidemic through sexuality’s intersection with rural culture leads Rogoff to an assertion that “some aspect of the work of translation from human tragedy to codes of signification needs to be played out in order for the map to become an enacted heterotopia” (83).
(To be continued)
Rogoff, Irit. Terra Infirma. Geography’s Visual Culture. London and new York: Routledge,