The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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Arts Week 2017: Speaking in Brogues

This post was contributed by Hafsa Al-Khudairi, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Contemporary Literature and Culture

broguesMarina Warner opens the event with the definition of a brogue. It is a type of shoe that her father gave her mother, which is popular in England and a symbol of the start of their life in the country. The other meaning is a rustic accent that accompanies rural areas. Though Warner specifically emphasized that it should not be a pejorative word, but an expression of beauty and strength. Brogues at university level is the language people interact with and use to create an environment of integration.

Social Constructions and Burdens in Language:

Maria Aristodemou, who is interested in law, psychoanalysis and society, starts by exploring how alienating language can be for both foreigners and for the native speaker. Humans animals are limited by their use of language to express their desires for not all their wants can be expressed in this manner and they have no other means to do so. This makes all humans immigrants in the house language as even the native speaker has to learn from childhood how to use the language, so they are “doomed” by their restrictions. However, language is also built through a socially-constructed idea of identity that holds the historical and societal desires and expectations.

Language is about Sharing:

Mattia Gallotti, who is working on a project called The Human Mind, where he explores the differences between people of different disciplines, explores the idea that language is about sharing. Specifically sharing minds because it is what philosophers think discussions produce. Sharing minds is most effective when it is produced from sharing stories. There is a power in sharing because it produces difference and power. The more people exchange stories through language, the more they can change the world they live in and empower themselves and others. For him, this helps people create their own sense of self, including identity and culture, wherever they go, producing the feeling of a collective ‘we’.

Photography is a Bridge between Two Languages:

Rut Blees Luxemburg, who is a photographer, used her creative photographs to explore the idea of bridging the gap between the English and the German language. She explored themes of connecting marginality with water, the divine, culture, and poetic meanings. Water is related to how she remembers rivers that can connect places and transfer languages beyond the confines of the arbitrary lines that separate countries. Hence, Brogues is a reference to the ground and the soil, which is an attachment to a nation, but it is a sense of home through language, beyond the actual boundaries of the actual home.

The event ended with a Q&A about identity, the term ‘we’, personality, and strangers in a strange land, and their intersection with language. Identity was clarified as an unappeasable fantasy, but identification is real. Then, how many people associate ‘we’ with negative connotations, however, it does have positive communitive connotations as well. The conversation turned towards personalities and strangers. It was concluded that knowing multiple languages helps create patterns of personalities based on a person’s association with the language. Also, the romance of being a stranger is a privilege for the difference in language capabilities and accents helps categorize people into other beings and it can be detrimental to the sense of belonging. Still knowing different languages can help people communicate and sense a feeling of comradery when people find someone who understands them beyond grammar and syntax.

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I-D: The Boundaries of Identity: The multiple identities of multilingualism

This post was contributed by Bryony Merritt, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Tonight’s lecture was the second in the series of lectures being organised by the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy around the theme of identity.

Dr Derek Hook was the first speaker and he started by saying that “Identity is one of the most over-used and under-defined terms in social theory”.  He then introduced the audience to the concept of identification. This he described as the psychological process of assimilating an aspect or attribute of the other, and in the process being transformed wholly or partially.

Identification is not the same as identity. Identification is the outcome of the failure of identity, as defined as “the sameness of a person or thing at all times”. A person is always partially a reflection or copy of something else, having assimilated aspects of others.

Dr Hook said that as social subjects we are always entangled with others and never fully differentiable from those around us. Sometimes we are over inclusive when setting the boundaries of who we identify with, and at other times we tend to be over exclusive.

Freud identified three forms of identification. The first was the primitive form (or father-as-ideal). In this form the object wants to become the father. It is a loving form of identification, yet underscored by ambivalence as there is an implication that the child wants to replace the father, which introduces an element of competitiveness.

The second form of identification discussed by Freud is regressive identification. This form relates to a lost or failed love. The object wants something or someone, but can’t have them, so instead becomes like them, by assimilating their traits.

The third form is hysterical identification. In this case the process is driven by a desire to occupy a place, not to become another person. There is no emotional attachment to the person whose trait is being assimilated, and in fact there could be active antipathy towards that person. It is only the place occupied by them which is being sought.

In the second part of the lecture, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele gave several clear examples of how people who are multilingual can create different identities for themselves in different languages.

The first example was of an American student called Alice. In the USA she distanced herself from classmates, and felt that she could not change her identity as defined by her class and social status. When she went to France, she used the opportunity to recreate herself, regularly organising parties in her dorm room, and creating an identity as an intellectual who was able to hold her own in philosophical discussions with her French friends, using “big long French words”.

A Finnish multilingual was able to pinpoint very specific personality traits which manifested themselves when he spoke different languages. Although in this case the multilingual was able to identify different traits coming to the fore when he spoke different languages, sometimes this is a more subtle difference. An interesting experiment with Spanish-English bilinguals showed that when asked to rank themselves on the ‘Big Five’ personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) the same participants gave different results, depending on which language they were asked in.

Another fascinating study with Greek-English bilinguals, told participants a story about Andy, or Andreas, depending on the language that the story was told in. Andy/Andreas had been neglecting his girlfriend and elderly mother because of pressures at work. The participants in the study were much more likely to be tolerant of Andy’s behaviour than of Andreas’s, showing that not only were they language switching, they were also switching between cultural frameworks.

Professor Dewaele ended by saying that multilingualism has been shown to have a positive effect on open-mindedness, cultural empathy and social initiative, and that he wishes that more governments would recognise the benefits that multilingualism can bring.

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