Breadcrumb Trails

by Julieta Aranda

Like a marker in space, a map should tell us that certain things exist, not what these things are

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Julieta, Image courtesy of Julieta Aranda


The uniqueness – and also the precariousness – of the relation between concepts and the things we presume they stand for in the process of research is derived precisely from the fact that these things are in a state or condition such that we simply cannot yet point to them. If we could point to them, they would already have lost their urgency and their essential epistemic value to us. Thus, epistemically interesting relations between concepts and objects cannot take the simple form of ostension; epistemic objects cannot (yet) be pointed to. They have no reference in the everyday sense of the word. If there is reference, it is always only suppositional; its precise meaning remains elusive.

A possible solution to this essential tension is that the epistemic object is transformed into a technical object, that is, into a state in which the relation between concept and object is no longer problematic. This means that within the confines of the accepted standards, the object has be-come transparent with respect to the concept that refers to it.

Epistemic things are invested with meaning; they are not just “named.”

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, “Epistemic Objects/Technical Objects”


Negotiating a city implies different levels of awareness and stress: the unconscious awareness needed for the constant calculations that one makes so as not to bump into people, cars, cyclists, etc. and the conscious awareness that is required for performing complex actions like orienting oneself or ‘finding the way’. In my case this is more stressful than usual — I have what could be called ‘spatial dyslexia’ — meaning that I constantly get lost and cannot find my way from one place to another. This ‘condition’ is so severe that even though I have spent almost fifteen years in New York, I still get lost in Manhattan — which is a city laid out as an orderly grid and where, moreover, the streets and avenues are numbered sequentially.

Not long ago I was given a GPS as a birthday present by a friend who had got tired of waiting for me to find my way to appointments. At first I was quite happy with the present, but after the novelty wore off, I quickly came to hate it. The ability to orient myself came at a heavy cost: the GPS started to determine my relationship to space in terms of speed and maximum efficiency, which are not the cardinal notions that I want to use to measure life. In essence, the GPS took away my opportunities to get lost, which is something that I then realised I enjoy. After this realisation the GPS didn’t seem worth it, so I quickly gave it up.

There is a valuable aspect to getting lost: the moment when the question “Where am I?” breaks into my assigned set of tasks and trajectories and momentarily impregnates my world. A disruption occurs and I have to establish myself in relationship to the objects that surround me: Where am I? Who am I? Who am I while I am here?

What I noticed from this experience is that when I am mapping a trajectory from point A to point B, I choose non-stationary landmarks. The instructions that I give myself are “ok, make a left there where the three pigeons are resting on the tree branch, and then walk until you reach those five men gathered on the street corner. Then make a right at the yellow car that is idling on the red light.”

These transitory landmarks effectively create a ‘one-way only’ map, a trajectory that cannot be retraced and therefore cannot be repeated. Like the breadcrumb map made by Hansel and Gretel, one-way maps disappear as fast as they are being written, and they convey an idea of the unmappable: ‘indirect’ or ‘errant’ trajectories that develop according to their own logic and that cannot be captured as data, or as readable paths on a simulation of space, or on a Cartesian plane.

The maps that we use and make are a constant territorialisation of space, a definition of reality in terms of the known. They generate sets of ‘productive’ relationships — and I say this meaning the worst possible connotation of the word ‘productive’. The problem is that once those ‘productive’ relationships become categorically defined as real, the tension and urgency to find another possibility for reality becomes slackened. The essence of maps is that they are devices that outline power relationships and a kind of obligatory language. They lay out a disciplinary grid, describing and accounting for all of the complex rules that could be involved in any given operation, and the use of the map then becomes indexical to power structures.

How much? How many? How fast?

There are maps that give us the content of things and accumulate data: how many hamburgers have been eaten in Kentucky over the past year, how many people used their cell phones at midnight during New Year’s Eve, what is the median age of the average listener of 93.4 fm. Those are frightening maps that try to tell us what the world is made of and what kind of relationships exist, formally packaged to define things not in terms of their ontological qualities but in terms of their use value, as if that was what constitutes the thing-ness of a thing.

The world is presented to me as a set of ‘productive’ relationships, so I am tricked and start believing that what things are is what things do.

An ideal map should only determine the perimeter of things, rather than the space within those things. Maps should tell us that certain things exist, and even that they have a given shape, but without telling us what these things are – a map should only act as a marker in space.

Looking at the density of maps generated by data mining — not in terms of what is being mapped, but in terms of representation — it is evident that there is very little elbow-room when it comes to their propositions about space. I don’t quite know what these maps are of, but they feel very ‘productive’ — productive, in a capitalist sense, in the sense that they produce a predictable ‘engagement’.

So if I have to think about a map, then what appears to me as truly urgent is to figure out how a social body can resist being reduced and inserted into this disciplinary grid, and to somehow redistribute the situation enough so that all the dispersed activities and engagements that take place in the space of tension of the everyday can continue happening without being classified and entered into a system of checks and balances.

We produce maps because we want to know where everything is, because we think that we are lost, or because we think that we have lost something; we seek a connection to what we understand to be the immanent core of the world. But is this core actually available to us, or is it being determined precisely in terms of its absence? This ‘core’ is always alluded to by tradition, and while an alleged disconnection from tradition is commonly considered to result from a modern break, could it be that not only this break but also the very remoteness of tradition itself is one of modernity’s primary myths?

Whether or not and in what sense this immanent core exists and can be mapped is one question. And whether, as a global metaphysical fact, absence or negativity is ontologically prior to positivity is a different question. This is a case of negative dialectics, in which a positive is potentially thought of in terms of the relevant negative(s). The difference is that usually negatives are not construed as ‘thing-like’, and in this case the effort is to give priority to the absence-of-the-object, itself construed as object-like.

The relevant thing here is that the connection to the essential qualities of the world has never been directly available to us. It has always been there, but it has always been something that we have to find without a fixed map, since the location of the essential qualities of the world is different for every person. There is no shortcut, no way to get there fast. We can find things quickly, but we cannot find the meaning of things all that quickly, and a world made of things without meaning is a world made of relationships of production that have no productive use.

The meaning of things is never going to be located in a fixed place – you can know that a given thing exists, and you can know that this given thing has a meaning. But as to what the meaning of the thing is, it is never revealed outright. The meaning has to be produced simultaneously in the object and in the subject, a single use map that binds the thing to its contextual ontological qualities. The thing will never be the same thing twice; the map that leads you there cannot be used by anyone else because it charts a trajectory that describes the relationship between the thing and he who perceives it. The subject and object are fused in a moment.

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