Here be Networks

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what a map is. As a child, I loved treasure maps, drawing them on tea-stained, sepia-toned sheets of crinkled computer paper. In such maps, a trail meandered through fantastical landscapes populated motifs I gleaned from kids books and pirate stories, starting from an arbitrary place and ending on an ornate X.

“Here be dragons,” I wrote over some hills, not knowing the cartographic history of the term, when map makers slapped it on the page to mark the unknowns. Castles and giants, towns, and mysterious lagoons pockmarked page after page. Such maps had no correspondence to reality.

When I got a little older, I got more scientific. I buried boxes in the yard and mapped the terrain of trees and bushes to show where they were. In scouts, I used a compass and topographic map. Watching Discovery Channel with friends, I read weather maps, learning their shifting symbols of pressure topographies, wind speeds, and fronts. In video games and history books I mapped out terrains and countries, borderlands and battlefields–both “real” and imaginary. And in music, I traced out correspondences between piano keys, tones, scales, music notation, chord structures, and auditory landscapes–relying on ear or memory to get a sense for how a piece mapped out, how it layered and piled together in a shifting set of tonalities and rhythms, loosely laced with emotion and allusion.

In school and in play, maps have saturated much of my life. Some are clear geographies, others are fictions. Some are abstracted topographies and a spattering of symbols, meant to make meaning or filter out noise. Some–especially these days–are notes dashed on within-reach pads, “maps” of ideas made of messy lines and bubbles that may prove indecipherable after a few days.

Throughout this journey, though, maps have felt somewhat secondary. They are means or aids, not ends. But revisiting mapping in the reading this week, as a word and a practice, threw me straight back to those early years sitting out in my parent’s garden, using my knees as a makeshift desk, pencil in hand, pensively sketching one.


What struck me most from the reading was the use of map as invention. On the one hand, this seems obvious. Bubble diagrams and outlines, those tried-and-true essentials to early writing, clearly map out out ideas and sketch the main turns and landmarks of a paper.

But on the other, I suppose it challenges the associations I bring o the word–that certain set genres of “map” exist. Whether it be topographic, geological, geographic, or those textbook maps in Global history that “map” movements like the Crusades and the losses and gains of different empires and dynasties.

Map as invention is more of an activity or process. It may result in a product, which may or may not fit a common genre, but maps are so much more messy.

Derek Mueller, for example, points out the mapping of a document and the various layers that it may have. Calling these “worknets,” a term he draw’s from Latour’s own inversion of the term “network,” Mueller’s  maps look much like bubble diagrams, but are actually organized and layered representations of a text and its associations. Using four phases, including “semantic,” “bibliographic,” “affinity-based,” and “choric,” the worknets diagram elements of a source text, from major word frequency to an author’s collaborations and potential social connections.

An example of a worknet from the "choric" phase, via Mueller
An example of a worknet from the “choric” phase, via Mueller

While these worknets may result in seemingly stagnate maps, they are actually ways of exploring sources for students, countering the often-shallow engagement that many students may employ. In this way it is explorative and inventive, explorative in the way it lets one inspect and name textual motifs and connections, and inventive in the way it lets one build and construct new work from the source.

In this way, maps reveal seemingly buried elements.

The same revealing–and revealing goal–could be said in the mapping that Don Unger & Fernando Sánchez describe in “Locating Queer Rhetorics: Mapping as an Inventional Method.” Once again, as their title suggests, Unger and Sánchez, see mapping as inventive.

Unlike Meuller’s mapping of an individual text as a composition method, Unger and Sánchez discuss the mapping of queer rhetorics, stressing the ability of a map to “locate.” For them, mapping is never completely representative of a whole or an all. It is really more of a perspective or a bringing forth of different patterns, locations, and connections depending on method, available resources, focus, definitions, and goals. Politics imbue the document and the process.

With this in mind, no sights or methods should claim dominance.


As an inventive tool, mapping also gets complicated by digital technology. Just as past advances, like surveying tools, complicated and expanded land mapping, tools like data scraping and visualizations can create more precise, interactive, and diverse maps. Some of these, like Dan Wang’s maps of a Canon for Economic Sociology, can use data-collection and visualizing to highlight patterns in traditionally helpful ways.

Using a set of 52 syllabi, Wang mapped both the frequency of mentioned books and the frequency of books in light of other heavily mentioned books. He also mapped books in light of the books they were connected with on the syllabi, resulting in this network map:

Dan Wang's network map, via jill/text.
Dan Wang’s network map, via jill/text.

Wang and others highlight the emergent ontologies that form, visualized as networks, charts, or other maps, as one changes filters. Depending on one’s algorithms, different relations form. These relations, in turn, represent the range of our words. In regards to “canon,” for example, traditional definitions, like canon as a gate keeper or canon as a loose sense of common core texts, all fit under the term. Wang’s maps show a similar variety, a similar richness.

Phrased another way, we can look at the language of maps, not in terms of its traditional vocabulary of things like “legends” and “symbols” or genres, but in terms of how we can use maps as language. If maps reveal and invent, they also represent and illustrate. In the case of Wang, they could also define. Here “canon.”

In this way, they are not connectors to realities, but constructors of reality, both in terms of different representations–epistemologicially as in the case of Unger and Sanchez–but also in terms of words, worlds, and realities. What something “is,” by definition.  In the first case, we have an almost Platonic conception of mapping, that “reality” exists and maps take stabs at showing it. But in the latter case, maps construct or exist as beings, not as mere representations, with our language and ontologies (in both senses of the world) created through the methodology of mapping. Mapping becomes a constructor.


A one final element of this, I think it worth noting not only the shifting abilities of representing and defining, but also the shifting sense of both data and definition. With many of these digital methods, vast swaths of seething data can get represented by equally seething diagrams. Moreover, the input of the “tools” (perhaps more openly defined as nonhuman agents) increases as they get increasingly involved in the craft.

Unlike the cartographers of old, new cartographers, whether of canons, concepts, or continents, have nearly instantaneous connections between data and map. Here, maps are process, always changing and inventing themselves through the shifting fabric of data-driven landscapes.

To me, this provides one of the most fascinating elements.

[Image: Map Shewing the City of Winnipeg and Parts of the Parishes of St. Boniface and St. John (1882), via Wyman Lalibert]

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