Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X
The City: Perverted for Free
Author: Dirk Lefever
Abstract (E): Using a Peircean analysis, this text tries to show how the free city map is not a neutral scaled representation of the city, but becomes a subject that deprives the city it should represent as object of its very essence. The basis of all this is a double triadic system in which all relations are being disturbed by underlying marketing mechanisms that take advantage of a basic trust and the principle of the homo mensura. Eventually, the city no longer exists but as a simulacrum.
Abstract (F): Le présent article propose une analyse de la carte du point de vue de la sémiotique peircienne. Il démontre que la carte n'est pas une représentation neutre de la ville à une échelle réduite, mais qu'elle devient un véritable qui prive l'objet qu'elle est censée représenter de sa propre essence. A la base de cette opération se trouve un double système triadique dont tous les rapports internes sont perturbés par une logique marchande sous-jacente qui profite à la fois d'une attitude de confiance profonde et du principe de l'homme comme mesure de toute chose. Le résultat de l'intervention de la carte est la réduction de la ville à un pur simulacre.
Keywords: Peirce, city-map, simulacrum, city, marketing mechanisms
The traveler has set off once again, leaving the country for strange and unknown cities. Unlike the average tourist, he has bought a city map before starting on the journey. As this traveler makes his way, we no longer wonder about him. It is the tourist, the unprepared traveler, who catches our eye when he is desperately searching the place for a newspaper stand or tourist info which come with every airport or railway station. Once he has found the one or the other, he buys a map - or, better still - gets one for free. At this moment he already feels like having the city in his pocket. A basic trust in that map our tourist holds in his hands nestles in, since it is his only reference to a knot which until then cannot be unraveled but nevertheless spreads itself out as "town" before his eyes. However, is this map to be trusted? Is it as purely denotative as the unwary tourist believes? The map appears to be a neutral object but in more than one aspect it is not. Once a map becomes a real object, instead of a sign, any notion of neutrality has completely vanished. It is being determined by its ideal; by the basic trust the user bestowes it with and the accaparation of the semiosis the map has put into action; by producers that would love to see the relationship between the elements in this particular semiosis to be reversed. If the tourist desires to be more than the tourist one wants him to be, it is necessary for him to reach the insight that the map, first as sign and second as object, makes the city disappear from its own an-sich-unknowability.
An ideal representation
Each map of a city or town relates to an ideal, seemingly impossible to accomplish. He who wants to draw a map, in a way that is both reliable and semiotically as neutral as possible, whereby the map as sign is an index in relation to the represented object, has to produce a map with the largest possible scale. Then and only then the tourist will be able to use the map to develop an interpretant for the object in reality which is the city. Then and only then one can bring the semiosis in which map and city are related to each other to an end, because at that particular moment the sign has become a sign one finds comforting and satisfactory. One no longer interprets that sign because one believes it provides a non-problematic entrance to the world, in this case the city. However, this being a nearly ideal cartographic representation, the question is: does anybody really intend to compose, construct, produce a fully reliable map?
The setbacks of reliability
If we agree that an ideal map is a one-to-one representation of reality, we can then consider a scaled map to be the next best thing. The tourist gets the impression that scale is the only adaptation to reality shown by the city map that was handed to him. For the tourist who is desperately seeking structure in a city that to him appears as total chaos, this map is his only reference. The basic trust then is that this map - despite the fallacy of scale - is a representation, as reliable as possible, of the city, or a Peircean sign of it. Unconsciously - even if he is aware of existing marketing strategies - the user of the map believes it tries to be the best possible cartographic representation by proxy without any paradoxes. The triadic scheme the tourist uses considers the city to be object and the map to be sign.
The tourist believes the map to be at least iconic for the city and that it - as sign in its iconicity - represents the city in a reliable, comforting, and especially in a satisfying way. The belief this sign offers a non-problematic entrance to the city is completely unjustified since the map that has been given to him does not offer this at all. Or, to be more precise, it does offer it, but underlying this are a series of assumptions other than the basic assumption of plain scale upon which the tourist has based his interpretant.
In terms of firstness, secondness and thirdness, scale seems to be firstness. Scale as a pure aspect, not yet connected to anything. The level of secondness concerns the scale of the map. Here the aspect scale is being related to the map, but not yet with a third element, a 'rule' for actualization of this aspect. The thirdness in which this actualization takes place can be paraphrased as "objective manageable abstraction of an area (with awareness of loss of detail)". This thirdness describes accurately what determines the tourist's basic trust in the map in general, and more specifically in the instrument he carries in his hand to free him from the chaos of the city. In fact, this instrument itself, being a sign - as, by the way, is the city - consists of a vast number of signs. Next to abstractions of streets and buildings, the map carries other signs functioning as symbols. Consider H for hospital, a cross for a church,… When the user stumbles upon a sign like this, he acts according to habit, without wondering about its meaning.
This suggestion by association is justified for most signs on the map. However, some signs are put on the map in a specific manner so that they attract attention to them in a way that can no longer be justified by the generally accepted and necessary objective abstraction to be found in thirdness. What we are dealing with is the tendency to depict historical buildings of a city, its most important churches, city hall, malls, etc. no longer with symbols that are part of general 'cultural heritage' and therefore can function on a basis of suggestion by association, but by giving them a more iconic representation. Moreover, these iconic signs are often being depicted in disproportion to the map's scale which nevertheless determines the size of the 'secondary' elements of town.
This type of representation of the city is created by city-marketers who bestow a completely different functionality on the map than the tourist does. The latter wants it to be an instrument that objectively leads him through the city to a destination of his choice. The marketer has an image of the map as a guide that is supposed to attract the tourist's attention to specific elements of the city. Depending on the product one wants to promote - product to be interpreted in as broad a sense as culture or gastronomy - one will literally and metaphorically enlarge certain signs. This way the city is being reduced to museum, bar, etc. by (ab)use of the map.
The reason for the tourist to believe this does not only have to do with his basic trust in the map, but also with another assumption which is active in both his reasoning and his use of the map as a culturally accepted, universal assumption. The tourist - as a human being in reality - believes, based on acquired experience, that which is bigger to be of greater importance. The principle of the homo mensura is being applied here. Whether the bigger elements on the map are more important - simply because they are bigger - is uncertain, but at the moment it is the most probable explanation for the tourist and, under the given circumstances, an imperative one.
The problem consists in those specific elements being indeed more important, but not because of their objective proportion in relation to other elements - we could call them objects - in reality. They are more significant on the basis of a specific marketing strategy. City marketing abuses the homo mensura principle to fulfil its own desires. The enlarged elements of the city are not necessarily more important objectively but more significant to the initiators of the map. Based on this general assumption the question that always has to be asked and answered is: "more important to whom?"
However, the danger exists that the tourist, with this one ideologically coloured map as his only reference, approaches the whole map in a non-problematic way, led by the automatism with which the brain makes associations and projects assumptions on signs.
If the tourist is constantly being confronted with maps which abuse his assumption of objectivity, he is very likely to believe that what is bigger on the map objectively is more important although this is unjustified. Once this conviction becomes the basis for the way we relate to a map, we have slipped from a semiotically complex process into non-critical inference. The map is than being considered reliable the way it is; it has become a stereotype that is no longer being questioned. It already was for the marketer, abusing it as such, but now it has also become one for the tourist, yet he will employ it as a stereotypical map of a stereotypical city.
Kinds of Spatiality
The map one is being provided with for free is a purposeful violation of the principle of reality, not based upon its own impotence, but on an ideological map that is being imposed upon the map drawn according to cartographic principles. The map works here as a transforming, deforming glass plate with a strategic purpose. This deformation, however, has become regular. That it could come to this not only has to do with the already mentioned assumption, but also with what Merleau-Ponty calls a third spatiality. It exists next to the first and second spatiality as described by Kant. This last philosopher makes a distinction between space as a form of external experience and the objects that are located in it. Consequently, for Kant space is a sort of power which makes it possible for objects to be connected to each other. On a non-reflective level - living amongst objects - we consider space to be the setting or attribute of objects. On a reflective level however, we are in search of the source, trying to find the object that underlies these relations. The first conception Merleau-Ponty characterizes as physical space, the second he considers to be a "homogeneous, pure position".
Merleau-Ponty nonetheless judges that this is but the perception of things in concrete relations and feels that this is a naive way of living. Since our map deliberately upsets the relation between the sign it is itself and the city as the object it claims to represent, it is more useful to approach it with a concept of spatiality which focuses on what Merleau-Ponty calls "the primacy of perception". To substantiate this, he describes an experiment in which spatial inversions are being created by the use of lenses that reverse the image on the retina which make the environment at a first glance look unreal and upside down. However, a couple of days later, especially when the body is active, one considers this reversed environment to be normal, although right has become left and vice versa, and sound cannot be localized unless the source is found within the field of vision. Merleau-Ponty explains this adjustment by presupposition of an absolute within the field of the relative, a space that even survives an extreme disorientation like this. According to him, a system of possible actions has to exist and a virtual body "whose place is defined according to task and situation, such that this body with its systemic possibilities can even take over for the actual body when things situated around the body assert a direct power over it."
Obviously the functioning of the map is not as extreme as the experiment of Merleau-Ponty. Nevertheless, one can detect a short-circuiting between reality, the object surrounding the user of the map and the map itself. A short circuit which is more manifest than the paradoxes a cartographic representation entails. In the experiment mentioned above this might take a few days; when using the map, it only takes a blink of an eye before a virtual conception, an interpretant, of the (seemingly) represented city has been installed in the tourist's brain. A conception that deviates from reality in the specific way the map designers had in mind but which the tourist is unaware of.
The tourist considers the map as sign to be non-misleading and iconic, but in reality it has become symbolic precisely because of the regularity of the deformation. The map as stereotype functions as a Peircean argument or delome.
"It is a Sign which has the Form of tending to act upon the Interpreter through his own self-control, representing a process of change in thoughts or signs, as if to induce this change in the Interpreter."
As sign the map has become a legisign, a type, established by the mechanism of the marketers but not transparent to the tourist who still considers it to be an icon and continues to use it as such. Through this antithesis the map in fact disturbs the relations of the designed triad city-map-interpretant. The map has, as Peirce calls it, gained a certain form of self-control, shows a change, a deformation of signs, an aberration of the idea of basic trust. It also transports this to the subject that constructs the interpretant, but there it is being suppressed by unconscious pre-assumptions on the part of the tourist. The designer of the map is aware of this and specifically uses this mechanism to mislead the tourist. This way the map succeeds in creating an interpretant that is still related to the sign but whose from the outset indirect relation to the object city has now been fully perverted. Based upon this pervertation a second triad is being created.
At first sight, this triad seems to follow all the rules of the Peircean system since it finds its starting point in the interpretant of the first triad.
The interpretant of the city map becomes the object of the second triangle, which is normal, but in this second triad another component of the first one is present, albeit in another role. The city, being object in the first, now becomes sign. According to the mechanisms of deformation described above the interpretant has become more real to the arriving tourist than the city has ever been. Thus the map foists, via its intrepretant, an identity on the city. The city is no longer itself, but a sign of the interpretant. If the map was meant by the marketer to emphasize historical buildings, the city as sign of the interpretant of the first triad has now become an abstraction and pervertation of itself, existing only as a series of monuments. The interpretant in this second triangle becomes the image of the city as a theme park, where the theme depends on the enlarged signs on the map. The city as covering sign possesses each time those specific signs that are being demanded by the first interpretant as object of it, but therefore, out of sheer necessity, gives up a vast number of other signs that in essence define its singularity.
The city as sign functions here as an index, as the city is being directly and effectively influenced by the object it is forced to "be-token". The city has become a sinsign, each time exteriorizing a different quality (quality, the city itself consisting out of a whole of qualisigns) such as historicity, gastronomy, etc., demanded of the object.
At that point, for the tourist the city no longer exists, it only exists as a simulacrum. In Peircean terms it is possible to state that the map itself as sign disturbs its own relation to the object it betokens. In Baudrillards simulacrum theory we can state that a simulation of an area, substance or other existing reference no longer takes place. Baudrillard defines it as the generation of something real, without source or reality, by a model: the hyper-real. At that instance the city no longer precedes the map, but rather the other way round: its the Precession of simulacra. The map generates the city.
Loving the reality of simulacra?
The real is being substituted by the signs for this real, an operation in which every real process is kept at a distance by its operational duplicates (in the different interpretants of several maps). In the space of the simulation, the real and the model are being completely confused. According to Baudrillard, there is no longer a critical and speculative distance between the real and the rational. The tourist can no longer see the difference between reality and what the 'map' or model (deceitful in Peircean terms simply via the interpretant) tells him about this reality. In fact the tourist is no longer capable of seeing reality. The real (the city as an object) is not being realised in the map (the sign), but hyper-realised. The hyper-real is the destruction of the real, not by violence but by canonisation of the model. Once this has taken place, the real ceases to exist. The city may still posses a distinct form and materiality, but for the tourist it no longer exists in this, its own, specific materiality.
If the most reliable representation possible (the one the tourist believes to know) finds its basis in the principle of equivalence of the sign and the real, the simulation uses the inversion of this utopia. Baudrillard calls it the radical denial of the sign as value, of the sign as inversion and execution of every reference.
A semiotic analysis shows that there still remains a reality of the city underneath the simulacrum generated by the interpretant of the sign.
The question, however, is whether the semiotician needs to free the tourist from his delusion and whether he, when becoming a tourist himself, will be able to free himself from the deep-rooted assumptions we have discussed.
Does the possibility exist that the simulacra, through semiotics, can still be reduced to the order of obvious simulations and dissimulations, which would give one the chance to regain a grip on the 'silent essence' of the real city?
And if so, suppose we can make the tourist aware of these (semiotic) processes, does he want this to happen? Is it not easier to discover an unknown city in just a delusional way?
Baudrillard, J., In the Shadow of Silent Majorities, New York: Semiotext(e), 1983
Merleau-Ponty, M, Phenomenology of Perception, New York: Routledge, 1962
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