Gillian Rose and Clive Barnett on cultural objects in the digital age

Is the map a stable cultural object?

Gillian Rose (OU) has a new paper at Progress in Human Geography (PiHG). The key quote from her abstract is:

This paper argues that [cultural geography] must begin to map the complexities of digitally-mediated cultural production, circulation and interpretation. It will argue that, to do this, it is necessary to move away from the attentive gaze on stable cultural objects as formulated by some of the new cultural geography, and instead focus on mapping the dynamics of the production, circulation and modification of meaning at digital interfaces and across frictional networks.

This raises the question of what is a “stable cultural object”? For example, is a map a stable cultural object, or more precisely do studies of “the map” treat it as such? If Rose is correct, then she is pointing to a different understanding of the map, one which is not a stable object in the digital age. If in 1952 America’s leading cartographer, Arthur Robinson, could write a book about “The” Look of Maps, today we understand not so much maps, as mapping(s). A simple example would be the Google map on your phone (watch), which dynamically updates as you move around. This is why I titled my last book “Mapping” rather than maps; to point to mapping as process and “ontogenetic” as Dodge, Kitchin and Perkins would have it (“in the process of becoming”, see also Clancy Wilmott’s fascinating AAG presentation on “Being Big Data“).

Mapping may have an advantage over other sorts of “cultural objects.” If the idea is to see what work such objects do in the world (the materialist manifesto, see Delanda et al.) then maps as instrumental objects come preloaded for such an interpretation. But, there has long been a tradition of the history of maps and mapping, which you would have to say is an opening into possible destabilization. (If something doesn’t change there’s no need for a history, only praise.) As a data point, consider the History of Cartography project. This was conceived in 1977, perhaps sufficiently long ago to precede the saturated digital age we now inhabit. The idea here was indeed to see how maps are not stable, in form or function. Perhaps we forget how controversial that was at the time and how (if it was praising) it at least changed the objects of that praise.

Clive Barnett, who gave an interesting talk last week to our department, replies at length to Rose’s paper here. His argument is complex but one point he makes is to wonder why it has taken “the digital” to make us confront how objects are not culturally stable (and what concentrating on the digital will make us elide,ie by seeing mutability as only or primarily a digital characteristic).

While I like both Rose’s and Barnett’s arguments here, I think this last point is a good one, insomuch as the history of the twentieth century shows that what gets taken up are those ideas or technologies that can travel, circulate and be “calculable.” This is certainly so in mapping, not only in forms of mapping that can be exchanged, but in forms of knowledge that can be mapped and shared among expert and non-expert alike. However, Rose may also be pointing to something “special” about the digital.

What both miss for me, when I think about mappings today, is the imbrication of digital spatial technologies (“new spatial media“) and everyday life in the situation of neoliberal economies. How does value come to be constituted in such situations and how does it travel or circulate? While that it not a new question (I’m thinking of Marx’s Capital Volume 1 here), I’m thinking of how human activity becomes a process of delivering a “return” and how that return is usually one that is calculable. I don’t think we have to look too far to see measures of academic quality in things like the h-index, the ResearchGate Score and impact, journal citation indices, measures of “impact” in the REF, and so on. Place can also be assessed in the same way, hence the proliferation of Livability Indexes.

If we examine the history of cartography we see attempt after attempt to make knowledge calculable, and thus able to circulate, but what we see today is that these circulations are being absorbed to justify flows of capital. Our university recently toyed with the idea of Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) based on an algorithm of performance that would dictate flows of capital to (or from) your unit.

I do think the digital provides evidence of something new here, and Rose is correct to point to it. I am intrigued how this all fits with neoliberalism rise however (I mean the US style neoliberalism since the 1970s). Would be interested to see how Rose/Barnett address that issue.

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One response to “Gillian Rose and Clive Barnett on cultural objects in the digital age

  1. Reblogged this on visual/method/culture and commented:
    And another, this time from Jeremy Crampton, speaking to a specific form of contemporary power(s): “neoliberalism”.

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