As I investigate the societies area map, piece it together, and try to make sense of it I am reminded of James Corner's essay The Agency of Mapping, and the power of maps in "uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined." I feel as though I must be careful, not to put too much of my own emphasis on the social trails, base locations, or to put too much weight on the center as Corner warns: "The conditions around which a project develops originate with what is selected and prioritized in the map…" 



The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention

James Corner


Mapping is a fantastic cultural project, creating and building the world as much as measuring and describing it. Long affiliated with the planning and design of cities, landscapes and buildings, mapping is particularly instrumental in the construing and constructing of lived space. In this active sense, the function of mapping is less to mirror reality than to engender the re-shaping of the worlds in which people live. While there are countless examples of authoritarian, simplistic, erroneous and coercive acts of mapping, with reductive effects upon both individuals and environments, I focus in this essay upon more optimistic revisions of mapping practices. These revisions situate mapping as a collective enabling enterprise, a project that both reveals and realizes hidden potential. Hence, in describing the 'agency' of mapping, I do not mean to invoke agendas of imperialist technocracy and control but rather to suggest ways in which mapping acts may emancipate potentials, enrich experiences and diversify worlds. We have been adequately cautioned about mapping as a means of projecting power-knowledge, but what about mapping as a productive and liberating instrument, a world-enriching agent, especially in the design and planning arts?

As a creative practice, mapping precipitates its most productive effects through a finding that is also a founding; its agency lies in neither reproduction nor imposition but rather in uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds. Thus, mapping unfolds potential; it re-makes territory over and over again, each time with new and diverse consequences. Not all maps accomplish this, however; some simply reproduce what is already known. These are more 'tracings' than maps, delineating patterns but revealing nothing new. In describing and advocating more open-ended forms of creativity, philoso- phers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari declare: 'Make a map not a tracing!' They continue: 

What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a plane of consistency ... The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an 'alleged competence'. 

The distinction here is between mapping as equal to what is ('tracing') and mapping as equal to what is and to what is not yet. In other words, the unfolding agency of mapping is most effective when its capacity for description also sets the conditions for new eidetic and physical worlds to emerge. Unlike tracings, which propagate redundancies, mappings discover new worlds within past and present ones; they inaugurate new grounds upon the hidden traces of a living context. The capacity to reformulate what already exists is the important step. And what already exists is more than just the physical attributes of terrain (topography, rivers, roads, buildings) but includes also the various hidden forces that underlie the workings of a given place. These include natural processes, such as wind and sun; historical events and local stories; economic and legislative conditions; even political interests, regulatory mechanisms and programmatic structures. Through rendering visible multiple and sometimes disparate field conditions, mapping allows for an understanding of terrain as only the surface expression of a complex and dynamic imbroglio of social and natural processes. In visualizing these interrelationships and interactions, mapping itself participates in any future unfoldings. Thus, given the increased complexity and contentiousness that surrounds landscape and urbanism today, creative advances in mapping promise designers and planners greater efficacy in intervening in spatial and social processes. Avoiding the failure of universalist approaches toward master-planning and the imposition of state-controlled schemes, the unfolding agency of mapping may allow designers and planners not only to see certain possibilities in the complexity and contradiction of what already exists but also to actualize that potential. This instrumental function is particularly important in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to both imagine and actually to create anything outside of the normative. 


The Agency of Mapping: Speculation, Critique and Invention