Deorbiting the oikoumene

The immersive point of view of itinerary maps like this one by Matthew Paris (made in the 1250s, now British Library, Cotton MS Nero D I) made cartography personally relevant. 

Cartography is a cultural miracle. That we should have developed a ‘map consciousness’ was never in the books, never inscribed in the human way of seeing things. And maybe maps are not about seeing. Maps are not views from nowhere – the illusion of objectivity -, but views from everywhere. They are not birds-eye views (a bird has a point of view from somewhere), but the result of many cultural, intellectual, scientific, literate developments extending over long periods of time. The first maps were, despite the deception of visuality, literary constructions, with the observer immersed in his or her work. Maps existed before projections were understood. They were periplures, journeys connecting dots endowed with meaning and determined by the traveller. The most sophisticated ancient maps were personal projects, culturally determined and psychologically relevant.

The ‘journey’ from within the map to outside of it was long and arduous. It depended on a cluster of other journeys whereby the human mind trained itself to abstract and construct, to count and approximate, in other words, to feel at ease in the realm of the invisible in order to establish the visible beyond what may be seen by any one individual.

The ancient Greeks used the word oikoumene to refer to the inhabited world. But there was a world beyond that of humans, uninhabited, unreachable, invisible. The journeys to the underworld, from Homer to Dante and beyond, developed topographies easily plotted on maps. Even the Western Church fell within the ambit of this map consciousness. The invisible becomes tangible just like a map, showing what there is by means of what there isn’t (its representation, projection, grid, etc). Plotting the oikoumene was the first staging point towards revealing what lies beyond – and when that beyond became imaginable, the Western mind seized it with all its might, and sought to conquer it – in more than one way.


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