The territory and the map

An Italian portolan map from 1476, used for sailing navigation, Genève, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 81

Navigation has always been an arduous conquest. A conquest over culture as the map is over the territory.

Finding the way takes time. Evolutionary time. X may mark the spot, but how do you know how to put the X in the first place?

The history of writing and of the book is no less of a conquest and no less of a navigational marvel. Locating sounds and concepts in language, turning them into signs, signs into strings of signs, strings into chains, chains into weaved text, textus, texere, texture, interweaving, tissue into bodies, corpora, bodies of text into books, volumes, codices and tomes.

Once words become without number, the mind gives up on locating them. Memory can take so much in. Then it stops taking more in, and starts thinking of ways of making things easier for itself. Like the index, page numbers, tables of contents, running titles, references. It starts referring itself to itself. Chapter verse. X and Y. The mind plots the best ways to plot coordinates, and thus grab Ariadne’s thread.

We take most of these nav aids for granted. We know where to look because others before us didn’t have where to look and innovated new ways to find the way out of the maze.

The world has always been huge and we’ve always been small. The distance between two points was the same 2,000 years ago as it is today. But our maps have changed. While the territory has stayed the same, we’ve inhabited it differently, armed with laser pointers, ordnance survey maps and search engines.

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