Map-territory relation

From Academic Kids

The map-territory relation--the relationship between symbol and object--is one of the lasting philosophical quandaries.

Gregory Bateson, in "Form, Substance and Difference," from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (ISBN 0226039056), elucidates the essential impossibility of knowing what the territory is, as any understanding of it is based on some representation:

We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. [] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum."

Elsewhere in that same volume, Bateson points out that the usefulness of a map (a representation of reality) is not necessarily a matter of its literal truthfulness, but its having a structure analogous, for the purpose at hand, to the territory. Bateson argues this case at some length in the essay "The Theology of Alcoholics Anonymous".

To paraphrase Bateson's argument, a culture that believes that common colds are transmitted by evil spirits, that those spirits fly out of you when you sneeze, can pass from one person to another when they are inhaled or when both handle the same objects, etc., could have just as effective a "map" for public health as one that substitutes microbes for spirits.

Another basic quandary is the problem of accuracy. In "On Exactitude in Science", Jorge Luis Borges describes the tragic uselessness of the perfectly accurate, one-to-one map:

In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild drew a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, coinciding point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography saw the vast Map to be Useless and permitted it to decay and fray under the Sun and winters.
In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; and in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Neil Gaiman retells the parable in reference to storytelling in American Gods:

One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory.

Jorge Luis Borges, with this apocryphal quotation of Josiah Royce, describes a further conundrum of when the map is contained within the territory, you are led into infinite regress:

The inventions of philosophy are no less fantastic than those of art: Josiah Royce, in the first volume of his work The World and the Individual (1899), has formulated the following: 'Let us imagine that a portion of the soil of England has been levelled off perfectly and that on it a cartographer traces a map of England. The job is perfect; there is no detail of the soil of England, no matter how minute, that is not registered on the map; everything has there its correspondence. This map, in such a case, should contain a map of the map, which should contain a map of the map of the map, and so on to infinity.' Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Night? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictions.

The development of electronic media blurs the line between map and territory by allowing for the simulation of ideas as encoded in electronic signals, as Baudrillard argues in Simulacra & Simulation:

Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: A hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - that engenders the territory. (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 1)

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