[ on digital matters and a dissertation ]

With apologies to students of Roberto Rossellini for decontextualizing a complex film

(Written for History 615: History and Cartography (2007))

Flowers_francis In 1950, Roberto Rossellini directed The Flowers of St. Francis.  In the movie,  Brother Francis (not yet saint) directs one monk to cook for the other friars. The cook throws the brotherhood’s entire available supply of food into a giant cauldron which appears to be the height and width of a small room, figuring that he’ll make meals enough for them all to last a long time.  Needless to say, the results are apparently hard to digest.

So is Jeremy Black’s book, Maps and PoliticsMaps and Politics is a synthesis of theses and discussions about the characteristics, creation, and uses of maps of all kinds, from fantasy maps to real-world representations all thrown into the pot without apparent structure or direction.  Leaving no approach to mapping unexplored (collective groan concerning analogy), Black moves discussion from J.B. Harley’s postmodern historiographic focus on maps as discourses of hierarchical power to broaden the analysis to the subjectivity of maps as “product and recorder of human agency.” (165)   Black is pointing to limitations he perceives in the theories of  J.B. Harley, to the portion of Harley’s  work that discusses deliberate cartographic distortions promulgated to establish and enforce the ideology and rhetoric of governments and institutions.

This approach was only one among Harley’s multi-faceted analyses of maps and map theory, their history and their uses, and how to analyze them; but Black emphasizes this aspect of Harley’s work to the exclusion of the rest as the foundation for his own analysis of power relationships.   He does make the point that the subjectivity of maps reflects reciprocity among positions of power and diverse points of view in politics, society and culture, not just among empire-mongers; however, he hops around the world, across historical eras, among various cartographic representations and a plethora of analytical categories to do so.

Which brings me back to Rossellini’s St. Francis.  At the end of the movie, Brother Francis tells the monks to spin and spin until they are dizzy, then to go out and preach the gospel in the direction toward which they fall.  One old and simple brother continues to spin long after the others have toppled; Francis asks him repeatedly if he’s dizzy yet.  “No,” the monk replies again and again as he keeps spinning.  Finally amused and impatient, Brother Francis asks him if he sees anything.  “I see a butterfly.”  “Then follow the butterfly,” he is told.

Maybe that works for monks,  but not for monographs. Jeremy Black would’ve probably done better to fall on a direction, stick with it, and explore more deeply rather than to flit through his subject.

Jeremy Black.  Maps and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. (Yes, I read the wrong book.  The assignment was actually Jeremy Black’s Maps and History, excellently commented upon in blogs of my classmates. Sigh.)