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Mapping the text; “texting” the map

Our group set out to create an annotated edition of Benito Cereno using maps to situate it in social, historical, and postcolonial contexts, and to reveal what the narrative itself leaves “off the map”. As the project progressed, the concept of the map as metaphor–whether a means of geolocation, of representing history, or conferring identity, or of claiming some kind of physical, psychological, political, aesthetic, or linguistic space, among many possibilities–took over. We discussed using text to annotate a map, or using maps to annotate text. A map contains a multiplicity of meaning, depending on who made it and who is looking at it. It’s no wonder, then, that even with a central idea governing our project, we each have used “maps” as a jumping off point into different territories and concepts around what annotation is and what a map, or mapping, can be. Like annotation, mapping is a critical intervention. In some foundational way, is the text a map? What can a text map? What can’t it map? Benito Cereno was published serially. Does a text (or map, or annotation) have to exist in a centralized space, or can it be distributed across virtual and historical spaces? I think our multifaceted group project, in various ways, poses these questions, and attempts to answer at least some of them.

I chose a fairly orthdox approach, using maps and images, for the most part as contemporaneous as possible to either the setting or the publication of Benito Cereno, to provide historical background for words, places, and other elements in the first-published section of narrative that are part of an unwritten subtext of trade, colonial occupation, and religious and cultural violence. Finding and vetting such material is time consuming; using it to annotate a text requires additional framing by way of explanation or analysis.  It was fascinating, however, to discover items like a hand-drawn chart of a mid-19th century voyage from Boston to San Francisco around the perimeter of South America. This very real ship made much of the same route as the fictional San Dominick was first purported by Don Benito to have taken. Although Captain Delano had most recently been trading in China, his ship was a “sealer” based in Boston; I sealing expeditions from Northeast cities often went to the areas around the Falkland Islands to hunt. That chart could easily reflect previous voyages of the Bachelor’s Delight. Maps enable a diachronic visualization of history, real or imagined; geolocating a point in time is also a form of annotation.

3 thoughts on “Mapping the text; “texting” the map

  1. I love your line here, “A map contains a multiplicity of meaning, depending on who made it and who is looking at it.” I suppose a map has an implied cartographer and an implied viewer. I’ve read accounts of colonial surveyors (including George Washington) who, while charting territory to be delivered up to a colonial power, felt either empathy for the natives whose land they would be taking (and whose routes they had traveled to gain entry) or who eyed the terrain with personal greed. Take John Mitchell’s famous 1755 map of North America which extends the borders of the British colonies to the Pacific (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitchell_Map#/media/File:Mitchell_Map-06full2.jpg). I don’t know enough about Mitchell to know how closely he, in real life, aligned with the implied cartographer–one who saw British usurpation of native lands as a predestined fact. You raise such an interesting point that I think I’ll check him out!

  2. Thank you, Lisa, for putting this so perfectly into words!: “As the project progressed, the concept of the map as metaphor–whether a means of geolocation, of representing history, or conferring identity, or of claiming some kind of physical, psychological, political, aesthetic, or linguistic space, among many possibilities–took over.” I have been struggling with a verbal description of how we approached the process of mapping for so long now, I will quote you in my blogpost.

  3. Pingback: Claiming Space, Or: The Text as a “Map” | Doing Things with Novels

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