A parable of Maps and Europe’s future

Niccolo Milanese

Jorge Louis Borges – the most European of writers in all but place of birth – tells the story of an Empire in which the people were so fond of cartography that they created a life-sized map of the Empire. The story takes the form of a literary forgery, signed by ‘Suárez Miranda’, and is entitled ‘On Exactitude in Science’. The full fragment is as follows:

 . . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Photo: Flickr

Why did the map fall into disuse? Borges hints towards the obvious reason, that the map is useless as a tool for navigation: it would be just as hard to navigate the map as to navigate the reality, so the map does not serve as a tool. This is a practical problem with the map. But perhaps there is also another reason, which is more subtle. If the Empire was anything like any other Empire, let alone an Empire in which cartography is highly regarded, it is likely that each city, each household, perhaps even each child would want its own map. Not for navigation, but for looking at in wonder, for pride in having such a map. How many thousands or millions of maps are there in the world which are not used for navigation, but ‘just’ for looking at? If everyone wanted a life-size map of the empire, the situation would be totally unmanageable. This is what we might call an ‘aesthetic’ problem with the map. A life-size map would be a kind of monster map, which could devour the empire itself. Indeed, Jean Baudrillard uses the fable of Borges in Simulacra and Simulation to explain that the representation has replaced the original, that it is not the map but reality itself which is lying in tatters, disregarded in the desert.

The practical and aesthetic questions with the map of that distant Empire are issues for contemporary Europe. Making it easier for the European citizen to ‘navigate’ the European Union is the kind of thing that the European institutions try to do daily. One frequent response is to try to make the European Union ‘relevant’ to each citizen and her or his concerns or interests, whether those be buying a car, taking a flight, going to study etc. In this way, the European Union is supposed to come to the level of the citizen, to become relevant to everyday life. But this forgets that a 1:1 replica is of no use for navigation: if the European Union is made relevant to each citizen taken individually as an isolated unit, the map proposed is just the same size as the citizens themselves, and does not help them understand anything, just to follow their private interest. Such an approach forgets that curious citizens, like curious children, also have a vision of the world, and want to examine it, just as children and adults like to look at globes and world maps. A consumerist approach to Europe does nothing to answer this aesthetic curiosity. What is required is a narrative, a vision or a map, which makes sense of the entirety of the European Union.

The title of the parable, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, is also a warning about maps highly pertinent to Europe. There is a strong temptation to say that for the European Union to be a comprehensible political entity, it needs to have firm borders: that the map needs to be clearly drawn, ‘finished’ even. But insisting on too much exactitude sometimes leads to models and maps which have no explanatory power at all. The European Union is a very sophisticated response to today’s world going beyond a logic of nation states and firm borders – it is surely the most adapted of existing international political entities when it comes to making sense of this situation – but it loses this explanatory power when it tries to be too precise in situations that are vague. The vagueness is there in reality, and we fool ourselves if we deny it and try to paper over it. ‘Europe’ is a vague geographical term, and that is its strength, because it allows us to understand connections and overlaps. It is an aesthetic capacity, a ‘negative capability’ as Keats called it, to live with vagueness and uncertainty and not always search after a decisive ‘truth’ where there is none. Keats associated poetry with the development of negative capability.

So we have at least three lessons for the future of Europe, if it is not to turn into desert like that fabled empire: the first is not to try to ‘sell’ Europe to each citizen based exclusively on his or her interests, but to ensure that the map of Europe explains the world in general and helps the individual move beyond his own backyard; secondly, that Europe itself is a usefully vague term, and that the European institutions are useful to explain and change the world precisely because they preserve this vagueness; thirdly, that an aesthetic sense, a negative capability, is an essential virtue for European citizens and therefore should be understood as important in citizen education throughout the continent.