From Segedunum to Maya

2012: On Hadrian's Wall path from Grindon to Haltwhistle.

2012: On Hadrian’s Wall path from Grindon to Haltwhistle.

I am a trekker. I have walked from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway, 84 miles, retracing the layout of Hadrian’s Wall. When people talk about maps, about any kind of map, about contour maps, the Paris Atlas, Google Maps, I immediately think about that 84 mile walk that I did entirely with the use of hand-drawn maps by Henry Stedman. Each map is drawn not to scale, but to walk. The first time I used the maps, as my dad and I were walking from Segedunum to Heddon-On-Wall, we were getting used to the scale of the map. Steadman’s maps were measures of walking time, not physical distance. And this is what struck me as I was reading Franco Moretti’s Graphs Maps Trees. While I greatly appreciate what his paradigm has done for my understanding of literary forms and movement, I don’t think this guy has ever walked long long distances, and I don’t think that his maps, rather, his diagrams do justice to pre-automobile travel.

Certainly, one can make a diagram of distance. How close are the inhabitants of Three Mile Cross to a cataclysmic shift in their understanding of their being in space? Mary Mitford’s three-volume Our Village are subjected to centripetal and centrifugal forces: the forces of industrialization, of labor and management, of urbanization, of the enclosure laws, of the state. Each diagram of distance will show how these forces are acting upon the production of the text. Mitford, Moretti seems to suggest, is documenting a shift in audience demands for a type of literature: the village story. This force of reader appetite is shaping the diagram of the novel. As the novels move into the third volume in 1832, the genre, at least according to Moretti’s graph in Figure 9, has fallen out of favor. The action of the stories and vignettes of Our Village starts out concentrated and clustered closely around the village in 1824, but by 1832, not ten years down the road, settings are dissipated from the village, and the majority of the stories take place greater than 6 miles away from the village (Moretti 61, figure 26). Moretti’s different diagrams of distance depict not only changing interactions with space (the country walk), but also serve to illustrate market forces on literary genre and production. As England becomes more urbanized, more centralized, so do the literary tastes of the English reading public. The characters themselves move from the village to the city.

I wonder if Moretti knows how long it takes to walk six miles. How long it takes to walk ten? How about 12? What about 15? What if the terrain is undulating? What if you’re walking in bad weather? What about on tarmac? What is your speed if you’re walking on grass, dodging sheep filth? I kept thinking about Tess, of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, as I was walking. She walked to see her estranged husband’s family, and left her walking boots hidden in the bushes so that she could wear her pretty shoes to meet the Clares at the vicarage. She chickens out. In a terrible turn, her walking boots hidden in the shrubbery are espied by Angel Clare’s well-heeled brothers, mocked, and confiscated to “give to the poor.” Poor Tess has to walk back in her dress shoes. If she walks 5 hours, that’s going to be about 12-15 miles. In dress shoes. As I walked from Haltwhistle to Gilsland, a rolling walk, I thought about Tess, and thought about what it would be to walk those 10 miles or so without good hiking shoes.

As I was walking, I also thought about The Return of the Native and the paths in that novel., Courtesy of the Thomas Hardy Collection, Dorset County Library, Dorchester, Courtesy of the Thomas Hardy Collection, Dorset County Library, Dorchester

A significant number of encounters and plot developments take place on paths, and people walk hither and thither, missing connections and seeing each other from afar. I wonder what sort of graphing and mapping of walking and paths could reveal about physical displacement in English novels?

For his part, Moretti is looking at the macrocosm of literature. He wants to find overall trends and movements by reading distantly. When maps are removed from the physical setting they represent, the details are lost. Certainly, you can trace trends, market demand, audience engagement, economic forces, even the “genetics” of narrative. What is lost in this, dare I say it, positivist approach, is the attention to the little things that walking makes you notice: the rowan tree bent at right angle over Bloody Gap, the distances from mile castle to turret, to turret, to mile castle, the weathered steel bridge at Willowford. This is the walk, the map as flow, which is, in a measurement of time, short. The contour map? The types of trekkers? The economy of the mode of transportation? This is the form, the mediation between the flow and the structure. The structure is the economic process of carving up of the landscape by enclosures, paths, roads, highways, superhighways, train tracks, and runways. The structure, the movement of people over landscape, or of audience over texts, is necessarily a distant view. The trick is not to lose sight, to be reductive: all plots have already been written, all characters are archetypes created in response to market forces, all sentiments can be graphed. Number crunching leads to literary nihilism.

How to . . .

buy a computer
search Google maps
take a bad photo and make it good
distribute music
disseminate a message
make a music video
create a webpage

All while being completely unaware of the software that commands it.

I was going to post a really cool photo to show how Lev Manovich is right on the money in Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury 2013) when he discusses how software does not keep track of itself–its history is gone with the update. Who would want a 2009 version of the street view of Edith Boulevard in Albuquerque in Google maps? You see, I am a Google maps junkie. I could spend hours looking at different layers of the maps in Google Earth. I wanted to share with you a picture of me canvassing for votes just before the 2008 election taken by one of Google’s cars. Instead, I will entertain you with two photos of the beautiful house in Martineztown that we used to own. One is from 2011, the other from 2007. I am sure you can tell which is which, just by forensically examining the shrubbery.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

The problem is that Google writes its user interfaces the same way that Adobe does: it appeals to our desire to have the newest, the best, the most updated, and the old, outdated images are scrubbed. Who wants to have the oldest version of Adobe Photoshop or Premier? The old software that compiles layers of data and algorithms scrubs the history of the place clean.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

I am replaced by the Madrid brothers who prowl our neighborhood for a hit of heroin.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

What is lost? Well, not only an image of Google Street View that I was in, which was, I have to say, pretty cool, but also an image of a moment in time, canvassing before an election, getting to know my neighbors, and being part of a physical history of a place. The software has assumed that I need the newest information, without anticipating the other information that it has scrubbed away. Manovich laments not only the loss of historical software, but the loss of the products created by this software.

What was I hoping for, besides a droll image of me? I was actually hoping for a remediated experience: “digital computers imitate older media” (58). Remediation is “the representation of one medium in another” (59). Not only can I use a computer to recreate a real experience (a drive through Martineztown), but I can also use a computer running software to simulate a filmed or recorded experience of driving through a neighborhood. And I don’t even have to understand how the software works. I probably wouldn’t understand anyway. This is the simulation machine, but in this case, it failed me slightly.

The medium, software, is the message. We have entered a new world of seamless GUI displays, where we hardly agonize over the software running in the background. Tablet computers, Manovich reminds us, are the ultimate in seamless interface: we are seamlessly linked with our media, but also with our tablets’ purposes. The purpose is to create new opportunities not to create, we are warned, but to consume. In order to create much of anything original with a tablet computer, advanced skills are needed to jailbreak the device and then to reprogram it. The purpose of this, alas, would just be to download more apps that are not on the official stores, not to create anything or write anymore interesting programs. The medium, then of the tablet, has a message: download and consume, but do not create. And make sure to download and consume only remediations of what media already does: show movies, make a bad selfie good, read a book, edit a video.

Leave that hard stuff to someone else.