Mapping Meaning through Language

In his discussion of communication and language in Communication as Culture, James Carey asserts that "Reality is not given, not humanly existent, independent of language and toward which language stands as a pale refraction. Rather, reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication" (Carey, 25).

To illustrate his point, he gives the example of drawing a map in order to show a child how to walk from his or her house to school, or to show the spatial relationship between the two locations: "By arranging lines, angles, names, squares denoting streets and buildings in a pattern on paper, one transforms vacant space into a featured environment . . . space is understood and manageable when it is represented in symbolic form." (Carey, 25-27). As such, maps do not merely represent but create our perception of reality.

Likewise addressing the relation between the human body and the external environment through which it navigates, in "Walking in the City," Michel de Certeau speaks of the intertwining network of urban pedestrian paths and the impossibility of re-tracing the experience of literal footsteps:

Surveys of routes miss what was: the act itself of passing by. The operation of walking, wandering, or 'window shopping,' that is, the activity of passers-by, is transformed into points that draw a totalizing and reversible line on the map. They allow us to grasp only a relic set in the nowhen of a surface of projection. Itself visible, it has the effect of making invisible the operation that made if possible. These fixations constitute procedures for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice.
(Certeau, 97)

In her article "The Screener's Maps" Mireille Rosello analyzes "the relationship between reading and technology and the redefinition of how bodies move or write themselves in space" (Rosello, 123). She relates her study of hypertext to "the analysis of the invisible interconnection between reading (the relationship between the body and the text) and mapping (the relationship between bodies and space)" (Rosello, 129).

Rosello comments directly on Certeau by saying that "‘Surveys of routes miss . . . the act itself of passing by' as surely as one would miss hypertextuality by insisting on obtaining a hard copy of a web." Rosello continues, however, by placing the wanderer, or the web browser, in a position of authority: "The virtualized bodies of the walkers . . . are also writing their own text [through] the interaction between their bodies and space."

The act of reading an electronic text, or the process of navigating a non-linear organizational space (such as the virtual domain of the hypertext or the literal domain of the city) must therefore be seen as an associational exploration, and any attempt to trace or transcribe the experiential path of the wanderer will merely push it to a false fixity of linear sequence and ultimately render "invisible the operation that made it possible."

Yet concerning the mental travel of a reader through a textual space, Gunnar Liestol points out in "The Reader's Narrative in Hypertext" that the literal act of reading - even in the exploratory realm of hypertext - is continually trapped in linear time:

Nonlinearity in time is imaginary; it is a fundamental contradiction of terms and necessarily impossible . . . Reading and writing are linear phenomena; they are sequential and chronological . . . although their positions as stored in space may have a nonlinear organization.

While in the hypertextual domain the text itself may be nonlinear (as it varies from reading to reading), the actual experience of reading remains inextricably bound to linear time.

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Web page written and constructed by Laralynn Weiss, Georgetown University