Inventing America: a model of cartographic semiosis

By William Boelhower
From Word and Image, Vol. 4, No. 2, April-June, 1998
Scanned, spell checked and marked up by Emily Zimmerman, October 14, 1997

The cognitive possibilities and limitations which characterize the culture of the map can be in part illustrated by Northrop Frye's anecdote about a Canadian doctor travelling on the Arctic tundra with an Eskimo as his guide:

"A blizzard blew up, and they had to bivouac for the night. What with the cold, the storm, and the loneliness, the doctor panicked and began shouting 'We are lost'! The Eskimo looked at him thoughtfully and said, 'We are not lost. We are here'." 1

Of course, 'here' is not the name of a place and semantically it amounts to zero. But I cannot help wondering if the doctor's fears would have been assuaged had he taken a compass with him and perhaps two of Padre Coronelli's maps of the North Pole (figures la and 2). In this case he could have immediately established his position with some degree of mathematical-Euclidean certainty thereby depriving Frye of his humorous plum. Evidently, the problem the doctor has with the Eskimo's 'here' is that it is a merely topographical reference, a deictic gesture. It refers exclusively to a state of nature, to the natural order. On the other hand, the Eskimo's own existential tranquillity would not have been increased by the scientific ratio of the Coronelli maps. To the doctor's incomprehension, he might have delighted in identifying his mimetic double there and might have warmed to the pictographic narration of the ritual of the whale hunt (figure 1b) ; but as for the rest of the map's expertise, he would certainly have ignored it, his own reading of the geosphere being based on a different cultural grammar. Indeed, had the doctor been given the chance to heed the figurative level of the Coronelli maps -- to study it as something more than superfluous decoration -- he might not have panicked at all. The doctor is lost (out of place) because he does not fit in with the wharp of the Eskimo's deictic 'here'. The scenic icescapes, the bareness of the uninscribed space, the sparsely distributed details of the zoomorphic system and of the human habitat (figure 2) , all pertain to a type of embedded knowledge attributable to the Eskimo -- a so-called natural, primitive man.

It goes without saying that the doctor, as representative of a sophisticated technological culture, has a long and winning cartographic tradition to back him up. One need only recall, for the doctor's sake more than for our own, the exemplary tale told by that convincing colonial captain and part-time map-maker, John Smith, which brings us even closer to our own cultural foundations. Captured by a band of Pamunkey Indians and about to be killed, Smith tells how he pulled out his compass and proceeded to enchant his audience with a lesson in cosmography:

"But when he demonstrated by that globe-like jewel the roundness of the earth and skies, the sphere of the sun, moon and stars, and how the sun did chase the night round about the world continually; the greatness of the land and sea, the diversity of nations, variety of complexions...and many other such like matters, they all stood as amazed with admiration."2

Not only was Smith saved as a result of his swordless cosmological defence, but he was also led to the banquet circle and roundly feasted. It is just such theoretical acumen as this that informed Smith's own maps of Virginia and New England, both of which display a superior kind of geo-graphein (or earth-writing) in comparison to the Pamunkeys' more direct, ancestral, understanding of the earth. Contrary to the doctor, it seems that Smith was never frustrated by the map's mimetic bondage to the topographical order upon which it is so inescapably built. The same 'globe-like' jewel that helped Captain Smith to hold his ground in Virginia also made it possible for the English to arrive there in the first place and most importantly was the theoretical eye behind his mapping of the European presence. Accustomed to the success of scientific discourse and imbued with the Cartesian tradition, the sons of Smith naturally presumed that a certain cartographic version of reality, the Captain's, was the version.

Indeed, since the reintroduction of Ptolemy's Geographia in the early 1400s -- which Columbus used erroneously to calculate the 77° of Mare Occidentalis separating him from Cipangu3-- the scale map's authority has steadily increased. Its analytic eloquence gave Renaissance cartographers the confidence to establish an objectivist vision of the world no longer contaminated by imaginary fictions or literary and theological opinions. With this cartographic culture in mind, we should have no problem in following the syllogism of Columbus' adventure: he discovered the new land because he knew it was there; and he knew it was there because the technics of the map told him so. As John Parry points out in his book The Discovery of the Sea, there is nothing casual here.4 The culture of the map systematically destined Columbus first to know and then to act. What is important for our discussion on the inventing of America is the well-known fact that from 1492 to 1522 a concentrated series of major geographical discoveries coincided with the golden age of Western cartography. Never more than in this period was the place of the world the place of the mappemonde; and both world and map were subject to highly volatile and rapidly changing perspectives. So interwoven is their relationship that the following research matrix-- a va et vient between the two propositions -- naturally proposes itself: 'America' is a cartographic revolution; the cartographic revolution is 'America'. Implied in this reflexive game between the culture of the map and the forming of Euro-American territory and identity is a constructivist methodology which assumes as its starting point a homological relationship between homo faber and homo loquens. 5 Columbus, Verrazzano, Cabot, were above all expert cartographers and only then legendary discoverers. America itself is named after the man entrusted with the Padrón Real, the official map of the Portuguese king. And as I hope to show, in other ways too America would take the cultural form prescribed by the map.

Negatively put, both historical period and scientific procedure suggest that without the map, there could have been no new world and no new settlement. Said in another way, the map both as a minimal and maximal cultural sign is the ideal text for studying the way Indian land was transformed into EuroAmerican territory and settlers from various nations into a homogeneous ethnos, as the ideological boast goes. In the Revolutionary period neither Washington nor Jefferson -- the first a surveyor, the second an amateur cartographer-- needed to be told that the map was the necessary condition for America's taking-place as a nation, for establishing one's 'supreme relation' as citizen (to use the words of Henry James ó) -- since it was the only form of writing that could demonstrate to the nations of the world the exact size of the new country's body politic. Without boundaries there could be no patria. In this case too, the map preceded the people and then assumed a normative role in pre-establishing a spatial order for solving the political problem of the one and the many in its territorial and ethnogenetic forms.

Positively stated, we can say there is a continuous semiotic play between the matter under analysis (the land) and the form of the analysis (the map). Voltaire was right about topography, 'On m'appelle nature et je suis tout art'.7 In the context of the inventing of America, the French philosophe's distinction reminds us that it is not so much the discovery of the new continent that matters as it is the way it is seen. Theoria, in fact, means making visible; outside of the activity of interpretation what is seen really has little significance. To repeat, we might say that the culture of the map is America's precognition; that is, the map needed to have already interpreted in order to be able to interpret the new continent. At the centre of the map is not geography in se but the eye of the cartographer.

If true, this fact brings us to a new respect for the in-forming relation between the histroy of modern cartography (the scale map in particular) and the history of the Euro-American's being-in-the-new-world. It also leads us sons of Columbus and Captain Smith to study the map not so much as a representation of space but as a space of representation. The adventure of discovering and exploring America implies physical and cognitive mobility across an open series of heterogeneous spaces, by which the European subject attempts to weave such infinite variety into a unified discourse. As one might have anticipated, this type of combinatory calculus defines the structural desires behind both Euro-American culture-building and cartographic activity. But it is exactly by forgetting that the map too is involved in such great adventures and is equally obsessed by the social rage for a constructive order that one reduces it to a highly transparent, static system of representation. In this case, the map has once again bought its reader's respect at the cost of disguising its own strategies. The result is that all of the narrative depth depicted on its surface remains hidden and all its historical journeys denied.

Once placed within its own cartographic tradition, however, the map's objectivist ruse can be discovered for what it is. Only then can we begin to notice now its critical nature and insecurity, now its dissimulating cleverness and the complexity of its conventions. Since it is an incredibly hybrid text, one should actually take the time to feel its political muscle, salute its military potential, and delight in its aesthetic seductiveness: these readings have in part already been provided.8 What still remains is the even more fundamental task of defining the map's peculiar generative logic in a perspective which will restore to the viewer its spatial dynamism, its temporal narrativity, and its unfailing subjectivity. These components in turn contribute to what we can call a cartographic semiotics, the systemic possibilities of which do nothing if not repeat combinations of cartographic history. In fact, the genre's most important historical moment, when it was called upon to invent the other hemisphere of the globe, coincided with the critical moment in which the conventions of the modern Ptolemaic map were jostling with those of the old medieval map to represent American space. Cartographic form, in anther words, was undergoing a paradigmatic shift, and its laboratory for experimenting with new structuring techniques was of course the new world.

For propaideutic purposes only, it may be convenient here to correlate the semiotic drama of the map with the following typology of historical acts which contributed to the shaping of American territory: the pictorial map with the moment of contact and discovery; the portolan chart with the activity of colonization; the scale map with the period of nation-building. Obviously, this typology is arbitrary and these cartographic text-types overlap. They are not at all chronologically unilinear or generically pure, yet each is dominated by a specific semiotic key and function that match the three moments of the shaping of America. The medieval pictorial map features as its major representational mode the icon, which was still the most effective means for expressing the explorers' original and enchanted contact with the new continent. The myth-laden Indian and the virgin land were the first real protagonists, thus making the image a dominating cartographic vehicle and rival evidence to the more difficult practice of exporting the object itself to lay at the feet of the king, queen, and their court. The Cantino planisphere of 1502 and the slightly earlier Juan de la Cosa chart of 1500 are models of the icon's official function in making an important public statement about the radically Other (figures 3 and 4) .

The more practical portolan, which concentrates almost exclusively on coastline space and nautical conditions, tends to string dense toponymic chains along the outer edge of the new land. It relies heavily on the mnemotechnic device of naming to indicate possession and imminent settlement. In comparison to the image map, the portolan's dialogical enthusiasm for the new land is more unabashedly Eurocentric, which is evident in the spread of European writing on its surface. The Maggiolo map of 1524 and Gerolamo da Verrazzano's 1529 map, respectively (figure 5), exemplify with a considerable degree of generic purity this new type of descriptive strategy, which will continue to dominate throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the European nations battle for American space primarily through toponymic rhetoric. The final system more strictly concerns a mathematical and formal conception of spatial definition and is most prominent in the projection of a rational and juridical organization of the new Northwest territories to be made into future United States. Here boundaries precede settlement and make a nationalist claim for patria and peoplehood. But the importance of the strictly Euclidean ratio of the point, the line, and the surface, of meridians and parallels, longitude and latitude, is already evident on Edward Wright's map of 1599 (figure 6). This map is a further improvement of Mercator's cartographic projection and certainly reflects a peremptory confidence in the culture of technics. Once again, even though the three modes of representation can be used to identify map-types and different cartographic procedures, they necessarily coexist on single maps.

Keeping in mind this cartographic tradition and its systemic structures, we are now in a position to grasp simultaneously the map's double function of opening up and closing a territory. The syntax of this activity is based on the two paradigmatic moments that generate the tension and drama of any journey: a point of departure and a point of arrival. In this light the map's progress in plotting America is a pilgrim's progress. It traces the peripli of a people and thus pertains to the order of story. It visibly builds a vectoral tension ordered along an east/west and a north/south axis, but this spatial composition can also be read temporally -- time being a function of space -- if we read its synchronic segmenta diachronically. In this way we can measure the map's Olympian desire to achieve a maximum degree of stasis in terms of total movement, which it pretends to do by simultaneously representing all possible journeys. This schematic organization, however, should not discourage us from equally seeking its generative itineraries, where the cartographic/cultural past lies buried and its future projected.

The map as made, with its centre everywhere, is clearly the result of its making just as the most perfect map of the built nation is hopelessly inscribed with the history of nation-building. The old Daedelian myth of seeing the ecumene from on high -- where only the gods are permitted --ends in catastrophe. Analogously, the map cannot hide the cartographer's original sin. In the beginning, 'America' was caught between two opposing modes of cartographic tradition, the image and the Euclidean line, and these faithfully renect a vision of America as place and as passage, respectively. The originating source-text of the new land took the form of the image-map. It was most important for the explorers to have some thing to show for their travels. The route itself was ultimately secondary, a mere means, even if for them it was everything. So a pictorial landscape gave purpose to the goal; the image functioned as place and the route (the mathematical line of the compass rose) was important only because there was a point of arrival. If we begin from the perspective of the line, however, the mapping of America becomes the history of the concealment of place and image. The map now becomes the route and America sheer passage. Global circulation over the continental territory was, after all, the categorical imperative of nation-building. But if the global-route-line becomes the dominant factor of the cartographic text, then the local-place-image becomes mere context. At the global level-- that is, on the abstract surface of the scale map -- context disappears, place is no longer important. The image, local space, now functions as the missing answer to the question of circulation and the success of the culture of techné.

The' combinatory passion of the scale map, though, cannot hide the map's inevitable sutures and caesurae, its repeated recommencements through toponymic repetition, and its blank spaces -- all of which call attention to the very journey of cartographic representation. But before describing the semiotic locomotive in this journey, I would like to clarify what may seem but a small mystery of cartographic authority which every map raises willy-nilly. In the famous planisphere of Sebastian Cabot, the seventeenth legend reads in translation:

"Sebastian Cabot...wishing to succeed in convincing me, made for me a plane figure...on which he traced for me with as much science and exactness, the degrees of latitude and longitude, and also the direction of the winds."9

In his analysis of this legend, Henry Harrisse speculates about a third person intervening between Cabot and the viewer but concludes that the legend is 'only a pedantic prosopopoeia by which the map is made to speak as an animated being'.10 Actually, beyond the presence of a possible historical or rhetorical voice, there is here a more elusive and ambiguous presence that is responsible for producing such cartographic meaning.

This subject makes an emblematic appearance on the frontispiece of Giacomo de Rosi's late seventeenth-century atlas and is accompanied by the following inscription: 'Mercurio Geografico overo Guida Geografica in tutte le Parti del Mondo' (Mercury Geographer or Geographical Guide throughout the Wide World). In the Rosi representation, Hermes/Mercury is shown to be the mythic manipulator of cartographic tools that he is. As the god of mapmakers, his patronage is obligatory. Indeed, any description of the map's semiosis will be at best a modest autopsy of the god's undissectable presence. He it is who rules the map's semiosphere by taking on a number of now forgotten mythic roles.11 Not only is he patron saint of the technical arts and primordial blacksmith, as his helmet suggests (figure 7), but also god of the occult and magical sciences. In the role of messenger, inventor of the alphabet, and transvestite trickster, he manipulates the cartographic orders of the line, the word, and the image, respectively. If this dramatic presence needs to be recalled today, great Dutch map-makers like Abraham Ortelius and Gerard de ode were well aware of the map's dynamism when they applied the titles Theatrum and Speculum to their atlases, two key metaphors of cartographic readability. The map, then, is both a scientific and artistic text in Hermes' hands, which prompts me to cite these words of Giulio Macchi as caution to all map viewers: 'à chacun sa déformation'.12

I would now like to suggest a descriptive model for a cartographic semiotics, without which the map risks being reduced to a loose aggregate of representational procedures. What is also needed is a global map of the map's sign activity so that one can go beyond single and necessarily partial cartographic performances. This will require us to understand how each of the elementary systems of image, word, and line produces semiotic information; that is, how the map's object, the world, is transformed into these three different ways of encoding space. The cartographic semiosphere pertains to this superior level of systemic interaction, to the costructuring dance of word, image, and line as they elbow each other about for the right to arrange and dominate the map's design. Each system tries to deal with the activity of the other two in terms of its own language, while the costructuring dance is elaborated according to the four modalities of communication, translation, interference, and distribution.13 Furthermore, there is no way of abating this semiotic battle, as can be seen in the systemic fight over blank space, for no single system can satisfy the representational functions of the other two--even if it may overpower them. At any rate, cartographic history shows that the map's semiosphere is always structurally irregular, but as the Russian semiotician Jurij Lotman helps to explain, such irregularity is the very reservoir for producing new cartograhpic information.14

In the designing of America, blank space became such an acutely critical area for sustained intersystemic activity that mapping families burned up semiotic combinations with convention-defying rapidity. In fact, this is why the discovery of America and the golden age of cartography go hand in hand. While the map's semiotic space can be divided up locally into various sized segmenta or politically plotted structures with one of the three systems having or seeking compositional control, there is often a highly readable key at the macrostructural level that announces what the map considers its paramount achievement. In the Juan de la Cosa chart (figure 4), for example, the image of St. Christopher covering the presumed but unknown passage to China clearly makes a meta-narrative statement about the systemic hegemony of the icon. At the level of the semiosphere, I presume this means that its particular semiosis has been assigned the task of unifying the map's journey and surface. But this declaration does not in the least guarantee the image-system's actual effectiveness. The icon's very location along a horizontal axis of centre/periphery as well as the dramatic sense of movement it conveys call for the mathematical intervention of the line's ratio to legitimate the promise of the pictorial gesture.

On the other hand, in Martin Waldseemüller's world map of 1507 (figure 8) which is considered to be the first to show the name 'America', a miniature map has been inserted at the top centre of the large map and is flanked by the dominating portraits of Claudius Ptolemy and Amerigo Vespucci. Each is holding one of the cartographic instruments that made the globe map possible, and the entire insert serves to celebrate their technical skills and scientific authority. Still, the spatial centre that dominates the map is a toponymically dense Europe; while America, stripped of the pictorial images that alone might have represented the European's desires, fears, and hopes with regard to that space, bears along its western edge the sole inscription 'Terra Ulteri Incognita'. In this instance, therefore, the suppression of the image expresses bad faith poorly concealed. The conception of the map as a simple recording of things (the objectivist view) is here guaranteed through a mapping practice based on interpretative simplification. But in this particular case, the system of the word speaks for the buried fantasy of the image, a weak but real source of systemic interference. As for the semiosphere, therefore, it remains a dynamic field of sign production precisely because there is no common language to totalize image, word, and line into an intersystemic stasis -- which leads us naturally to seek out their individual devices.

The peculiar semiosis of the image can be understood more easily if we place it in the orbis pictus tradition of the Roman map, a beautiful example of which survives in a medieval reproduction known as the Peutinger Tabula. Here the map's dynamic itinerary is expressed completely in pictorial syntax, in graphic representations of the physical and humanbuilt terrain. The Roman general Vegetius explains the practical capacity of this classical 'road map' in a single comment: 'Non solum consilio merltis, verum adspectu oculorum'.15 Later on, with the development of the scale map, this truth will be slighted and the image will often be reduced to a mere subjective fragment. But the Peutinger Tabula reveals a type of figural power for which there is no substitute. Certainly, the regime of the line cannot rival its expressive status or substitute its scenic perspective. Through its playful theatricality, the system of the image solicits an actorial presence while allowing the viewer to be an 'on the scene' observer. The pictorial segmenta of the Peutinger Tabula, for example, suggest an itinerary of cultural frames ranging from baths, inns, bridges, temples, cities, forts, and various natural spaces of the Roman world. What we have here, however, is more than an historicalethnographic mise-en-scène, for the image's evocation of mass, its existential physis, and empathetic chromatism present the crucial mimetic truth that without topography there can be no cartographic geo-graphein. As for the Greek word 'grapheus', it refers to writer and painter alike.

The system of the image, in other words, materializes the consciously mystic relation between land and map. It composes the map's material plot and reminds us that the other systems are precariously dependent on--and exposed to--the earth as signifier. The image's physis calls for contact, puts us in touch with local place, weaves a subtle cosmological net over heaven, earth, and man with an immediacy that neither line nor word can match. All this is nicely exemplified on the Cantino world chart where the new world is depicted as a lush green land with a mild climate, beautiful symmetrical trees, and bright red parrots--a locus amoenus in all of its phatic force. Clearly, a cartography of the image asserts a cultural myth of contact with a nature that remains America's prehistoric source of perennial renewal. As the line's regime cast its geometrical scheme over more and more of the new continent, however, the image was progressively stripped of its context and forced to serve as a frozen icon along the borders of the map. It only retained a dramatic function in those spaces where the line's global desire still had not reached. The basic tension between the local and the global realms, between the image and the line, in the map's semiosphere then increased in these blank spaces, and the map's systemic dynamics took on the overtones of a battle for cultural homogeneity. In this context we can again see how the image and the line represent two different approaches to American dwelling. Ralph Hall's map of Virginia of 1636 graphically illustrates the type of kinesics involved in holding one's ground at the referential level, while at that of the semiosphere an equally intense intersystemic struggle is taking place. The two levels, the signified and the signifying, are inseparable. Furthermore, as the image inevitably disappears with the receding blank space, one is contemporaneously presented with the history of America's disenchantment and the advance of the culture of technics. Needless to say, the map's desire to cover itself with writing will inevitably be frustrated. There will always be blank spaces, the virtual space of the menacing image, lurking in the map's interstices.

According to the line's culture of technics, cartographic blank space can only stand as an obstacle to political and cultural consensus, to the epos of global conquest. The projected contents of this space are familiar enough: the forest, Indians, wild animals, the devil. 'Terra Incognita' the toponymic system calls it. As cartographic tradition has it, these spaces, considered uninhabited, are also uninhabitable. But it is in such spaces as these that cartographers generally place their image sequences. As Hall's map shows (figure 9), when America is the object, the res picta is invariably of Indians and their world. So on the one hand we have the image/the Indian/local dwelling and on the other the line/the European/ global circulation. By means of the looking-glass image, the viewer free falls through or outside of the mathematical surface of European technics and into the state of nature, where the Indians live. The fall is very much an issue of descent versus consent, to use the definitional terms of Werner Sollors.16 In firing upon the red men, Hall's soldiers are seconding the topophobia of the line's regime as well as its intolerance of the image. Only the image and partially the word as toponym give local place a chance to speak its localness.

As for the Indians, they recognize no such thing as abstract, purely instrumental space. This, too, one can see on Hall's map, where the tribal scenes, which were originally drawn by John White and then printed by Theodore De Bry, indicate what the original spirit of dwelling on the .American continent was like.17 The circular forms of their mundus/habitat express a mythic being-in-the-world based on a vertical cosmology in which heaven and earth are joined by the fire. The gods, not men, are the real protagonists, just as continuity is a genealogical practice of ancestor worship.

In the drawing of America, so frequently is the Indian depicted on the map - now dramatically, now as part of an encyclopedic inventory, now as an allegorical vignette of the cartouche - that form and matter have for all practical purposes become equivalent at the level of the image. In fact, a thematic typology of the image-system of my semiotic model would most certainly reveal that with respect to the line and the word, the image is the ideal cartographic locus for representing the multiverse, the oneiric, the metamorphic, the ineffable, the aleatory, the disruptive, the phantasmagoric, the decentred and decentring- all adjectives leading to the disestablishment of the Cartesian culture of the map. Of course, it would be self-defeating to neglect other image functions involving, for example, the dominating exhibition of Sir Walter Raleigh's blazing coat of arms on John White's map of Eastern North America orJohn Smith's heroic portrait on his map of New England (figure 10). But here too one has the sense of being in the presence of a cultura osservante (an observing aculture),18 even if the broadest level of iconic signs deals most consistently with phenomena pertaining to the natural, as opposed to the human-built, realm. I am thinking of all those lines of force inherent in natural space that the order of the line cannot ignore: the flow of rivers, the height of mountains, the various and variable climates, the Indian reservations, the forests. The image, along with the word, acts as filter for such semiotic transactions between the map and geography. And Americans have always believed they can go through the juridical territory of the map and back to nature, to the apolitical, ahistorical, mythic realm of the world. In the cartographic semiosphere this poiesis pertains to the image.

The system of the word, particularly as toponym, is bimodal. Caught between the concreteness of the image and the abstractness of the line, it shares both qualities. Indeed, its semiotic activity may seem exclusively intersystemic and even parasitical. Synchronically, toponymic dissemination appears as so much spilt salt making little cultural sense. But because they are a form of writing, we can presume that toponyms are bestowed for determinate reasons. The founding or institutionalizing of a culture on virgin land through a juridical/political act of naming is a highly ceremonial if not public ritual. As formal acts of possession, such gestures surely indicate the conversion of so-called natural space into a place of cultural semiosis. It also follows that such a structural effect implies a structuring behaviour and a theoretical subject. If we turn to the Verrazzano and Maggiolo maps, for instance, this hypothesis is readily verifiable. What are apparently two casual toponymic lists turn out to be homogeneous cultural lexicons with a very rigid order of appearance and classification. The name 'Francesca' which dominates the continental mass on Maggiolo's map claims the land for the French King Francis, while Gerolamo da Verrazzano prefers to commemorate his brother's heroic adventure by equivocating in one of several legends: 'Verrazano sive nova gallia' (see figure 5). Both maps, however, block a further Spanish advance from Florida by inscribing the North American coast with a chain of French placenames honouring the royal family, members of the court, and other personalities on the European diplomatic scene. Since the actual voyage of exploration ran from south to north, it is natural that the least important personage would find his name up around Cape Cod. The dangerous shoals in the vicinity are called 'Armellini' after a hated papal of licial.19

The real point, though, is that such toponymic chains not only provide us with an embryonic cultural encyclopedia but also with a narrative of ethnogenesis and cultural territorialization. The cartographic narrativization of these themes is generated by the spatial plotting of an advancing toponymic frontier where cultural identity and survival require ideological reproduction. As might now be expected, tension at this level is the result of metonymically extended toponymic chains the juridical function of which is to name a coherent system of cultural circulation and transmission. This activity is further dramatized by the usually simultaneous building of toponymic trees which organize space into various types of vertical structures, such as: nation, colony, county, city, town. During the revolutionary period, for example, the national program of E PLURIBUS UNUM announced just how serious such toponymic hypotaxis could be. Here we need only recall the choice of Greek and Roman place names applied systematically to the surveyed sections of the Military Tract in the northwestern part of New York State in 1789. On the other hand, only at the level of nation-state could a potentially infinite series of toponyms be organized into a highly allegorical discourse of consent, a single cultural continuum.

Taken all at once, toponyms can also be read as the inscribed body of the nation, as glosses on the somewhat magical unit 'The United States of America'. In this perspective we are faced with the sheer distributive syntax, or spatial dissemination, of toponymic journeys. Part of this narrative world even involves the spatialization of letters, their differing dimensions, the variety of their characters, and, of course, their hierarchical grades. This compositional function has much in common with concrete poetry and with ideogramatic writing. Letters now take on a hieratic or magical charge which can be traced back to the hermetic tradition of the 1500s, if not further. Toponyms on treaty maps have such a performative impact and glow. In this context it is important if a placename pertains to a zone of conflict or borders on a hostile country or, indeed, is itself a point of international passage. Such positional semantics further suggests the mnemotechnic function of toponyms, by which they act as the source of mental images of local dwelling.

But now we are obliged to return to the minimal cultural mechanism of the single toponym and its bimodal structure, thanks to which all global discourse is inevitably subjected to potential falsification. The existential dynamics of toponymic chains can only be based on an inventory of local moments, yet it is this very local order that generates cultural chaos and discontinuity. The global drawing together of different geographical places into an isomorphic political-cultural economy- I am thinking here of President Washington's Farewell Address to the nation - cannot but be built on the weak paratactic syntax of heterogeneous dwelling. In the same way, a nation of immigrants cannot but expect the inevitability of ethnic discourse all the while consciously fostering E PLURIBUS UNUM. This paradoxical situation accounts for the dialogic relation between the abstract and the concrete, the one and the many, the global and the local, and, in terms of the map's semiosphere, the image and the line in the internal structure of the toponym. While every toponym belongs to the abstract territory of a homothetic culture and tends to recapitulate it, it also remains historically in touch with its own local origins and with the precategorial energy of its specific natural ground. At this local level, all toponyms are haunted by a difference and express a polysemism intrinsic to the eruptive forces of physis. Now, the word resounds with images, enters into all kinds of signifying play already suggested by the image system, and is full of other times and other words.

But what I have been saying above pertains specifically to a discourse of place, of the word's etymon, of cultural genesis. Every toponym, therefore, contains the story of its own origin and conceals the script of that which took place in its establishment. To interrogate its mystery is to open up a cartographic mise-en-abyme in which there are maps within maps. But far from soliciting the viewer simply to perform an act of historical reconstruction, such genealogical/intensional interrogation also asks one to think the removed and the unwritten. In this sense, not only does an earlier American writing come to light, and then one still earlier, until 'America' is traced back to a founding act on some ideal cartographic Ur-text; but also a trap door is opened in the written surface of the map through which one embraces an arcane, lost world and an oral cultural kinesis.

On Captain Smith's prototype map of Virginia dated 1612 (figure 11), we find the names of ten Indian tribes, some 166 Indian villages, and 16 Indian names of rivers. English names amount to 32. When this map was supplanted in 1673 by Augustine Herrman's important 'Virginia and Maryland' text, a number of cultural refinements were introduced. Indian names were replaced by English names and many plantations were added.20 This change, of course, fits into the logistics of global circulation and cultural unity, where unimpeded cultural mobility (or loss of place) results in the Indians' being in turn out of place. Such a utopian logic, with its supportive culture of the abstract line, is also toponymically apparent in the obsessive repetition of the prefix 'New'. By the time John Foster produced his 'A Map of New England' in 1677, only English toponyms are fixed. Indian presence is reduced to a small number of floating choronyms such as 'Pequod Country', 'Nipmuck', and 'Naraganset'. On European maps of America, by such map-makers as Bonne, Zatta, and De La Marche, there are a host of placenames commemorating the now absent presence of local tribes in the East; while in the blank spaces beyond the Mississippi, such cultural and ethnographic variety is reduced to the single but very real toponymic menace 'INDIANS' in roman capitals, suggesting an equally disestablished presence. Always on the move, the Indians no longer dwell; cartographically speaking, they float about as ghosts, so many futurist words in liberty.

The system of the line is more than a descriptive metaphor for the linear intensity of 'America' as biblical/political allegory: both line and nation-building are merciless with geography in the historical process of ordering it into built space. But here formal and not substantial coherence is a must. The way the line goes about its mapping business, particularly on the national map, is a sure guide to one side of American cultural formation. As a system, the line projects topography onto a single geometric grid, an invisible network of abstract structural ties and infinite possibilities of calculation. Lacking the image-system's physis, it defies gravity and thus escapes Icarian catastrophe. When the Indians first met Columbus, they decided he had come from the sky.21 Indeed, neither cartographic line nor scale-map cartographer seems to be contaminated by contact with the imperfect body of the earth. The scale map as panopticon is the result of the line's achievement of an absolute and closed system no longer dependent on the local perspectivism of the image. With map in hand, the physical subject is theoretically everywhere and nowhere, truly a global operator. Since the line is a non-place --indeed, it seeks to overcome the pitfalls of local discontinuity by representing a logic of permanent circulation - it follows that the person who relies on its technics also seeks to be free of empirical obstacles.

Cartographically, we might then say that the epos of Euro-American expansion is progressively structured by the line's mathematical constructions; while its narrative climax, nationhood, is based on absolute circulation: a strategy of cultural closure aiming at a seeing clearly of all boundaries. It was Hector St. John de Crèvecocur who said that 'Americans are the Western pilgrims' who 'will finish the great circle'.22 But this utopian republican project actually involved the squaring of the circle, since the national line's constructive principle was the orthogonal grid. A graphic illustration of its rationalizing effect is provided by Matthew Lotter's 'A Plan and Environs of Philadelphia' dated '1777 (figure 12), which suggests the type of cartographic play that eventually informed three-fourths of the country.23 With the Land Ordinance of 1785, all of America became Philadelphia. The map's line would predispose a standard type of democratic laissez-faire circulation. The line-map would predetermine the system in which American culture would, in other words, square Crèvecocur's circle. At its systematic best, the cartographic line as the most direct way between two points was reproduced in a utopian form of patria as global circulation. Already in 1683, the date Thomas Holmes completed Penn's plan, the orthodromic line interpreted democracy as dromocracy.24

Nevertheless, at the intersystemic level, the line's semiotic ambition to cast no shadow is bound to fail. It must, for example, inevitably rub its mathematical back against base toponyms if it is to make any historical sense at all. And if it is not interested in questioning local place, but only in combining it topologically, well then local place will surely question it through the system of the image. For the line to make political or cultural sense, it must be grounded in topographical place, and the placing of this incarnated line is nothing but the producing of physical boundaries. Furthermore, the very moment in which the boundary line is perfected, we have a morphological vision of the body of the American state. Never before had a nation-state sprung so rationally from a cartographic fiction, the Euclidean mathematical map imposing concrete form on a territory and a people. Paradoxically, the map's line produced an abstract icon of a utopian state which is itself defined as a state of nature. Here line and image seem to merge.

Precisely because of this confusion, though, the line's system will never achieve pure transparency, will never be separated from the other systems of the map's semiosphere. If America is largely the story of its own making, this historicist axiom equally informs the semiotic activity behind the mapping of America. Forced to change maps with journalistic frequency in order to keep up with the latest, most accurate and comprehensive description of the new world - as title after title on early American maps boasts- the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth-century viewer must have realized how rhetorical and intertextually self-conscious such cartographic enunciations were. In effect, they do draw just as much attention to the artful play of cartographic semiosis and the type of systemic work it performs in creating the reality of the American world, as they do in mediating a presumably more serious scientific content. In the beginning all of America was a cartographic reality; its drawing, a rather conventional affair of the map's culture.



1 - Northrop Frye, 'Haunted by Lack of Ghosts', in The Canadian Imagination, David Staines (ed.) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 27. back

2 - John Smith, Captain John Smith's History of Virginia, David Freeman Hawke (ed.) (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1970), p. 32. back

3 - See John H. Parry, La conquista del mare, trans. from the English by Maria Magrini (Milan: Bompiani, 1984), pp. 70-74; Henry Harrisse, The Discovery of North America (Amsterdam: N. Israel, Publishing Dept., 1969 reprint), pp. 399 401. back

4 - See Parry, La conquista del marr, p. 55ff. back

5 - See Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Il linguaggio come Lavoro e come Mercato (Milan: Bempiani, 1981), pp. 150-156. back

6 - Henry James, The American Scene (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), p. 85. back

7 - Quoted in E. Balmas, 'Motivazioni e significato del mito', Studi di Letteratura francese, Vll (Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1981), p. I86. back

8-I might only mention here three excellent studies that are indispensable tools for those interested in renewing the field of cartographic studies: the catalogue Cartes et Jigures de la terre (Paris: Centre George Pompidou, 1980); the catalogue Hic sunt leones, Geographia a fantastica e uiaggi straordinari, Omar Calabrese, Renato Giovannoli, Isabella Pezzini (eds). (Milan: Electa, 1983); Gtuseppe Dematteis, Le metafore della Terra (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1985). back

9 - Harrisse, Discovery of North America, p. 11. back

10 - Ibid. back

11 - For further information on Hermes' mythic role see Giancarlo Innocenti, L'immagine signifcante, studio sull'emblematica cinquecentesca (Padua: Liviana Editrice, 1981), p. 86ff; Carlo Sini, Passare il segno (.Milan: il Saggiatore, 1981), p. 262ff. back

12 - Giulio Macchi, 'L'image impossible', in Cartes et figures de la terre, p. xi. back

13 - For these four modalites I am indebted to the work of Michel Serres, Hermes I(1969), Hermes II (1972), Hermes III(1974), Hermes IV (1977), Hermes V (1980); all are published by Les Editions de Minuit, Paris. For the motion of `semiosphere', and for his research on spatial modelling in general, I am indebted to Jurij Lotman, in particular La semiosfera (Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1985) and Semiotica e cultura, co-authored by Boris Uspenskij, edited and translated by Donatella Ferrari-Bravo (Milan: Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, 1975). back

14- Lotman, La semiosfera, p. 63F. back

15 - See Luciano Bosio, La Tabula Peutingeriana ( Rimini: Maggioli Editore, 1983), p. 79. back

16 - Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). back

17 - For a full treatment and presentation of White's drawings, see Paul Hulton, America 1585, The Complete Drawings of John White (The University of North Carolina Press and the British Museum, 1984). For reproductions of such maps as Hall's, Smith's, Herrman's and Foster's, see R. V. Tooley, The Mapping of America (London: Holland Press Cartographica 2, 1980). back

18 - For a discussion of this notion see Alberto M. Cirese, Cultura egemonica e culture subalterne (Palermo: Palumbo Editore, 1978), p. 8. back

19 - See Lawrence Wroth, The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), p. 86ff. back

20 - For a discussion of these changes see R. V. Tooley, The Mapping of America pp. 145-ó; and Seymour Schwartz and Ralph E. Ehrenberg, The Mapping of America (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1980), pp. 118-119, and Plate 68 for the Foster map. back

21 - Lettere autografe di Cristoforo Colombo (Bologna: Arnaldo Forni Editore, 1974), p. 90: 'And they believe very strongly that I, with these ships and people, have descenced from heaven...' [my trans.] back

22 - J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York: Dutton Paperback, 1957), p. 39. back

23 - See John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America 1580 to 1845 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982),P. 99. back

24 - For a discussion of this concept see Paul Virilio, Velocità e politica trans. from the French (Vitesse et Pouvoir) by Luigi Sardi-Luisi (Milan: Multhipla Edizioni, 1981 ), in particular the third part, pp. 55-112. back