Looking for the Territory

January 18, 2019

Here’s one of the most wonderful pieces in all of Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”:

…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 sufficed, and the Cartographers’ Guild 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 as devoted to the Study of Cartography as their Forebears, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without Pitilessness they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winter. 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.

(Always fond of inventing fake authors, Borges attributes this to one Suárez Miranda, writing in 1658; Borges wrote it in 1946.) The strangeness of what Borges is proposing here takes a minute to register: this is a 1:1-scale map, a map precisely equivalent to the territory. The concept spun off an influential work of philosophy, Simulation and Simulacra, in which Baudrillard argues that postmodern representations have not only grown indistinguishable from what they represent, but have at times concealed the absence of anything real at all.

Elsewhere in Borges, another famous passage addresses abstraction in terms of categorization rather than representation:

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Divine Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.

(Again, Borges attributes his ideas to an apocryphal book; again, the passage spins off a core piece of postmodern philosophy, Foucault’s The Order of Things.) The passage is from “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” an essay about a forgotten seventeenth-century formal language. It works a little like the decimal system: “To each class,” Borges writes, “[Wilkins] assigned a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example, de means element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a portion of the element of fire, flame.” Thus language’s signs become not arbitrary but meaningful. This sort of analytical language is, in a sense, a 1:1 map: an attempt to rigorously and precisely document all things.

Both passages are infinitely dry jokes. The 1:1 map captures so much detail that it’s no longer really an abstraction, let alone a useful one; the taxonomy of animals suggests (by exaggeration) that any classification of the universe is ultimately reductive.1 Together, the passages amount to a critique of the whole project of abstraction. Reality is too heterogenous, too specific, too arbitrary be fully modeled in a nonreductive way; if we ever succeeded, the resulting map would be no abstraction at all, and would moreover tempt us to confuse it with the territory.

I’m fond of the 1:1 map as a metaphor for all manner of representation. A mental model is a map of the world. Language is a map of the world. Science is a map of the world. Mere perception is a map of the world: when we look at a chair, we see it as a chair (comfortable or not, stable or not), not as a raw visual artifact.2 (Likewise, we generally see and hear words as words, not patterns and sounds.) Even memory is a 1:1 map, layering past events and people over the landscape of your old neighborhood as you stroll by. The metaphor extends to abstraction in general—to thought in general.

How much of your life is map instead of territory? Your commute, your work, your habits, your interactions with strangers, aquaintances, even loved ones? William James and (later) Aldous Huxley proposed that our brains filter out almost all the dazzling intensity of lived experience; there’s no evolutionary advantage, the theory goes, to stumbling around entranced by the universe. In that vein, you might think of a mental map as a caching layer that minimizes the expensive work of dealing with the territory directly. It’s certainly the case that many of life’s most vivid experiences—art, travel, wilderness—involve novelty.

(That’s not to say that the territory is inherently more vivid. What’s dazzling about the night sky isn’t the territory, the raw sensory input of white points on black. It’s the map: your mental model of the staggering distance and emptiness of it all. Here, the map is more true than the territory.)

Moreover, as thinkers we have to live in the map. Borges’s short story “Funes the Memorious” describes a man who, after a chance head injury, perceives the universe (the territory) in perfect detail and captures it perfectly in memory:

[Funes] knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Río Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. … A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus—all these are forms we can fully intuit; [Funes] could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake. I have no idea how many stars he saw in the sky. … He was the solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost unbearably precise world.

Funes tinkered with several projects. One was an attempt to categorize his past memories: “Two or three times,” Borges writes, “he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day”. (Each reconstruction was a 1:1 map.) Another project was a numbering system in which each number would be represented by a single symbol: “Instead of seventeen thousand thirteen, he would say, for instance, Máximo Perez; instead of seventeen thousand fourteen, the railroad; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, sulfur, clubs, the whale, gas, a stewpot, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. Instead of five hundred, he said nine.” (Note that this is the exact inverse of Wilkins’s project: rather than bringing numeric order to natural language, Funes brought randomness to a numeric system.)

These projects reveal something about Funes’s mind:

Funes, we must not forget, was virtually incapable of general, platonic ideas. Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it bothered him that the “dog” of 3:14 in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of 3:15, seen frontally. … He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I supect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In Funes’s teeming world there was nothing but particulars.

We’re the opposite of Funes: good at abstraction, good at maps and taxonomies, easily blinded to what’s outside the map. Thinking makes us human; more and better abstraction makes us better thinkers but distances us from the territory.

We should try, at least, to identify 1:1 maps when we encounter them—try to tease apart what is map and what is territory. We should try to preserve the ability to sometimes encounter the territory directly. (This is, I think, what people mean by mindfulness.)

  1. “There is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative,” writes Borges. “The reason is quite simple: we do not know what the universe is. … We must go even further, and suspect that there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

  2. Neuroscientific research also points in this direction. The brain, it seems, maintains a series of predictions about the state of the world, refining and correcting them as raw sensory input is processed. (This process goes by the shorthand “Bayesian brain.”) Phenomenologically, what you perceive isn’t the world itself; it’s the brain’s model of the world. The neuroscientist Chris Frith writes, in a memorable phrase, that “our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”