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The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver: “You are (not) here”
22nd Sep

2014

The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver: “You are (not) here”

(about maps, representations, shadows, and reality)

The Flytown historical marker at the southwest corner of Goodale Park displays a map with an arrow that says, “You are here”.  But you’re not.

Flytown marker

The arrow on the metal map points to the corner of Goodale and Harrison, about 1500 feet away (a theoretical reference at this point, since those two streets no longer intersect, thanks to the 670 bypass). The arrow should say, “You are NOT here”.

You are here (Flytown)

But this map is not alone in its deception; all maps deceive us. They’re sloppy and imperfect; nothing can be precisely to scale, and geography is always changing. Map apps are notorious for this, leading me down streets that are closed or no longer exist, and neglecting to tell me about new streets and construction. But more importantly – and philosophically – maps point to something instead of showing it to us. For example, there’s a dot or a star on maps that “stands for”, or represents, Columbus; we don’t actually see the city.

map columbus

I experienced a map revelation recently when we took a break at a rest stop on our family’s trip back from visiting relatives in Indiana. I waited for my wife and daughter in the rest stop lobby, where a father was standing with his young son and daughter in front of the Plexiglas-covered maps.

Rest stop maps

He pointed toward the map and asked them, “Do you want to see where Adele was born?” And then he pointed to a dot on the map. I realize that this is a common method for referring to a city. This time, though, I saw it in a new way. I listened more closely to his words, and I thought about what a far cry it was from actually seeing “where Adele was born”, very different from a dot on a piece of paper. Adele was not born on that piece of paper.

you are here (rest stop map)

But this is how we communicate. We use maps, words, metaphors and representations, and we are so used to it that it doesn’t seem strange to speak in literal terms (“do you want to see where Adele was born?”), when we are in fact being figurative (“understanding that this picture represents the state of Indiana, do you want to see how close we are right now to the city where Adele was born?”).

A map goes awry when it points to the wrong place, like the Flytown map. Words are maps, too, and they can also go awry if they point to the wrong object, the wrong image, or the wrong ideas. What do you mean when you say, “I love you”? What does the other person think you mean? English only has one word to point to all the nuances of love that we feel, and that seems like a sloppy map to me. The Greeks have several choices: agape, eros, phileo, and storge. Better maps. The Hindi language has even more choices, and they can be refined further by making reference to a gender and age relationship. Even better! But regardless, we are limited by our language.

Even when we are using and understanding words in a clear and relatively unambiguous way, word maps deceive us on an even more fundamental philosophical level. For example, the word “horse” is obviously not a horse, but a representative “map” pointing your mind to your own personal image of this animal. Or perhaps we’ll refer to “Beth’s favorite horse”, and then we might be talking about a shared image of a particular chestnut horse.

Beth chestnut horse

This is related to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, in which those facing the cave wall can only see shadows of what passes in front of the cave entrance. The shadows on the wall are maps, indicating clues pointing toward reality. The word “horse” is, in this sense, a shadow of a real horse.

Taken one obscure step further, the horse as I physically experience it is a map, too; it’s a more fundamental layer of Plato’s shadow. For example, I see a chestnut horse color because of the light that reflects off the horse and enters my pupil, projects through the lens onto the retina, and is then sent by optic nerves to be interpreted by my brain. There is no “chestnut” color in reality. My retinal cones help my mind create the color. It is likely that your mind creates a similar color, but doesn’t make an actual horse any less map-like. It only confirms that consistency promotes evolutionary success. When both of us are able to similarly spot and interpret a predator (e.g., a wolf, or perhaps a legislator who wants to reduce library funding), we’re more likely to survive. But we’re only one step closer to experiencing reality. We only “know” what our sensory apparatus (eyes, nerve endings) tells us. And what we “know” is only a representation, a shadow.

This is the basis for a classic Buddhist warning that we should not mistake “the finger pointing at the moon” for the moon itself.

Moon

It seems silly to think that anyone would confuse my pointing finger with the moon, but this is essentially what we do every day when we try to describe our thoughts and experiences with our limited language, substituting metaphors and maps for actual experience. It takes a lot of effort to really “see the moon”, to get beyond the shadows and maps to what is “more real”.

The text on the Flytown marker describes the former neighborhood as “democracy’s melting pot” where “a feeling of comradeship” was born, and where “a friendly community…emerged.” These metaphors and adjectives are as good as we might expect, and more helpful than the metal map, but they are still just “fingers pointing at Flytown.”

Flytown marker text

Hearing about this neighborhood from its former residents brings us a little closer. A few years back, Jennifer Hambrick reported in the Short North Gazette that Flytown residents regularly left their doors unlocked, knew each other’s names, trusted one another, and shared the ups and downs of life. She quotes former residents who said that they were “in and out of each other’s houses…like a large, close-knit family” where “…everybody knew everybody, and everybody understood everybody…and everybody got along.”

This is an even better “map”. But I’ll never really know what life was like for the people of Flytown, because those words, even from the people themselves, are merely pointers and indicators. I don’t (and can’t) have first-hand experience; Flytown is not here anymore. When the neighborhood was here, there were as many distinct first-hand experiences of Flytown as there were residents, and I’ll never know what that experience was like. I’m comforted though. The way they saw Flytown was no more real than Beth’s chestnut horse.

The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver

TheSDD@mac.com

 

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