Finding a Road to Nowhere

I wrote a little paper, almost ten years ago now, contemplating a conflict between the (actual) existence and (honest) acknowledgment of places. This may seem silly. That is, we assume if something exists it is acknowledged. But the more interesting angle is that if something is acknowledged, it therefore exists.

Consider the power therein!

Specifically I focused my paper on Area 51, a military installation outside of Las Vegas, but more importantly outside of anyone’s real jurisdiction or oversight. This paper generated some interest because people seem naturally drawn to mysteries that are easily connected to conspiracies. The conflict between Area 51’s existence and the acknowledgment of Area 51 is the primary vehicle behind its persistent place in the cultural landscape of America. While Area 51 was significant to the study, the larger idea was looking at how we meta-create, as well as meta-eradicate, places with no real physical effort, but through the power of perception. And how is perception generated and maintained, at least geographically? Ahhh… the almighty cartographer and his evil alter-ego, the Master of the Toponym.

It is a fascinating subject.


Anyone who has considered cartography even briefly, let alone been completely consumed by its fabulousness, knows that the master cartographers of old wielded immeasurable power. They singlehandedly created, populated, refuted, promoted, erased, denied, realigned and redesigned huge swaths of the land area (and oceans, too I suppose) on Earth. Consider the map above, the Nova Orbis Tabula In Lucem Edita by the Dutchman, Frederick De Wit in 1670. Beautiful and inspiring. And straight up blank in some places. [Though the increase in knowledge in notable when compared to this one from 1598.]

Blank spaces on a map.

The lure of nova totius terrarum sive novi orbis tabula, the a new picture of the whole, or rather of the new, world. It is what drew Conrad to the Heart of Darkness:

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet — the biggest, the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after. (p. 70-1)

Today the blank spaces on the map come not from a lack of knowledge but a control of it. Oh, the irony. Furthering the irony, Wikipedia lists several known places that are blacked out. Incidentally, Area 51 is no longer blacked out on Google maps. I think this has much to do with the fact that you could buy 1.5 meter resolution satellite images of the location shot by SovinformSputnik ages ago. Perhaps the Cold War was not such an epic fail for the Russians after all, at least in some small commercial realm.

So we see these places today, if we want to. And we do not if we do not want to. Much of that wanting comes from the toponyms assigned to the locations. Long have the mapmakers, arguably the worlds first commercial realtors, dabbled in false names, (or with a more positive spin, just wishful thought up names.) Who has not heard the story of Greenland and Iceland? While most of it is baloney, it is certainly true the Eric the Red (as trustworthy as any land developer, I gather) did opt for what he hoped would be a pleasant-sounding name to get people to come to the land of his banishment. And we took hold of the idea and ran with it. Just look at some of the subdivision names around you sometime. Or look here. I once lived in “South Meadows.” No meadow there, that is for damn sure. Like many grand plans, the life of myriad subdivisions of developers’ dreams did not come to fruition, leaving a whole new kind of ghost town in the modern landscape ( a subject for another time I think.)

But what of those place names that are less inviting? Or perhaps the ones that absolutely refute the existence of the place in the first place? While the intent is harder to come by, the effect is equally interesting. My thesis examined the ability to marginalize entire populations by suggesting that they were not actually “there”. Strictly speaking this relied on a numerical calculation, and was substantiated by creative logic, somewhat akin to a proof in geometry.

Given: Place A has a higher population than Place B.

– If the population of Place A is larger, it is more popular.
– Hence, its popularity indicates it is of a higher quality.
– If Place A is of a higher quality than Place B it is more valuable.
– Then it holds, by the same logic, that Place B is less valuable.
– Clearly then, the people in Place B are less valuable.
– Consequently, based on the postulation above that quality and value are directly proportional, it holds that the people in Place B are of lesser quality.

Therefore, we can nuke them. Or whatevs.

Truth be told, I think about things like this a lot. Sadly, this logic is often applied in all sorts of circumstance [think social hierarchy on any scale… high school, work place, world politics…] And then I was standing at SFMoMA and I saw Peter Wegner’s installation, The United States of Nothing (2007). A brilliant study in toponyms. It told the opposite story: Nix, Null, Nameless, Nada, Zero… place names indicative of Nothing (AZ, 85360) at all. Why? Why would people do this? And where are these places? Is there a logic to it? Of course, I had to find out. So, I made a map, as you do.

Some of the places are very much as you would expect. But then, some of them – not. Not even there at all. I did not notice an immediate pattern. In making the map, I found that only a very few of the places were actually “on the map” and so I relied on the geographic coordinates. I did find one that Wegner did not include on his installation: Nothing, AZ (it is the visible outlier and so perhaps that is why he did not include it.) I did not see any immediate patterns, but I certainly came up with some, region snob that I am. I wondered why so many of the places were not “actual” places. It reminded me of an old cartographer’s trick: the Paper Town.

Paper Towns were/are fictitious place names (the more popular method is the trap street, likely for its more effective subtlety) that cartographers insert on maps as a sort of secret mark to prevent copyright infringement. If your made up place appeared on someone else’s map, they had obviously copied. Like I said, cartography is a welcome home for evil genius.

I don’t know if some of Wegner’s places are paper towns or if they are really just ghost towns, or if it is just a geographic joke, like a signpost placed somewhere for a laugh. To me, their reality is less significant. And that, in effect is the power of the toponym, acknowledgment becomes indicative of existence.

In an interesting twist, while contemplating all of this I was reading a book one of my freshman told me I simply had to read: Paper Towns, by John Green. This young adult novel contemplates the rise and fall of the subdivision, as well as paper towns, as a metaphor for the quintessential adolescent search for identity. It is very clever and also thought-provoking. And there are some great details, like the inclusion of the archetype of the paper town, Agloe, NY and one of the main character’s has a dog named Myrna Mountweazel, a Mountweazel being another name for a fictitious place. [Incidentally, the kids in the novel rely on an online database called Omnictionary, which, in parallel fashion to Agloe, became a “real” website. Now really, that kind of thing is Fun.]

If a place exists only as a construct of the mind, or hand in the case of the cartographer, is it real? [Another running plot line in Green’s novel has to do with the kids working through Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, particularly his ideas about travel and places, and the transcendental notion of being able to experience something based entirely on contemplation…]

Perhaps all these ideas suggest there is reality to be found where you choose to find it, even in a realm as seemingly concrete as geography or a map. Green’s protagonists certainly found more truth in contemplation than in the perfectly named and actualized subdivisions of their native Orlando. If Nameless, GA is real only as a cartographical construct, I find it far more inspiring of intrigue than I do South Meadows in Reno, where I nearly died from “reality.”

I suppose that is the real attraction of Area 51 as well. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but Area 51 as a generic offshoot of the Nellis AFB would be pretty dull. We give meaning to places, for better or for worse. This may be inspired by a name, the absence of a name, a place itself, or even just the idea of that place.

Most likely, it’s the idea.

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About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
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