Toward a Geography of a World Without Maps: Lessons from Ptolemy and Postal Codes
Discussions within geography of the history of the concepts of “space” and “place” are often Whiggish rehearsals of perceived mistakes and misapprehensions; there is little sense that earlier understandings of the concepts have anything important to offer the contemporary geographer. Conversely, one finds little that suggests that reflections on contemporary life might shed light on those now seemingly antiquated concepts. Both views are unfortunate. In fact, viewed from the perspective of current practice, the classical division of topos/choros/geos makes sense not, as is commonly thought, as an ontologically oriented oversimple conceptualization of scalar differences but, rather, as an outgrowth of epistemological differences. The discourses that emerged around those concepts—topography, chorography, and geography—each relied upon a different way of knowing, storing, and communicating knowledge. Indeed, in the absence of the appropriate affording technologies—the map and the data storage device—we had a world without space, which (along with its conceptual relatives, including the “geographic”) emerged as a relatively recent invention. At the same time, against the background of this rereading of the concepts of space and place, much that occurs today turns out to be a matter of place, not space. In fact, the concept of space typically operates either metaphorically or reflectively, and the current practice of using the terms almost interchangeably (as with the practice of using the term “spatiality” to refer to matters concerning both space and place) merely obscures.
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