Mistaking the Map for the Territory

I got a new camera a few weekends ago–the most serious camera I’ve ever owned. I didn’t get a chance to put it through its paces right away (though I’ve since found that I’m pleased so far with its compact, solid feel and its performance in low light, and after a whole day with it, I’ve found it a significant upgrade from my previous camera). As I often do with a new pursuit, especially if I have some free time but limited access to that pursuit, I read a lot about this new camera, the Micro Four Thirds system, lenses I might get, and anything else that might help orient me. In the course of my lexical wanderings, I came across this in the review of a lens of interest, discussing the notion that software correction of lens aberrations might be “cheating”:

…film camera lenses were always properly corrected optically, so surely the use of software to achieve the same effect is simply cost-cutting, and therefore somehow “cheating.”

We think this is fundamentally the wrong way to look at it. In photography, what ultimately counts is the final image – the means to get there is relatively unimportant.

To assess a photograph based on the different ways in which a camera might generate the same image rather than based on the image itself is to mistake the map for the territory, as is seeking satisfaction in reading about camera equipment rather than taking pictures. I first encountered the phrase “mistaking the map for the territory” in an academic setting, most likely graduate school, but I’ve come across it in other contexts as well, most recently in discussions of Buddhism, where it’s sometimes used as a trope suggesting the difference between generally characterized and specifically characterized phenomena. It’s based on the recognition that a map is a distortion of the territory it describes, in that it abbreviates and excludes. If it didn’t, it would be the territory itself. The map may be used to determine how best to navigate the territory, but the navigation actually occurs in the territory. A map is judged relative to the territory; the territory isn’t found complete or deficient based on the map.

This doesn’t mean that maps aren’t incredibly useful. Their compression makes them far more suitable for carrying around in a jacket pocket or glove compartment than the city of Venice of the U.S. interstate highway system would be. Yet their limitations must be understood if they’re to be used properly. We must know that one inch on the map is a mile in the territory, and that we won’t be able to see on the map what the gas station at which we’re to turn will look like. But precisely because they’re so useful and, given their abstraction, so much easier to manage, maps often come to replace in our experience the territory they’re meant to represent. If our map is good enough that the dissonance we experience as a result of treating it as the territory it represents is manageable, we may cease to engage with the territory entirely. This could lead to us following the directions provided by our GPS navigation system into a lake. Or it may lead to the worst sorts of fundamentalism.

Schools of thought, belief systems, and the like are more sophisticated maps of less tangible, but no less real, territories. Isaac Newton provided one map of the world that was suffcient to get us through the industrial revolution and to the moon. Albert Einstein provided another that proved more accurate on a smaller scale, which is taking us through and beyond the information revolution; and scientists are seeking still more precise maps. But that process will never lead to the truth, in the sense of getting beyond the map to the territory. As long as these efforts yield descriptions, they cannot be that which is described. Maps do not become the territory, so science will only ever be able to approach the truth asymptotically.

I’ve recently been reading several of Philip Roth‘s books, including the Zuckerman Bound trilogy and epilogue, The Counterlife, and The Facts. It has been fascinating to read those books in chronological order and watch Roth create Nathan Zuckerman, develop him as a character, and, at the point when he becomes more real to the author than Roth himself, flail at (and even toy with killing) him and then try to flee from him into autobiography. You can see Roth discover and revel in his power of creation, much as Cervantes did in the second half of Don Quixote, but you can also see him recoil from the abyss just beyond that creativity, of which Hamlet could have told us, had he but time. At the end of The Counterlife, Zuckerman claims, in essence, that there are only maps, or that maps are all that we might know of one another and ourselves, which for him, comes to the same thing. Roth begins his next book, the autobiographical The Facts, with a letter to Zuckerman speculating about the causes of the breakdown (or “crack-up,” as he puts it) that Roth suffered after he finished writing The Counterlife. News of that breakdown came as no surprise to me, having just finished reading it. In the course of The Facts, he fails to find a satisfying grip on himself in the allegedly straightforward realm of autobiography. He seems only to find a map of the territory of himself, leaving us with a fairly uninteresting and un-Roth-like tale. And in the letter to Roth from Zuckerman that serves as the book’s afterword, Zuckerman tells Roth as much, and it seems that Roth is hopelessly lost in his maps. I look forward to reading on through his oeuvre to find out where this leads.

The writing most susceptible to this sort of misreading is allegory. Not only is allegory, like all writing, a map, but it’s a map of a map, a generalization of a generalization. It seeks not just to compress one set of events into a tale, but to compress the common events of a whole set of possible tales into a single tale. Only gross misunderstanding and considerable suffering can come from a literal reading of something so distorted, as is demonstrated by all of the fundamentalisms with which we’re beset. I don’t know that anything beyond simple instructions can be read literally, but I’m certain that scripture, from Abrahamic to Darwinian to Freudian, cannot be. I know of no better measure of intellectual maturity than the ability to realize that insight.

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