Thursday, January 14, 2010

Text, Geography, Murder

"L'orientation", from Albert Demangeon and André Meynier, Géographie Generale: Clase de 6éme (Paris: Hachette, 1937) (Source: Anthony Vidler, "Terres Inconnues: Cartographies of a Landscape to Be Invented" October No. 115 (Winter 2006), pp. 13-30.

I'm going to mention a scene from towards the end of Guy Ritchie's breakneck Sherlock Holmes (2009). Don't worry, there are no reveals, no necessary "spolier alerts" to put the reader on edge. For those out there who have seen it, there is a scene where Holmes (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) figures out the exact location of a murder that will happen in the very future. Using a map of London and a occult-ish book of magic, Holmes is able to determine this murder-to-be by literally inscribing a set of directions from the book onto the map. Text, then, is used as a navigational aid. Literally, and more importantly, physically. What do I mean by this?

The perils of the text infiltrate the spaces of the city. The two become coextensive. And somewhere between the experience and the perception of a text, there is the primacy of pleasure. In envisaging this hedonistic approach to literature, Roland Barthes therefore points out that a text is an object to be consumed, and that text-consumption is within the province of the reader or critic. The reader or critic does not rewrite a text; rather, he or she completes it by adding those final touches that help disseminate the text and help ensconce it firmly in popular (collective) memory. If we are to interpret the city then as a text, what, then will serve as our guides for navigating and consuming the text of the city?

Demangeon and Meynier, Géographie Generale: Clase de 6éme (Paris: Hachette, 1937)

In an article for a 2006 issue of October, Anthony Vidler describes Situationist space as wholly derived from Guy Debord's childhood ephemera. For "Terrés Inconnues: Cartographies of a Landscape to be Invented," Vidler demonstrates how an elementary school geography text, Albert Demangeon's and André Meynier's Géographie Generale: Clase de 6éme is Debord's own proto-Situationist text to the city. Through various diagrams, plans, and aerial photographs of world cities that act as "objects of memory, reflection, and strategic plan," Debord used the Géographie Generale as a guide for manuvering through the complex conurbations of the contemporary city. He even cut out and grafted images from the text onto his own Situationist maps. A childhood text literally maps the terrain of the Debordian dérive.

Top: chapter on volcanoes from Demangeon's and Meynier's Géographie Generale (Source: Vidler, "Terres Inconnues"); Bottom, from Guy Debord's Mémoires, showing the same volcano from the Géographie Generale (Source: Vidler).

Yet the grafting of a text onto a city can be a subtler enterprise -- with devastating results. In Jorge Luis Borges' short fiction Death and The Compass, Löhnrot, a police investigator, uses clues from the Torah to pinpoint, much like Holmes, the geographical location of an upcoming murder. Borges details an exchange between Löhnrot and the criminal mastermind Scharlach, where the latter provides the reader with a murder map of sorts:

"I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line, So many philosophies have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and half-way between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me as Triste-Le-Roy."

"The next time I kill you," Scharlach replied, "I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless."

When grafted onto the urban space of Borges' story, the above passage describes a rhombus formed by two equilateral triangles. The shape also forms a literal tetragrammaton. the Hebrew word for God (JHVH), too sacred for utterance, and yet superimposed on the city. And in order to decode the tetragrammaton, Löhnrot had to complete his very own psychogepgraphic dérive throught the city. The fact that it is a tetragrammaton that Löhnrot is completing is signifcant, as the final utterance and completion of the forsaken word is what literally spells out Löhnrot's demise.

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