Merely Conventional Signs

During a recent seminar on Vilém Flusser, organised by Ella Chmielewska and Fiona Hanley the discussion got round to the Borges story of Cartographers producing maps of larger and larger scales. I thought that Lewis Carroll had produced something similar in  the Hunting of the Snark (Carroll 1896) which I looked up later

Fit the Second – The Bellman’s Speech

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

bellmans_speech_mapThe full Hunting of the Snark text is here.

Unfortunately  this is the wrong Lewis Carroll map, a better one is described in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (Carroll 1893).

“And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr. “The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

This chimes well with my rather acerbic response to being asked by the Scottish Special Housing Association in the 1970s to produce a detailed  database of their 100,000 properties

The following link has lots of other examples including the Borges one On Exactitude in Science which adds a little versimilitude by adding that

 “In the deserts of the west, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars, in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.”


Flusser, V. (1965) On Doubt trans Noveas, R. M. (2012)

Flusser, V. (2012) To Photograph is to Define in The Journal of Philosophy of Photography (in English, issue 2.2)

Carroll, L. (1896) The Hunting of the Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits The Macmillan Company

Gardner, M. (1967) The Annotated Snark Penguin Books

Carroll, L. (1893) Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

Borges, J. L. (1954?) “On Exactitude in Science.” in Collected Fictions (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), p. 325

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
This entry was posted in Architecture, Empty Signs, Logic, Randomness and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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