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Mapping the forbidden



Mapping the forbidden is in itself forbidden. And in my understanding the most forbidden of everything forbidden is that which refuses to be categorized, that which is neither this nor that, ungraspable forces which do not sit still but hop capriciously about. Aristotle consequently knew what he did, when he between the two concepts of identity and difference inserted a third position called “the excluded middle”, a non-bridgeable gap which in the same figure unites and separates, liberates and imprisons; an unruly space located beyond the realm of conventional reason; a no man’s land of liminality which the well behaved must never enter. But Aristotle also argued that what one cannot do perfectly, one must do as well as one can.
Mapping the forbidden
Olsson, Gunnar (2010). Mapping the forbidden. Fennia 188: 1, pp. 3–10. Hel-
sinki. ISSN 0015-0010.
Mapping the forbidden is in itself forbidden. And in my understanding the most
forbidden of everything forbidden is that which refuses to be categorized, that
which is neither this nor that, ungraspable forces which do not sit still but hop
capriciously about. Aristotle consequently knew what he did, when he between
the two concepts of identity and difference inserted a third position called “the
excluded middle”, a non-bridgeable gap which in the same figure unites and
separates, liberates and imprisons; an unruly space located beyond the realm of
conventional reason; a no man’s land of liminality which the well behaved must
never enter. But Aristotle also argued that what one cannot do perfectly, one
must do as well as one can.
Gunnar Olsson, Uppsala universitet, Kulturgeografiska institutionen, Box 513,
S-751 20 Uppsala, Sweden, E-mail:
One reason why the forbidden remains forbidden
is that it is one with the taboo, a concept which is
etymologically connected not merely with the
terms “under prohibition” and “not allowed”, but
with the words “sacred” and “holy” as well. What
is taboo is consequently doubly tied first to the for-
bidden itself then to the strongest form of the tak-
en-for-granted, i.e. to those aspects of the uncon-
scious which are crucial enough to be blessed by
the gods themselves, by definition beyond reach.
As one siren sings COME, another blares DAN-
GER. But why should I devote my professional life
to issues which are not important enough to be
taboo? How could I possibly stop wondering
about how I understand how I understand?
These are the questions with which I grappled
also in my latest, perhaps last, book, a minimalist
piece called Abysmal: A Critique of Cartographic
Reason (Olsson 2007). And let it now be known
that that title was carefully chosen, for the noun
“abyss” is synonymous with the terms “deep
gorge” or “bottomless chasm”, the rift which cuts
through the landscape of understanding, one set of
categories placed here, another set there. As in the
book itself I would now like first to descend into
this canyon and then ascend again from the depths
with a map of what I have found. A dangerous ex-
pedition indeed, because the abyss is not merely
one with Aristotle’s excluded middle but the very
home of POWER itself. And so strong are the so-
cialization forces built into ordinary language that
the adjective “abysmal” tells the potential tres-
passers how they should feel if they try to break
into that palace off limits: Abysmal! Horribly bad!
For these reasons of power and socialization I am
once again reminded of Enuma elish, the Babylo-
nian tale of how the god Marduk gained and re-
tained his elevated position as the Lord of lords.
The premise of this oldest creation epic extant is
that in the beginning of the beginning nothing has
yet been formed, because in the beginning of the
beginning nothing has yet been named. All that
there is are the spatial coordinates of above and
below, cardinal positions waiting to be inundated
by the fluids of masculine Apsu and feminine Tia-
mat, the former sweet, the latter bitter. And as if to
underline the spatiality of its own structure, the
term apsu literally means “abyss” and “outermost
limit”, by linguistic coincidence connected also to
“the great deep”, “the primal chaos”, “the bowels
of earth”, “the infernal pit”. A perfect example of
proper name and definite description merged into
Eventually there is a tremendous power struggle
and sweet Apsu is killed by Ea, the most outstand-
ing of his offspring. On top of the corpse, i.e.
across the abyss, Ea then builds a splendid palace
4 FENNIA 188: 1 (2010)
Gunnar Olsson
for himself and his wife Damkina. There, in the
Chamber of Destinies, their son Marduk is con-
ceived, the most awesome being ever to be (Dal-
ley 1989: 235):
Impossible to understand, too difficult to perceive.
Four were his eyes, four were his ears;
When his lips moved, fire blazed forth.
The four ears were enormous.
And likewise his eyes; they perceived everything.
Marduk’s weapons are numerous, but most deci-
sive is the magic net in which he goes to capture
the recalcitrant Tiamat and the four winds by
which he eventually blows her up. When it is fi-
nally over, Marduk, great lord of the universe,
“crossed the sky to survey the infinite distance; he
stationed himself in the apsu, that apsu built by
[Ea] over the old abyss which he now surveyed,
measuring out and marking in(Sandars 1971: 92,
emphasis by the author). No longer dressed in the
warrior’s coat of mail but in the uniform of a land
surveyor, he then proceeds first to the construction
of a celestial globe and finally to the creation of a
primeval man, the prototype of you and me, a
creature explicitly designed to serve as slaves of
the ruler’s vassals, three hundred stationed as
watchers of Heaven, an equal number as guardi-
ans of the Earth. Not an invention formed in the
image of the Almighty, though, but a savaged con-
coction stirred together from the blood of the
slaughtered Kingu, Tiamat’s lover and commander
in chief. Mankind a dish of Boudins à la Mésopo-
tamie. Nothing like a perfect copy of the perfect
original, merely a black sausage. And as a way of
guarding his ambiguity he gave to himself a total
of fifty names.
Throughout these events the abyss remains the
power center par excellence, the broken clay tab-
lets of Enuma elish the ultimate proof of the Baby-
lonians’ insights into the secret workings of human
thought-and-action. And therein lies in my mind
the real reason for keeping the abysmal gap be-
tween categories taboo, for it is in the ontological
transformations of the excluded middle that the
magicians of power are performing their tricks.
Hence it is only by entering that forbidden space
of imagination that the analyst can ever hope to
understand how the absent is made present, the
present made absent.
The connections between presence and absence
are vividly expressed also by the figure of Janus,
my own favorite among gods. What intrigues me
with this pivotal symbol of gate-keeping is less that
he is equipped with a body that makes him see in
opposite directions at the same time, more that he
has a mind which allows him to merge seemingly
contradictory categories into one meaningful
whole. From his watchtower at the middle of the
bridge he is consequently in a position to keep
both sides of the abyss under constant surveil-
lance, in the same glance catching a glimpse of
the pasts that once were and of the futures that
have yet to come.
Given the Greek fear of the void itself well
expressed by the concept of the excluded middle
it is not surprising that Janus was invented in
Rome and not in Athens. In the lands surrounding
the Mare nostrum, though, he was everywhere to
be seen, for not only was his image stamped on
practically every coin, but in religious prayers this
janitor of janitors was the first to be mentioned and
in cultural rituals this son of January was equated
with the beginning of all beginnings. Diana was
his godly consort, a connection which explains
why the doors of his temple stayed open in times
of war and why they were shut in times of peace.
Like ordinary lovers, gods need their privacy too.
Janus’s main concerns were one with my own:
creativity, power, socialization. Defiantly I there-
fore pray again (Olsson 1991: 16):
Oh Janus! Help me become a sinner. Let me un-
derstand how you break definitions and thereby
create. Show me how you erase what others see
as irresolvable paradoxes. Teach me the equation
of that third lens inside your head whereby con-
tradictory images are transformed into coherent
wholes. Speak memory, speak! SPREACH, Janus,
SPREACH! And Babel’s walls come mumbling
Accordingly, and throughout my scholarly and ar-
tistic life, I have been searching for a place inside
Janus’s head. From that zero-point of the excluded
middle I have then tried to grapple with the taboos
of limits, the sins of trespassing, the braiding of
epistemology and ontology, the challenge of writ-
ing in such a way that the resulting text actually is
what it is about. With the aim of understanding
how Janus stayed sane while ordinary people in
similar situations of double bind go crazy, I have
therefore tried to place him on the operation table,
cut his skull open, lay his brain bare, investigate
how his mind is wired. Why and how, for instance,
did the Romans elevate this categorical juggler to
godly status, when we, their descendants, diag-
nose his counterparts as schizophrenic madmen?
FENNIA 188: 1 (2010) 5
Mapping the forbidden
Why did they afford him a special place in their
pantheon, while we isolate his likes in the sound-
proofed cells of the asylum?
Perhaps the reason is that without distinctions
our thoughts-and-actions would have nothing to
stick to, our lives nothing to share. Such vacuities
are in fact the norm in the Realm of Psychosis, that
literally unthinkable province where there are no
initiation rites, no scars, no individuals, hence no
society either. And this emptiness may well ex-
plain why the deeply psychotic is so frightening,
because the deeply psychotic lives outside the
laws of thought, an inhabitant of the excluded
middle, an alien beyond both identity and differ-
ence. A non-mappable world without fix-points,
scales and projection screens a cartographer’s
Lest it be thought that my understanding of the
void is too closely tied to the Abrahamitic world, I
now recall a stunning visit to the city of Kandy,
once capital of the Sinhalese kingdom which in
1815 was annexed by the British and made a part
of colonial Ceylon
. There the high priest of the
temple – the shrine which among other relics
houses the tooth of Buddha, historically the na-
tional symbol granted me and my wife a rare
audience. Not just any audience, though, but a
visit to the holiest of the holy, a small room on the
upper floor with an altar bestrewn with jasmine
flowers and the sacred tooth enshrined in a casket
of gold. Before entering this forbidden place, we
were most carefully instructed how to behave, es-
pecially not to step on the threshold, the barrier
that separates the commoners in an antechamber
and the higher classes in a middle room, on the
one side, from the inner sanctum with the king, his
closest ministers and the water-increasing official,
on the other. A wonderful illustration of how the
excluded middle can be materialized in an un-
touchable janitor.
The mind boggles as it encounters the walls of
Babel, Kreml and Berlin in yet another setting, the
hierarchical structure of the three chambers of the
temple highly reminiscent of the narthex, nave
and sanctuary of the orthodox church, the Kandy-
an threshold effectively serving the same exclu-
sionary functions as the Russian iconostasis. Most
revealing is nevertheless the story that before King
Vimaladharmsuriya I in 1592 entered the same
room as we did in December 2007, he kneeled
and put his forehead on the polished threshold.
The stamp of power in the place of power, the
mark of Cain in a Buddhist context, a clear warn-
ing that anyone who sets foot on the threshold is
trampling not on a material object but on power
itself. This circumstance, rather than the Greek
fear of the void, is in my analysis the real reason
why the excluded middle is excluded. And as a
way of protecting his own holiness from possible
usurpers, the Jewish
Lord put a mark on the rest-
less wanderer so that no one who found him
would kill him. In the same breath a blessing and
a curse, yet another indication that it is in the na-
ture of absolute power to violate every rule of be-
havior, to do exactly as it pleases. The reason is, of
course, that in a norm system where both a and
not-a are valid at the same time, everything is per-
No wonder, therefore, that it is from a position
in the excluded middle that the Almighty rules, his
words-and-deeds predictably unpredictable, his
palace surrounded by a non-penetrable defense
system, his propaganda machine everywhere to be
heard and nowhere to be evaded. Yet everything
codified in the constitutional law of Mose’s first
stone tablet, in my heretic (hopefully not blasphe-
mous) interpretation the most penetrating show of
power and submission ever formulated. It is hard
to imagine a more power-filled statement.
The first stone tablet is nothing less than a sociali-
zation instrument that no one can escape, hated
whip and enjoyable carrot in the same document.
A rhetorical masterpiece firmly rooted in the con-
cept of trust, a social glue which under the label
pistis was foundational to Aristotle as well; the
common point is, of course, that without pistis
there can be no communication and that holds re-
gardless of whether the chosen language is that of
money, poetry, logic, geometry or anything else.
This in turn led Aristotle to the insight that dialec-
tics and rhetoric are the twin sisters of each other,
just as it later led Nietzsche to the conclusion that
the two activities of logic and geometry are forms
of rhetoric which after long use have become so
credible that they have changed names and turned
into categories of their own. It cannot be said more
clearly: reasoning is a persuasive activity ground-
ed in the tension between personal trust and social
In a very general sense it is this question of how
we find our way in the unknown that lies at the
heart of European culture, perhaps of all cultures.
In Erich Auerbach’s influential analysis of mimesis
it is located exactly in the taboo-ridden interface
6 FENNIA 188: 1 (2010)
Gunnar Olsson
between the certainties of Odysseus’s scar and the
ambiguities of Abraham’s fear, you and I dangling
in the abyss in-between (Auerbach 1953). Two
modes of understanding, two modes of being, two
ways of living which over the centuries have been
condensed, purified and eventually codified, one
in Aristotle’s Laws of Thought, the other in the bib-
lical formulation of the commandments, the latter
not merely the ten that can be counted on the fin-
gers (The Holy Bible, Exod. 20: 3−17, Deut. 5:
6−21), but a staggering total of six-hundred-and-
thirteen. The interpretations vary accordingly,
even though it is generally agreed that the ten
words of the Decalogue may be divided into two
groups such that the first three or four govern the
relations between God and man (the Constitution-
al Law) and the rest regulate the relations between
man and man (the Civil and Criminal Law).
In times of crisis it is the first tablet that tells the
ruler how to rule and the subjects how to submit,
and that is regardless of whether the potentate
happens to be a Machiavellian Prince, a dictatori-
al Führer, an elected Prime Minister, a concerned
parent. It is hard to imagine a more power-filled
statement, not the least because it is there that
YHWH for the first time reveals his own name, an
expression so closely related to the Hebrew word
for “to be”, hvh/hjh, that it is often translated as
“The Being”. As a way of further stressing its im-
portance, it was this invisible entity itself, not one
of its usual emissaries, who in the prologue let his
subjects know that it was I who liberated you, I
who let you out of the land of Egypt, I who cut
your chains. The implication is, of course, that
since I have proven myself to be such an outstand-
ing leader in the past, you are wise to trust me also
in the future; accordingly, every incumbent as-
sures the voters that they never had it so good, that
they should read his lips and scrutinize his record.
Although you should prepare yourself for blood,
sweat and tears, at the end of day there will be
milk and honey.
Thus I decree, because I am who I am. Such are
the self-referential words of the Law’s prologue.
Immediately following that naked piece of rhetoric
comes the first paragraph of the Constitutional
Law, a proposition as stunning now as when it was
first uttered: I shall be your dictator! Wherever this
Almighty happens to be and by definition he is at
the same time everywhere and nowhere – he shall
rule over everyone and everything, like the survey-
ing Marduk measuring in and marking out, show-
ing mercy to those who love him and killing those
who hate him.
The unknown genius who was the first to coin
the phrase that there must be no power before (or
according to some translations, “beside”) me, was
certainly wise enough to realize that whoever de-
clares that he shall be my supreme ruler leads a
dangerous life. For that reason he proceeded to
erect around the apsu palace a two-tier defense
system consisting of both a wall and a moat, the
former constructed as a ban on the (mis)use of
metaphor, the latter as a rule against the creative
associations of metonymy. The purpose of the sec-
ond paragraph is consequently to ensure that the
weapons gathered in the rhetorical arsenal will not
fall into enemy hands, rephrased that any critique
must be silenced before it is uttered. In that mood
the jealous
Lord now declares that you shall for
ever know your place, never commit the sins of
trespassing, never question his authority. In par-
ticular you shall not possess the means for making
of me a graven image, picture, statue or any other
caricature, never use my name in vain or tie it to a
definite description.
The recent debacle about the Danish Moham-
med pictures in its proper light (Olsson 2006), for
the graven image has always been the master key
to idolatry and thereby to the doors of competing
ideologies and potential usurpers. In the present
context it is especially noteworthy that the He-
brew term for “image” refers more to the dwelling
place of the divine than to the pictorial representa-
tion of its invisible being (Stamm & Andrew 1967:
82). It follows that if you tell me where you are, I
shall tell you what you are. Yet, as soon as I at-
tempt to make the invisible visible, I run the risk of
falling into the trap of misplaced concreteness, of
deifying the reified. But by outlawing the as-if, the
Untouchable guarantees that no news will ever is-
sue from his subjects but exclusively from himself.
It cannot be said more clearly: the second para-
graph amounts to a devastating auto-da-fé, a com-
bined prohibition against picture-making and sto-
ry-telling, the two primary modes of translation,
understanding and reasoned critique. Even so, the
declaration that I shall be your dictator is so outra-
geous that no censor will ever be strong enough to
get it generally accepted. Other socialization tech-
niques must therefore be mobilized as well and
that is indeed the purpose and function of the third
paragraph. With that goal firmly in mind, the law-
maker therefore once again reminds the congrega-
tion that it was he who took them out of the land
FENNIA 188: 1 (2010) 7
Mapping the forbidden
of bondage, he who gave them the freedom that
he himself is now set to take back. Therefore, after
all these ordeals, I hereby declare that you deserve
a rest. However, this precious time you must not
spend alone but always in the company of your
likes. In the synagogue and the church, at the play-
group and the faculty meetings, the confirmations,
funerals and family dinners it is at these gather-
ings that my officials will instruct you how to
think-and-act. The Kantian thesis about the neces-
sary unity of consciousness in another form, for
you must always remember that you are nothing
but a cog in my machinery. I am the spiritualized
embodiment of your unconsciously taken-for-
granted, the pivot of the world. And provided you
honor your father and mother I shall grant you a
long lease on the land that I give you. Like the drip
drip drip of the raindrops, when the summer
shower’s through, so a voice within me keeps re-
peating you, you, you.
And so it is that I read the commandment to
keep the sabbath holy as the most crucial para-
graph of the Constitutional Law, the ultimate guar-
antee that the power structure of monotheism will
survive. And so it also is that Aristotle’s Laws of
Thought and Mose’s Laws of Submission may be
read as alternative maps of power, two codifica-
tions with the shared purpose of showing how in
the same breath you can both tell the truth and be
believed when you do so. It is difficult to imagine
two formulations of greater historical significance,
layers of meaning deeply embedded in the taken-
for-granted, a palimpsest of the already but not yet.
Every map is a palimpsest, a product of imagina-
tion, that uniquely human faculty which assigns to
the semiotic animal the privilege of making the ab-
sent present and the present absent. Simsalabim
and the vistas from elsewhere lie open in front of
us, the image of a reality never seen before, a uto-
pian no-where miraculously changed into an ex-
isting now-here, a shade of blue turned into an
ocean, a line into a road, a dot into a city. By all
accounts a most remarkable version of the incan-
tation “Let there be and there is,an outstanding
case of rhetoric performed on the high wire.
No wonder, therefore, that in absolute regimes
even the most innocuous map tends to be treated
as a state secret, for just as no magician wants his
tricks to be revealed, so every ruler guards his pal-
ace and masks his face. And that in turn explains
why the biblical redactors let the
Lord say to Mo-
ses (The Holy Bible, Exod. 33: 19−23):
“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of
you, and I will proclaim my name, my
Lord, in
your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will
have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom
I will have compassion. But”, he said, “you can-
not see my face, for no one may see me and live.
Then the
Lord said, “There is a place near me
where you may stand on a rock. When my glory
passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and
cover you with my hand until I have passed by.
Then I will remove my hand and you will see my
back; but my face must not be seen.
What a remarkable passage, nothing less than an
exhibition of power undressed, an image viewed
from an abysmal cleft, a name spoken in an utter-
ance of self-reference. Even more remarkably, I
here detect an allusion to the second paragraph of
the Constitutional Law with its double ban on pic-
ture and story, the two modes of representation
that lie at the heart of cartographic reason. No
wonder that the surveyor of power leads such a
dangerous life, for how can his analyses be trusted
when the faceless phenomenon he sets out to cap-
ture is itself steeped in distrust. The liar’s paradox
in a different context, for you can never tell in ad-
vance who in the early hours might be knocking
on your door.
And therein lies the profound difference be-
tween the social ethics of the first and the second
stone tablet. For even though the concept of pistis
permeates both documents, the form of trust which
ties you and me together is mutual, the trust be-
tween the ruler and his subjects is at best (or is it at
worst) one-sided; since the Absolute is by defini-
tion self-referential, his name (if a name it is) can-
not be translated into a definite description. It is
highly fitting that the sign of the covenant that the
Lord makes with Noah is a rainbow, a palette of
fleeting colors in the clouds rather than a material
object on the ground.
Even so, the doubters refuse to be silenced and
that explains why Abraham took the
Lord to task
for not keeping his promises of many children and
why Job sued him for slandering, a court case nev-
er to be forgotten. In between is the story of Jacob,
one of the greatest crooks ever born, yet one of the
richest rewarded (see Miles 1995; Olsson 2007,
chapters Abr(ah)am” and “Peniel”) . Of the latter
much can be said, but nothing more important
than the fact that in the chronicles it was he who
was the first to claim that he had seen God’s face
and survived; in the eyes of the Almighty the blas-
phemy of blasphemies, to the present analyst a
propaganda trick of gigantic proportions. It may in
8 FENNIA 188: 1 (2010)
Gunnar Olsson
fact be instructive to approach the first third of the
Hebrew Bible as the story about a power struggle
so violent that the self-proclaimed
Lord is eventu-
ally forced to withdraw. Thus, after the Book of Job
he never speaks again. And as if to continue the
assault, the New Testament contains many refer-
ences to the commandments of the second stone
tablet but makes no explicit mention of the first.
Fascinating glimpses of the interface between the
knowledge of power and the power of knowledge.
In the interface between knowledge and power
lies the art of mapping. And just as no map can be
a perfect map, so any account of power and
knowledge depends on the three primitives of
map-making: 1) the chosen fix-points; 2) the scales
through which the points are translated into con-
necting lines; and 3) the projection screen or map-
pa, the taken-for-granted plane onto which the
pictures and travel stories are cast and preserved.
It is tempting to associate the fix-points with the
first paragraph of the Constitutional Law, the scales
with the second, the mappa with the third.
Fix-points first. For have I not already noted that
in the Realm of Power nothing sits still, that its
jealous ruler never sleeps in the same bed two
nights in a row. Since the earliest accounts his pal-
ace has been variously located in the abyss be-
tween categories, in the untouchable threshold
between this and that, in the face which must not
be seen, i.e. always in the cleft of the excluded
middle. In addition, the
Lords name is in most
creation myths given as a tautology, by definition
true but not informative. Ungraspable is the un-
graspable, who for that reason is free to do what-
ever it pleases. Predictably unpredictable, inher-
ently untrustable. Always there to see never to be
seen, Bentham’s panopticon in advance of itself.
For what my eyes happen to catch depends both
on where my body stands and on how my mind
has been molded.
Then the scale, by definition the translation
function that enables me to claim that this is this
and that that is that. Yet I have repeatedly stressed
that in the dialectial Realm of Power everyone and
everything hops capriciously about, sometimes
appearing as a this sometimes as a that. To put it
bluntly, God (a term which to me functions as a
pseudonym of power) does not operate according
to the laws of logic. And therein lies in my under-
standing the reason why the social sciences in
comparison with the hard sciences have accumu-
lated so little knowledge. If it is true, which I be-
lieve it is, that human action is structured like a
tragedy – everything beautifully right in the begin-
ning; everything horribly wrong in the end; no one
to blame in between – then the social sciences are
faced with a tremendous challenge, easier to state
than to do anything about. But if human action
actually is structured as a tragedy, how can we
then rely on the principle of truth preservation for
tying our premises and conclusions together?
Surely the most common purpose of human action
is to topple truth, not to preserve it, to falsify rather
than retain what is presently the case. Less a mat-
ter of formal logic more an instance of creative
imagination. This to me is the problem of trust and
verification, the real issue that the mapmaker’s
scale is addressing.
Finally the mappa, the formation of the taken-
for-granted, the painter preparing the canvas to
ensure that the paint will not run off and the sur-
face not crack, the glazier polishing the tain of the
mirror. This is in effect what the unconsciously
adopted socialization techniques are designed to
do, making you and me obedient and predictable
in the process. Everything hidden in the mandato-
ry meetings of the sabbath.
As might be expected a similar form of carto-
graphic reason guided the thoughts-and-actions of
the Greeks as well. Nowhere is this more evident
than in Plato’s Republic with its three figures of the
Sun, which together with the concept of goodness
functions as the analyst’s fix-point par excellence;
the Divided Line, which embodies the scale
through which abstract ideas are turned into con-
crete things, degrees of truth corresponding to de-
grees of being; and the Cave Wall, the mappa of
the surveyor’s projection screen, the taken-for-
granted background without which there would
be no shadows to observe, hence no maps to hide
and seek. That screen, though, is not an innocent
tabula rasa, but a receptor covered in layers of so-
cial gesso. And just as the painter’s first task is to
prepare the canvas, so the mind-surveyor knows
that he too casts his figures onto a charta with sim-
ilar characteristics; paraphrasing him who loved
the Academy and hated the poets, not every thing
can be seen and not every idea can be thought.
Being believed when I tell the truth is essentially
a question of the cartographer’s mappa, the pro-
jection screen onto which the fixing points and
scaling lines are leaving their traces. Most stun-
ningly it now seems that the early development of
FENNIA 188: 1 (2010) 9
Mapping the forbidden
Greek mathematics and geometry, including the
theory and practice of triangulation, grew out of a
mode of thought which in itself may be under-
stood as an instance of cartographic reason. The
trailblazer in that remarkable adventure of cogni-
tive history is Reviel Netz, brilliant classicist pres-
ently at Stanford (Netz 1999, 2004). While Netz’s
overarching interest is in the birth of deduction
(Athens, roughly 440 BCE), his real focus is on the
intellectual technologies through which a small
group of people were sharing their convictions.
Extraordinarily difficult, especially as the paradox-
ical proposition ”a equals b” is exactly what math-
ematics is about.
Although both the old epidictics and the new
apodictics are acts of persuasion, the difference is
that in the former the truth of a proposition is
merely asserted, while in the latter it is demon-
strated; here it should be remembered that since
the Athenian culture was highly polemical, there
was a strong need for greater clarity in the argu-
ments, a demand for certainty which the Greek
mathematicians were determined to meet. It was
in fact to that end that they invented an entirely
novel type of rhetoric, an approach which set
them aside from all other intellectuals, the end-
lessly debating philosophers in particular. As a
way of reaching their goal, they focused on the
form rather than the content of the argument, on
the how rather than the what of whatever they did.
The reasoning tools they developed were sur-
prisingly simple and essentially two: the diagram
and the ordinary language, the latter highly formu-
laic and with a minimal vocabulary of only 100 to
200 words. And in spite of (indeed because of) the
fact that the constructed figures were imperfectly
drawn, the reasoner could always tell exactly
where on the road from the particular to the gen-
eral he was. What kept him on track was the prac-
tice of carefully lettering (i.e. baptizing) the inter-
sections of the drawings. And for that reason there
are obvious connections between the mathemati-
cian’s diagram, on the one hand, and the land-
surveyor’s map, on the other.
This family resemblance between mathematics
and cartography is further heightened by the cir-
cumstance that just as the letters of the diagrams
do not stand for objects but on objects, so the
main fix-point in the landscape map is not the par-
ish church understood as a social symbol but the
spire interpreted as a Peircean index, by definition
a position which can be seen, pointed to and
talked about. It follows that whereas modern sci-
ence is a science of equations, the ancient science
was a science of diagrams. So dominant was in
effect this bodily mode of thought that for the
Greek mathematicians the diagram became a sub-
stitute for ontology. The proofs were consequently
drawn rather than spoken, a drama in which the
eye, the index finger and the tongue were the lead
actors. Indeed it was the simplicity in form that
generated the complexity in meaning, the non-
exactness of the particular drawing that led to the
necessity of the general conclusion.
If Netz is correct, then it was the dual practice of
finger-tracing and story-telling that generated what
is presently called deductive reason. The term
“shaping” in the title of his masterpiece should
therefore be taken literally, itself a parallel to the
fact that the most crucial proofs in Euclid’s Ele-
ments were blessed with the approval stamp of
Quod Erat Faciendum rather than with the better
known Quod Erat Demonstrandum; “which was
to be shown” rather than “which was to be dem-
onstrated”. Playing in the same league of legitima-
tion is the perfect passive imperative, a verb form
which in English may be rendered as “let it come
about”, “let it have been cut”, a syntactic device
which in both the speaker and the listener creates
the feeling that everything has been settled before-
hand. As Ludwig Wittgenstein used to put it, to fol-
low a rule is to follow it blindly. Rephrased, the
core of every proposition lies in the diagram, in
the eyes of the unaware a visual illustration, in the
mind of the initiate a schematic (re)presentation.
Once again the Orthodox icon comes to mind, for
like the icon the diagram is in actuality a picture
which is not a picture.
Stunning connections! Even so, the most re-
markable aspect of the Netzian reconstruction is
the fact that when it was first introduced there
were no diagrams of antiquity extant, and that is
despite the fact that the preserved texts often refer
to them. Yet he was convinced that without the
picture of the lettered diagram (perhaps drawn in
sand or on a dusted surface) the explorers would
never have found their way in the unknown, never
been able to translate their insights into a story that
could be shared with others. Subsequent events
have nevertheless bore him out, for not only has a
palimpsest with an erased copy of a copy of the
Archimedes Codex actually been found, but this
treasure contains a set of lettered diagrams of ex-
actly the type that he had envisioned (Netz & Noe-
ll 2007).
What for centuries had been absent has
consequently now become present again, not only
10 FENNIA 188: 1 (2010)
Gunnar Olsson
in the imagination of a dedicated scholar, but in
the material world as well. Glorious achievement
of erasing the eraser, because what we are now
beginning to understand is how we are believed
when we say that something is something else.
When push comes to shove, even the most theo-
retical physicist shows himself to be a practicing
In tentative conclusion: Like the body that projects
it, every meaning is asymmetric, every map a pal-
impsest, every palimpsest an epistemological trav-
el story. And since in that world of self-reference
no ground is solid, no translation perfect, no pro-
jection screen untainted, I have but the faintest
idea of what will happen next. No wonder that
people get frightened, for how can anyone find the
way in a world in which the fix-points are unfixed,
the scales twisted, the mappae crumpled.
Such is nevertheless life in the taboo-laden in-
between. And in my experience that holds regard-
less of whether you are an apprentice or a full-
fledged poet, a young graduate student or an aging
emeritus. The difference is nevertheless profound,
for whereas the former keeps asking whether it
will ever happen again, the latter struggles with
the challenge of not letting it happen again, of not
imitating himself, of not doing once more what he
has already done so many times before.
But, who knows, perhaps all of physics, poetry,
mathematics and cartographic reason are nothing
but the work of mirror neurons in the brain, chem-
ical reactions triggered by the likeness of this and
that, life itself a mimetic desire that can never be
satisfied. But if that is the case, what are then the
relations between creativity and self-plagiarism,
the metaphoric pictures of the earth and the meto-
nymic travels of the mind?
Many thanks to the venerable Reverend Pinnawala
Sangasumana for making it all possible.
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ality in western literature (translated by Willard R.
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sity Press, Oxford.
Miles J 1999. God: A biography. Simon & Schuster,
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Netz R 1999. The shaping of deduction in Greek
mathematics. Cambridge University Press, Cam-
Netz R 2004. The transformation of mathematics in
the early Mediterranean world: from problems to
equations. Cambridge University Press, Cam-
Netz R & Noell W 2007. The Archimedes codex: re-
vealing the secrets of the world’s greatest palimps-
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... This section details the concepts and perspectives from the field of psychoanalysis that help me to grasp such functioning. The modes of functioning of maps and mapping allow the mapmakers to inspect the stances they adopt in the everyday about the use and production of space in their neighbourhood and 39 Harley (1989); Wood (1993); Cosgrove (1999); Pickles (2004); Olsson (2010). beyond. ...
... I applied this blend in the fieldwork and analysis phases of this research because this blend "contains many lucid descriptions of how we experience space, and how this experience is expressed in human culture" (Bollnow, 2011, p. 314). In similar ways Olsson (2010), Wood (1992Wood ( , 1993), Zelinsky's (1973) and Allen et al. (2012) remarked that the potentials of mapping as experience remain taken for granted, Kohlmaier emphasised, in his introduction to Bollnow's (2011, p.312) Human Space, the need to turn attention to "aspects of space that can persist unscathed throughout time". These are, for example: "the landscape, the dwelling and homeliness, the window, threshold, street and path." ...
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