It’s a cloudy, slate-colored Sunday morning in New York City. (As the snow melts, it’s like a long-exposure photograph of the detritus and trash of weeks of foot traffic being developed: stacked days of smoking and walking dogs as one continuous surface.) Today is the Ides of March, and the birthday of my beloved anarchist geographer and proto-bioregionalist Élisée Reclus. He came up with one of my favorite slogans, during the Paris Commune – “Work to Make Ourselves Useless”! – and was a great scientific bard of the genesis of rivers. In the 1890s, he proposed the construction of a 1:100,000-scale globe, more than 400 feet tall and hand-painted and modeled with new geographical data as it came in – a satellite view (“as if you were sailing above it in a balloon”), a whole Earth. Patrick Geddes loved the idea: “the image, the shrine, and temple of the Earth-mother.”
This is a lucky place to start, because I’ve been re-reading John Tresch’s beyond delightful book The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon, and Tresch introduced me to a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the cosmogram.
Tresch credits the origin of the term to David Damrosch, who asks: what kind of object is the Biblical Tabernacle? Because we’ve got a detailed how-to for building it, but in the course of building it you’re also making a map (speaking of geography) of the cosmos and relationships between people and God and nature, and a set of instructions for how people should behave, and at the end you’ve got something like a machine for producing divine presence. And Tresch runs with this idea: “What’s important, and why this is different from a cosmology, is that we’re talking about a text that results in a concrete practice and set of objects, which weave together a complete inventory or map of the world.”
Cosmograms help us orient ourselves in time and space. They establish relations between different domains and levels of the universe, offer an image of how the world could be, set practices and rituals and objects we can use to participate in that world, and pull a group together. That’s a crucial component, for me: they don’t just say how things are and how they should be understood, but they give the people who inhabit them something to make and do. Tresch has a wonderful list of example cosmograms – from August Comte’s calendars to Tibetan sand mandalas, from cathedrals and mosques and Dogon rites to the organizing schemes of encyclopedias and the Eames’s Powers of Ten. (The proposed Reclus globe is totally a cosmogram.)
When I’m in a new place with a new community once I’ve settled in I’ll often start quietly looking for their cosmogram. There’s usually one around somewhere. Sometimes it’s a wiki, sometimes it’s a (literal) toolshed, sometimes it’s a dry erase board with DO NOT ERASE triple underlined around diagrams and lists, or a big machine, or a set of novels that people cosplay and celebrate holidays from. If you send me pictures and descriptions of cosmograms you find I’ll make you cookies!
(I’ve been thinking a lot about how we make sense of the future ... and about cryptocurrency blockchains as cosmograms. But enough of this, for now.)
(It’s appropriate that these letters start with geography and orientation, since I was largely inspired to do this by Charlie Lloyd’s wonderful newsletter, a bunch of which is about maps and satellites. Recommended!)
It’s grey and cloudy and windy and cold so point the speakers out the windows and crank No Joy’s E (MP3) up to maximum volume – the soundtrack of a glorious, apocalyptic high desert sunset.
Videos of American competitive freestyle canoe competitions – just wait, wait for the music to kick in around 1:20, and a good thing becomes wonderful.
Thanks for reading!
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