Cartography, or the act of map-making, is something that we take for granted–especially in a world with GPS and Google Earth. It hasn’t always been that easy to see the shape of a landmass, though, and throughout history, the task of mapping out a given territory fell to the cartographer. This was a particularly important task during the age of exploration when new lands were being discovered by Europeans all over the place.
One night, in the dim dark of a Georgia bar–where the lights twisted and flashed to the band’s blasting music–there was this one very drunk girl. I knew her because back then everyone knew everyone. It was only a passing knowledge, though–the kind you might have of a person who sits in your class on the other side of the room but almost never talks.
I wasn’t there with her or her friends because back then I was never anywhere with anyone. I was always everywhere, but I was always alone.
It was a bar that I didn’t go to very often. I’m not even sure if I remember the name they had hanging over the door. It was either in or near an old train station, though. I do remember there being trains. The bartender would pour everyone a free shot when a train pulled through.
It was a moment, a year, or a time when I thought I knew about life–thought I knew about love and music and politics. I actually did know a little about some of those things, but I know much more about all of them today.
She had a pretty smile and the personality of a child’s rubber ball–kind of bouncy and predictable until it catches the edge of a table or drinks a glass of wine. She danced with her friends until they left her while she was at the bar ordering another drink.
She wore all white, so it was impossible to ignore her in the old dirty and dark bar. There were probably even sparkling sequins on her shirt, but I might be making that part up.
She asked me if I could give her a ride whenever I was ready to go, and I yelled something over the music like, “yes.” I asked where I was taking her, and she said “My car.” I asked her where that might be, and she told me where. She had met her friends for dinner and ridden to the dark and loud bar with them. I’m not sure why they left her. My knowledge of them was equally casual.
I asked if she was sure she could drive, and she nodded a big, bouncy-ball nod.
We huddled around the bar. Her head wobbled on her spine. I drew this crude map of the town where we were. “Here is kind of where we are, there is kind of where your car is, there is kind of where your house is, and there is kind of where my apartment is,” I rattled off. I offered a few options that would make sure she got home. I could drop her off at home and go get her the next day to take her to her car, for example.
Maybe I was hitting on her. It’s hard to tell.
But that was the age of exploration. That was a world in which people had to experience the land before the land could be mapped. Jean Baudrillard argues that today’s world is a bit different in his The Precession of Simulacrum. Baudrillard posits that in a postmodern world, the simulation of the territory (the map) comes before the experience, and in turn colors our experience of the territory (think about the use of special effects sequences in film that predict what disasters will look like before they happen; think about how many people said that 9/11 looked “like a movie”).
“No, no,” she said. “I have an early meeting. Just take me to my car.”
I shoved the badly-drawn map into my pocket and I walked her out to my car. A few minutes later, she was climbing into a tank of an SUV and pulling out of the parking lot. I watched her tank of an SUV squeal tires through the dark parking lot, and I watched it hop a curb onto the highway with bright orange sparks flying behind, and I realized that maybe she was less than alright with the driving part of being inside of a car.
Certainly, we spend our lives drawing maps that we hope will predict the territory we will eventually explore. We draw these maps in the shapes of long-term goals, career plans, university course outlines, and other kinds of wish lists. Sometimes we account for what we hope will be every conceivable option.
But here is where I disagree with Baudrillard: while the map that is drawn ahead of exploration will inevitably change the experience ahead, it can in no way predict every rise in elevation, every tributary of a river, or every time that a woman in white will hop her SUV over a curb. Sometimes reality reminds us that there is no way to anticipate and simulate everything.
I imagined the multitude of lanes as they hovered in front of her squinting eyes–impossible to decipher which road is the one she’s driving on, and which roads are the ones her eyes made up.
So I followed her home knowing I could do nothing to stop her. Her running off the road had not been one of the options I had drawn. She swerved and ran at least one red-light, but somehow I was able to keep her in my sights.
She pulled into her driveway a little while later, and I kept driving like I hadn’t followed her.
There is a danger, according to Baudrillard, that simulation will eventually take the place of all reality–that the simulation will become reality. But I’m not sure I buy that. Sometimes reality just walks right up and punches us in the face. And the pain of getting punched in the face, or the fear of watching someone hop a curb–these are all very real things that don’t exist on any map.
And it’s all just as well. There just shouldn’t be a simulation for some things.