Geolocating Besźel & Ul Qoma

The geolocative takes a underlying yet significant position in the broader Digital Humanities discourse. Rarely mentioned in “mainstream” DH narratives or writings, such as Debates in Digital Humanities (Gold, ed.) or A Companion to Digital Humanities (Schreibman et. al., ed.)  , it is nonetheless an underlying in mindset in a lot of DH writings – and the underlying thought and concept of an ever increasing list of DH Projects.

Frequently referenced as a form of mapping, DH projects in every field of the Digital Humanities use geolocation and GIS for various purposes. One source that indicates just how widespread it has become is this list, which features more than 100 digital humanities projects to use GIS. And, as historian Karen Halttunen persuasively argues, “space and place have never been more analytically important than they have recently become in the humanities and social sciences” (cited by Jones, 113).

So how do we understand the geolocative, or as what can we understand it?

The geolocative as a tagged physical space is perhaps a start. In and of itself, the word says a great deal and also not very much. There is no doubt that this is term that concerns itself with spaces, with places, with spaces with added meaning. There is a physicality in the term that defies the ephemerality of the concept itself. It is tied not only to maps and technologies, but also to spaces.

Thus, linking for example the travel routes of literary characters to actual places in Google Maps, situates the text in which they exist in the physical world, tracing it in actual spaces. Of course this isn’t strictly possible with Ul Qoma and Besźel themselves, being fictional places, but it is a useful way of thinking about the novel, and it’s various layers.

The geolocative reveals itself in things like mapping all sorts of data, everything from location tagging in social media, to mapping historical or literary narratives onto present day maps, “connected” to the real world – the internet will be able to identify the spaces and there is a “real” connection between the place and it’s location on the map.

On question this raises is whether or not these technologies increase the perceived psychological distance between fictional and non fictional locations. Because non fictional locations, even if mentioned in literary works, can be mapped, and tracked, to a physical, updated map, while spaces that exist entirely in the author’s mind, such as Ul Qoma and Besźel, cannot, one could argue that there is a sharpened divide between the two. Although, of course, no place in fiction is every exactly a place in the real world, though the name can be found on a map.

What does this then mean for literary understandings of places? Has the pervasiveness of the geolocative, our irreversible comprehension of the map as a tagged, hyperlinked location, influenced our understanding of the non physical places in literature? What of the cities in Miévilles City & The City? Are we experiencing it differently because we are questioning it’s “taggability”, it’s refusal to enter onto a 2D environment on our phones – a duality of locations that doesn’t translate to present day mapping technology?

One example is Professor of English and New Media Mark Sample’s use of foursquare with students. Asking them to create fictional locations in Foursquare, listed alongside real – geolocated – businesses and locations, highlights the complexities of geolocation as connections to the physical world. Jones suggests that this hacking of foursquare “can help teach humanities students to see what they have learned to unsee, to track their own movements through all of these mundane “unglamorous places”, and, as Sample suggests, that could rove to be “one of the best uses for geolocation – to defamiliarize our daily surroundings”.

Much like what the Inspector Borlú does when he sees, for a brief moment, a train that is not there, and what the foreign grad students do when they jump between here and there without moving, testing boundaries through thought and sight, Sample’s experiment is a “game”, toying with the possible, the seen, the unseen, and human conception of space and understanding of location. In the novel, foreigners do not have the same ingrained sense of the not-there that those who have grown up in the connected, learned, separated world have. Thus, they play with being in both places as once, being first there then not there, purposely seeing things they cannot see – semantically as well as mentally defying the order of things as they have been taught (though not physically). Jones’ take on Mark Sample’s project, aptly named Haunted might, a part from the reference to the digital, be about Miéville’s two cities:

“Haunted (…) is a metaphor about glimpsing what had been for some time invisible because unseen, and it still often remains invisible until invoked – the digital “realm” – as it manifests itself in every day life. A hybrid experience we’re still learning to navigate, a limited or boundary experience – literally, materially, at the border where digital reality crosses over to physical reality.”

So, if Miévilles cities hypothetically exist in a geolocated environment, a hypertagged, hyperlinked networked environment, could geolocation help, or force the citizens to see what they have learned to unsee? Or does it rather force them to keep unseeing, because the unseen is now not even on the map – a visual reinforcement of cultural, social barriers. Depending on whether the “Alter” areas are visible on the map or not, either learned behaviour becomes confirmed by visual maps networked and tied to physical locations, or the “foursquare effect” experienced by Sample’s students comes into play. Even without imagining the cities as thoroughly saturated with references to a digital, online, map, every area, whether “Total”, “Alter”, or “crosshatch” carries data, is “wired” to one, or the other, or both cities. The name changes depending on what city one is in, but the wiring doesn’t. The “invisible” sections are only invisible because the inhabitants choose not to see them, the same way Professor Bowden, in the final scene at Copula Hall, is neither here nor there because he is simultaneously in both places, much like one is with the post-eversion no longer existing cyberspace:

Bowden had still not commited to where he was. I said, “Which city are you in?” Dhatt and Corwi were close, ready, and whichever shared a locus with him would come forward when he said.

“Either”, he said.

Essentially, geotagging the universe Miéville has written would create “cartographic attributes of the invisible” (Title of paper on the Semantic Web by Mark Graham and Heather Ford)- except it would not be invisible in the way that we commonly think about it, and more invisible because unseen.

Bearing the hypothetical geotagging of Besźel and Ul Qoma in mind, I would like to perform a second thought experiment. What would happen if one tried replicating Besźel and Ul Qoma in a VR environment such as Second life? Could one do it without using virtual “physical” blocks stopping players from going into the wrong places ? Even using blocks programmed in becomes impossible with the cross-hatched areas – which exactly highlights the lack of any barrier but the citizens’ skilled unseeing, impossible to replicate in a virtual environment. A solution to “Alter” areas, assuming they are not physically overlaying the “Total” areas, could be visible, present, but greyed out, non-clickable, non approachable, as could the citizens of the Other city – ghostly, but there. There, but non-clickable, i.e. without opportunity for interaction: There, and not there. Then an exact reversal if a player passes through Copula Hall? So the Other is there, but because you cannot click on it, it is not connected, not wired – like an abandoned internet structure, a shell with no function. Present, yet unattainable.


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