research > cartography > The World is a Cut-Up
Anthony Auerbach

‘The World is a Cut-Up’ by Anthony Auerbach in Tattered Fragments of the Map, edited by Adam Katz and Brian Rosa (Los Angeles: The Limits of Fun, 2009), pp. 21–29, published on the occasion of the exhibition Photocartographies at g727, Los Angeles, May 16–July 3, 2009. The text was in fact an extract from a talk on publishing at the limits of the book.

The full text of the excerpt is provided below.

Atlas is the term for a collection of maps in the form of a book. Atlas binds unwieldy sheets into a convenient volume. Gerardus Mercator (1512–1594) is said to have been the first to give the name Atlas to such a volume. Mercator’s project (initiated in 1578, updated in 1585) remained a fragment — a fragment, according to Adorno’s definition, being a work interrupted by death [note 1].

Mercator was not the first to compile a book of maps, nor the first to associate the figure of Atlas, the weary Titan, with the art of cartography. A “Modern Geography” published in the mid-sixteenth century by Antonio Lafreri, comprising, as the title explains, “most of the world, collected from various authors and arranged according to Ptolemy’s Geography together with drawings of cities and fortresses of various provinces” [note 2], was presided over on its title page by Atlas supporting — and this appears to be the innovation — a terrestrial globe, instead of the celestial sphere with which he was normally depicted, after the model provided by the famous Farnese Atlas, a second-century Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue unearthed in the early sixteenth century: a nude giant lifting a celestial globe on his shoulders [note 3].

William Cuningham's Cosmographical Glasse (1559), “In which men may behold ... the heavens with her planets and starres, th’Earthe with her beautifull Regions, and the Seas with her merveilous increse” [note 4], recruited an Atlas-figure to support the Ptolemaic model of the world, with the earth in the middle surrounded by concentric heavenly spheres. His costume follows a tradition which identified the mythological Atlas with a legendary astronomer-king. It was this hybrid character whom Mercator invoked in the preface to his atlas, dedicated to “Atlas, King of Mauritania,” who, after his mother’s name (“Titea, surnamed Terra ... according to the most ancient Historians”) was called a Titan, and, “as the ancients report ... was a most skilfull Astrologer, and the first among men that disputed the Sphære.” Mercator says he intends to “follow this Atlas, a man so excelling in erudition, humanity, and wisdome” and in his name, “as (in a mirrour) ... set before your eyes, the whole world.”

“The Preface upon Atlas” outlines the scope of Mercator’s book:

Sometimes the hybrid Titan-king made an appearance on the book’s title page, naked but crowned, supporting a terrestrial globe, attended by allegorical figures of the continents, geographers and navigators. The 1635 English edition (from which I quoted) [note 5] covered Atlas’ nakedness with a sheet ingeniously draped across the niche in the frontispiece where the figure stands, and inscribed with the title Historia Mundi or Mercators Atlas. As the book advertised the additional burden of the history of the world, so Atlas took on the attributes and responsibilities of Time. In other editions, Atlas only lent his name to the enterprise as the stand-in and short form of the “Cosmographic Meditations on the Fabric of the World and the Figure of the Fabrick’d,” as the long title went, inscribed in Latin under the figure of a surveyor-god measuring a globe on the title page of the second Amsterdam edition (1609). Sometimes Atlas appeared in all his mythic glory, pedantically, and somewhat comically holding up the heavens like he was supposed to, putting the emphasis on the Titan who got that job as punishment for challenging the Olympians and thus became the symbol of strength and endurance in carrying burdens [note 6].

The point is, for all the claims of an atlas to show “the whole world and all its parts” and for all the ostentatious display of globes and spheres as symbols of totality, the early atlases barely emerged from the tradition of compiling legends based on antique authorities, supplemented with sea-faring tales of far-off lands, circumscribed only by sketchy coastlines.

The ambition of compiling the whole world into a book always overreaches itself to the extent that the book falls short of the world. The atlas, like the maps it contained, kindled an unlimited appetite for knowledge which was paralleled by the appetite for territory which motivated the colonising enterprise known as the “age of discovery”.

What distinguishes the atlas from earlier cosmographies, island-books and mappae mundi is its systematic structure. Such a structure — under the rule of the map — does not discriminate between the known and the unknown. Instead of sorting and organising discrete bits of knowledge like the collector and the naturalist — or like the traveller, stringing them along the narrative line of a journey (a yarn which can be easily wound into a book) — by contrast, the systematic approach posits a unity and divides it arbitrarily. The map’s grid and the atlas’ system organise, above all, empty space — a blank surface to be populated with signs. The signs inscribed, and thus indexed by the map’s grid, are facts, hence (according to philosophers) better than things, because they are supposed to have sense. A map represents the ‘logical space’ whereby the facts are the world [note 7]. The priority of cartographic geometry is spelled out in Cunningham’s recommendation of his Cosmographical Glasse (which contained no maps) to those readers who do not necessarily “delight in travailing [travelling (working)]” so that they “may also protract, & set out perticuler cardes [charts] for anye countrye, Region, or province: or els th’universall face of th’earth in à generall Mappe. Firste if they describe Parallele circles in the Mappe, answeringe to the like circles in the heavens ... to limite out the Zones, Climates, & Paralleles of Longitude, and Latitude: which being once præpared, you shall place there in the countries, hilles, fluddes, seas, fortresses, Ilandes, cities, desertes, & such like (according to the præcepts of th’art) as are placed on the platte forme of th’earthe” [note 8].

Maps, and the atlases which cut and fold them into books, seem to offer a view of the world unbounded by the horizons which normally limit our prospects. A map is bounded only by the cuts which detach it from the globe. The almost-blankness of the map is enough to promise sight of land to the navigator, and to the speculator, uncounted treasure.


What aerial photographs have in common with maps is the allure of a view beyond the horizon. Never mind that with altitude the horizon recedes but is not overcome, and with photography it just falls out out the picture. The apparent similarity between maps and aerial photographs is a matter of desire, as if the one desired to become, or to be fulfilled in the other. What the map lacks is overabundant on the photograph. What is blank on the map is overdetermined in the photograph. Whereas the photograph records everything indiscriminately, anything on the map makes sense. The map gets credit for the meaning the photograph cannot declare.

Technically speaking, aerial photography depends on photography and aviation rather than on surveying and navigation. The first aerial photographer [note 9], however, was not the first to dream of a bird’s-eye view. The aerial photographic techniques developed for military reconnaissance (military aviation in turn owes its origin to reconnaissance) found numerous other applications including geology, archaeology, hydrology, forestry and various kinds of cartography. A post-war manual, The Uses of Air Photography tells us:

Here lies the strategic value of aerial reconnaissance and its challenge to would-be prospectors: interpretation.

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  1. “The fragment is the intrusion of death into the work.” Quoted in “Editors’ Afterword” to Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 361. [back to text]
  2. Geografia: Tavole Moderne di Geografia de la Maggior parte del Mondo di diversi avtori raccolte et messe secondo l’ordine di Tolomeo con idisegni di molte citta et fortezze di diverse provintie stampate in rame con studio et diligenza in Roma, by Antonio Lafreri, usually dated 1550–1572. [back to text]
  3. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. [back to text]
  4. William Cunningham, The Cosmographical Glasse, conteinyng the pleasant Principles of Cosmographie, Geographie, Hydrographie, or Navigation (London: Ioan Daij, 1559), [dedication]. [back to text]
  5. Historia Mundi or Mercator’s Atlas, Containing his Cosmographicall Descriptions of the Fabricks and Figure of the World Lately rectified in divers places, as also beautified and enlarged with new Mappes and Tables by the studious industrie of [the publisher] Jodocus Hondius, Englished by W. S., Generosus, & Coll. Regin. Oxoniæ [i.e. Wye Saltonstall] (London: Michael Sparke, 1635), p. 57–58 (emphasis added). This English edition is adorned with “An Acrosticke on Mercators Atlas”:
    A tlas by fiction do’s the World uphold;
    T hou, more, by Art, dost all the Orbe containe:
    L et Poets pencill forth thy praise in Gold,
    A and all that reape the Harvest of thy paine;
    S o shall thy fame to every Age remaine.
    [back to text]
  6. Frederick de Wit, Atlas (Amsterdam, 1680). [back to text]
  7. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961, § 1.13.) [back to text]
  8. Cosmographical Glasse, p. 5. [back to text]
  9. Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known as Nadar) in a balloon, 1858. [back to text]
  10. J. K. S. St. Joseph (ed.), The Uses of Air Photography: Nature and Man in a New Perspective (London: John Baker, 1966), p. 15. [back to text]