ABSTRACT

Writing as a geographer interested in literary perception, I wish to begin my essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses with a short tale about the world renowned Swedish geographer Gunnar Olsson, who in 1991 exclaimed in the middle of an ontological conversion:

If James Joyce could allow his Stephen to say that “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”, then I can let my own pen write that “Geography is a prison house from which I am trying to escape.” 1

The “spatial turn” in the humanities, and in literary studies in particular has witnessed the appropriation of terms traditionally associated with the discipline of geography and cartography. “Mapping” has become the metaphor du jour and while this is to be welcomed, it must be recognized that like the terms “Big-Data” and the “Anthropocene” (also originating in the sciences) the modern etymology of the word lies in a very empirical and mathematical practice. The signification of “Map” has certainly been detached in postmodernism from its cartographical signifier, and it is the Cartesian coordinates of latitude and longitude (as well as the language of statistics) that perhaps formed the bars of the prison cell which Olsson was trying to abscond from. As a doctoral candidate, he followed Esse Lövgren, a “brilliant man obsessed with the idea of translating the vagaries of human behaviour into the precise language of mathematics.” 2 However, as a practicing geographer, Olsson soon began to see that such an approach applied to social issues were problematic, particularly as identical spatial distribution models could be generated through drastically different processes. To Olsson, this revealed more about the models themselves and less about the intricacies of human behavior and interaction. As a citizen of a modern Nordic welfare state buttressed by the ideology that a better and just society was based on the exact scientific knowledge, Olsson soon came to see that planning based on spatial interaction models not only created ethical and political dilemmas but was also scientifically questionable. Olsson concluded that such models and forms of planning were “far more geared towards the growth and maintenance of its own bureaucracy than towards the interest of those sick and disadvantaged which it [was] supposed to serve.” 3