Maps of Meaning

  • Geoff King


Maps enable us to gain a sense of our place in the world, to orient ourselves. In this way they are like all socio-cultural frameworks: ‘cultures are maps of meaning through which the world is made intelligible.’2 As Edmund Leach suggests: ‘Our whole social environment is map-like. Whenever human beings construct a dwelling or lay out a settlement they do so in a geometrically ordered way. This seems to be as “natural” to Man [sic] as his capacity for language. We need order in our surroundings.’3 Without maps, life can be difficult and even dangerous. The protagonists of Ian McEwan’s novel The Comfort of Strangers (1982), for example, find their lives under threat while on holiday in Venice after venturing out at night and getting lost without their tourist maps. The text implies that they are also without the appropriate cultural maps, failing to pick up clues or to recognize the approach of danger in the form of the characters Robert and Caroline who cross their path. In the film adaptation we see a reproduction of Jacopo de Barbari’s map hanging in Robert and Caroline’s apartment, symbolizing perhaps their greater control of the territory. Robert’s attitudes towards sexuality — both his sadistic practices and his belief that women should be kept in ‘their place’ — certainly demonstrate such a concern for rigid control at the cultural level.


Middle East North American Free Trade Agreement Neutral Zone Jewish People Linear Perspective 
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© Geoff King 1996

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  • Geoff King

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