Cartographic Destabilisation in the Weird

Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.

-Guy Debord masquerading as Karl Marx: ‘Theory of the Dérive’ in Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)


Cartographic destabilization creates the sense of weirdness by projecting symbols and metaphors that signify dislocation and disorientation within the literature. Language is the map in which we follow literature by and if we cannot form our own stable cognitive map in our reading of said language, our sense of place becomes disturbed and uncanny.

-William J. Hugel ‘Developing Weirdness Through Cartographic Destabilization in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

William J. Hugel has an extremely interesting essay on Student PulseLINK, in which he looks at the use of landscape as a tool to disorient the reader of weird fiction. This sense of disorientation, the destabilisation of the reader’s sense of place, is something that I have elsewhere referred to as discombobulation -an unsettling of the reader’s relationship with reality as mediated by the text, whereby the author is able to site a story within a world that is seemingly mundane yet with the map that is the text being an unreliable narrator in and of itself. As though Borge’s map had been laid out perfectly and rotated a mere one or two degrees so that as soon as one has taken a step or two the map, that with which we are most familiar, begins to deviate wildly from the territory in which we find ourselves. Which is an unsettling experience for creatures such as ourselves who use, and are so reliant upon, representation for our interpretation and communication of reality.

This defamiliarisation which occurs in some works of weird fiction seems to me to serve as an literary manifestation of the Lettrist/Situationist concept of ‘Psychogeography’ and especially the psychogeographical technique of the dérive. Psychogeography is the study of the psychological effects of the environment, built or otherwise, on the humans that exist within a given geography. The dérive is a method of geographical exploration that, through the participation in the random or semi-random dérive -or ‘drift’- through the landscape, seeks to allow the psychogeographer to experience their environment in a radically different and newly authentic manner and in doing so come to understand it and to interact with it in ways outside those proscribed by those who control and structure our environment.

In a similar manner certain works of weird fiction serve to act as a dérive through the familiar world of literature and allow the reader to engage in a radically new way with the medium.

Votu is reached by crossing a high steppe plateau of long green grass. Like a glacier, the city flows from an inaccessible source high in the mountains, and extends down onto the plain. A boundary separates the piedmont zone from the upper city, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, nobody lives above the boundary. Looking up, the people of Votu watch as the future city arrives, having already existed from time immemorial and thus being older than the city they’ve come to know, sliding inexorably down the slope and piling up on top of them. People move into new buildings and adapt to the new streets as they cross the boundary into the habitable zone, while the older structures opposite are driven down and crushed together, collapsing to form a sort of rubbery scrim at the city’s lowest extremity. The compacted past city forms a dense integument, not unlike a callous, that makes the erection of an outer wall unnecessary along that side.

-Michael Cisco, Celebrant

In the passage above Michael Cisco introduces us to the imaginary, in the story, city of Votu which the protagonist, deKlend, learns of upon reading a geographical encyclopedia of invented countries and for which he endeavors to search. In Votu, where time runs backwards, we see an inversion in the development process of the city as the older parts of the city push aside and destroy the newer parts in which the inhabitants live. The slow, glacial, destruction of the older parts of the city is familiar to us but the inversion of the process forces the reader to consider the ways in which people have to adapt to the changes forced upon their environment by the seemingly unstoppable forces of capitalist development. In this the city of Votu is recognisable to the reader but it is also dislocated from mundane reality -a defining feature of The Weird as defined by Laird Barron in his introduction to 2014’s The Year’s Best Weird Fiction- and so the reader must engage with it from an unfamiliar -a discomfited- position.

This use of a radicalised and offset spatiality is one of the more powerful affects utilised by writers of weird fiction in their attempt to elicit unease in the reader and to open up the reader to a new literary experience in the mode of the weird. It allows the writer to present a new yet familiar world and, in doing so, gifts the reader a whole new territory to explore which perhaps allows access to a more authentically human experience than other literary forms.

Debord's map of Paris
Debord’s map of Paris

5 thoughts on “Cartographic Destabilisation in the Weird

  1. Indeed…though to my mind tis the same sort of destabilization enacted within the pages of Dhalgren. Delany has aught to do with the structuring of the “new Weird” as it is currently understood, the field having moved on some from the previous template of destabilization of character. Perhaps the next logical progression would then be destabilization of theme, though how that might be done is murky at best.
    Developing a “certain unease in the air” as Roger Waters so famously put it is the province of the writer of the weird tale, and can be accomplished in many ways.
    I like to pair elements of the above with other elements that cast a dim light on the veracity of the narrator and produce the same sort of destabilization within the mind of the reader…over time coming unglued from his/her anchors of place and/or time and becoming disassociated from the narrator they’ve worked so hard to identify with into the bargain.
    In any event, a narrative technique difficult to describe, slippery to master.
    Well-penned. Huzzah.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is much to my shame that I’ve never read Delany. Dhalgren has been on my radar for quite some time now and does sound extremely interesting.
      The destabilisation of theme is an idea I shall have to put some more thought into. I think one of the main reasons this particular affect appeals to me is due to my long standing interest in psychogeography. Combining that and the Weird seems to me to be a match made in heaven..


  2. I just wanted to say thank you for the commentary. In my research, I hadn’t thought too much of psychogeography and how it might play into a spatial analysis of weird fiction admittedly. My research led me in a different direction though I’ll have to think more on this topic myself. This is very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you do write more about psychogeography and weird fiction, or in fact anything to do with spatiality in the weird, then please let me know. I would be really interested to see how your research develops.


      1. Will do. So you know, I initially presented this at the International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts which usually has a few panels with papers presented on Weird fiction. They post some of the abstracts on their website: which may also give you some works to look out for. Or attend the conference next year. It’s wonderful.



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