In 1936, construction began on Treasure Island in the shoals north of Yerba Buena Island, off the coast of San Francisco. The WPA reported that “Rock walls composed of 287,000 tons of quarried rock were sunk in the shoals. Twenty million cubic yards of sea bottom were dredged up and piled within the walls...[and] Barges brought 50,000 cubic yards of loam from the mainland.” “When the engineers finished, a 400-acre island, a mile long and two-thirds of a mile wide, had appeared in the Bay, connected by a 900-foot paved causeway to the Bay Bridge and equipped with ferry slips and landings for small craft and flying boats.” Treasure Island, the world’s largest manmade island, would be the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, a walled city that showcased the cultures of the Pacific, including Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, French Indo-China, The Philippines, and Central and South America.
What is unique about Treasure Island is that it was conceived as both map and landscape. It began as bits—bits of quarried rock, bits of sea bottom, bits of loam. Bits turned into kilobytes, kilobytes turned into megabytes, megabytes turned into gigabytes, and so on. Every bit was accounted for. Treasure Island was a total sum, and the sum of its parts was equal to the whole. Although the official guidebook included a map to the island (see above), this secondary map was redundant. The goal of Treasure Island was complete correspondence. There would be no feature of the Island that would not be self-evident, thus requiring further explanation. The Island was the explanation, and the explanation was the Island.
Maps are containers for information. The engineers of Treasure Island set out to compose a container whose ratio of information to referent, signifier to signified, was 1:1. In order to accomplish this feat, the park had to be entirely superficial. As one report declared, Treasure Island “was the ideal opportunity to create an ‘enchanted island’ free from any necessity to adapt its planned fantasies to existing visual restrictions, either man-made or natural.” In other words, it was essential that Treasure Island refer only to itself. It would be an explicit statement whose signifiers found their denotations within the system itself.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Purloined Letter,” the famous detective Dupin discusses a “game of puzzles, which is played upon a map.” One player, says Dupin,
requires another to find a given word—the name of town, river, state or empire—any word, in short, upon the motley and perplexed surface of the chart. A novice in the game generally seeks to embarrass his opponents by giving them the most minutely lettered names; but the adept selects such words as stretch, in large characters, from one end of the chart to the other. These, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious.
The strange ratio of Treasure Island—the perfect correspondence of landscape and information—was achieved insofar as the Island was excessively obvious. It was all surface. Thus the play on “Treasure.” When searching out a secret, the novice thinks only of depth. He may dig a hole in some remote location, say beneath two large palm trees forming an “X.” He may rifle the contents of a drawer. He may remove a cabinet in order that the wall behind it, not a wall at all but an alcove leading to a hidden chamber, be exposed. But because Treasure Island had no depth, it could be nothing more than what it was. If any bit of information were hidden, or referred to some purpose outside the Island’s self-reflexive fantasy—if, for example, the visitor was asked a question whose answer could only be located outside of the confines of the Island—then the map would fail. It would become mere landscape. The engineers of Treasure Island built in symbols, and each symbol was either explained by placard, or referred to some one or other of the Island’s structures. Those that referred to other structures were, in turn, referred again, and then again. Thus the Island could be played like an endless series of queries, each leading back, in the end, to itself.
On page fifteen of the official Treasure Island Guidebook, for example, we find an ad for Yosemite National Park. At the top are the words “You Are Near Yosemite,” and just beneath: “one of the World’s Most Spectacular Scenic Wonders.” “A pageant of the centuries...tremendous glacier-hewn cliffs and domes...thundering waterfalls...the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees, earth’s largest and oldest living things.” Perhaps the ad is luring the visitor beyond the confines of Treasure Island? No. In his opening address for Treasure Island, Governor of California Culbert Olson declared:
Our grandfathers settled here and conquered a wilderness. The whole west—from the north to the deep south, from the Rockies to the Pacific—is holding open house, the premiere fiesta of all times—the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. This year will be marked by a second mighty westward migration with all roads leading to Treasure Island.
Governor Olson’s declaration is a subtle, though seemingly paradoxical reinforcement of the Island’s firm boundaries. The Yosemite of the guidebook points nowhere but to itself. Or if it points beyond itself, then it points to the San Joaquin Valley Building, housed in the California Buildings group: “Yosemite Valley—in miniature, of course—set in the midst of a grove of half-scale giant sequoia redwood trees, the oldest, largest living things in the world (No. Ii on map.).” As Olson states, “the wilderness had been conquered...All roads lead to Treasure Island.” If we can even imagine a “true” Yosemite Valley—before it had been “conquered,” before westward migration, before, as the Yosemite National Park Handbook tells us, humans “first visited the area as long as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago,” then we have indeed left the confines of Treasure Island. But no such Yosemite exists. The valley has been conquered and mapped. It has been reduced to bits of information. And that information is recapitulated in the bits of Treasure Island’s information repository, its source code, available to any visitor in full. A visit to the so-called “actual” Yosemite Valley—as a wrong-headed reading of the advertisement might suggest—would reveal nothing more than an extended stay on Treasure Island would.
The achievement of a 1:1 map at first seems problematic. As Rebecca Solnit describes in her book, Infinite City, “A map is in its essence and intent an arbitrary selection of information.” A good allegory for mapping, says Solnit, is Zeno’s famous race:
Call the place to be mapped the distance, call mapping a race, and see that the cartographer in describing the territory must make another map, and another, and another, and that the description will never close the distance entirely between itself and its subject...Every place is if not infinite then practically inexhaustible, and no quantity of maps will allow the distance to be completely traversed. Any single map can depict only an arbitrary selection of the facts...”
It is true that landscape seems like an inexhaustible well of information. With the addition of time, one wonders how a map can possibly achieve a perfect correspondence. The problem of time, however, is solved if the map’s elements are themselves subject to potential, change and duration. These are the so-called “stochastic” maps—ones that incorporate uncertainty. In her essay “Simulated Nature,” N. Katherine Hayles describes one such map called Tierra, a virtual landscape that maps the evolution of simple, binary-coded organisms. “To introduce mutation,” says Hayles, the cartographer created
the equivalent of cosmic rays by having a bit flip its polarity once in every 10,000 executed instructions. In addition, replication errors occur about once in every 1,000 to 2,500 instructions copied...other differences spring from an effect [called] ‘sloppy reproduction,’ analogous to the genetic mixing that occurs when a bacterium absorbs fragments of a dead organism nearby.”
The virtual map is set in motion when self-replicating programs (binary-coded organisms) begin to count their instructions, allocate a virtual reserve-space based the length of those instructions, and recode their instructions there. The process simulates the way free RNA might work in nature—in viruses, for example. Because the code randomly mutates, the “daughter cells” are sometimes genetically different. Further, not all mutations lead to successful reproduction—only those who can find successful binary matches in the virtual memory space. Out of Tierra’s “soup,” a variety of organisms emerge:
parasites that [lose] their own copying instructions...but [develop] the ability to invade a host and hijack its copying procedure”; and “hyperparasites, which [evolve] ways to compete for time as well as memory...hyperparasites wait for parasites to invade them. Then, when the parasite attempts to reproduce using the hyperparasite’s own copy procedure, the hyperparasite directs the program to its own third segment...thus the hyperparasite’s code is copied on the parasite’s time.
In Tierra, what is most significant is that in its highly nonlinear dynamic system, “the evolution of the system [cannot] be predicted, even in theory, from the initial conditions.” The world that emerges out of Tierra’s soup—which, by its virtual nature, seems to be limited by its own code—is in no way derivative. When set in motion, information—normally limited, excised, or assumed—becomes highly creative, and the map expands infinitely inwards.
The second problem in maps of perfect correspondence is space. We might imagine a map, for example, in which a province occupies the space of an entire city, or an empire the entirety of a province. A perfect map, it would seem, would be one in which the empire was the size of the empire, coinciding point for geographical point. But all of this is to misinterpret what we mean by information. The problem with landscape is that it occupies geological space. Information, on the other hand, does not suffer this problem. Information can be encoded in rocks and minerals, in structural outlines, in distances, colors, demographics, and topography. Which is to say that information itself does not occupy any space. It is that mysterious quality that in Latin is called forma, and in Sanskrit dharman. It can be as large as the thing itself, or as small as the charge of an electron. In fact, electrons are perfect conveyors of information insofar as their charges are either positive or negative, “yes” or “no.” Nanoparticles can be both at once, which means that their charges can represent multiple accounts at once, include oneself and its opposite. And entangled particles—where one constituent cannot be fully described without considering the other—can be separated by the distance of the entire universe, and still behave in perfect synchronicity. The result is that entire worlds can be mapped on the head of a pin. When combined with stochastic mapping techniques, where those worlds are set in motion, we might have multiple universal maps, all existing at once, plummeting to earth in every single drop of rain that falls in a pleasant springtime shower.
Which is to say that certainly Treasure Island exceeds the limits of what we might normally call a “map.” Like Tierra, it is a map that cannot be exhausted. And what use is such a map if it only charts its own duration? Any point that we observe is finally the mere thing in itself. It is subject to the same laws of change that we are, the same infinitude of unfolding and unknown paths. For it is precisely the “unknown” that causes us to draw maps in the first place. When we look to the infinitude of the stars we chart the various constellations and recognize in those charts a certain order. In infinity we find form, and in form we conquer fear. What information can a mere thing possibly convey except what is fleeting, lost in the next moment when the second hand of the Island’s clock ticks by?
We stroll past the Festival Hall, the Agricultural Hall, the Aquacade, into the Hall of Air Transportation, around the Portals of the Pacific, and down through the Sunset Bridge, Northwest Passage, Court of the Moon, and finally the Court of the Seven Seas. We wander to the center of Treasure Island, the 392 ft. Tower of The Sun, at the top of which resides a phoenix. At its base are the twelve statues of the zodiac. To the north is the 105 ft. Arch of Triumph, which opens onto the Court of Flowers, and ends in the massive Temple Compound. “Walk about Zion,” says a mural over the temple: “go round about her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels; that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God for ever and ever. He will be our guide for ever.” Here we might lament the fact that there seems to be nothing that we can know unless we disregard what we assume to be the map’s purpose. We continue our ambles, counting towers, considering ramparts; and “sauntering,” as Thoreau says, “toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”
But the cartographers of Treasure Island were better guides than that.
When we think of these expansive maps that tend towards the ever-outwards, we think of entropy, the root of change. Worlds and universes tend towards complexity when there is enough noise that signals cannot be transmitted with total clarity. As the philosopher Michel Serres says, “difference is part of the thing itself, and perhaps it even produces the thing.” Noise generates difference, and difference leads to complexity. The inverse of noise is perfect clarity: “Given, two stations and a channel,” says Serres. “They exchange messages. If the relation succeeds, if it is perfect, optimum, and immediate; it disappears as a relation.”
It is this latter process that one finds at work in Treasure Island. Scrubbed of noise, the island moves towards the perfect surface of total illumination: absolute zero. And just as entropy moves towards, but never reaches the outer limit of infinity, so is clarity an inner limit. The deeper one dives into the labyrinth of information, the shallower the waters become. Eventually we are lost upon its profound exteriors. But “loss”—in Greek it is λύω (lū́ō): to loose, untie, slacken, unbend, release, dissolve, break up, destroy, atone, amend; and in Sanskrit it is लून (lūna): to cut off, sever, sting, pierce, wound, destroy, annihilate. Truly, on Treasure Island, the sun shines more brightly than he has ever done, piercing our minds and hearts. It is a great awakening light. And eventually we are loosed into the perfection of silence.
At the center of Treasure Island is the Court of Reflections. Here are the siesta pools, upon whose mirrored surface the fantasy doubles back on itself. In the official guide, visitors are urged to stop there at sunset. As the evening light fades, the Tower of the Sun—reflected on its surface—will dissolve into shadow. But before the light disappears altogether, one will see the phoenix, perched at the top of the tower, crowned by Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. And then the phoenix, too, merges silently into the night.
It is difficult to call the project of the cartographers “good” or “bad.” If it is “good,” then it bears too much resemblance to the architectures of fascism for it to be celebrated. Here is Narcissus enchanted by his own reflection. Is it not true that a map of perfect semblance is precisely the Scylla-like mechanism of total arrest? Turning ever in on itself, the lure of surface leads only to death and destruction.
If, on the other hand, it is “bad,” then one day, Treasure Island may simply be abandoned to the deserty waters of the west, “delivered up to the inclemencies of Sun and Winters, a tattered ruins inhabited by animals and beggars.”
But just as the map of Treasure Island tends towards landscape, so might landscape itself tend towards map. Complexity is not a product of limitlessness, just as simplification is not the outcome of constraint. These terms are free and independent of each other. The sublimity of landscape, says Wordsworth, is “that blessed mood,/ In which the burden of the mystery/ In which the heavy and weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world,/ Is lightened.” What if landscape offers not only mystery but pure surface? It is vast because it is excessively obvious. It is excessively obvious because it tends towards zero.
In Poe’s story, Monsier G., the Prefect of Police, fails at his task because he looks only for that which is hidden. Says G: “we examined the rungs of every chair in the hotel, and, indeed, the jointings of every description of furniture, by the aid of a most powerful microscope. Had there been any traces of recent disturbance we should not have failed to detect it instantly.” Against these methods, Dupin suggests that “Perhaps it is the very simplicity of the thing which puts you at fault... Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain."
We too might put aside depth and glance lightly upon surface. But surface is only a tendency—the way the sky leans towards azure on a clear day, or the way we call the desert bare or barren or desolate. These are merely the forms of emptiness. True surface is empty of form, and the zero of emptiness can be one or several or nothing at all. This is the only way in which the landscape is empty, and it is the same way that it is always dying without ever becoming nothing.
When the monk Ānanda approached the Buddha, he asked: “It is said that the world is empty, the world is empty, lord. In what respect is it said that the world is empty?" The Buddha replied, "Insofar as it is empty of a self or of anything pertaining to a self: Thus it is said, Ānanda, that the world is empty.”
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Adam Tipps Weinstein's first book, Some Versions of the Ice was chosen by Fanny Howe for Les Figues' 2016 NOS contest.
Treasure-hunting season in the Salt Lake valley begins in late May, when the days get warmer and the snow ebbs from the Wasatch peaks. White-tops sprout in deserted fields, and asparagus peaks up along the banks of the rivers and streams. The desert blushes with marigolds, fiddleneck ferns, lupine, penstemon, sego lily, and yellow evening primrose. If we’ve had enough rain, and if days are not yet too hot, somewhere the first morels are budding—and it’s then that you’ll find me snooping amongst the pines and aspen, hoping beyond hope, knocking on wood, and making supplications to the deity, as I try to not get too carried away with dreams of fried morels with bucatini in a light cream sauce. Like all good mushroom hunters, I’m tight-lipped and evasive. But I’ll say this. Here is a good place to take a walk.