Unacceptable Renewals

The Geopolitics of Martian Cartography

How to Cite

Dodd, A. (2000). Unacceptable Renewals: The Geopolitics of Martian Cartography. M/C Journal, 3(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1883
Vol. 3 No. 6 (2000): Renew
Published 2000-12-01

The object of mapping is to produce a "correct" relational model of the terrain. Its assumptions are that the objects in the world to be mapped are real and objective, and that they enjoy an existence independent of the cartographer; that their reality can be expressed in mathematical terms; that systematic observation and measurement offer the only route to cartographic truth; and that this truth can be independently verified. -- J. B. Harley, "Deconstructing the Map"

Cartography, in its pragmatic operation under these assumptions, avoids almost all of the problems of representation with which cultural studies is only too familiar. Maps are representations, and all representations, even "scientific" ones, are cultural signs rather than truths produced in an ideological vacuum. The notion that mathematics, as a tool of Renaissance rationality, allowed real, objective detachment from an object of study was slowly absorbed into the cartographic tradition of Europe about four hundred years ago. "From at least the seventeenth century onward there was an epistemic break in activities such as cartography and architecture, and European map makers increasingly promoted what we would describe today as a standard scientific model of knowledge and cognition" (Harley 234). This model, in its increasing reliance upon mathematics and mathematical probability, essentially avoids or denies the objection that scientific observation and interpretation, and especially the technological gaze of its lens, produce anything other than objective, "real" knowledge. Through a mathematical detachment from the world, aided by the gaze of the lens, we see not the world itself (which includes us in its unmappable flux) but the numbers, straight lines and generalisations (which do not) that modern maps, including photographs, must employ to give the world fixed form and meaning.

We find this model of cartography most impressively represented today in NASA's Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) probe, not merely as a sign of the technical success of mathematics, but also of its conceptual failure to provide the "true" representations of terrain to which a truly scientific cartography must aspire. MGS's 1998 attempt to "solve" the controversy surrounding a particularly contentious area on Mars, called Cydonia, with newer, "truer" images of the infamous Face on Mars was, contrary to popular opinion, an unsuccessful one; unsuccessful because NASA failed to remove all reasonable doubt that the Face was a natural geological formation. Not that this was particularly evident from media coverage of the image's release and reception -- the maverick researchers who comprised the protest were given a less than admirable hearing at the trial. Australian headlines reported that the Mars "romantics" (The Australian) had their Face theory "scuttled" (Courier-Mail). Professor Stanley V. McDaniel was demoted to "Mr McDaniel" in the The Australian, someone who wants NASA to continue re-imaging Cydonia to document other nearby features because "he believes [they] are further evidence of a Martian civilisation" (6). Also misrepresented was the like-minded, if slightly more adventurous researcher, Richard Hoagland, author of the underground classic, The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever (1987). Hoagland carelessly became (in both newspapers) Richard "Hoaglund", "leader of the movement" that believes the face is a monument left in Mars's Cydonia region by an ancient civilisation. The Australian, in line with the rest of the Earth's media, was apparently closing the door on the annoyingly persistent research into the Artificial Origin at Cydonia (AOC) hypothesis, which actually "does not claim that there is proof of artificial features on Mars, but that the probability of there being artificial features is strong enough to make new high-resolution photographs a top priority for any future mission to that planet" (McDaniel 2). Rather than confront the hypothesis itself, The Australian merely reminded us that "despite the image being 10 times better than the Viking photograph [a simplified qualification of the imaging process], it seems that some people still want to dream about ancient Martians building huge monuments to themselves" (The Australian). Dr. Mark J. Carlotto, a widely published specialist in the areas of digital image processing, pattern recognition, and computer vision, apparently still wants to dream that dream. An advocate of the AOC hypothesis, he notes that

close examination of the image reveals the formation to be rough and highly eroded. Many have therefore concluded that the Face is natural. But others contend that if the Face is artificial it must certainly be very old and highly eroded. Thus the question remains as to how to distinguish an eroded artificial feature from a natural one. (Carlotto)

This interestingly portentous question is one which NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and their contracted image processors, the privately owned Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) have been somewhat reluctant to confront since the image of the Face was first captured in Viking frame 35A72. NASA's inaugural public statement on the Cydonia issue, for example, was handled ... "clumsily". As McDaniel reports:

Upon the discovery of the Face in July, 1976, a Viking Project Scientist held up Viking frame 35A72, containing the Face, and announced to the assembled press corps that in a picture taken a few hours later "it all went away; it was just the way the light fell on it" -- but with a significant omission: the alleged later photograph, in which the facial features were supposed to have disappeared, was not shown for comparison [because] the statement could not possibly have been true. Frame 35A72 was taken in the early evening at approximately 6pm local time (sun angle 10 degrees). The object was in darkness a few hours later; the spacecraft, with an orbital period of about 24 hours, was no longer in a position to re-photograph the site; nor would it return to the site for many more orbits to come. Thus NASA's first official response to this strange object was an inexplicable misstatement based upon an apparent impossibility. (McDaniel 11-2)

Things did not improve from there. NASA was never able to produce the elusive second photograph, yet continued to maintain that it both existed and conclusively disproved that the landform in question could possibly be artificial. In May 1993 the paradox attracted the attention of Senator John Glenn, who received (along with at least ten other members of the House and the Senate) a copy of the NASA document "Information on NASA's Re-Photographing of the Cydonia Region of Mars", which still held that the Face disappeared in the different lighting angles of a separate frame, which it did not reference. Finally in June 1993, after another inquiry by Senator Dianne Feinstein, a revised draft was issued which omits reference to the mysterious "real" photograph of the Face (McDaniel 12-3). NASA's next attempt to re-image Mars, including Cydonia, was the Observer probe, which failed to observe much at all and was declared lost in space. In conjunction with the recent mysterious failure of the Russian Phobos probe, and NASA's constant public relations blunders, conspiracy theories abounded. Was there something lurking at the threshold? The answer came in 1998 through the MGS, from which MSSS had produced a newer, clearer, "truer" image of the contentious feature which seemed to confirm Dr. Michael Malin's own earlier (and strangely self-contradictory) evaluation of 35A72: "it's simply a funny looking hill -- there is nothing unusual about it" (McDaniel 55). The MGS image certainly appeared, at least to the "naked eye" perusing the newspaper, to be just that. The wilderness had been tamed, and the coals cooled, temporarily. We had melted the witch.

But exorcisms are never "final". Although NASA had apparently relegated the monstrous Face back to the realm of nature, restoring it within the parameters of conventional geology, McDaniel, Carlotto and others have maintained that NASA's conclusions were drastically premature, noting, as mentioned previously, that if the Face is artificial it must certainly be very old and, considering the Martian environment, highly eroded (Carlotto). According to their independent research, detailed analysis of the MGS image (which NASA appears not to have commissioned), does not invalidate the hypothesis that the Face may be artificial. Rather, it confirms many of the facial features recorded by the Viking, provides further evidence for the formation's high degree of lateral symmetry, and illuminates more anomalous internal detail (Carlotto). The Face on Mars, like the classical monsters of history, will not die easily.

Ironically, perusal of Carlotto's dense research is an entry into the latent but undeniable plasticity of numbers, which itself is the quality of the monster that haunts modern cartographic representation. Mathematics, in almost every field of application, is finding it increasingly difficult to keep its disordering unknowns at bay. Geographer Erol Torun, for example, examined the angles formed by the facets of the two-mile long "D & M pyramid" (named after its discoverers, Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar). As Brian O'Leary writes, he subsequently found that the ratios between the five principal angles at the pyramid apex "express the universal mathematical constants of the square roots of 2,3,5,6, e, and pi ... . These constants should be known by any civilisation possessing Egyptian level technology (or greater) ... . The constants themselves are universal because they exist regardless of the number of the base being used". Regarding the other angles, Torun continued to find mathematically significant numbers "no matter how I looked at the object" (O'Leary 210).

As the Cydonia controversy seems to clearly demonstrate, rather than revealing obvious, fixed truths about the world, mathematics and the observational tools they inspire require us to learn to see an approximation of the object they construct and represent as "real". We are thus compelled to draw the Other closer, but not "really", through the technological gaze of the artificial lens, a gaze that works to mask its own latent epistemic crisis. Indeed, this very compulsion inspired the growth of popular microscopy in the mid-eighteenth century, which required a new mode of seeing that could only very generously be termed "observation". Captain Basil Hall vividly recalls a meeting of the Geological Society, when

a bottle was produced which was said to contain certain zoophytes. It was handed round, in the first instance, among the initiated on the foremost benches, who commented freely with one another on the forms of the animals in the fluid; but, when it came to our hands, we could discover nothing in the bottle but the most limpid fluid, -- without any trace, so far as our optics could make out, of animals dead or alive, the whole appearing absolutely transparent. The surprise of the ignorant at seeing nothing was only equal to that of the learned who saw so much to admire; nor was it till we were specifically instructed what we were to look for, and the shape, size, and general aspect of the zoophytes pointed out, that our understandings began to co-operate with our eyesight in peopling the fluid, which, up to that moment, had seemed perfectly uninhabited. The wonder then was, how we could possibly have omitted seeing objects now so palpable. (Mantell 8)

Indeed, as Harley indicates, the relationship between the geographic and microscopic gaze is fundamental to the modern cartographic tradition. He cites Monmonier and Schnell's Map Appreciation (1988) as a recent example:

Geography thrives on cartographic generalisation. The map is to the geographer what the microscope is to the microbiologist, for the ability to shrink the earth and generalise about it ... the microbiologist must choose a suitable objective lens, and the geographer must select a map scale appropriate to both the phenomenon in question and the "regional laboratory" in which the geographer is studying it. (in Harley 245)

Importantly for this discussion, through both microscopy and cartography, "photography has also played a large role in twentieth-century ethnological representation", writes James Duncan.

What better way to assert the primacy of the visual, produce a "true" representation of the place in question and establish presence than through the use of photography? But the mimetic claims of photography can also be called into question. A camera is a machine constructed to produce an image based upon artificial perspective. Only if one accepts the claims of the naturalness of Renaissance artificial perspective can we accept photography as a mimetic representation of the world. Such claims can be cast in doubt, for example, by the failure of peoples unfamiliar with photographs to be able to "read" them. (43)

At the end of the day, though, it all may have more to do with down-to-earth economics than Martian "geopolitics". For many researchers, McDaniel among them, NASA's evasive treatment of the Face and surrounding features (variously labelled the Tholus, the D&M pyramid, the Fort, and the City Square) suggests a cover-up. Specifically, a cover-up of NASA's own inexplicable lack of investigation into apparently artificial structures on the Martian surface. Since the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's data imaging is contracted to a private company legally unaccountable to the public, McDaniel has confronted the somewhat disheartening possibility that financial motives may be obscuring investigation into what seem to be the most intriguing features of the Martian surface. He "does not personally believe in the conspiracy theory", but simply suggests that the Cydonia controversy may demonstrate that the financial interests of Malin Space Science Systems have assumed higher priority than the search for extraterrestrial artefacts:

The contract for the Mars Observer (now MGS) involved close to 10 million dollars for Malin Space Science Systems ... . If it became clear that the probability of artificial structures on Mars is very high [or even that such a probability existed], it seems the focus of investigation would shift radically. The emphasis would fall to an accelerated manned mission to Mars. Archaeologists and perhaps biologists would assume an increasingly important role. It would be the manned mission (Johnson Space Flight Centre), not JPL, that takes the driver's seat. (McDaniel 1999)

In other words, by producing results which indicated that the Cydonia region was worthy of closer attention, MSSS would jeopardise the future of its own multi-million dollar contract with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- hardly a wise business venture, regardless of their geopolitical stance. But whatever the "true" source of the Martian controversy (it is, after all, the mythic planet of war), it seems undeniable that the Face on Mars is at once both an appropriately postmodern enigma and a genuine cartographic anomaly. For we find embodied within its monstrous form (through the lens), the message that our gaze is destined to be returned by ourselves. From the stars to the quarks, "we" seem to forever inhabit the very wilderness our technological gaze functions to both distance and draw closer; to abject.

Author Biography

Adam Dodd