In Review

Mapping a Way Through the Dark: a look at the map of the system of human knowledge


James Tadd Adcox, The Map of The System of Human Knowledge. Tiny Hardcore, 2012. 140pp. $10.00 paper.

What choices go into creating a system? A map? Both are constructs that contain knowledge. Systems are essentially arrangements while maps are guides to navigating these arrangements. But, again, these are constructs and don’t simply spring out of nothing without a human hand at work. Maybe the more important question to ask, aside from choice, is how the makers of these systems and their maps create meaning. How is knowledge categorized, and what do we as readers — and humans, of course — take away from such a systemic construction of the how, what, where, when, and why? Such questions belong squarely in James Tadd Adcox’s debut novel, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, released by Tiny Hardcore Press.

The book is comprised of a number of sparsely related vignettes in a loose and incomplete encyclopedic arrangement. While detailed, it in no way dilutes the experience of reading. The Map of the System of Human Knowledge is a curious text to tackle. Few books are comparable in my experience, and the unique structure is certainly a novelty that takes a little bit to get used to. But that’s okay. Novelty is a close friend of invention and an appropriate term of praise, for Adcox’s text is inventive.

At first, the book appears to be a random assortment of seemingly nonsensical and meaningless data: a gift shop is burned down only to arise from the ashes reborn; an artificial mountain is constructed in Indiana; a woman perceives her oncoming sainthood; a house shakes itself to pieces, driving a young couple apart. But a handy index, lovingly produced on the first few pages, binds each entry together and serves as the titular map to guide readers through the system of capacity, limits, and incompleteness of knowledge Adcox has created.

Each entry begins with an elaborate title presented first in the index, such as “Philosophy/Science of Man/Logic/Art of Thinking/Judgment/Science of Propositions.” These headings function something like blog post tags, shorthand for relevant information contained in the piece. I also found them to walk a dangerous line. Dense and overly categorical, the headings provide a solid, sensible foundation that I latched onto rather than the off-the-cuff material that followed. But I was looking for meaning in the wrong place. My tendency to appreciate the title over the entry’s content had to be forcibly resisted from time to time.

The vignettes themselves describe inconsequentially incomplete or absurd situations. Situations that could be said to lack meaning. But meaning is manufactured by the reader, not by the object perceived. Adcox’s index is not the holder of meaning, just a representation that points in the right direction. It is not dissimilar to the classic maxim of Alfred Korzybski's that “the map is not the territory.”

What Adcox is doing with these highly systemic categories and the hyper-bracketed index is presenting a system every bit as valid as those we encounter on a daily basis. Except he’s filling it with different data that may not compute like in “History/Sacred/History of the Prophets” a woman suddenly becomes pregnant with a six year old girl through sheer will. This mix of wildly offbeat scenarios calls into question the veracity of these man-made systems and how it is humans take meaning from them.

When things fall apart, just because, what are we to take away? When information becomes so classified that no living person is allowed to view it — as in “Poetry/Profane/Civil Architecture,” when two archivists holding that information aren’t even familiar with their counterpart. Both of their livelihoods depend on secrets, especially those kept from each other. They’re so steeped in distrust that they eagerly project on each other a secret, fictional life that grows into mutual resentment for how better off the other must be — how does that make us feel as supposedly rational and meaning-making individuals?

Or consider this passage from “Philosophy/Science of Man/Logic/Art of Thinking/Apprehension,” in which a father is struck with grave concern over his daughter’s imaginary friend, Leonard:

“Each man we pass, I say, calmly, so calmly, ‘Do you know him? Does he talk to you?’ It feels horrible, like I’m twisting her arm, but I have to know. She doesn’t say anything. She shakes her head, she cries, but without sound. I can hardly breathe. It takes forever. When we finally make it through the neighborhood and go to get ice cream, she holds the cone carefully with both hands, like a gerbil or some other small, nervous animal, and refuses to look at me.”

Here Adcox hits it out of the park. He achieves so much with so little. He calls into question the act of prescribing meaning and how one sort of thing, reasoning for instance, is privileged over another, perhaps emotion. Logically the father is acting in his daughter’s best interests and performing a very codified and meaningful function, protecting his child; however, on a gut level this registers differently, and it becomes obvious that what we believe to be right and meaningful may not always be so. By drawing attention to how readers can make meaning of, for all intents and purposes, nonsensical material, Adcox demonstrates that meaning is always being made and that humans have a natural tendency to erect systems and maps to codify knowledge and assign meaning to that data gleaned.

But this is also The Map’s Achilles’ heel. The real question of how meaning is derived through Adcox’s exacting and methodical prose becomes troublesome. So much is invested in the “how” that the text’s wheels have a tendency to spin. We are constantly prodded to make sense of what unfolds before us. But how can we? That doesn’t come easy with what the index represents: systems of human knowledge. Then, again, this book proudly trumpets itself as mapping what is unknowable and how all encyclopedias are incomplete because human knowledge is incomplete as well.

The text forms a cyclical pattern over time that is both provocative and discomforting, like listening to a record played backward in search of hidden messages. The reader is given a well-constructed map of Adcox’s system of human knowledge. With this tool in hand, a constant back and forth results between the map itself as object and what it represents, creating great tension.

Like all systems, Adcox’s eventually reaches a breakdown. Paradoxically, this occurs in the same place where The Map derives its strength. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, all closed systems will succumb to entropy, the death of motion and heat. Though Adcox’s system is incomplete, it is still sealed in form and, therefore, vulnerable to entropy. The breakdown occurs because what’s represented is irredeemably limited. There is a natural disconnect between map and system that mimics the real limits of human knowledge. But instead of being given new tools to overcome, understand, or cope with that, The Map continues to point at the gap like a road marker. Readers are left to rely on the overarching thematic structure and the implications of the text rather than the text itself.

The incompleteness of Adcox’s system is its downfall because we can get at how we make meaning, but we can’t get at the meaning of his actual writing. It’s like opening a door and entering the room you just left. The cyclical chicken-and-the-egg effect is a fascinating exercise but one that adheres a bit too much to the incompleteness of human knowledge, leaving behind a vague sense something was subtracted rather than added.

—James Orbesen




James Orbesen is a writer and graduate student living in Chicago. His work has appeared on or in Midwestern Gothic, PopMatters, Gapers Block, The Point, 215 Ink's 2011 Comics Anthology, and elsewhere. He works as a tutor and graduate assistant when not writing.