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Posts Tagged ‘maps’

Earlier this year, I took a course in History of the Book. At that time, I was thinking of books as privileged vehicles of information. Somehow, our culture of literacy in words provides a primary position to books. In the same context, it favors words as the main means of representing meaning. This feeling became more acute in the recent decades, when suddenly some prophets started to predict the apocalypse of the bookish culture and the arrival of the new Dark Age illumined only by the computer monitors.

Closer to the end of this year, I am taking a course in History and Cartography. Suddenly, I’ve started to realize that books are not holders of a monopolist status in the production of knowledge and maps are not only pictorial illustration of books. Moreover, most of the readings from this course started to address the same questions, as I’ve seen in History of the Book. For example, such questions as: What is the role of printing in the development of maps? Are maps powerful in themselves or are they powerful in the hands of some agents? How standardization affected the image and the power of maps?

Last but not least, this post was inspired by an article in Daily Mail. Written by Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections at the British Library, the article “Ten of the greatest: Maps that changed the world,” describes ten maps, which according to the author “transformed the way we view the globe forever.”

Roger Chartier in his cultural history of the French Revolution has a chapter in which he explicitly asks: “Do books make revolutions?”  While Chartier’s answer is more complex, partly it can be resumed as: “Books might not make revolutions but they change our perception of revolutions.” So, to a certain extent, both Barber and Chartier value the contribution of  maps and books to the knowledge architecture of the contemporary world.

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mapping from below

If readings from the last week were more theoretical, then this week, it is only Chapter 6 from Harley’s The New Nature of Maps which is more theoretical. Here he defines the framework of the problem, as being the interactions between the colonial and the native patterns of mapping. Harley argues in favor of a new interpretation of colonial maps.

Until recently these maps have been viewed as just projections of the European imperial self on the body of the native cultures. In contrast, Harley considers some colonial maps to be influenced by the local knowledge of the indigenous people. In this sense, colonial maps cease to be purely instruments of power. Instead, they represent windows into understanding the cultures, which have been considered speechless, and thus impossible to represent. Thus, these “people without history” could regain their place in the Western historiography.

Furthermore, Mundy and Lewis illustrate Harley’s theoretical background with a series of case studies. Thus, both of them indulge in a kind of cultural archeology or to be in line with Foucault, they provide examples of how to convey “an archeology of knowledge.” Each of them pick either a particular important map such as “The 1524 Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan” or a series of maps as in the case of Lewis who focuses on the analysis of the North American frontier encounters from 1511 to 1925.

In these accounts maps are not only illustrations to their textual arguments. In fact, maps serve as foundations or central focus of their argument. As a matter of fact, words are brought to accompany the cartographic evidence. In the same way as maps represent complex constructions of different symbols, the models for the encounters of different cultures  represent a network of power relations. Thus, it is no need for both of them to be oversimplified.

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deconstructing cartography

Some thoughts after reading Woodward, Harley and Wood:

-Cartography is not only about the scientific representation of spatial reality. It is also about embedding different contemporary values in maps. In this sense, any historian should treat maps not merely as illustrations to his/her textual arguments, but as legitimate historical sources in themselves. In addition to representing guides from point A to point B, maps are overtly or covertly related to the values of societies, which created them. In this sense, it is often that one might find that maps may reveal more information when interrogated about the missing elements in the maps, then when scrutinized for the elements present in the map.

-Cartographers are not just obedient elements in the power structure. This does not mean that they do not listen to the political leadership. It is just that they have to choose among different symbols in order to convey the same message. In addition, the fact that they will choose a certain element to convey their message does not necessarily mean that this message will be perceived in the same manner by their contemporaries. At the same time, even if the cartographer does not intend to convey a certain massage, it is present in the map simply because the social context was such as to accept the social hierarchy of the time. Thus, instead of representing peasant households mapmakers focused on the castles.

-Maps are not only passive objects used by the state authorities to convey their authority. Maps represent powerful objects in themselves. This tendency has become especially valid along with the invention of the printing press, when millions of copies have been circulating around the globe. On the one hand, this multitude of maps standardized the worldview of millions of people. But at the same time, they allowed many people to grasp beyond their own place of residence. States and state leaders always sought to put their hands on the Perfect Map. But it seems that luckily enough they will never acquire this much desired object.

P.S. As a bonus to this post I include a clip, where you could replace “flags” with “maps” and in this way it will illustrate the external power of maps:

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