I have a weird fascination with maps — I could probably list “staring at maps” as a hobby, but that’d make me sound like a freak, so I won’t. They’re just cool. I think it’s the combination of so many different fields that appeals to me; there’s so much going on. Pretty much any map is going to involve geography — why do the Rockies dwarf the Blue Ridge Mountains? Why are the Hawaiian islands in a chain like that?; history — take a look at these old maps of Georgia. Atlanta doesn’t even make an appearance until 1855, and Decatur is the regional hub!; art — how to make maps that are, in addition to being accurate, understandable and pretty; math — okay, admittedly, the math part is of less interest to me, but I’m sure if I actually understood the math behind cartography, I’d think it was awesome; anthropology — why are human settlements located where they are?; psychology — psychology and cartography have a lot more to do with each other than you might guess; and politics — especially politics. Plus there’s toponomy, which has got to be one of the coolest academic fields ever. If law doesn’t work out for me, I’m totally going to be a toponymist. And finally, historical mapmaking provides for awesome adventure stories.
Okay, I’ll stop rambling now, but the point of all that? Maps are really cool, and everyone else should recognize that too. And also, more importantly, I’ll probably use this blog to talk about maps at least on a semi-regular basis, so it’d be nice if I could maybe convince a couple people to actually be interested in what I’m writing about.
And as a basic-but-cool intro post on maps, I thought I’d write about critical cartography. Critical cartography is, like critical legal theory, a movement that disputes the idea that our cultural infrastructure is inherently neutral and value-free, and argues instead that our institutions are pervasively biased in a manner that entrenches existing social hierarchies and power structures.
Maps are not photographs; they’re very deliberate, precise, thought out human creations. Maps doesn’t show “how the world really is,” but rather the world as the cartographer wanted to show it. The best introduction to critical cartography is Brian Harley’s Deconstructing the Map [PDF].
The ‘rule of ethnocentricity’ — whereby most societies have maps that place their own homeland in the middle:
“[T]he scientific Renaissance in Europe gave modern cartography coordinate systems, Euclid, scale maps, and accurate measurement, but it also helped to confirm a new myth of Europe’s ideological centrality through projections such as those of Mercator. Or again, in our own century, a tradition of the exclusivity of America was enhanced before World War II by placing it in its own hemisphere (‘our hemisphere’) on the world map. Throughout the history of cartography ideological ‘Holy Lands’ are frequently centered on maps. Such centricity, a kind of ‘subliminal geometry,’ adds geopolitical force and meaning to representation. It is also arguable that such world maps have in turn helped to codify, to legitimate, and to promote the world views which are prevalent in different periods and places.”
And the ‘rule of the social order,’ which results in maps that record not just what the land looks like, but what the social structures between the people on the land look like:
“Pick a printed or manuscript map from the drawer almost at random and what stands out is the unfailing way its text is as much a commentary on the social structure of a particular nation or place as it is on it topography. The map-maker is often as busy recording the contours of feudalism, the shape of a religious hierarchy, or the steps in the tiers of social class, as the topography of the physical and human landscape… it is taken for granted in a society that the place of the king is more important than the place of a lesser baron, that a castle is more important than a peasant’s house, that the town of an archbishop is more important than that of a minor prelate, or that the estate of a landed gentleman is more worthy of emphasis than that of a plain farmer. Cartography deploys its vocabulary accordingly so that it embodies a systematic social inequality.”
And for a visual example, check out the two maps below — the Mercator Projection and the Gall-Peters Projection. The Gall-Peters map was introduced as a challenge to the more traditional Mercator map — which depicts Greenland the same size as Africa, even though it’s 14 times smaller in reality. Neither map is objectively “more correct” than the other, but it does suggest that the rules of social order and ethnocentricity are alive and well today.