Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cartography=maps? nyet.

The core problem with almost any conversation about maps and what they are is that there are multiple sets meanings for the word, which, while related (nested even), do differ. Here’s my nomination of a list of “ontological domains” people may be referring to when they talk about maps:

In the broadest sense, a map is a multi-dimensional (i.e. it can be two-dimensional in form, it can be three-dimensional; it can be animated and thus be four-dimensional) abstraction (i.e. it is not simply raw sensory data, but has been interpreted) of a conceptual or physical space (i.e. it refers to something other than itself). Besides the more usual usages of “map,” such usages as “mind-maps,” “linguistic mapping,” and maps of conceptual spaces like the internet or the cosmographic structure of a religious system all fall into this broadest of categories. This is the sort of over-broad definition used by many of the most theoretical discussants, and leads to many interesting byways of semiotics and such. Because it contains so much, it is also practically useless as a definition when it comes to discussing practical mapping techniques.

The next smaller meaning-space is one where the subject of the map is the surface of a planetary body (most often the earth, but there are maps of several other planets and moons). These representations may be three dimensional, but they essentially refer to geographic space. This space is essentially defined in human terms: it refers to the space we move about in. Because of this, it is always represented as a reduction in scale, and usually a significant reduction.

We are approaching the most common usage of map, but we’re not quite there yet, as we have entered the area of cross-cultural “mapping” traditions, and it’s here I have the biggest issue. People have made all sorts of representations of geographic space over the years and across the miles. Often-cited examples of decidedly non-western traditions include Marshall-Island stick maps, Aboriginal Australian bark paintings, Native American pictographic narratives, and Hawaiian performative place-based ceremonies. All these transmit and store knowledge about geographic space, and a good case has been made that excluding them from the “table” in discussing space has been an effective way of disenfranchising “primitive” peoples (see the excellent Maps are Territories: Science is an Atlas by David Turnbull). Even where the geographic tradition is closer to western modalities, as with pre-Western Japanese or Chinese “maps,” modern western-oriented mapping sees mainly inaccurate, “ bad maps,” and wonders how such an advanced civilization could have not developed good mapping techniques (see “Reinterpreting Traditional Chinese Geographical Maps,” by Cordell D. K. Yee in The History of Cartography, volume 2, book 2).

The problem is, we have come to see the modern map, the cartographic map, as the definition of a “good map.” There are good reasons for this. The values of consistent scale and projection, quantitative accuracy based on scientific survey, and clean, easy-to-read design all lead (if done right) to a product that can be picked up and used by anyone used to using maps. For all that the discussion of maps as power had focused on the vertical power structures involved in their publication (who makes the map claims the land), the modern cartographic map also has a leveling, democratic quality, certainly compared to traditions like the Hawaiian or Australian ones, where knowledge of the land is transmitted only to those properly initiated.

As I said in my previous post, I think the idea of tradition would be a useful one for us cartographers to absorb. On one hand, it pulls us down a notch: we are not the only tradition. On the other hand, it gives us a theoretical place to stand: we are a tradition, with an established way of doing and seeing things. It is, I hope, a living tradition, but one whose conservative look and feel should be respected.

When we cartographers talk about “making maps,” we know we are talking about this last, limited definition of “map,” but we don’t want ro be accused of cartographic cultural imperialism. If anything, we are excited by the adoption of modern cartographic techniques as a form of empowerment by formerly colonized peoples. I do anyway. Empowerment by distributed GIS is a cliché by now, but it got that way because it’s true. And ultimately it fulfills the democratic potential cartographic maps have had from the get-go.

But what do we call the other things? the stick-charts, or even the things that look like maps but were not made in the cartographic tradition?

I think a key is to recognize that much of our claimed western map heritage is really just as foreign in social context as these obviously foreign non-western images. Five hundred years ago, the maps we see today as part of the cartographic tradition were treated quite differently. Cartography, in the form of scientific mapping programs, really started only in the late eighteenth century, though the tradition was coming together for maybe a century prior (see The Mapmaker’s Quest by David Buisseret). Even today, there is a vast body of things that aren’t cartographic (stick-map locators, cartoon maps, map “art” using recognizable shapes but no scientific survey content...). Affected by our tradition, but not of it.

So to be clear, let’s think of the broader world both of other culture’s material, and that produced in the western world outside of cartography, as maps. Instead of declaring cartography dead, let’s reclaim our territory as a cartographic tradition within the world of maps. Cartography better not be dead; it still has a vital job to do. That's the next entry.

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