Reading: Deconstructing the Map

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Deconstructing the Map, a paper by J B Harley in 1989, is quite an interesting reading. The paper uses postmodernism to redefine the nature of maps as representation of power.

Some interesting points / quotes:


  • “The pace of conceptual exploration in the history of cartography — searching for alternative ways of understanding maps — is slow.”
  • ” For historians of cartography, I believe a major roadblock to understanding is that we still accept uncritically the broad consensus, with relatively few dissenting voices, of what cartographers tell us maps are supposed to be.”
  • “the scientistic rhetoric of map makers is becoming more strident.”
  • “I shall specifically use a deconstructionist tactic to break the assumed link between reality and representation which has dominated cartographic thinking,”
  • Looks at writings by Foucault and Derrida.
Rules of Cartography
  • “A discourse has been defined as “a system of possibility for knowledge.” “
  • “What type of rules have governed the development of cartography?”… a question that is “historically specific: the rules of cartography vary in different societies.”
  • “From at least the seventeenth century onward, European map- makers and map users have increasingly promoted a standard scientific model of knowledge and cognition. “
  • “art, as we have seen, is being edged off the map. It has often been accorded a cosmetic rather than a central role in cartographic communication.20 Even philosophers of visual communication —such as Arnheim, Eco, Gombrich, and Goodman21 — have tended to categorize maps as a type of congruent diagram — as analogs, models, or ‘equivalents’ creating a similitude of reality — and, in essence, different from art or painting. A ‘scientific’ cartography (so it was believed) would be untainted by social factors.”
  • “This mimetic bondage has led to a tendency not only to look down on the maps of the past (with a dismissive scientific chauvinism) but also to regard the maps of other non-Western or early cultures (where the rules of mapmaking were different) as inferior to European maps.24”
  • “Even maps such as those produced by journalists, where different rules and modes of expressiveness might be appropriate, are evaluated by many cartographers according to standards of ‘objectivity,’ ‘accuracy,’ and ‘truthfulness.'”
  • From the western perspective, even in the late 1900s, “The implication is that Western maps are value free.”
  • “scientific rules of mapping are, in any case, influenced by a quite different set of rules, those governing the cultural production of the map.”…”They are related to values, such as those of ethnicity, politics, religion, or social class, and they are also embedded in the map-producing society at large.”
  • “the well-known adherence to the ‘rule of ethnocentricity’ in the construction of world maps … has led many historical societies to place their own territories at the center of their cosmographies or world maps.”
  • “Throughout the history of cartography ideological ‘Holy Lands’ are frequently centered on maps. Such centricity, a kind of “subliminal geometry,”37 adds geopolitical force and meaning to representation.”…”A second example is how the ‘rules of the social order’ appear to insert themselves into the smaller codes and spaces of cartographic transcription.” …
    … “Only the churches and important mansions benefit from natural signs and from the visible rapport they maintain with what they represent. Townhouses and private homes, precisely because they are private and not public, will have the right only to the general and common representation of an arbitrary and institutional sign, the poorest, the most elementary (but maybe, by virtue of this, principal) of geometric elements; the point identically reproduced in bulk.40”
  • “The distinctions of class and power are engineered, reified and legitimated in the map by means of cartographic signs. “…”To those who have strength in the world shall be added strength in the map. Using all the tricks of the cartographic trade — size of symbol, thickness of line, height of lettering, hatching and shading, the addition of color — we can trace this reinforcing tendency in innumerable Euro- pean maps. We can begin to see how maps, like art, become a mechanism “for defining social relationships, sustaining social rules, and strengthening social values.”41”
  • “Much of the power of the map, as a representation of social geography, is that it operates behind a mask of a seemingly neutral science. It hides and denies its social dimensions at the same time as it legitimates. Yet whichever way we look at it the rules of society will surface. “
Deconstruction and the Cartographic Text
  • “Maps are a cultural text.”
  • “Throughout the history of modern cartography in the West, for example, there have been numerous instances of where maps have been falsified, of where they have been censored or kept secret, or of where they have surreptitiously contradicted the rules of their proclaimed scientific status.50”
  • In reference to a North Carolina highway map; “The map has become an instrument of State policy and an instrument of sovereignty.57”
  • ” In ‘plain’ scientific maps, science itself becomes the metaphor. Such maps contain a dimension of’symbolic realism’ “
  • “And world maps, though increasingly drawn on mathematically defined projections, nevertheless gave a spiralling twist to the manifest destiny of European overseas conquest and colonization.62”
  • “The steps in making a map – selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and ‘symbolization’ – are all inherently rhetorical. In their intentions as much as in their applications they signify subjective human purposes rather than reciprocating the workings of some “fundamental law of cartographic generalisation.”69”
Maps and the Exercise of Power
  • “Power is exerted on cartography. Behind most cartographers there is a patron; in innumerable instances the makers of cartographic texts were responding to external needs. “
  • ” In modern Western society maps quickly became crucial to the maintenance of state power — to its boundaries, to its commerce, to its internal administration, to control of populations, and to its military strength. “
  • “Power comes from the map and it traverses the way maps are made. The key to this internal power is thus cartographic process. By this I mean the way maps are compiled and the categories of information selected; the way they are generalized, a set of rules for the abstraction of the landscape; the way the elements in the landscape are formed into hierarchies; and the way various rhetorical styles that also reproduce power are employed to represent the landscape. “
  • “While the map is never the reality, in such ways it helps to create a different reality. Once embedded in the published text the lines on the map acquire an authority that may be hard to dislodge. Maps are authoritarian images. Without our being aware of it maps can reinforce and legitimate the status quo. Sometimes agents of change, they can equally become conservative documents. But in either case the map is never neutral. Where it seems to be neutral it is the sly “rhetoric of neutrality”90 that is trying to persuade us.”
(Wow, really didn’t expect the quotes I highlighted to take up that much space. There is quite a bit of repetition, next time I shall paraphrase.)

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