Talk at Florida State

Just back from giving a talk at Florida State, where I gave an early version of the talk I hope to give in Paris at the International Cartographic Association (ICA). The topic was the OSS as America’s first spy agency, and the role of academics–especially cartographers and geographers–within the agency and the post-war legacy on the discipline. This was the first time I’ve presented this material and I think it went well. There were a number of questions afterwards, and the conversation moved into the hallway after we left the room–a good sign.

One grad student contested my reference to the Peters projection, not so much what I said, but Peters’ own claims that the Mercator is a racist map. I think this is still a fairly common reaction, indicating that many people don’t see (or problematise) a connection between geographical knowledges and their socio-political effects.

I stayed with Phil Steinberg while there and we had some interesting chats, including the recent William Cronon controversy. Actually what’s happening with Cronon is a good example of the connection I mention above between knowledge and power.

2 responses to “Talk at Florida State

  1. That hallway discussion got me thinking this weekend that the problem is not with the idea of the connection as much as it is with the emotional baggage that the word “racist” now carries. It almost seems to be a corollary to Godwin’s Law on the internet about Nazi’s and Hitler being brought up in a discussion ending all reasonable discussion. The word racist, within the US and definitely in parts of the southeast U.S, evokes an instant connection to images of white-robe klansmen, slavery and segregation. Using it instantly triggers a response of a deep and personal attack on a person who may disagree with what the presenter may be saying and creates an emotional firewall.

    Now using the words colonial, imperialist or euro-centric to refer to the Mercator projection could avoid the invocation of the strong emotional response that the word racist invokes. Racist was the term Peters used and I think it fit the usage of the time. However, the word has gained such an emotional attachment in the U.S. that it has become a debate ending word instead of a starting point. It is not so much a disconnect on power and knowledge as much as the word has been weaponized. The current issues with the new version of “Huckleberry Finn” and the removal of the “N-word” is similar in nature.

    I understand the context and meaning of the word racist in the debate and do not allow an emotional trigger response. If the context of the usage is not applied or was missed, as I think was the case here, it helps to create the emotionally based reaction. It may be necessary to highlight the context of the term or use a less emotionally loaded word to avoid a Godwin’s like invocation.

    • Perhaps then, following your suggestion, it would be better to say that it’s not a rejection of the link between knowledge and power, but a rejection of the particular linkage set up by an appeal to racism?

      Although in the case of the Mercator/Peters situation, the line is often taken that the Mercator projection was simply for navigation (but the Peters map was explicitly political). I think in my original article on this in 1994 I tried to use Harley’s internal/external agendas to describe this, although that too is not without its problems (are the two separable?).

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