Notes toward a critical history of cartography, part 1

In the past few months I’ve agreed to develop a course called “A Critical History of Cartography” for our department’s new Masters and Certificate in Digital Mapping. This initiative, which we call New Maps Plus, will offer interested students the ability to earn a Certificate or a Masters of Science from the University of Kentucky in subjects covering digital mapping, GIS, the geoweb, and programming for online maps.

One of the things I proposed for this course was to develop a Reader in Critical Cartography, which would collect in one place, with short commentary, the people, events, maps and theory that had a profound influence on the way we think about maps, or conversely, the way maps may have made us see the world in new ways. This book would then be the assigned reading for the course but would also I hope be of interest to a wider readership.

To that end I’ve developed (with my colleague Matt Zook) the following initial schema for the book and the course. The latter is 10 weeks long so there are ten subject headings. The idea would be to pose the question of what it means to approach maps critically, with a view to looking historically to inform the present, a not uncommon technique I’ve used before.

There are a variety of ways of going about this. One would be to take maps (or people or events) that were radical at the time and recognized as such, even if only by those involved. So this would include the work of JB (Brian) Harley who wrote against the grain of cartographic received wisdom. This kind of work changed the way we understand mapping.

This could then be contrasted with what we now understand to be radical, or is often held up as radical. This could include the work of Marie Tharp (ocean floor mapping) or John Snow (cholera mapping of London). These maps “changed the world” as the Guardian puts it. But, they need our interpretive spin to recognize it as such, and thereby this falls within that category of books that are needed to understand what happened. There’s even a book with that title: the map that changed the world (about the first complete geology map).

On topic which very much should be included is the history of mapping as governmental technology. In what ways has it allowed, sped up, paved the way, and shaped how government (writ large) has pursued its projects?

Another way to understand critical mapping is to investigate those maps which might be described as “mapping at the margins.” If we understand mapping as trying to say something about the main event (as it were, the main theme) then we might also be curious about what goes on in the betweeness of spaces, those slivers, medians, gaps, edges, and over-looked places that you see as you travel the main roads and railroads. What are the things that are just off the map, are under-represented, or ignored, the places between the lines..the subjugated knowledges, as Foucault puts it in Society Must be Defended, that do not rise to the level of sufficient scientificity to be noticed. This is a philosophy of “negative mapping” as it were, where things are turned inside out and reversed. What would become possible under such a mapping? What would be learned? You might remember Places on the Margin by Rob Shields, or Bill Bunge’s extremely badly drawn maps of nuclear war; maps well outside the mainstream, yet affecting for all that. That sort of thing (or Harley’s “Silences and Secrecy”). This would be a good discussion topic I think for the MiniCrit conference here in Lexington next October because the theme is minor theory!

Additionally, such a course should cover events and places that were important in forming our present. We could include a whole history of proto-GIS here, from the Harvard Lab, to formalizing and cohering bodies of knowledge that make digital mapping possible. The latter includes important work by JK Wright, Mark Jefferson and of course Arthur Robinson. And we could also include events such as Friday Harbor and the so-called GIS Wars of the 2000s.

More recently, we’d have to include the post-GIS Wars work by feminists such as Mei-Po Kwan, and whatever phase we’re in now of “second wave” critical cartography that explores the econo-politics of representation. I’m thinking here of what new theories we might need to account for all this (Matt Wilson covered some of this territory in his “rhizomologies” Harvard seminar). This econo-politics includes people such as Monica Stephens’ work on the geoweb and VGI, Agnieszka Leszczynski’s work on big data, spatial media, value and privacy, Dan Cockayne on affective value of start-ups, Louise Amoore on critical approaches to algorithms, Rob Kitchin… and and! Suffice to say too much good work to mention!

The end of the course is planned as a return of sorts to the possibilities of doing your own mapping. The idea is simply that now that you’ve encountered all these approaches, you are in a better position to see what are the issues with collecting your own data and reflexively critiquing your own map. Citizen science; DIY mapping included. It would be an empowering moment where if you’ve read through the Reader or done the course you’re eager to take up the possibilities yourself.

I’ll try and post updates as this project progresses, though no promises on how regular these will be! I’d also love to hear from people about what might be in a Reader of Critical Cartography or on any other aspect of the above.

Image: the Fool’s Cap map. Author: unknown. Meaning: unknown.

7 responses to “Notes toward a critical history of cartography, part 1

  1. It sounds like a super interesting degree, especially this critical course!

    Check this out for your reader:

  2. Nice idea! I also saw this on the fool’s cap map: “The moral is that we need to remind ourselves of the role of the jester or the trickster in order to avoid taking our knowledge for truth—thus becoming victims of our own folly.

    But the jester is also the trickster, a mythological figure in a vast range of cultures[…]. The trickster is the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries…. The trickster warns us to be wary of such boundaries and divides. The trickster is also a performer and should remind us that history telling is also a performance; we in the academic West make too much of representation and neglect the performative side of knowledge making and knowing the world. We who purport to be historians, sociologists, or cultural critics, are also tricksters.” (Turnbull 2000, 92: Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers).

    • Yes! The trickster critique! It also says across his cap “Oh my head, give me some drugs!” (loosely translated) which I’ve always thought was appropriate.

  3. interesting course j. we’ve discussed such a course for some time here although probably offered by alex p. and i like your idea of pulling together a reader – it has legs. interesting to consider how the meanings of “critical” as regards mapping and mappers have shifted over the past century and also how maps originally rendered as benign have been repurposed as critical – the HOMC redlining maps from 1939 come to mind:

  4. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Jeremy Crampton on an interesting teaching/research project on the history of cartography.

  5. Great to see critical cartography is moving from its marginal position within what is now being called as the ‘geoinformation’ field. Also worth mentioning the recent epistemological work on Cartogrpahy from Azócar Fernández, Pablo Iván, and Buchroithner Manfred
    thanks for sharing this

  6. Pingback: Maps as Media: Sketching Out the Syllabus – Words in Space

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