Tag Archives: Maps

The Capacity for Truth and Counter Cartographies

I love maps. I’ve always been interested in them–for travel (customizing google maps for myself before I take a trip), for art (there are several hanging in my apartment; even my shower curtain is a colorful ol’ Mercator projection), for symbolism (I wrote a collection of poems in undergrad around maps). And I know that the size of countries and the standard presentation of them is problematic–I remember this coming up in geography courses maybe even as early as middle school, though once addressed we just kept moving forward with the basic world maps most of us are familiar with.

Until reading the first two chapters of How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier (edition unknown), I never considered what other elements of a map need to be carefully analyzed and considered–the scale and the symbolization, and even more broadly recognizing what is being left out. Maps are as much about what is absent as what is present. I admit that’s not something I always readily recognize. And I found this quote to be especially poignant: “In the sense that all maps tell white lies about the planet, small-scale maps have a smaller capacity for truth than large-scale maps” (Monmonier, 6-7). I’ve never thought about maps in terms of their “capacity for truth.”

We also have to consider whose truths are being told in maps, which is further explored by Yarimar Bonilla and Max Hantel in their article “Visualizing Sovereignty: Cartographic Queries for the Digital Age” (published by sx archipelagos). Colonial powers created and used maps in order to possess these spaces. Bonilla and Hantel argue “the map reifies the truth of what it represents, promising and delivering virgin lands and nonsovereign territories in need of discovery, settlement, borders, and territorial authority.” But how do we move beyond these limited maps? Can we? I found it very interesting to literally watch them attempt to overcome this through the many iterations of maps of the Caribbean they created over the years to better represent these places and their complex relationships with colonial powers. And ultimately I do think they offer some hope as to the broader possibilities of maps: “Yet, the landscape of possibility always exceeds the limits of representation. Moreover, the map is itself a function of a foundational set of codes concerning who controls visual representation and what counts as representable in the first place. Attending to those codes themselves, rather than to simply the maps they generate, profoundly disrupts the cartographic gaze and its imposed limits.”

In scoping out the many suggested websites for this week, I admit I am feeling excited about what is possible with maps, but also incredibly overwhelmed given the vast amounts of data and years of research that went into all of them. I do love how Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761, is framed as “a cartographic narrative” and how Vincent Brown has included so much text, providing the background and accompanying each action on the interactive map.

I was also very drawn to the Renewing Inequality project and their use of maps within maps and a range of visual assets (starting with The People & the Program and scrolling through, I’m just so impressed by this user experience). I knew about some of these “urban renewal” projects but not most of them. For instance, I had no idea that NYU/Bellevue was one such project. Bellevue champions itself as the premier hospital in a public hospital system that provides care to the most underserved populations, but what does it mean that its current physical space came into being by literally displacing those same populations?

The idea of counter cartographies came up in last week’s readings and again this week. Aside from the appealing alliteration, I find myself wanting to know more about this, and I found some interesting links that I wanted to share with the group:

In “Counter-mapping: cartography that lets the powerless speak” (published in The Guardian, Mar 6, 2018), Laurence O’Dwyer discusses alternative mapping projects that promote the stories of people are who usually ignored and maps that try to chart psychological spaces as well as physical ones.

In “Counter Mapping” (published by Emergence Magazine, I’m unsure on the date, but several of the footnotes reference sources from 2018), Adam Loften and Emmanual Vaughan-Lee explore a mapping project undertaken by Zuni artists to create maps, counter to the straight lines of government-drawn reservation areas, that are rooted in memories and experiences of the community.

This Is Not an Atlas, which started out as a collective book project and has expanded into an online version, brings together critical geographers and activists to “collectively learn how to read space and how to initiate emancipatory processes from below.”