Mayhew on historical geography

Just catching up with one of my favorite journals, Progress in Human Geography. Robert Mayhew, a geographer at Bristol, has a progress report on historical geography in the June issue. He  claims that historical geography today is suffused with Foucault’s influence.

I want to divide recent work in historical geography into three sets of interrelated inquiries, suggesting that each takes forward a nexus of ideas with Foucauldian roots. I want in a further section to suggest that even attempts to look for different ways of doing historical geography – what we might call non-Foucauldian heterotopias – prove to be surprisingly entangled in the web of his ideas, before concluding with some acknowledgement of the limitations of the classification I have developed.

The three sets are: governmentality-discipline; space-knowledge; discourse-identity.

The most explicitly geographical of these is self-evidently the second one, but the most interesting to me is his take-up of maps and mapping under the rubric of governmentality. These are linked in with boundaries and boundary commissions, and also with the process of the state making its territory “legible.”

This is just a review, so no great arguments are advanced, but it is a data point in a question I’ve been thinking about lately for my own progress reports (my last one is due), that is, the relationship of critical cartography/GIS to geography “twenty years on.” If Brian Harley’s 1989 article “Deconstructing the map” is the best known article marking the formal start of critical cartography (cited over 100 times from Cartographica) , then how effective has the latter been? To what extent for example is it integrated into geography as a whole? Mayhew’s piece indicates that historical geography has taken up some of the themes that might be thought of as belonging to critical cartography (where critique is an identification and opposition to power relations, among other things).

On the other hand, let’s recall the discussion at the start of Society Must be Defended, where Foucault talks about the value of critique from the margins, the insurrection of subjugated knowledges, as he puts it. Is there value for critical cartography in remaining uncoopted, doing its own thing as it were, on the outside? More exactly Foucault highlights the great power that can be achieved by scholarly critique taking up these subjugated knowledges.

Ladelle McWhorter’s new book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America also discusses this point very usefully (pp. 53-5). (McWhorter wrote one of the best ever books on Foucault, Bodies and Pleasures, 1999.)

There is a danger, isn’t there, that when a discourse gets taken up, it gets taken in and diluted. So when it’s recognized by geographers as a whole that the governmentality of the map is a necessary analytic, there is also a possibility that it can be “co-opted by the master discourses it tend[s] to undermine” as McWhorter puts it in her discussion. The corollary here is that this merging of discourses establishes a grand narrative with its own disciplinary norms.

So in a sense resisting being taken up and working doggedly from across a range of very disparate and loose problematics can have distinct advantages and that may be where critical cartography finds itself today. This comes at the cost perhaps of smallness, potential obscurity, and loss of influence.


Maps: Finding our place in the world

Jim Akerman and Bob Karrow’s new book is called Maps: Finding our Place in the world and has been released by good old U Chicago Press as part of the Festival of Maps going on there.

Nice title! But then I would think so wouldn’t I since I used the same metaphor in my own book, published by the good ol’ U Chicago Press!

I haven’t received the new book yet but I wonder if they use the idea as I did:

Finding one’s place in the world does not mean seeking and attaining a pre-given slot which is then occupied, for this would be to close off the horizon of possibilities. Nor does it mean the one in the sense of “the they” (this is Dreyfus’ translation of [Heidegger’s] Das Man). Rather, finding one’s place in the world is something shared by all beings for whom being is an issue (Dasein). It is “our ownmost” as Heidegger might say…

We engage with the world and encounter it in mapping and therefore disclose it.

The Political Mapping of Cyberspace, 2003, p. 173.

What does this mean? In the book I go on to contrast this reading with the traditional understanding of maps as recording the confession of the landscape about its truthful identity. Mapping is not just using a map, but also the process of making maps as a constituent part of being in the world. This is why all mapping is political, because its purpose is to decide how to live in the world (what issues are at stake, something is always at issue in mapping isn’t it?), and mapping is the process of finding our place in the world (p. 175).

I don’t claim great originality for this phrase and I’m glad it’s getting another workout in Jim and Bob’s book. I’ve added it to my wishlist…

The Map Room has more coverage.

Politics of maps

I’m thinking of some sessions for next year’s AAG conference in Boston, perhaps on the politics of maps. There are so may ways to go on this topic however: historical, regional or some kind of cross-cutting theme.

A review in the New Yorker highlights this issue. Sixty years ago, India was partitioned:

Cyril Radcliffe, a London barrister, was flown to Delhi and given forty days to define precisely the strange political geography of an India flanked by an eastern and a western wing called Pakistan. He did not visit the villages, communities, rivers, or forests divided by the lines he drew on paper. Ill-informed about the relation between agricultural hinterlands and industrial centers, he made a mistake of enormous economic consequence when, dividing Bengal on religious lines, he deprived the Muslim majority in the eastern region of its major city, Calcutta, condemning East Pakistan—and, later, Bangladesh—to decades of rural backwardness.

It was in Punjab that Radcliffe’s mapmaking sparked the biggest conflagration. As Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs on either side of the new border suddenly found themselves reduced to a religious minority, the tensions of the preceding months exploded into the violence of ethnic cleansing. It seems extraordinary today that so few among the cabal of Indian leaders whom Mountbatten consulted anticipated that the drawing of borders and the crystallizing of national identities along religious lines would plunge millions into bewilderment, panic, and murderous rage. If the British were eager to divide and quit, their successors wanted to savor power. No one had prepared for a massive transfer of population. Even as armed militias roamed the countryside, looking for people to kidnap, rape, and kill, houses to loot, and trains to derail and burn, the only force capable of restoring order, the British Indian Army, was itself being divided along religious lines—Muslim soldiers to Pakistan, Hindus to India. Soon, many of the communalized soldiers would join their co-religionists in killing sprees, giving the violence of partition its genocidal cast. Radcliffe never returned to India. Just before his death, in 1977, he told a journalist, “I suspect they’d shoot me out of hand—both sides.”

This is what I’m talking about. To some extent this cartographic partitioning is both unusual and extremely consequential (similar events occurred after the two World Wars, in Yugoslavia, Palestine and now possibly Iraq). At such, this might be the “height” of the politics of maps. From being a reasonably varied country, people began to partition themselves:

The British policy of defining communities based on religious identity radically altered Indian self-perceptions, as von Tunzelmann points out: “Many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged.”

Maps are a way of operationalizing these boxes or categories of thought. Putting into play the knowledges: this is what you might call the politics of maps.

Expressed on a continuum we will find a range of effects from local town planning to the geographical way we tell stories about ourselves. I don’t know if there’s interest in this from the larger community, I guess I’ll just have to see!

The work of Michael Friendly on early statistical mapping

Michael Friendly is a professor at York University in Toronto and has done some absolutely amazing archival work on early examples of thematic mapping. You may recognize some of the names:

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