A La Carte

Artistic maps elucidate the essential subjectivity of cartography

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The list of convincing and intelligent definitions of the concept of maps may be endless; the richness of maps may simply resist clear characterization.


What is clearer, and what definitively unites all maps, is their transcendence of mere content in a unique interpretation of the way space looks and functions. “No map is not biased,” says Cosgrove. “You can make any map using only objective facts and it doesn’t matter, you still choose what you represent… any map requires that you eliminate 99% of the information that you could put in.” Just in the content of maps, then, there is already an implicit decision-making process and thus a concrete agenda. The very notion of a concise, legible representation of the world around us is unrealistic; each representation will reflect the subjective priorities of its maker.

Because of the widely held faith in maps’ objectivity, the partiality built into every cartographic item affords an opportunity for unnoticed argumentation. “When someone shows you a map that comes up on a PDA or cellphone, you have no idea how easy it is to manipulate you… it’s really sneaky as hell,” Stilgoe says. He sees the famed Mercator globe as an example of this deception: because of the disproportional sizing of the Northern hemisphere, Stilgoe believes that it “played right into the British imperial plan.” According to Stilgoe, such overlooked psychological ploys can also be seen in the proliferation today of Google maps and Global Positioning Systems. “Nowadays, Americans are timid, afraid of being lost, and want maps that they can wholly trust,” he says. “The graphic design of contemporary maps, including these on board navigational devices, is intended to speak to that timidity and fear of being lost.”

Similarly, says Rankin, maps can be distorted by the agendas of the institutions that commission them. “There is a long-standing relationship between maps and governments,” he says. “For several hundred years, the only people who could afford to make maps were governments.” This fact means that all maps “came pre-approved by the state.” Not only does this mean that maps aligned primarily with the state’s interests, but also that government-issued maps are more often seen as canonical versions. Rankin’s point is most obvious in reference to the standard continent maps that hang in most grade school classrooms. “Every time we draw a map that shows national borders as the most important feature of a map,” he says, “we’re reinforcing certain ideas about the importance of nation-states.”


By analyzing the arguments maps present, one can gain a deep historical understanding of people, states, and cultures. Rankin, for instance, is currently studying the representations of American Indian reservations on maps. “Most maps, road atlases, and school atlases show Indian reservations in the way they do national parks or forests. The state boundaries are primary, and Indian reservations get another color,” Rankin says. And yet, the constitution qualifies Indian reservations as separate nation-states that have a international relationship with the federal government. Showing reservations as national parkland, then, seems to imply that Indians are not autonomous but rather inhabitants of demarcated areas of culture preserved for a sort of antiquarian sensibility. Maps, therefore, provide crucial insight to the psychology of average Americans towards American Indians—and possibly into the reality of those indigenous people themselves.

Conley has used the notion of maps for entirely more abstract purposes. His current studies concern the idea of cosmography and Early Modern French poetry, which he sees as an exercise in the topography of space and language. “This is what poets give us,” says Conley. “They have a tactile sense of the world…[there are] recurrent signs and markers in the abstraction [of poetry] that the perceiver will find and use to plot an itinerary.” Mapping, then, need not take place on the level of physical place; it is also appropriate on the level of emotions and objects. Just as maps are an abstract representation of geographical formations and state boundaries, so too may poems be abstract representations of the contours of human emotion and interaction.

Stilgoe also sees human subjectivity as an inherent feature of maps; after all, he pointed out, “we walk around the subway grates in front of the Holyoke Center and never think about anything, while a woman in heels knows about those grates. We all have little details of things we don’t like, things that are important to us.” In their essence, maps form individual interpretations of space. The very idea that we have the ability to plot out their towns, regions, countries and continents in supposedly definitive images implies that we have a subjective mastery and understanding over our environment, that we understand and triumph over the chaos of nature.

And yet, it is not simply that maps represent this assertion of humanity over its surrounding world. Rather, maps themselves have brought about a definitive change in human understanding. “A lot of the way people experience space is in a sort of mapping space,” says Rankin. “We visualize ourselves as being located somewhere on a map and as we move around the world we think of ourselves as moving around that map.” Their impact on our thoughts and beliefs diverges drastically from the simple supply of information.

—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at atraub@college.harvard.edu.