Posted - 22-03-2018

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#LoveMaps – Professor Mark Whitehead

Professor Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University takes part in our #LoveMaps Campaign.

There is no such thing as an innocent map

There is a popular misconception that maps merely reflect the territories that they have been drawn to depict. The idea of the map as a form of innocent representation has, however, long been challenged within more critical cartographic communities. Within human geography there is a popular, if somewhat counterintuitive, aphorism that maps precede territories, not territories maps (Pickles, 2012). I remember when I first read this statement thinking how radical it was. I knew that maps could not represent fully the complex territories they charted: the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, for example, emphasizes the representational limits of maps when he asks, ‘how many maps, in the descriptive and geographical sense, might be needed to deal exhaustively with a given space, to code and decode all its meanings and contents?’ (1991: 85). While only an infinite number of maps may be able to deal exhaustively with a territory, what if there was more to the representational limits of maps than the practical selection of which features to depict and which to exclude?

Over time I have come to appreciate, and be fascinated by, the political motivations that inform the construction of maps. These motivations are not necessarily about lying through cartography, in the sense of deliberate misrepresentation, they are often more subtle attempts to generate political power and influence. Cadastral maps were among some of the earliest attempts to chart national territories in countries like Sweden. But these maps were not just about descriptions they were a basis for the generation of land taxes to fund early national governments. Global maps projections have long been associated with the projection of political power. Translating a three-dimensional sphere on to two-dimensional paper will always involve aspects of cartographic manipulation. But many global map projections have tended to emphasize the power and influence of colonial powers by maximising their territorial area and minimising those of colonialized states.

It was while looking at different global map projections in the National Library of Wales that I was shown this arresting ‘League of Nations Map of the World’. The League of Nations was established in the aftermath of the First World War, in order to create a diplomatic structure in and through which national territories could be peacefully administered and future conflict avoided. The map contains some interesting features, including: the flags of the League of Nations Member States (note the absence of the US and the USSR); pie charts demonstrating the presence of ethnic minorities in European States; and even a graph indicating the relative height of tariff walls. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the map are the inserts that reveal the various Mandates through which Britain was tasked with administering territorially contested areas in Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific.

This ‘League of Nations Map of the World’ interests me because it embodies an overt instance of a map preceding multiple territories. This map is an attempt to cartographically project a vision of an ordered international space, based upon peaceful interstate diplomacy, but which ultimately supports the continuance of the colonial power of European states. This map is also compelling because it marks a failed geopolitical project. The territorial compromises it projected in Europe would ultimately lead to the Second World War, while the territory covered by the Asiatic Mandate in the Middle East continues to be a focus of conflict and violence today. There is nevertheless, something fascinating about a map that can appear so authoritative, complete, and settled, but which we know now would be shattered by the ensuing geopolitical upheavals of the twentieth century.

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