R.I.P. to the Cartographic Priesthood

As a geographer, I make generous use of one type of visual that is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all: the map. One cannot go through life without being exposed to thousands upon thousands of these spatial images. From paper maps to GPS apps to advertising, maps are the cultural artifacts of society that that tell us where we are, how to get where we are going, and where we have been.   

There was a time not long ago when the map was the purveyor of ‘truth.’ As a visual representation of the human or physical landscape, few questioned the authoritarian nature of the map. A ‘useful’ map was one that was mostly authored by the “cartographic priesthood”[i]. They had professional training in cartography in an academic environment. Maps were made for public consumption, of course, but if they didn’t float down from the heavens as the final word on whatever was being mapped, it just wasn’t deemed a ‘good map’. I remember my own cartographic training as an undergraduate…If one violated one of “the rules” of cartography, it just didn’t pass muster. I don’t know how many times I heard the instructor say in a loud voice, PUT A SCALE BAR ON YOUR MAP, DAMN IT! The implication was that the narrative of the map wasn’t as important as the extraneous map elements such as a frame, a north arrow, a scale bar, etc.

But then something strange happened that began topple the priesthood. Coinciding with the postmodern ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities and social sciences, the high priests saw their ‘masterpieces’ examined under the microscope. Meta-narratives about the world were challenged; multiple ‘truths’ were advanced; critical theory took center stage….now the scared map visual itself was open to interpretation.  

I love all manner of visuals, spatial and non-spatial, digital and non-digital. Not only does visualization have a future in every academic discipline, but its ability to tell a good story, to inform, to educate, and to incite has already transformed the way we know the world; and it has allowed us to know so much more about the world.

I advocate using visualization techniques whenever and however you can. But also recognize that whatever is produced…be it a video, a photograph, a graph, a 3-D model, a simulation, or a map:

1. Represents a model of a complex reality that is greatly simplified and generalized. This is its greatest strength, and its greatest weakness.

2. Is a snapshot that is fixed in time and space. The potential for misrepresenting ‘the truth’ or leaving out multiple truths is great.   

3. Always comes with a reality that is inadvertently omitted. In other words, what is not represent in your visual can be as important (or more important), than what is represented.

4. Is not the purview of a ‘professionalized’ class of trained software geeks. Some of the best maps (and other visuals) I’ve ever seen are those created on-the-fly from a simple online app or freeware. If your visual gets your point across or tells your story well,  and those seeing it can comprehend, then it is an effective visual.  

5. Are always dripping with social constructions of power. If a visual is represented as “objective fact”, be suspicious.

[i] see Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps. University of Chicago Press. 1996

Image on front pagey by Nicholas Nova and available on Flickr.


The subject of maps and cartography and “truths” as relates to visualizing information reminds me of feminist methodologies of remapping histories, theories, and rhetorics, methodologies that call for “recharting the plains, valleys, and borders” of the artifacts we study and the spaces/places that contextualize them as well as the “accounting for all the pockets of as-yet-unaccounted-for activity” (Glenn, 1994). Glenn, of course, talks more specifically of remapping and regendering rhetoric; however, the general notion of maps as a way of exploring and then visualizing concepts transcends metaphorical language when we ask students to use mapping applications to visualize information. And, Chapman gets to the heart of this in the second part of his post. I appreciate his careful acknowledgment of the need to keep in mind the power dynamics and differentials at play when knowledge and information are presented as objective “truths.” As such, asking students to map or visualize data presents an opportune moment for exploring with them notions of truth, objectivity, and authority and power by discussing the potential for coexisting and sometimes competing ways of knowing rather than a need to arrive at a particular truth or even truths. Part of asking students to visualize information asks them to engage in practices of visual rhetoric and should, perhaps, involve asking them to think about the rhetorical power wielded, both wittingly and unwittingly, through the use of these visual tools and the artifacts they produce. Doing so seems the pedagogically sound, even responsible, thing to do. 

Glenn, C. (1994). Sex, lies, and manuscript: Refiguring Aspasia in the history of rhetoric. College Composition and Communication, 45, 180-199.

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