Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Deconstructing the Map -- J.B. Harley

Harley analyzes maps, and the cartographic principles involved in their creation, through a post-modern lens. His views expose the influence that knowledge and power have over the map making process and the resulting impact on the map reader. Harley examines the discourse of cartography, map rhetoric and the resulting form of power-knowledge by relying on the ideas and techniques of Derrida and Foucault.

The technical and cultural production methods used by Western cartographers have been honed over time to provide a spatial inventory according to standards of ‘objectivity’, ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’. The resulting implication is that Western maps are void of any non-scientific information while showing the most accurate representation of the landscape. Harley deconstructs these paradigms by revealing practices such as centering specific territories based on the society that generated the map and also the hierarchical placement of map elements. Harley explores the hidden meaning within maps by arguing that the categories of literature and art more accurately define a map’s cultural utility. By the looking at the inherently rhetorical process of map creation, Harley urges the reader to recognize the distinction between the social purpose and content of the map.

Harley examines the cyclical relationship of power exerted on cartography and the power exercised with cartography. He shares Foucault’s belief that knowledge is central in the pursuit of power and therefore cartography is another mechanism that can be used for political gain. Thus, the neutrality of maps, according to Harley, should forever be questioned with regards to their authoritarian characteristics.

3 comments:

Sarah said...

I primarily use maps to memorize and decorate. If I do need to get somewhere using a map, I will memorize the key points and leave it behind. As a tourist, I find I enjoy more running around getting lost in a city and memorizing it through experience than checking my map all the time to make sure I'm where I should be. It's not all that efficient, but it's so much more fulfilling.

And then, I return home, and the map ends up on my wall. I'm not sure if this use of maps is consistent with the idea that maps are items of power and control. Does the map author have some kind of power over me through my wall? Are they, or am I defining place? Could they be morphing my memories by repetitive viewings of their version of this place, now on my wall? Or am I morphing their version of that place by using it as a reminder of the things I found valuable about it? What's more, I'm using one place to define another place, which I don't think most map authors intend when they make a map, until enough people start defining their own places with it, and it becomes profitable to sell it as decoration.

Perhaps the moment it becomes a commercial transaction is when it gathers power again as decoration. The map of the London subway is all over the place, and has gathered a social value that could imply cultural power.

Chris Rencontre said...

I think power is exerted in cartography when certain areas are noted on maps and others are not. If, for instance, a tourist is seeking a place to spend the night [which really equals spending money] those businesses who had the money to advertise have a better chance of getting the tourist's business than those folks off the beaten path who are not listed on the map.

Although I agree with Sarah that it's much more fun to drive around to find that little spot that's tucked away from the rest of the world, if you're traveling at night and tired from a day on the road, it's simply more efficient to know where you're going and have a map that gets you there.

Power can also be emphasized through maps by the entity that is producing them. Say, for instance, a group that is against Indian gaming creates a map of Wisconsin. Indian casinos will not have their own little symbol on the legend. Similarly, an entity that is not interested in religion will not mark locations where houses of worship can be found. I doubt a map can be found that could bill itself as an objective, all purpose document. No matter what you place on a map, it has to be a result of bias and power and choices of focus.

Lena said...

Thank you for this... I'm trying to read the article and I am somewhat lost