Maps and Politics

For the past decade historians of cartography have been almost obsessed with the politics of mapping. Several groundbreaking articles published by J. B. Harley in the late 1980s and early 1990s pointed the way by challenging scholars to look beyond maps’ apparent objectivity and to read them as expressions and instruments of power. Harley died before these ideas had fully matured or produced a major book from his own pen, but his influence was evident in several subsequent works, notably Denis Wood’s The Power of Maps (1992), Monarchs, Ministers, and Maps, edited by David Buisseret (1992), Richard Helgerson’s Forms of Nationhood (1992), Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped (1994), Barbara Mundy’s The Mapping of New Spain (1996), and Matthew Edney’s Mapping an Empire (1997).

That all mapping is in some way an expression of politics is, obviously enough, central to Jeremy Black’s Maps and Politics. In his introduction Black writes that “This book . . . seeks to emphasize that the apparent ‘objectivity’ of the map-making and map-using processes cannot be divorced from aspects of the politics of representation.” Yet Black seems to struggle with this premise throughout the book, at least insofar as it raises questions of the intention, morality, or ethics of map making—issues that professional cartographers are generally reluctant to admit relevant to their enterprise. I take particular issue with his assertion in the first chapter that Harley—according to Black, because of Harley’s own “leftist” orientation—saw the deployment of power in maps as predominantly active and conspiratorial. A more thorough reading of Harley’s many empirical studies alongside his theoretical statements would reveal that he had a far more subtle and complex understanding of the ways politics and mapping processes interact.

Maps and Politics is the first survey of the impressive body of research in this area since Harley’s death. Black explains in his preface that the book was linked to a course he has developed at the University of Exeter, and he writes in an easy and understated style that will make it an ideal companion for graduate and undergraduate courses in modern history, geography, and the social sciences. Black draws impressively on a wide range of mapping forms and social and political contexts, from the historical atlases of American Indian communities to the mapping of imaginary worlds. I particularly value his emphasis on nineteenth- and twentieth-century popular cartography, which has been largely neglected by historians of cartography until quite recently. And Black is especially adept at analyzing the way in which modern cartographic representation of the past reflects contemporary politics.

Unfortunately, Maps and Politics provides no overarching scheme with which to digest the voluminous information packed into the book’s 188 pages. The logic of the book’s organization is hard to comprehend. Why, for example, do we have separate chapters on frontiers and the cartography of war, and not on equally important themes such as electoral cartography or the cartography of colonization and imperialism (mentioned elsewhere, but not discussed at great length)? Conversely, how much can we really learn about “war as an aspect of political cartography” in a chapter that, in a mere sixteen pages, moves dizzyingly (and mostly chronologically) from military surveys to maps made for military operations to journalistic maps of battles to propaganda maps without any serious attempt to identify broad categories of design and use, or, more important, to analyze their political or social impact? In this chapter, as throughout the book, Black tantalizes with insights but chooses not to develop them in any detail.

Maps and Politics is an important introduction and contribution to the growing literature on this large and complex subject. I found myself yearning for more introspection in its pages, but it documents well how cartographic researchers have come to grips with the politics of mapping over the past fifteen years.

James R. Ackerman
Newberry Library
Chicago, Illinois