Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity
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Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity

The Figure of the Map in Contemporary Theory and Fiction

Peta Mitchell

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eBook - ePub

Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity

The Figure of the Map in Contemporary Theory and Fiction

Peta Mitchell

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The last fifty years have witnessed the growing pervasiveness of the figure of the map in critical, theoretical, and fictional discourse. References to mapping and cartography are endemic in poststructuralist theory, and, similarly, geographically and culturally diverse authors of twentieth-century fiction seem fixated upon mapping. While the map metaphor has been employed for centuries to highlight issues of textual representation and epistemology, the map metaphor itself has undergone a transformation in the postmodern era. This metamorphosis draws together poststructuralist conceptualizations of epistemology, textuality, cartography, and metaphor, and signals a shift away from modernist preoccupations with temporality and objectivity to a postmodern pragmatics of spatiality and subjectivity. Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity charts this metamorphosis of cartographic metaphor, and argues that the ongoing reworking of the map metaphor renders it a formative and performative metaphor of postmodernity.

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1 A Genealogy of Cartography, A Genealogy of Space

“The world needs Cartographers,” he said softly, “because if they didn’t have Cartographers the fools wouldn’t know where they were. They wouldn’t know if they were up themselves if they didn’t have a Cartographer to tell them what’s happening.”1
“What is that big book?” said the little prince. “What are you doing?”
“I am a geographer,” said the old gentleman.
“What is a geographer?” asked the little prince.
“A geographer is a scholar who knows the location of all the seas, rivers, towns, mountains, and deserts.”
“That is very interesting,” said the little prince. “Here at last is a man who has a real profession!” And he cast a look around him at the planet of the geographer. It was the most magnificent and stately planet that he had ever seen.
“Your planet is very beautiful,” he said. “Has it any oceans?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” said the geographer.
“Ah!” The little prince was disappointed. “Has it any mountains?”
“I couldn’t tell you,” said the geographer.
“And towns, and rivers, and deserts?”
“I couldn’t tell you that, either.”2
The importance of an enquiry into the history of “scientific” cartography rests on its ability to construct—in Foucault’s words—a “history of the present.”3 An understanding of where cartography “stands” today, therefore, must be informed by an analysis of its history. This chapter will provide a Foucauldian genealogy of the socio-historical forces contributing to the formation of various cartographic and spatial epistemes over the past 600 years. The phrase “cartographic epistemes” is not intended to imply that the particular epistemes discussed are essentially cartographic, rather that both the practice of cartography and the metaphorization of knowledge in cartographic terms figure strongly in them. To this end, a genealogical analysis of the history of cartography has as its aim not a linear narrative of scientific progress, but a foregrounding of the samenesses and differences, the rejections, emergences, and formalizations played out in that history. This chapter, once more, will limn the intersections between cartography and metaphor, but, by examining them by way of a spatialized history and a historicized spatiality, will also introduce the concepts of relativity and space-time curvilinearity that will come into play in later chapters.
Foucault’s genealogical approach to history is opposed to a search for origins, thus resisting the representation of history as an unfolding series of events in the narrative of progress. Derived from Nietzsche’s historical method in On the Genealogy of Morals,4 genealogy emphasizes that all history is perspectival and involves a strategic struggle for domination that plays itself out at the level of language. For these reasons, in this chapter, I will employ the term “episteme” in its Foucauldian sense—rather than purely temporal terms such as “period,” “epoch,” or “era”—in order to discuss medievalism, the Enlightenment, Modernism, and postmodernism as discursive formations. The term’s usefulness lies in its ability to imply systems of knowing—or epistemologies—that are not simply time-bound. It allows for “emergences” without being a search for “origins” or “essences,” as emergences are not understood to be part of the narrative of progress. Emphasized in this approach is the possibility (or even necessity) of counter-discursive formations that disrupt the paradigm, so that the epistemes analyzed here are less discrete than in a traditional periodic approach to historicization.
After analyzing Foucault’s genealogical method and its particular appropriateness to the history of cartography, I will then explore five cartographic epistemes—medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment, imperial, and “postmodern.”5 The cartographic episteme of the Enlightenment is the point at which the Renaissance’s emergent discourse of scientificity “attain[s] the norms of scientificity” and “reach[es] the threshold of formalization” (AK, 191), resulting in a discursive formation. I examine the Renaissance “rediscovery” of the Classical cosmographer Ptolemy in the 1400s, the development of linear perspective, and the resultant emergence of the “science” of cartography. By contrasting the Enlightenment’s “objective,” scientific maps to the overtly figurative, multi-perspectival, and experiential maps of the Medieval period, this analysis will emphasize the reactive nature of Enlightenment epistemology, which privileged reason, progress, and visuality over the “Dark Ages” of medievalism. The concept of space that emerged in the Enlightenment is a global and passive one of pure extension. The formalization of this spatial practice, moreover, fed neatly into the expansionist drive to conquer land—conceived of as “empty,” “unclaimed,” or “unknown” extensive space—that characterized the Age of Empire. This section of the chapter will examine, through the lens of postcolonialism, the use of maps as ideological tools in the building of empires and the modern nation-state. Again, the scientific-political map will be shown to construct a certain “legitimate” knowledge of the world and the subject, while denigrating other cultural knowledges. Finally, I will demonstrate that, along with the development of non-Euclidean geometry and post-Newtonian physics, Marxist and poststructuralist critiques of the “uneven development” engendered by the Western imperialist/capitalist project and geography’s “quantitative revolution” of the 1960s heralded the advent of various “postmodern” geographies and cartographies—Marxist, feminist, human, cultural, and social.

Genealogy-Archaeology and the Spatializing of History

In his fourth major work, published in 1969, Foucault articulated what he termed an “archaeological” method of historical inquiry—one he reworked soon after as “genealogy” in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Douglas Smith, in his introduction to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, writes that Nietzsche’s historical method “rejects the progressive notion of history as a necessary, rule-governed development which finds its fulfilment either in the present or in some deferred future.”6 Opposed to both the Enlightenment understanding of history as linear progress and the more recent one of history as “a given object of neutral scientific description,” Nietzsche presents the genealogical method as one that studies “the multiple intersecting forces which produce the meaning of a given phenomenon or practice.”7 As such, Smith adds, “the study of these forces reconstructs a metaphorical rather than a literal kinship network.”8
Similarly, Foucault’s genealogical-archaeological method stands in contradistinction to traditional historicism founded upon the interrelated narratives of linear time and progress, the essential rationality of the self-constituting subject, and the historical a priori of “the origin” revealed through a depth hermeneutics. Foucault argues that these narratives of modernity, which make “historical analysis the discourse of the continuous and […] human consciousness the original subject of all historical development and action,” result in the reign of time (AK, 12). History’s “function,” in this case, “is to compose the finally reduced diversity of time into a totality fully closed upon itself,”9 rendering time as only able to be “conceived in terms of totalization” (AK, 12).
If history’s “perspective on all that precedes it implies the end of time, a completed development,” the search for the “origin” becomes of utmost importance: “[f]rom the vantage point of an absolute distance, free from the restraints of positive knowledge [connaissance], the origin makes possible a field of knowledge [savoir] whose function is to recover it.”10 Described in such a way, the historian’s role seems much like that of the “objective” and “scientific” cartographer described in the previous chapter, and indeed Foucault refers to the “historian’s history” as assuming a “suprahistorical perspective […] outside of time and claim[ing] to base its judgments on an apocalyptic objectivity.”11
However, as Foucault argues, history is not an inert field of past events that can be comprehensively mapped by the historian, and certainly not one that sits easily on the traditional, linear timeline. History, instead, is “the concrete body of becoming; with its moments of intensity, its lapses, its extended periods of feverish agitation, its fainting spells, and,” he concludes, “only a metaphysician would seek its soul in the distant ideality of the origin.”12 A proper analysis of history, according to Foucault, should take into account its chaotic, rather than predictable, nature and examine it in terms of “emergences,” or entries of forces.13
In this sense, genealogy-archaeology seeks to “systematically dismantle” those “traditional devices for constructing a comprehensive view of history and for retracing the past as a patient and continuous development.”14 It does not seek to “neutralize discourse,” as does the depth hermeneutics of traditional historicism in its attempt to “pierce through its density” (AK, 47). Rather, it is concerned with allowing discourse to “emerge in its own complexity,” and expresses a desire “to write a history of discursive objects that does not plunge them into the common depth of a primal soil, but deploys the nexus of regularities that govern their dispersion” (AK, 47–48). Thus, against traditional historicism’s obsessions with temporality and depth, genealogy-archaeology is defined in terms of spatiality and surface. Space becomes the basis of discourse, allowing the historian to release discursive objects from the time-bound constraints of “permanence and uniqueness,” to examine how they “emerge and are continuously transformed” (AK, 32). Foucault describes discursive events as being “deployed” in space, leaving the historian “free to describe the interplay of relations within and outside [them]” (AK, 29).
Genealogy-archaeology is also a practice of the surface. The metaphor of archaeology implies a certain amount of digging, a certain amount of depth. However, according to Foucault, the term “does not relate analysis to geological excavation,” but implies instead the “uncovering” of the shallowly buried archive and the “mapping” of discursive formations (AK, 131, 114). Similarly, Foucault initially describes genealogy in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” as “operat[ing] on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.”15 By metaphorizing genealogy in terms of the palimpsest, Foucault again draws together and foregrounds the interconnected concepts of space and surface. As Thomas Flynn explains, “working on the ‘surface’ of things, Foucault displaces metaphysics with a ‘topology’ of social practices, charting the limits, exclusions and specific ‘conditions of existence’ of these practices in their actual occurrence.”16
It is important to note that Foucault’s emphasis on spatiality and surface is not a complete negation of time and history, but rather allows for an opening up of a field of enquiry ignored by the dialectics of history: the field of power. The recognition of space, Foucault argues, throws into relief “processes—historical ones, needless to say—of power,” adding that a “spatialising description of discursive realities gives on to the analysis of related effects of power.”17 In addition, Foucault’s genealogical method favors short-sightedness over the distant perspective of the “objective” historian, as the fore-shortening of vision exposes the dispersal of power relations in discursive formations. Foucault’s “advocacy of a shortness of vision” is, according to Michael Shapiro,
supplemented by a glance at the past, a glance aimed not at the production of a developmental narrative but at showing what we are now. This “what we are now” is not meant as a simple description of the current state of things. Rather, it is an attempt to show that the “now” is an unstable victory had at the expense of other possible nows.18
Foucault’s historical method is not a retrospective construction of the future—a search for the origin that implies completed development at the end of time—but instead writes a “history of the present.” As Shapiro explains, genealogy reveals the present not as “a product of accumulated wisdom or other dynamics reaching into the distant past,” but “com[ing] about as one possible emergence from an interpretive agonistics.”19
In this respect, Foucault’s genealogical-archaeological method offers itself as an appropriate tool in an analysis of the history of cartography. Genealogy shows that the history of the map as object and metaphor is not a continuous progression toward greater realism and transparency, but is rather a history of continuities and discontinuities; of emergences, formalizations, and rejections; of “metamorphoses and restructurings.”20 Moreover, as the history of cartography is traditionally viewed as the triumph of science over supers...

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Citation styles for Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity
APA 6 Citation
Mitchell, P. (2013). Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)
Chicago Citation
Mitchell, Peta. (2013) 2013. Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Mitchell, P. (2013) Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mitchell, Peta. Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.