Defining the boundaries

February 4, 2000

"Mappings are neither depictions nor representations but mental constructs, ideas that enable and effect change." This sentence in Mappings ' chapter "The agency of mapping: speculation, critique and invention" by James Corner sums up the dichotomy at the heart of study of the history of cartography. The 12 chapters gathered here are very much concerned with the act of mapping, rather than the maps that are produced. For anyone who wonders what it is all about, I recommend the introduction by Denis Cosgrove as a succinct resume of how scholars are looking at maps. No longer are they concerned with who drew what when, how the information was collected, how it appeared in the maps and was updated with new discoveries. More important is the power displayed by the act of mapping, drawing boundaries (both literal and metaphysical), and how maps have entered into contemporary life and art.

The first chapter, by Christian Jacob, attempts to show how map makers in ancient Alexandria distinguished between travellers' lies and honest errors. Alessandro Scafi discusses the placing of Paradise on early maps, why it was so important to the medieval world and why it later disappeared when it was found not to exist. Globes proved more useful to conquering powers than sheet maps, because they enabled rulers to understand how sailing west could capture the spice market of the East and fudge the issue of where European colonial power overlapped, according to Jerry Brotton. Lucia Noti starts with town maps of the Renaissance and brings her theme up to the 19th century, showing how we attempt to make maps agree with what we see.

The remaining chapters deal with comparatively modern mappings, or how mapping has influenced other disciplines. According to Michael Charlesworth, study of Christopher Packe's Chorography of Kent (1743) reveals "dynamic tensions that illuminate relations between desire, science and art, and between vision and power, in the early modern period". He also alludes to the known link between map making and medical practice; many doctors collect maps.

Luciana Martnes uses maps and views of Rio de Janeiro to show how the British navy was forced to become world master in chart making in order to reject deliberately false information supplied by local pilots. Actual maps do not feature largely in the chapter by Armand Mattelart, "Mapping modernity: utopia and communications networks", but Bill Gates and President Clinton do!

David Matless returns to maps, writing on the uses of cartographic literacy and the social ideology that influenced surveyors in interwar Britain.

The final chapter, "Mapping and the expanded field of contemporary art" by Wystan Curnow, emphasises the influence that the idea of mapping has on other disciplines, how it has become "installation art" with the use of computer techniques.

The longest chapter, by Corner, discusses more practical aspects of mapping, such as contrasting projections used by Mercator and Buckminster Fuller, and the abstraction that is "the bane of untrained map-readers ... not at all a failing of maps, but rather their virtue". Expressing the modern way of viewing maps he writes that the "still widely held assumption that maps are mute, utilitarian tools, of secondary significance to the milieu they represent, and lacking in power, agency or effects beyond simple, objective description, is grossly to misconstrue their capacity for shaping reality". He carries this too far when he states that mapping and contemporary spatial design techniques must find "adequate ways to engage creatively with the dynamic and promiscuous character of time and space today". Many collectors of early maps may wonder how they missed out on "promiscuity" in their collections, though the word is presumably used in its "miscellaneous" sense, with no sexual connotations.

As Cosgrove writes in his introduction, interest in what maps reveal about the social surroundings in which they were made, and how the idea of mapping has permeated so many disciplines, has grown dramatically in recent years. He mentions the surprising success of Dava Sobel's Longitude , and a recent exhibition at Moma in New York in which 30 contemporary artists deployed the ideas, practice and material products of mapping their work. These essays will do much to bring understanding of the modern outlook to those who are used to looking at maps because they find them appealing, or who merely use them to travel across town or round the world. It is not an easy transition, but this book is largely free of the convoluted jargon to be found in much contemporary academic writing.

Susan Gole is international chairman, International Map Collectors' Society.


Editor - Denis Cosgrove
ISBN - 1 86189 021 4
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £16.95
Pages - 311

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments