My contribution to April is for maps is to link to some old standards that form the basis of my cartographic thinking:
and the grand master of data and chart critique: Ed Tufte.
I would like to develop a site dedicated to the diversity of real world mapping traditions, but it won’t be this year. In the meantime Thongchai’s classic Siam Mapped will have to do, supplemented by the Big Maps Blog and links to bird’s eye views, both by satellite/plane, and in John Reps’ book.
Update: So many people have followed this modest link that I feel quite guilty about not getting around to stating what my cartographic thinking actually is. I won’t post anything with the profundity or impenetrability of Tom Conley’s Self-made Map, but maybe the following will help.
A map is a way of approaching the world. As such it is every bit as political a document as any other: its inclusions and exclusions, the projections and symbols it uses, its colour choices and priority of information, all support a particular take on what’s important, who’s in charge and where you should go. This much is well known. I am particularly drawn to maps, though, because of all documents they strike me as being the most alive, the most flooded with meaning, and the most self-critiquing. What do I mean by this?
1. Maps are 100% content. There is no incidental space in a map: even if an area is blank, its blankness conveys information – it tells you about an absence, or ignorance, or censorship. If you want to conceal your ignorance on a map you have to invent detail – actively lie – in such a way that you yourself are not taken in. Western sea charts have done this for centuries, putting regular scalloped coastlines on unexplored islands, as notes to the cognoscenti that their cartographers are, exactly here, bullshitting. This aspect of mapping is one of my chief delights: you can always lose yourself in a corner of the map, knowing to some extent how well attested or speculative it is, and look around at all the other information which will have its value adjusted by this little corner of truth or falsehood.
2. Maps are 100% artificial fabrications. They require a particular way of seeing, they convey information in and of their own genre, like Noh theatre or priestly gestures. They require training in seeing, reading, decoding and imagining the worlds they describe. And in that imagining the reader’s own world flourishes. They are, in some sense, absolutely uninterested in the truth.
3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, maps are manifestos that, more than mere writing, eventually reveal their agendas to the careful archaeologist. Here’s the thing: if you flat out write a manifesto stating what you want, that document is subject to all the conscious and unconscious elisions and silences and lies and blindnesses and obsessions that compose every kind of writing. The very directness of its intent is liable to conceal, from its authors and readers, its sub-rosa or subconscious or subtextual meanings, its less literal qualities. But when you make a map you’re already going far down the forking paths of representation and interpretation: you have to put legwork into saying what you think you want to say, and the represented object will resist you as you grapple with views and connections and frames you just never had to worry about in your writing. And so you’ll have to work that much harder to conceal your intentions from yourself, and the map’s reader will have that much more of a chance to divine them regardless. “We shall eschew cities!” declaims Engels, incidentally and casually, near the end of the Communist Manifesto. “The future of cities is the automobile!” declaimed Frank Lloyd Wright, with different intentions but similar aesthetic concerns. If only they had added maps, showing just how they would space out their ideal communities. If only they had laid their words on actual ground, we might have seen – they might have seen – just what they meant by that. We might all have seen what they didn’t when they shared their visions: the distances between the lands they imagined, the lands before their eyes, and the land their words would make.