For most of the twentieth century, maps were indispensable. They were how governments understood, managed, and defended their territory, and during the two world wars they were produced by the hundreds of millions. Cartographers and journalists predicted the dawning of a “map-minded age,” where increasingly state-of-the-art maps would become everyday tools. By the century’s end, however, there had been decisive shift in mapping practices, as the dominant methods of land surveying and print publication were increasingly displaced by electronic navigation systems. In After the Map, William Rankin argues that although this shift did not render traditional maps obsolete, it did radically change our experience of geographic knowledge, from the God’s-eye view of the map to the embedded subjectivity of GPS. Likewise, older concerns with geographic truth and objectivity have been upstaged by a new emphasis on simplicity, reliability, and convenience. After the Map shows how this change in geographic perspective is ultimately a transformation of the nature of territory, both social and political.
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About the Author
William Rankin is assistant professor of the history of science at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
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The Authority of Representation: A Single Map for All Countries, 1891–1939
Consider the map shown in figure 1.1. It presents a large area of the Appalachian Mountains, including, as its title suggests, all of the Hudson River valley. It also shows Philadelphia, New York City, and a small slice of Canada. Its graphics should be familiar to anyone with an atlas on their living-room table or maps on the walls of their classroom. Water is shown in blue, low elevations are green, and mountain areas are pale orange. (Higher elevations would be bright red.) The lines on the map show railways and major roads, and the names of various towns, counties, states, and topographic features are distinguished with a simple hierarchy of symbols and typefaces. The borders of the map are cut by lines of latitude and longitude, and one can reasonably assume that the neighboring map — say, of Ottawa and Montreal to the north — would use these same graphics. In fact, the graphics here are so straightforward and intuitive that they hardly seem notable at all. They don't seem to emphasize anything in particular, and they give equal balance to the physical, artificial, and political landscape. The immediate effect is that of looking at the world itself: instead of lines and colors on a piece of paper, we simply see rivers, mountains, cities, and boundaries.
This map was published in 1927 by the principal civilian mapping office of the US government, and it was part of the American contribution to a massive international effort to produce similarly intuitive maps of the entire world. The idea for this project had first been presented almost forty years earlier, in 1891, when a young professor of geomorphology from the University of Vienna — Albrecht Penck — had stood before his colleagues at the International Geographical Congress in Berne and suggested that the time had finally come to consolidate all existing geographic knowledge. The best way to do this would be for all mapmakers to agree to a few simple standards to govern their work, so that maps published anywhere in the world could all contribute to a single universal atlas. Support from Penck's fellow geographers was all but unanimous, and his project — soon known as the International Map of the World, or IMW for short — became a long-lasting feature of twentieth-century cartography. By the beginning of World War I, specifications for the map had been given the force of international treaty, and, as shown in figure 1.2, nearly every country in the world had officially agreed to participate. By the time the project was dissolved in the 1980s, thousands of sheets had been issued, nearly all of which followed the official standards quite closely. These maps — of Europe, Africa, and Asia just as much as New York and Canada — were all bounded by lines of latitude and longitude, projected at a scale of 1:1,000,000 (approximately sixteen miles to the inch), and drawn with the same school-atlas graphics. Together they promised to unify cartography, make the world legible to all, and create a lasting monument to the progress of human civilization.
Not surprisingly, the grand vision of the IMW occupies an important symbolic place in the history of geographic knowledge. For Penck, the project marked a transition between the age of exploration and a new age of scientific synthesis. As he put it during his talk in Berne, "The era of breakthrough discoveries is over"; the task of the twentieth century would be "filling in the holes." The new maps, however, would not just be more complete; they would also be more trustworthy — a "faithful picture in every sense," a total and final repository of stable fact. Later cartographers echoed this same rhetoric of universalism and finality. In 1913 the prominent British geographer Arthur Hinks effused that the IMW had inaugurated a "new era in cartography," since "every sheet [is] written in the same language, without difference even of local idiom, so that who[ever] learns to read one sheet may read them all." As late as 1972 the geographer-historian Norman Thrower made similar claims, using the project to introduce the "modern period of cartography" as a whole. Not only did the IMW signal the end of cartographic secrecy and "nationalistic parochialism," but it marked the beginning of the kind of systematic mapping efforts that could finally be considered comprehensive, accurate, and technologically progressive.
As the flagship project of twentieth-century cartography, the IMW is therefore a window into the geo-epistemology of representation as a whole. In particular, this chapter and the next use the IMW to trace the history of a certain ideal of what maps are for and how they work — one that was taken for granted by Penck, Hinks, and Thrower but which was progressively problematized during the second half of the twentieth century and is now openly criticized by scholars and practitioners alike. This is an ideal that I call authoritative representation. It is the assumption that the fundamental task of cartography is to create an objective, comprehensive, and politically neutral record of the world. Conceptually, this kind of map is nothing less than a paper replacement for the physical landscape.
These foundational maps are authoritative in two senses at once. As records of geographic knowledge, they are the starting point for all subsequent mapmaking. Known simply as a "base map," this kind of map is a "general" map, usually topographic, that can be used for any number of purposes, in contrast to "special" or "thematic" maps that show things like geology, population statistics, or weather patterns. Technologically, the idea is that these specialist maps can be made simply by overprinting new information onto the base map, or at least by using as many preexisting printing plates as possible. This shop-floor relationship is simultaneously a model for the institutional organization of cartography and the social organization of geographic research: it implies a hierarchy of mapmaking agencies and a linear progression from surveying to the base map to higher-order analysis. As a result, it is also a powerful argument that certain kinds of information — railroads, mountains, coastlines, administrative borders — are "basic" and universal.
But since base maps are primarily produced by national mapping agencies, their scientific authority is matched by a strong political authority as well. They are the way that countries make their terrain legible and available for centralized administration; they also show the geographic limits of national control. Base maps are therefore a powerful political imaginary, transforming physical terrain into political territory. By the late nineteenth century, it was generally assumed that every country was responsible for producing its own set of basic topographic maps, and these were the maps that would provide the source material for the IMW. For many decades, making these maps — and making the IMW above all — was seen as the principal way that governments could represent themselves geographically to other states, and this privilege was closely guarded. The history of the IMW is thus not just a record of a certain way of thinking about maps, but also of a certain way of understanding and managing territory. Visual representation and political representation went hand in hand.
My two chapters on the IMW use World War II as a historical dividing line. Before the war, the international importance of authoritative representation went largely unquestioned, and the IMW was pursued with confidence and relatively little debate about its fundamental purpose. Despite its strong internationalist ethos, I argue that during this time it implicitly reinforced the assumptions of national territoriality, both through its graphics and through an ongoing debate about its political legitimacy. By the end of the 1950s, however, the project had become increasingly untenable. The once-strong relationship between the IMW base map and its thematic offspring unraveled, and prominent cartographers came to publicly challenge the worth of the entire endeavor. Although the project was not entirely abandoned — and even today there are those who lament its passing and pursue alternatives — by the 1970s the original goals of the IMW had become essentially unrecognizable, both scientifically and politically. Maps were still understood as representations of the world, and national survey agencies and national boundaries were still important parts of mapmaking, but representation no longer implied the same kind of authority as before. Instead of embodying comprehensive geographic truth, maps were increasingly seen as tools for specific functional tasks. And instead of national self-representation and worldwide uniformity, cartographers pushed for a new regional coherence that constructed a global realm quite different from the earlier world of internationalism. The visual logic of paper maps no longer aligned with the political logic of territorial control, and cartography ceased to provide a unifying framework for organizing geographic knowledge.
I should stress at the outset, however, that my argument here has relatively little to do with the overall success or failure of the IMW itself. Although the official IMW standards were quite influential within cartography — by the late 1950s, for example, dozens of national and military map series had been explicitly modeled on IMW sheet layouts and graphics — there is little evidence that the IMW was ever extensively used by politicians, scientists, or even geographers. Satisfactory international distribution of finished sheets was a constant problem, and practical applications of the map are surprisingly hard to find. (The one notable exception — the boundary negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 — is exceptional precisely because international distribution was unnecessary.) Other scholars have reached similar conclusions, and most discussion of the IMW today sees it primarily as a cautionary tale about the limits of international collaboration. For my purposes, however, these assessments are somewhat irrelevant. If anything, they only underscore that maps today are evaluated more for their usefulness than their authority. Instead, what matters to me is that the project engaged the world's most prominent cartographers, national survey agencies, and international organizations for the better part of a century. Indeed, it is perhaps precisely because the project did not always proceed smoothly that it was so widely discussed and thus provides such a useful guide to changes in cartography as a whole.
This first chapter tracks the IMW during the fifty years after Penck's initial proposal. My primary goal is to show how authoritative representation operated simultaneously in both a visual and a political sense — and how each reinforced the other. The chapter is divided into four sections. I begin by analyzing how the project evolved from Penck's rough proposal of 1891 to capture the interest of states and eventually gain official international recognition — first in 1909, then definitively in 1913. In the second section I then offer my own analysis of the visual and political logic of the project; here is where I argue that the internationalism of the IMW was remarkably national in character, despite the explicit goal of forcing visual continuity across international borders. The second half of the chapter then tracks the reality of the project's visual and political authority after 1914. During World War I, a large number of IMW-style maps were produced by British geographers (and eventually used at the Peace Conference), but in general the scale of 1:1,000,000 was not nearly detailed enough for trench warfare, and national mapping agencies directed their attention elsewhere. My focus is therefore on the period after international communication was reestablished in the early 1920s. I first analyze the usefulness of the IMW as a base map in the 1920s and 1930s before turning to evaluate the extent to which countries did (or did not) in fact publish maps of their own territory; this is where I discuss the British maps from World War I alongside later projects in Latin America and Asia. In both the visual and the political realm, the ideals of the project did not play out as planned, but the mismatches only reinforced the larger interest in geographic truth and national territoriality.
Making Representation Authoritative: From Academic Project to International Treaty
More than twenty years elapsed between Penck's original proposal in 1891 and the codification of the International Map of the World as an officially recognized project in 1909 and then, in final form, in 1913. During this time, Penck's project transformed from an ambitious but somewhat vague plan for academic geographers to an exacting set of standards adopted by national mapping agencies. During this time, in other words, Penck's plan became authoritative. The shift toward authority was a gradual one, and it relied on a close mutual relationship between increasing visual authority and increasing political authority, where each required and reinforced the other. On the side of the visual, this mostly meant putting international cartography — and often cartography as a whole — on a more "scientific" footing. On the side of the political, this meant enrolling state sponsorship — both from the outside and from within — to actually produce the maps. Seemingly mundane discussions about the most trustworthy way to use colors to show elevation thus ended up being no less important than the division of mapping responsibility between countries, since both were necessary to ensure the objectivity and political legitimacy needed to justify the cost of the project. The IMW was hardly the first mapping project to link scientific virtue with political patronage in this way, but the specific historical path that the project followed in the decades before World War I promised a consolidation of geographic knowledge and representational practice that was unprecedented in its global reach.
Penck's initial goals, and much of the early discussion of his ideas, focused on scientific results alone. Even in his very first presentation, Penck made it clear that his highest hope was not just to make maps, but to perfect the study of geography. He justified the project primarily as a way to pursue comparative research into landforms and landscapes around the world, a task for which geographers would need a "unified representation" — a single, trustworthy map that could be perfected over time. For well-surveyed areas, this "faithful picture" would finally provide a "secure foundation" for geographical research; for less-well-surveyed areas, he called on his peers to finally collect "our entire topographical and orographical knowledge" into one place. In later presentations, Penck and his supporters likewise framed the project as a way for geography to hold its own among academic disciplines — especially astronomy, geodesy, and geology. Penck's plan was presented as a direct riposte both to the geologists' ongoing work on a unified geological map of Europe and to the astronomers' massive Carte du ciel, a collaborative sky-mapping project that combined results from dozens of observatories around the world. Like these other projects, Penck's map would rally geography around a common cause and provide an organizing framework for long-term work. It would be pursued mostly by academics, not territorial states, and it was predicted to take "decades" of work, coming to completion "in 50, perhaps in 100 years."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "After the Map"
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Table of Contents
Possibly Ambiguous Terms,
Introduction Territory and the Mapping Sciences,
I. The International Map of the World and the Logic of Representation,
1 The Authority of Representation A Single Map for All Countries, 1891–1939,
2 Maps as Tools Globalism, Regionalism, and the Erosion of Universal Cartography, 1940–1965,
II. Cartographic Grids and New Territories of Calculation,
3 Aiming Guns, Recording Land, and Stitching Map to Territory The Invention of Cartographic Grid Systems, 1914–1939,
4 Territoriality without Borders Global Grids and the Universal Transverse Mercator, 1940–1965,
III. Electronic Navigation and Territorial Pointillism,
5 Inhabiting the Grid Radionavigation and Electronic Coordinates, 1920–1965,
6 The Politics of Global Coverage The Navy, NASA, and GPS, 1960–2010,
Conclusion The Politics in My Pocket,
Acronyms and Codenames,