Cartography: The Ideal and Its History

Cartography: The Ideal and Its History

by Matthew H. Edney

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Over the past four decades, the volumes published in the landmark History of Cartography series have both chronicled and encouraged scholarship about maps and mapping practices across time and space. As the current director of the project that has produced these volumes, Matthew H. Edney has a unique vantage point for understanding what “cartography” has come to mean and include.
In this book Edney disavows the term cartography, rejecting the notion that maps represent an undifferentiated category of objects for study. Rather than treating maps as a single, unified group, he argues, scholars need to take a processual approach that examines specific types of maps—sea charts versus thematic maps, for example—in the context of the unique circumstances of their production, circulation, and consumption. To illuminate this bold argument, Edney chronicles precisely how the ideal of cartography that has developed in the West since 1800 has gone astray. By exposing the flaws in this ideal, his book challenges everyone who studies maps and mapping practices to reexamine their approach to the topic. The study of cartography will never be the same.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226605715
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/12/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 33 MB
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About the Author

Matthew H. Edney is the Osher Professor in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine. He directs the History of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, for which he has coedited Volume 4, Cartography in the European Enlightenment. He is a contributor to many books and author of Mapping anEmpire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765–1843, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


Introducing the Ideal of Cartography

There is no such thing as cartography, and this is a book about it

The study of maps and mapping is bedeviled by a profound act of cultural misdirection. Modern culture deploys an idealized conception of mapping that obscures the myriad ways in which people actually go about producing, circulating, and consuming maps, whether in the past or the present. The actual behavior, what people do, is mapping. The idealized behavior, what people think they do, is cartography. As the apparently singular endeavor by which the world is reduced to paper, or nowadays to digital screens, cartography stands as a fundamental element of human society and culture. Cartography seems coterminous with civilization. It appears to be universal and timeless. And this singular endeavor has only ever had just one product, "the map."

The image — or desideratum or perhaps simulacrum — of cartography is the product of a complex belief system that permeates modern culture: the "ideal of cartography." The ideal normalizes "the map," requiring that it be construed only in certain confined and quite unrealistic ways; in particular, the map is understood to be the product of a restricted set of specific practices. The ideal smothers the actual messiness of mapping with a thick, fluffy, warm, and comforting blanket of cartographic uniformity and transcultural universality. The ideal of cartography is the entire belief system, while cartography is the fiction generated by the ideal.

According to the ideal, cartography is simply the making of maps. In more academic formulations, it also includes the study of maps and map making. From this perspective, it seems axiomatic that "'maps' define the domain of cartography" (Vasiliev et al. 1990, 119), and maps, not cartography and certainly not the ideal of cartography, have been the focus of scholarly attention. Conceptual studies bear titles such as The Nature of Maps (Robinson and Petchenik 1976); "Deconstructing the Map" (Harley 1989); The Power of Maps] ITL(Wood 1992b); How Maps Work (MacEachren 1995); Maps and Politics (Black 1997); and Rethinking Maps (Dodge, Kitchin, and Perkins 2009b). None has a title like "the nature of cartography," "deconstructing cartography," or "the power of cartography." Those scholars who have taken a broader viewpoint — especially those who have concerned themselves with the intellectual identity of the academic discipline of cartography — might have referenced "cartography" in the titles to their essays or books, yet they too consistently focus their analyses on "the map" and on how "the map" is made and used.

Scholarly assessments and reconsiderations of the nature of maps have flourished since the mid-1960s, when academic cartographers began to reflect seriously on the nature of their field and when historians of cartography began to consider how early maps might be studied as part of the humanities (Edney 2016). Their disciplinary concerns and historiographical reflections subsequently merged with much broader intellectual movements, notably the postmodernist reevaluation of the nature of representation and political concerns for access to and the shaping of knowledge. The result has been two kinds of critical reflection about "the map": the normative and the sociocultural. The normative critique has sought to validate and uphold the normative map and, with it, all the other idealizations promoted by the ideal of cartography; such critics are relatively few and have largely been limited to academic cartographers and geographers (e.g., Robinson and Petchenik 1976; MacEachren 1995), although some scholars in other disciplines have made notable contributions (e.g., Black 1997). The wide-ranging and interdisciplinary sociocultural critique has sought to replace the normative map with new interpretations that take into account not only the cultural and social significance of maps but also those kinds of maps that the ideal dismisses as unorthodox or abnormal (e.g., Harley 1989; Wood 1992b; Dodge, Kitchin, and Perkins 2009b). Yet, after fifty years, the debate between normative and sociocultural critics is still inconclusive, and scholars continue to discuss, ponder, and debate the nature of maps.

Many scholars are unpersuaded by the sociocultural critique. They are intellectually unmoved by unfamiliar concepts adopted by sociocultural critics from other disciplines. They find politically unpalatable the radicalism of many sociocultural critics. And they find the new interpretations to have little, if anything, to contribute to their primary concerns for the technicalities of map making and for the instrumentality of map use. Some scholars accordingly dismiss the sociocultural critique out of hand, but most just ignore it as irrelevant. The few normative critics who have engaged with the sociocultural critique have reconciled the conflicting positions by supplementing the still-dominant technical concerns with greatly watered-down social and cultural elements.

At the same time, the sociocultural critique has centered on refuting the normative map, not the ideal as a whole, and as such has been both incomplete and ineffective. Sociocultural critics have been able to address some of modern society's deeply rooted cartographic norms, but have been unable to dispel them completely, while leaving others barely touched. Despite the wealth of new insights, basic issues that should have been settled long ago must continue to be revisited. Sociocultural critics still have to explain to their colleagues that, yes, maps are in fact rich, human-made documents and not simply normative statements of spatial fact (Edney 2015a). Unnoticed and unacknowledged, flawed concepts continue to infect even the most intellectually radical and carefully constructed positions.

Both sides have been hindered in this debate by their mutual misunderstanding of just what it is they criticize and defend. The debate hinges on definitions of "the map" as a generic phenomenon. Normative critics seek to sustain the normative map; sociocultural critics seek an alternative, yet equally all-encompassing, conception of "the map." The problem is that such generic categories are utterly unstable and can be explained and understood only through historical analysis (Lois 2015).

When "maps," "charts," and "plans" are placed in their social contexts — why they are commissioned, how they are used, and who uses them — then it becomes apparent that what separates them is much greater and of more import than what they have in common. "Map," "chart," and "plan" acquired semantic stability in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries not only in English but also in French and German. Each term refers to different kinds of images:

Cartes géographiques / Landkarten / maps delineate regions or the whole world beyond the ability of one individual to observe and survey directly.

Plans / Pläne / plans delineate parts of the world observed and measured by one surveyor or organized teams of surveyors.

Cartes marines / Seekarten / charts delineate the hydrosphere, for the use of navigators.

Each set of imagery entails a particular conception of the world, which it depicts with different strategies and techniques, in order to support specific functions; each set is produced and consumed within certain social institutions and contexts. Overall, the common terms suggest not a single and coherent category but a diffuse and conceptually extensive array of artifacts (Jacob 2006, 18–21). These same pragmatic distinctions are as evident today as at any time in the past (Rankin 2016, 16).

Why should "maps," "charts," and "plans" be thought of as things that must possess some common character? Why do scholars and lay commentators obscure the clear differences between them by assuming that there exists some essential commonality, some je ne sais quoi, whose elucidation is the proper subject of scholarly inquiry? Why do they all hypostatize a Platonic form and insist that it is legitimate to construe a generic category as having significance in the real world? What is the evidence for any generic map, other than some ingrained cultural commitment? In short, why do scholars continue to ask, what is a map?

My succinct answer to these questions is that the conviction that there exists a single and unambiguous category of things called "maps" is in fact the visible tip of the culturally pervasive and as-yet-unexamined belief system that is the ideal of cartography. The ideal regulates and controls all conceptions of the nature of maps and mapping. Under the ideal's cultural hegemony, maps are all the same. Regardless of their form and function, they can be described with the same vocabulary and evaluated by the same standards. A map of the whole earth in an atlas or a detailed plan of one or two city blocks, a medieval chorographical map of Palestine or one sheet of a modern topographical map of Israel, an eighteenth-century chart of Europe's coasts and an eighteenth-century map of Europe: all of the disparate cultural, social, historical, and functional significances of these and other maps are ignored, and each map is normalized as nothing more than a depiction of spatial fact. Scholars and lay commentators alike have worked hard to erect and maintain a barricade around the normative map by refusing to accept as maps any works that reveal even a hint of the unorthodox. "The map" is just one of many normative concepts that are sustained by the ideal and that are effaced and obscured by the conviction that cartography is just map making.

It is not that maps somehow hide their interestedness and partiality behind a naturalized veneer of objectivity, as Denis Wood has argued (especially Wood 1992b, 2010). Rather, it is intrinsic to the ideal of cartography that maps can only be statements of spatial fact. Furthermore, the emphasis on "the map" tends to grant an "efficacy and agency to cartographic documents which no one involved" in their production and consumption "ever held to be the case" (Barford 2016, 10; also Edney 2015a). It is not that "maps" are capable of independent action and do things, but rather that people do things with maps, to maps, and without maps. These complaints are not merely quibbles over academic shorthand: neither normative nor sociocultural map scholars have appreciated that the maps they study are only the visible part of the conceptual iceberg of the ideal of cartography. Any critique and reinterpretation of maps must address the whole ideal and the structure of its constituent beliefs, not its surficial features. In other words, we should abandon the critique of maps, whether normative or sociocultural, and engage instead in a critique of the ideal of cartography.

The ideal of cartography consists of an interlocking and resilient web of mutually reinforcing preconceptions, each of which sustains basic convictions that seem to be common-sense propositions about the nature of maps. These preconceptions and convictions together construe cartography to be the apparently transcultural endeavor of translating the world to paper or screen, with the shared goal of advancing civilization by perfecting a singular archive of spatial knowledge through the use of universal techniques of observation and communication. The foundation of the ideal was laid by the widespread adoption by European states after 1790 of systematic territorial surveys that held out the promise of a singular methodology for all map making. Further idealizations were developed, augmented, and popularized by a variety of factors, such as Europe's imperialistic engagement with the rest of the world, the active writing of histories of cartography, the formulation of set theory in mathematics, and the rise of personal mobility. Each new factor supplied the ideal's preconceptions with further intellectual burdens, progressively naturalizing cartography and normalizing "the map."

Like any other historically emergent phenomenon, the ideal of cartography is messy. It is not formed as a series of corollaries that logically and inexorably derive from one or two core axioms. Rather, its logic derives from the manner in which preconceptions both complement and contradict one another, their interconnections obscuring significant paradoxes and inconsistencies.

For example, the ideal holds that cartography is the necessarily timeless and universal endeavor of map making: whenever people have made maps, they have engaged in cartography. Scholars have therefore looked for cartography's origins in the ancient worlds of Asia and Europe, and even in prehistory. Yet the way the ideal developed — especially its integration with modern imperialism and its reliance on triumphal historical narratives and other apologias — has led scholars to identify cartography as a particular phenomenon of the Renaissance. This was supposedly the era when the mentality of Europeans acquired a new rationality that was manifested in, or caused by, a new and universal geometry of measurement and perspective vision. This transformation was explicit in early nineteenth-century map histories (e.g., Humboldt 1836–39) and has since been implicit (e.g., Cortesão 1969–71, 1: 4). More recently, the Renaissance has been explicitly identified as the moment when modern cartography came into being (e.g., Harvey 1989, 204, 244; Buisseret 1992, 1; Biggs 1999, 377–78; Wood 2010, 21–27; Gehring and Weibel 2014; Farinelli 2015; Silverberg 2015). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Westerners used cartography's geometrical essence to distinguish themselves from the Asians and Africans whom they colonized: the geometrical nature of Western cartography marked Westerners as innately rational, while the apparently nongeometrical maps of colonized peoples marked them as innately irrational and therefore properly subject to Western rule. Cartography thus appears to be at once a practice found in all socially complex cultures and a particular historical formation associated with Western imperialism (Edney 2009, 42). Yet the ideal is so flexible that it does not admit of any contradiction. Indeed, the ability of the ideal to contain potentially conflicting positions that can be variously deployed as needed accounts for much of its resilience. Conversely, there are no axioms whose negation will bring down the whole edifice; revealing the flaws inherent to some of the ideal's preconceptions has no effect on the others.

The normative critique of maps accepts the ideal and does not directly challenge its preconceptions. For their part, sociocultural critics have been concerned with developing new approaches to "the map" and so have only incidentally addressed some of the ideal's preconceptions. And no sooner have sociocultural critics happened to reveal the flaws of one preconception than other preconceptions pop right back up and reaffirm the ideal. The sociocultural critique has thus been a game of intellectual whack-a-mole. The ideal's preconceptions remorselessly corrupt even the most carefully argued scholarly analyses. Its idealizations continue to provide the default intellectual framework for any consideration of maps and mapping in the past and in the present, whether by well-established map scholars or by newcomers to the field.

The ideal is so big, so multifaceted, and so thoroughly naturalized within modern culture that no one has yet identified it, let alone sought to address it in its entirety. Until scholars appreciate all of the ideal's constituent norms and their implications in toto, they will continue to focus on maps and their reforms will fail. To move forward with an intellectually valid understanding of maps and mapping, we must first expose and eradicate the ideal's misconceptions. And that, in turn, requires that we appreciate the sheer size and complexity of this web of beliefs.

The goal of the present book is to promote just such an appreciation by exposing the ideal of cartography in as comprehensive a manner as possible. I explore the many ways in which the ideal has been expressed and the traps it lays for the unwary. I do this both by revealing the ideal's preconceptions and by telling the history of its creation and development. With cartography denaturalized, scholars of all stripes will be able to move forward intellectually without repeatedly tripping and falling over the ideal.

This book effectively challenges everyone who studies any aspect of mapping to examine and reevaluate what they think they know about their subject. Everyone, including map scholars who have been actively pursuing sociocultural approaches, will have to unlearn at least a few core concepts. It has taken me many years to recognize the complex system of beliefs hiding behind cartography's seeming innocence and innocuousness, and in doing so I have had to confront and reassess my own own ideas and arguments. We all need to give serious thought to our own assumptions and attitudes, and correct them as necessary.


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Table of Contents

Conventions Used in This Book
1 Introducing the Ideal of Cartography

2 Seeing, and Seeing Past, the Ideal Satire, Critique, and a Persistent Ideal
Breaking Free of the Ideal
3 Cartography’s Idealized Preconceptions Ontology
A Singular and Universal Endeavor
4 The Ideal of Cartography Emerges Systematic Mapping
Mathematics and Rationality, Empires and States
Seeing the World
New Mapping Professions
Mass Mapping Literacy
Forging the Web
5 Map Scale and Cartography’s Idealized Geometry Technical Points concerning the Numerical Ratio
The Geometries of Western Mapping
Projective Geometry, Numerical Ratios, and Map Scale
Numerical Ratios and Map Scale in the Twentieth Century
Map Resolution, Not Map Scale
6 Not Cartography, But Mapping

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