Post 1: Naval Gazing

A recurrent theme throughout this week’s reading is that maps are not purely objective representations of reality, but instead reflects of a set of interests, biases, agendas, and assertions about the depicted space.  Wood notes that maps as we understand them make their first appearance after 1400, corresponding with the rise of the nation-state (and a system of subordinate governmental entities) and the imperative to define and enforce territorial boundaries. His musings on the rise of nearly universal signifiers used in maps touches on the influence of land-based trade, but he does not discuss another strong influence in the development of maps: sailors.

Sailors, in a polyglot milieu of rapid travel across these national boundaries, required a universal language in order to safely traverse the seas and enter rivers, ports, and harbors. The map (more precisely, the nautical chart) was useful only if they collectively expressed the best routes, hazards, and aids to navigation with common signifiers understood by all.  A ship at sea without a spatial orientation is lost. Columbus’ triumph was not to find the New World, it was to find his way back and produce a reliable map for others to follow.

Wood makes another striking point: “The factuality of a map is a function of the social assent granted to the map’s propositions (to their performative utterances).” (Wood, p. 52) Assent is given usually for their utility – as in his example, school districts. Maps that stray too far from reality will be contested, either in court or at the point of a gun, or they may simply fade away from sheer absence of utility.  (The question is, I suppose, whose reality?)

Enter Henri Lefebvre, a French anti-Stalinist Communist philosopher, whose ideas about space and spatiality cannot possible be digested in one reading, much less an obscure blog post about maps.  My first encounter with him has me thinking about two concepts: first, social relationships do not exist without a spatial reference; second, political bodies, in seeking control over spaces, use maps to enclose, define, and exclude from those social relationships.  I do not have a final reaction to his observations, but his arguments are a fresh perspective and I suspect that Production of Space will be a well-thumbed volume in my permanent bookshelves.

Thus, I flee to a map that is a familiar tool: a river navigation chart produced by the US Army Corps of Engineers.  As a basis for objective representation, surely the nautical chart stands as an unsullied example.  Yes?

Keokuk Lock and Dam 19 USACOE
Portion of Chart 97, Upper Mississippi River Navigation Charts, US Army Corps of Engineers, 2011. Downloaded 5 September 2015.

This extract from Chart 97 depicts the approaches to Lock and Dam 19 at Keokuk, Iowa.  It is used by mariners to identify aids to navigation, the location of the dredged channel (essential for the heavier commercial traffic), and hazards to safe navigation such as power lines, bridges, and hazards to navigation such as underwater dikes and wingdams.  Land-based features are minimized, reflecting land features or logistics points of navigational interest to a mariner. (The full .pdf version of the chart and the accompanying legend are available if you care to look more closely.)

From the perspective of this week’s authors, from a historian’s viewpoint, the chart conveys quite a bit of encoded information:

  • This chart represents a space in which there is assent between the cartographers and their consumers that it adequately represents the reality of this space for the purposes for which it has been produced.  (A hard-won assent, with plenty of dissent, disclaimers, and subsequent corrections, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) (Wood)
  • Lefebvre sadly shakes his head. This map is an assertion of control over the means of production and the government’s dominance over property.  It is produced by the US Army Corps of Engineers, a subordinate body of the US federal government. Populated spaces such as the city of Keokuk and the town of Hamilton recede within this space, reduced to navigational landmarks that serve the means of production.
  • The chart conveys a sense of time and distance, fulfilling an essential map function.  Note the mile markers along the channel route.  The arrow pointing to north (not visible on the extract above) and the lines of latitude and longitude orient this space on the globe.  This spatial relationship is necessary to produce a map (or chart); otherwise it’s just a landscape sketch.  (Wood)
  • Even without a authorship label, the artwork conveys the likely creator.  The colors, symbols, lines, and typography make this chart instantly recognizable, interpretable, and trusted by professional mariners.  Although minimalist, nautical charts are often used as decorative art, demonstrating that utility does not have to mean ugly.  (Woodward)

Maps as objects of historical analysis provide more than a “picture” of a location.  By breaking down that picture into its components and assessing spatial relationships, historians may uncover social structures and contexts that serve to better understand the object of their research and open up new avenues of inquiry.

I’ve commented on Erin’s post about the earliest known map and April’s thoughts on the utility of railroad maps for research.  Meanwhile, Michael’s post on Lefebvre has  reduced me to quoting The Phantom Tollbooth.

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