The One Where I Talk Too Much About Maps

The fact that the discipline of geography is classified solely as a science is one that I find to be problematic. The interactions I have had with modern geography tend more towards the hard science end of things, as physical geography especially involves a fusion of climate science, chemistry, biology, geology and more, but to classify the discipline as purely a science ignores its origins as a subject that once was more artistic than scientific in its endeavours.

As long as there have been humans, we have been trying to represent the world around us in image form. The first known instances of art, cave paintings, were likely created both for the function of depicting hunts and for the beautification of communal spaces. According to Psychology Today, human memory is largely based upon the visual, so using visual mediums is the most natural way of recording information pre-written word. Thus, “Cave paintings are the earliest artifacts that anthropologists and art historians agree are truly art, but I find it hard to believe that they didn’t also facilitate functions in the communities in which they were created. We could speculate all day about what those functions could have been, but I think the point is that the benefits of being able to create a visual representation were immediately recognized.” And what are maps other than an attempt to make visual the world around us on a larger scale?

The Imago Mundi, or Babylonian Map of the World.

This is the first surviving world map, the Imago Mundi. It was created between 700 and 500 BC and is from the Babylonian civilization. In the middle of the map is Babylon and other places are also depicted, such as Assyria. Interestingly, the whole landmass is surrounded by water, indicating both that Babylon considered itself the center of the world and that there was only one continent.

Leardo's Mappamundi.

If this kind of geographical thinking sounds familiar, you would be right! The lack of knowledge about the Americas in pre-Columbian Europe led to the creation of fun maps like the one pictured above, which was created by the monk Fra Mauro around 1450. It theoretically includes Europe, Africa, and Asia, but it is easy to see that lack of actual scientific knowledge led to educated guesses that were completely wrong. Because of this, this map could be considered to be a work of both creative art and as a scientific representation of the world based on the little evidence the artist-cartographer could access.

In this way, cartography before a certain level of scientific advancement was more of an interpretive art than a science: based on the stories of explorers and word-of-mouth information, early cartographers used the information they had and produced their own image of the world.

In the first chapter of her book The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe, Ayesha Ramachandran writes about the importance of Gerhard Mercator’s Atlas sive Cosmographicae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Fabricati Figura (Atlas or Cosmographical Meditations on the Making of the World and the Image of the Made [World]) as being not only a new set of scientifically accurate maps but also as a revolution in the way that Europeans perceived the world. Before this landmark work, maps were purely informational (or at least they tried to be) — that is to say, they dealt purely with the geographical, the technical, and the political without much attention to the ideological or philosophical purpose of maps. Mercator’s Atlas was the first of its kind to not just give maps of the world and of smaller regions but to organize these maps in a way that reads like a survey of the world, moving across cardinal directions. Thus, “The importance of the Atlas… lies in its understanding that reimagining the world as a visual whole on a map necessarily demanded a philosophical, theoretical counterpart — a reevaluation of the world’s structure and the individual human being’s position in relation to it. Moving beyond traditional cosmography’s compendious data collection and compilation of maps, the Atlas defines an intellectual watershed by seeking to envision the totality of the world” (24).

Therefore, the Atlas represents more than just scientific progress in terms of cartography; it embodies a whole new worldview that prioritizes modernism and earthly (haha) knowledge over the sacred, which explains why it was put on the index of banned books by the Catholic Church in 1603.

What I am trying to say with this overly detailed and probably too long discussion of old maps is that cartography is more than just science— it is an art and it has the power to challenge or confirm pre-existing worldviews, such as the idea that a certain place is the center of the universe.

With that in mind, the maps of redlining in major US cities that Professor Smith showed us in class on Friday take on a different and worse meaning. At first take, the idea of banks and other financial institutions mapping areas that are low-income and thus deemed risky for loans and investments is awful in the usual way that corporations are exploitative and terrible. However, once you think about the way that they both collected this information and the sort of information they included in the keys of these maps, it gets that much more disturbing. The inclusion of race in the classification of safety zones is especially problematic for so many reasons, including but not limited to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. However, it runs deeper than that — as DuBois notes, “The Negro farmer started behind, — started in debt. This was not his choosing, but the crime of this happy-go-lucky nation which goes blundering along with its Reconstruction tragedies, its Spanish war interludes and Philippine matinees, just as though God were really dead. Once in debt, it is no easy matter for a race to emerge” (138, italics my own). African Americans in this country started out with a financial disadvantage (among many others) and the fact that banks continued to relegate them to a second-class status long after DuBois made this claim is ridiculous. These redlining maps are a physicalization of institutional racism in the same way Mercator’s Atlas is a representation of a new way of life for Europeans after they first came across the Americas (of course, the world of the native people of the Americas were changed, albeit in a much different and much more terrible and violent way).

This geographical racism is also talked about in Walking Raddy in “Geographies of Pain, Geographies of Pleasure: Black Women in Jim Crow New Orleans,” where Lakisha Michelle Simmons discusses the ways that geography during the Jim Crow era affected (and continues to affect) black women. Segregation in urban planning is a form of cartography, and the particular form talked about in this chapter embodies racism and sexism in the same way that redlining embodies racism and harmful stereotypes about the financial situation of minorities.

However, this chapter isn’t just a depressing look into the way that urban geography negatively affects the lives of black women in Jim Crow New Orleans, it is also a story about how black women, including the Baby Dolls, took back this space by being audacious and daring to be themselves and have fun in a world where even the maps being made were prejudiced against them. With this in mind, the figure of the Baby Doll in Urban Mixtape becomes especially important- in a previous post I discussed how my reading of this piece was that it conveys a message of not just joy but liberation in music and dancing, and having this new information on the Baby Dolls and their methods of taking back urban space makes this that much more clear.

30" x 42" Graphite on PaperSource

To continue with the work of Prince, I also want to discuss Katrina’s Dirge. The subject matter of this piece is the four horsemen (who continue to vex me with the varied and interesting roles they play in Prince’s artwork) carrying the city of New Orleans on their back as if it is the casket of a funerary procession, which is ostensibly why it has the word “dirge” in its title; this title is also the basis for my interpretation of it as such. Katrina’s Dirge is intriguing to me because of the geographical elements found in it — the depiction of New Orleans includes distinctive buildings, lampposts, and specific street names.

If a map is an interpretation and physicalization of the world around us that, historically, has been open to artistic license, I would make the argument that Katrina’s Dirge is a kind of map of a particular place at a particular point in time: New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina. True cartographical maps can only go so far- a satellite image of the flooding after the levees broke doesn’t show you the what is actually happening, and though a drawn cartographical map might do better, it still wouldn’t go far enough. Thus, though it may not be a traditional map, Katrina’s Dirge is a much better representation of the world of New Orleans post-Katrina — it is specific, it shows what happened and where, and most importantly, it portrays the human impact of such a horrific event in the way that scientific geographical maps can’t.

On medieval and Renaissance maps, uncharted ocean territory would often be drawn with fictional sea monsters on it. It is doubtful whether these mapmakers actually believed that there were sea monsters out there. Rather, they represented a healthy fear and awe of the ocean and the potential dangers of the unknown. Katrina’s Dirge functions similarly — it represents something beyond the map, and yet on it all at the same time.


**Full credit to Dr. Fallon’s Renaissance Worldmaking class for giving me the idea and for access to that chapter of The Worldmakers 

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