Monday, December 11, 2017

Decolonizing the Map

Redrawing the "Decolonized Map"

With chapters on Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Egypt, South Africa, and India; and an introduction that goes extensively into North American decolonizing and postcolonial theory, Akerman's (edited) volume Decolonizing the Map is a game-changer.

The introduction, by Craib, covers counter-mapping theory, which really only shows up again in Culcasi's chapter on Egypt, but the book is as much an in-depth coverage of indigenous forms of counter-mapping and counter-hegemonic spatial discourses as it is a post-colonial handbook for mapping.  Indeed, it is both, and it would be very difficult to really separate the two things, but analytically this plays out in the index, which lists very specific places the counter-mapping occurs in the book; whereas post-colonial considerations occur throughout.

The book, as one comes to expect from cartography titles published by The University of Chicago Press, is full of maps, with every other page or so bringing another cartographic figure with meticulous sourcing and referencing/citation.  The various footnotes and bibliographies compiled by the authors' contributions to Decolonizing are a wonderful resource for future reference, and I anticipate utilizing this volume frequently in coming years.  It is right up there with Akerman's previous (edited) The Imperial Map; with After the Map; and with classic titles like A History of Spaces, The Power of Maps, or indeed (I was made to think of) The History of Cartography.

It is of a piece with all those titles mentioned above, and more.  The indigenous voices included here are many, and no other title does justice, all in one place, to the contributions of various 'native' voices to post-colonial and counter-mapping efforts across the global south, to the combined and distributed forces of this form of 'mapping from below.'  It does so within a solidly rigorous scholarly framework that provides a foundation for further case studies, theorisations, and emerging movements.

Several chapters explore the importance of toponyms: in the case of Egypt, which was formerly part of the larger United Arab Republic, a name that lasted only three years, to be replaced by "Arab Republic of Egypt" (page 269); in the case of Guatemala, a country whose outline ambiguously and quite unproblematically (it would seem) includes (or does not) Belize; in the case of South Africa, whose road maps are caught up in the logic of apartheid; and in general theorisations of nations, states, and various combinations thereof, in complex and overlapping imbrications and indications of history, space, war, peace, and cartographic controversy.

Map-logos epitomise the idea that a nation's 'geo-body' stands in for the nation itself in a metonymic relationship of part-whole.  That boundaries are things to which to which we nominally "capitulate" (page 285) is an assertion that begs many questions.  Ramaswamy's chapter on India, Pakistan, Punjab, and sub-national identity does not accept that capitulation at face value.  Through the examination of a series of arresting images about India's rupturing borders and the production of art in support of cartographic questioning, Ramaswamy pushes back against any easy notion of cartographic over-determination.  "Art on the Line" is the penultimate chapter in Decolonizing, and it is a fascinating journey through cartographic, poetic (Auden's "Partition"), artistic, and various design discourses that circulate around the idea of a (dis)united India.

One of the great things about Decolonizing is the number of specific examples of the non-territoriality of the contesting (counter-hegemonic) vision.  Non-cartographic counter-maps are demonstrated to form a large (if not the majority) part of the 'vision' of counter-mapping 'itself' (if it can indeed be reified usefully in such a way).  Counter-mapping as a thing-in-itself, as a set of structures of beliefs about nations, states, and about belief itself, and as a subject of study, is thus taken to a whole new level of non-literal complexity.  Of course, it always plays out, in the end, in terms of the geo-body, the inscribed line (on the ground, on the map), and the map-logo.  The latter, we know, is a virtual requirement for the arousal of national sentiment.

But the non-logo map, the performed place-names, the mnemonics of apartheid, for example, are just as political and rouse as effectively into political ramification as any flag-waving construction.  These are the formative bits, and they are mapped out here with great precision, and within a framework of admirable diversity: of coverage, positionality, and of affective engagement.  The map is art-science, it is im/mutable assertion and hypothesis.  It is not going away, it is fading rapidly, it is here to stay, but gone tomorrow, like lines in the sand.  In all its a/political changeability, its immutable mobility the map remains a fascinating thing, ever-evolving, and I urge academics and interested others to read this book.

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