Destabilizing the Map through Critical Cartography and Resistance by Einat Manoff

Maps play a principal role in the representation and comprehension of spatial knowledge. They are tools created with particular skill, technology, language and method for the purpose of recording and reproducing space. Maps, therefore, have forever been embedded in spatial politics. In late 1960s, in congruence with the field of geography’s paradigmatic shift towards humanistic geography, maps and mapmaking re-surfaced as sites open for critical investigation, and again emerged as a tool of interest in the 1990s and 2000s with the enhanced offerings of geographic information systems (GIS). This list of readings traces the theoretical strands in critical cartography that destabilize the map (and the mapping process) as tools of colonialization, and follows research that utilizes maps as critical and applied methodologies that enhance social justice work.

Critical geographers challenge the supposition that maps are objective representations of ‘real’ space and work to problematize maps as sites of power-knowledge (Harley 1989; Monmonier 1991; Perkins 2003; Wood 1992). J. B. Harley’s influential essay “deconstructing the map” (1989) discusses maps as being “as much a commentary on the social structure of a particular nation or place as it is on its topography.” Drawing from post structural theory, Harley interrogates “the hidden agendas of cartography” and disputes the scientific positivism that is associated with them. Influenced by Foucault, he suggests maps be read as diagrams of socio-spatial power, embedded in the skill, knowledge and command of its associated academic disciplines.

Cognitive mapping, also known as mental mapping, refers to the ways in which people comprehend, learn, remember, record and articulate their experiences in the physical environment, and this work is elaborated in Section 2 of The People, Place, and Space Reader, “Human Perception and Environmental Experience.” When we differentiate between maps as objects and mapping as process or a practice, a space opens up. This space allows us to think of maps as performative. Jeremy Carmpton’s  work (2009) is helpful in charting out the possibilities that arise out of mapping and performativity and provides a good overview of contemporary ‘MapArt’ projects and their interdisciplinary work (see also Cosgrove 2008). An important part of the performative aspect of maps is their use in protests, social media and popular commentary, especially through web-based political activism and amateur mapping. There is increased activity in these areas and a great political potential for maps in resistance. Critical cartography challenges the role of mapping in spatial politics as official documents of power and colonialization. At the same time, these readings recognizes maps as efficient modes of representation of spatial complexities and highlights maps’ interesting shift into critical thinking.

The epistemological troubling of maps as representations of power-knowledge created a set of new mapping practices to be used in empirical research and in broader strategies for advocacy and justice work (Crampton and Krygier 2006). A set of these new practices called ‘counter-mapping’, refers to the map-making process in which communities challenge the state’s formal maps, appropriate its official techniques of representation, and make their own alternative maps. Nancy Peluso first introduced the term through her work with indigenous Indonesian communities. They used counter-maps to claim rights to natural resources and contest existing state-run systems of management and control (1995). Although counter-mapping is not a new phenomenon, its reemergence as a critical practice is credited to the rise of place-based social movements, to the growing use of participatory research methodologies in the social sciences–participatory action research (PAR), in particular (Kosek 1998).

Einat Manoff is an urban designer and a scholar-activist whose research focuses on participatory methods and theories, including Participatory Action Research (PAR), community-based planning and counter-mapping. Working with these inclusionary approaches, she collaborates with communities to promote local based action, intervention and research within sites of injustice. Einat is currently a Ph.D. student in the Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She teaches Geography and Urban Affairs at the CUNY colleges. She is the 2013-2014 URBAN Fellow at the Public Science Project (PSP).

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