detour 209_via Field Notes 1
*Drafted shortly after completing our workshop; see detour 208
The Map is an Artifact
The map is by nature a distortion of what we believe to be a physical reality that we cannot evaluate empirically. It would be just as naive to consider a map a heuristic tool that could allow us to perfectly understand reality as would be to attribute objectivity to it. The map does not conceal a deeper reality, just as statistical figures are not used to accurately quantify the data of this postulated reality.
There are merely random and shifting states in the physical world that we can only apprehend within the limits of our sensual and intellectual perception and based on which we can formulate statements. These statements are the result of cultural mediation between the sending and receiving person and therefore can never be objective.
The visual language of maps (or any visual representation of the world) seems more neutral and universal than that of “the verb,” but only to a certain extent. It is a performative language like any other. It builds the "reality" that it states.
We are therefore unable to map a reality that not only does not exist, but that we would not even be able to perceive, grasp, or communicate with others without any misunderstandings.
Radical Maps are Political Maps
Producing maps after the linguistic and iconic turns means accepting their political nature. They are an artifact produced for the purposes of enunciation and negotiation on a disagreement about the state of the world. They show a dissenting perception of a state of fact in the idea of changing a power relationship in the name of moral ideals (of justice, equity, ecology, etc.). Sometimes, showing a factual situation is only a pretext to point out a larger problem.
Like conventional cartography, radical or critical cartography can argue its scientific legitimacy for tactical reasons. It is only one tool among many in a strategy to reverse the balance of power. It is never used alone: It is only the basis for a discussion.
What Does this Mean for Mapping in the Field?
In fact, “cartographic intention” means dealing with “political intention.” The implementation of the principle with and by the actors in the field is somehow ambivalent. On the one hand, it assumes the subjectivity of the information by highlighting the filter of the actors' very sensitivity (sensitive maps). It plays on the arguments of empiricism (fieldwork, testimonials) and emotion (empathy) and thus transforms them into arguments to legitimize the purpose. On the other hand, it conceals a risk of considering these populations under guardianship (the outstretched hand, the empowerment of the weak), which is likely influenced by political awareness and action (this is the positive side), but which will have been objectified by a third person (this is the negative side). And it is appropriate to question the risk of implementing “Western-minded” mapping practices by not taking into account other cultures’ perception and conception of space (see Severin Halder and Boris Michel, “Editorial” in This is Not an Altas, p. 16).
The Art of the Map
The aesthetic staging of the radical map is effective because it relies on the sensitive experience of a person, a group, or a person appropriating the work of this group. There is a craft of radical cartography (see the ISOTYPE system developed by Otto and Marie Neurath, which is based on the laborious development of a system of codes and the standardization of icons), but the multiplicity of objects and their variability imposes to treat them by artistic approaches that are always new and original. Digital image processing tools slow down graphic innovation but also open the mind to experimentation.
And as one cannot oppose art and craft, the map is also an art. Cartography, be it geographical, sensitive, radical, critical, counter-mapping, etc., is a technique like all human creations that requires expertise. Expertise implies the willingness to do well, to produce a quality result; this quality may be based on its adequacy for its intended use, the criteria of investment in time, money, expected durability, etc. Its aesthetic quality is only one of many possible criteria—but not necessarily the most important—that respond to a desire conforming to a presupposed or agreed value (beauty category). This “quality” is present to varying degrees in all human creations using tools and following cultural criteria, such as conventions, tastes, symbols, proportions, movements, dynamism, forms, colors, etc.
The Map is a “Theatrical Play”
The map (or the visual representation of the world) should be considered a theatrical play, with the staging and actors moving and managing their environment, playing with power and intrigue, following a scenario that is mainly a dialogue between a certain form of reality and the imaginary. (Something)scapes define the environment in which “actors” are moving and acting and are generally the object (possibly of power) that they try to appropriate or gain control over.
Dichotomies are at the heart of systemic mapping approaches: visualization researchers are always looking for divides, fractures, categorizations, groupings, classifications (what is “inside” and what is “outside” without necessarily understanding the true meaning of “in” and “out”).
So maps may help us to make visible the invisible part of the world; in other words, “the way we cannot physically see” the world by artificially “spatializing” our perception of things.
Tactic or Strategy?
We are not convinced of the link between tactics and strategy related to the visual representation of the world, although it is interesting. If the map is to be thought of as a tool of power, then we would much prefer to reflect on this very visual representation as a system (e.g., human, political, economic, social) that can be deconstructed rather than as a strategic plan that reminds us too much of a marketing and communication operation. This means we would, for example, consider approaching mapping as a whole in exploring its extreme visual complexity and how to deal with it.
The problem is Michel de Certeau opposes the strategy of the powerful (masters of territory and time) in the daily tactics of the dominated. But what type of strategy would not be based on field tactics? However, borrowing from Etienne de la Boétie would produce a theoretical construct applicable to radical cartography. In his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude from 1549, La Boétie proposes the idea that servitude does not work because tyrants abuse their power, but rather because the dominated surrender their freedom. The desire to reclaim this freedom is manifested in small acts (in line with Certeau’s theory of tactics). One can imagine local, minor, sensitive mapping as one such act of rebellion. The time spent on mapping constitutes re-appropriated time and awareness of territorial issues, and any resulting claims would allow the territory to be re-appropriated, too.
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