Maps are Territories

We have found in the previous exhibits that Western maps and aboriginal maps are more fruitfully compared in terms of their range and degree of workability or usability, rather than their accuracy. However, this leaves unexamined the dimension of power. Documents, texts, diagrams, lists, maps ('discourses' in general) embody power in a variety of ways. Discourses set the agenda of what kind of questions can be asked, what kind of answers are 'possible', and equally what kind of questions and answers are 'impossible' within that particular discourse or text. In terms of maps, for example, looking at a Mercator projection you can read off the relative direction of Anchorage from London as straight line, but you cannot read off the shortest route, it being a segment of a great circle. Maps, like theories, have power in virtue of introducing modes of manipulation and control that are not possible without them. They become evidence of reality in themselves and can only be challenged through the production of other maps or theories.

Joseph Rouse argues that

all interpretation (which includes all intentional behavior, not just discourse) presupposes a configuration or field of practices, equipment, social roles, and purposes that sustains the intelligibility both of our interpretive possibilities and of the various other things that show up within that field . . . Power has to do with the ways interpretations within the field reshape the field itself and thus reshape and constrain agents and their possible actions. Thus to say that a practice involves power relations, has effects of power, or deploys power is to say that in a significant way it shapes and constrains the field of possible actions of persons within some specific social context.

J. Rouse, Knowledge and power: toward a political philosophy of science, 1987, pp. 210-11

Bruno Latour, an anthropologist of science, has considered the question of power in a way that is of particular relevance to our analysis of maps and theories. Power is not, as many believe, the cause of society. It is not the glue that bonds classes or groups together. Rather, according to Latour, it is the consequence of association, and it is the varying techniques of association that should be the focus of study, in looking at power. John Law, a sociologist of science who takes a similar approach to Latour's, has looked at the methods of long-distance control that were necessary for the Portuguese to sustain a trading route to India. Law concludes that the power of the Portuguese trading empire derived from the forms of association embodied in three essential ingredients: documents, devices and drilled personnel (John Law, 'On the methods of long-distance control', 1986, p. 234ff).

Latour has discussed the difference between what he calls 'savage' and 'civilised' geography in the context of searching for an explanation of the difference between what are often referred to as 'scientific' and 'primitive' cultures. This, he argues, must not be looked for in terms of some 'great divide' based on the postulation of radically different intellects, cultures or societies. Instead we have to look for small mundane differences. The answer, he claims, lies in the power of techniques of writing and imaging. They do not achieve this power in and of themselves but as a result of their capacity to muster allies on the spot-allies, that is, in the struggle over what is to count as fact. To illustrate his argument he tells the story of La Perouse's encounter with the Chinese on Sakhalin Island. (Read ITEM 10.1.) This story has parallels with that of the Inuit and the Belcher Islands (ITEMS 4.7-4.9). Clearly the Hudson Bay Company acquired greater power than the Inuit through the production of a more powerful map.

Thus we can now see that the real distinguishing characteristic of Western maps is that they are more powerful than aboriginal maps, because they enable forms of association that make possible the building of empires (see ITEMS 10.2 and 10.3), disciplines like cartography and the concept of land ownership that can be subject to juridical processes (ITEM 10.4). Western and non-Western societies alike are based on knowledge networks, the important difference being in the mobility of the network. The Western one can be mobilised to cover the whole earth, if not the universe, whereas aboriginal ones are usually dependent on interpersonal oral modes of transmission. One of the most effective devices that Western maps employ in creating power is the grid, as we have seen in Exhibit 4. But, as we have also seen, the grid does not provide power of itself.

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