The Map as a Text

J.B. Harley, in The New Nature of Maps and Denis Wood, in Rethinking the Power of Maps, are both looking at a similar problem in the general view of maps, as presented by cartographers themselves. Specifically, they seek to separate the map from the realm of impartial observations and place them squarely where they belong, with any other created object or idea, as objects to be analyzed not only for the information they present but for the ideas and constructs that influence them and those that use them. I find it intriguing that cartographers resist the concept that all the maps they construct present social constructs as inherent aspects of their nature, as Harley references in chapter 5. (p. 162) My own experience in using many different kinds of texts, including motion pictures, architecture, cartoons and paintings, naturally inclines me to look at any created object (regardless of the intent of the creator) as a potential text for understanding the context of its creation.

David Woodward’s introduction to Art and Cartography, on the other hand, emphasizes a different facet of the understanding of maps and the cartographic process. By discussing the nature of maps as an aesthetic (ie, artistic) object in addition to or alongside the scientific observation of cartographic rules, he presents the map as an object of both function and form, much like a public building’s architectural construction has both aesthetic and functional aspects. This in no way contradicts the arguments presented in The New Nature of Maps and Rethinking the Power of Maps. In fact, it reinforces them, as the understanding of maps as a scientific object grants it a certain degree of cultural enshrinement that inhibits their examination as a historical and sociological text.

Another point of interest to me, though frankly of secondary importance to understanding the point of the authors, is the different way in which they approach the crafting of their argument. Harley feels to me to be much more intellectual and less antagonistic than Wood, whose grammatical and linguistic choices distracted me from an otherwise reasonable argument. His use of ellipses and italicization for emphasis feel like a blatant attempt to strike a more conversational tone with his reader, and some of his choices have very interesting (and not very complementary) subtext, at least to my reading. One egregious example of this is the section header, in chapter 2, “But then Maps are Myths.” (p. 72) While Wood goes on to explain exactly what he means by this, his word choice has cultural connotations of inaccuracy, superstition, and irrelevance to the modern. While Harley encourages his readers to seek out and understand the secondary texts of maps and use them to place maps in context, Wood seems to actively distrust maps and their creators.

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