The Rhetoric of Maps

Wood, Denis.  “Introduction” & “Maps Work By Serving Interests.”  The Power of Maps.  New York: Guilford Press, 1992.  1-3 & 4-27.  Print


Maps, Rhetorical Lens, (Re)Presentation, Design

One Sentence Summary

Maps do not merely (re)present reality, they are not mirrors from which the world is reflected; rather, maps project the issues, concerns, prejudices, biases, and desires of mapmakers themselves–they present a specific frame (among many possible frames) through which socially-constructed (and -contested) information is rhetorically communicated.

Key Quotes

A map connects “us through it to other aspects of a vast system brought forward from the past and embodied, not in maps, but it codes, laws, ledgers, contracts, treaties, indices, covenants, deals, agreements, in pledges, in promises, on words given and oaths taken.” (9-10).

“This is what it means to use a map.  It may look like wayfinding or legal action over property or an analysis of the causes of cancer, but always it is this incorporation into the here and now of actions carried out in the past.” (14)

“Our willingness to rely on the map is commensurate with our ability to suspend our disbelief in its veracity, but this amounts to a willingness to accept the map as an eye where the eye too no more than selectively brings into being a world that is socially constructed.”

“This is no more to say that the map is about the world in a way that reveals, not the world–or not just the world–or not just the world–but also (and sometimes especially) the agency of the mapper.” (24)

“Maps, all maps, inevitably, unavoidably, necessarily embody their author’s prejudices, biases and partialities.” (24)

Further Reading
Roger Downs and David Stea, Maps in Minds: Reflections on Cognitive Mapping

Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding

Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance


Woods’ argument in this piece (introduction and chapter one) seems to be that maps project agendas, not reality.  That’s a bit too pithy, but in general, Woods’ point is that when we take maps to be impartial representations of reality, we ignore their rhetorical nature.  Maps are compositions, not reflections.

Further, what maps project is a connection (a linkage, Woods says) between territory and milieu.  Maps project the force and substance of social interactions, both benign and contentious.  An example: depending on who wrote the map, you might be looking at one body of water alternately named the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf.  It’s not a matter of trivial nomenclature (in this or other cases) when property rights (including those rights that extend below the surface) are considered.

Another point Woods makes is that maps do different things — property maps bind us whereas reference maps guide us.  One is an imperative (property–so-and-so owns this) the other an aside (reference–look at this, and that).

When it comes to issues that may be contested, accuracy is not as important an issue as it may be made out to be; issues of precision can be a futile distraction as much as anything.  The lines on maps are opinions, ideas, guesses.  Maps create and project interests, they don’t simply faithfully represent some sort of objective reality.

That’s not to say that demarcation doesn’t matter at all; it’s important to know where the United States ends and Mexico begins.  But it’s just as important to question why the deaths of immigrants aren’t mapped in the southern desert of Arizona and precipitation to the millimeter is. Why map this when you could map that?  That’s a question I hear Wood asking throughout this piece.

Beyond maps, composers of any kind of visual representations that aspire to verisimilitude should take into account their nature situated in rhetorical ecologies.  Ethical issues may be at stake in such considerations.  In other words, when a mapmaker (or any other visual composer) publishes a map, what kind of obligation does the mapmaker have to communicate to audience his rhetorical agenda?  In other words, how prepared should a mapmaker, or visual rhetorician in general, be to answer questions that ask, Why map this instead of that?


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