Cartography & Power: Introduction



“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr, “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yard to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” (Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893.)

Welcome to the eighteenth issue of The Funambulist, Cartography & Power. Associating these two words together will come as no surprise for most readers. Just like architecture (which requires plans, i.e. cartography, to be designed), cartography does not constitute a neutral discipline that can be equally used to implement either state violence or resistive endeavors. Cartography is inherently an instrument of power and, as such, it has the propensity to facilitate the violence of military and administrative operations. All contributors to this issue begin (whether explicitly or not) with this axiom and seek for methods of mapping that can serve political struggles mobilizing against the dominant order. I personally take issue in the notion of “counter-mapping,” as some call these methods, as using the term “counter-“ as a label gives a comforting certitude to their authors that they are not reproducing the violent effects of regular mapping. There is not a discipline fundamentally dissociated from cartography (or architecture, for that matter) whose practice could guarantee us of “doing good.” As we argued in issue 16 (March-April 2018), Proletarian Fortresses, architects’ current common practice of mapping self-built urbanities of all kinds — organized neighborhoods or temporary political encampments — should be questioned as to whether they serve these urbanities’ residents or the various forces of policing mobilized against them, regardless of the architects’ intention. We should instead accept that the discipline of cartography does not come without violence. But an important question remains: against what is the violence that the circumvoluting knowledge produced by the act of mapping oriented?

In Mirages de la carte: L’invention de l’Algérie coloniale (Mirages of the Map: The Invention of Colonial Algeria, 2014), Hélène Blais describes how the cartographic endeavors of the French colonial troops in the 19th century did not solely produce a knowledge of the territory with the aims of better controlling it; they also constructed the territory itself. As she shows, this is how the borders between Algeria and its neighbors (five of which were also under French colonial administration) were simultaneously mapped and established, including in the Sahara Desert, which presented almost no natural cues as to where this border ought to have been. Such colonial cartographic production of territories is discussed in the articles by Moad Musbahi (on the other side of the Algerian border in Libya) and Caren Kaplan (in Iraq).

One of the key features of colonialism the creation of strict boundaries, since the ambiguous, liminal areas that usually characterized the blurry edges of territories before their colonial takeover were not amenable to the control of resources and people. One can see how the very idea of borders without thickness (i.e. without ambiguity) is fundamentally a cartographic one. Only cartographers can conceptualize such borders, through the tracing of lines on their maps — not realizing that lines are only without thickness in the perfect world of geometry. In reality, border lines have thicknesses, and even on maps, they appear in the ink they are traced in, creating paradoxically a zone of ambiguity, where colonial powers usually want to exercise the highest degree of control.

This is what we can see in the crucial tracing of the so-called Green Line that split Palestine into three areas (the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel and West Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip) in 1949. As architect Orit Theuer examines in her thesis research “Atlas of No Man’s Land” (2014), the “three to four millimeter wide” grease pencils used by Israeli and Transjordanian commanders of Jerusalem Moshe Dayan and Adbullah el-Tell to trace this line on a map draped over a military jeep’s hood corresponds roughly to an 80-meter-wide ambiguous zone all along the line. The map used for the ceasefire agreement was drawn at a 1:250,000 scale. Theuer’s atlas shows simultaneously the blurry thickness of the Green Line, as well as the many buildings, towns and fields that it engulfs. Her cartographic work can be placed in dialogue with the one produced by Open Map Palestine, described in this issue by one of its members, Ahmad Barclay. This cartographic project retraces the existence of Palestinian villages evicted and destroyed during the massive ethnic cleansing that was integral to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

Going back to the thickness of the line/border, it is important not romanticize the ambiguity it constitutes by too hastily considering it as a space of emancipation. More often than not, this thickness is the space of absolute rightlessness, as we saw in September 2012, when a group of 20 Eritrean refugees found themselves trapped for more than a week within the few yards of thickness of the border that separates Egypt from Israel. During that time, Israeli authorities offered these refugees only the bare minimum of water to stay alive, before finally arresting and deporting them. Remarkably, one of the cartographic projects presented in this issue shows that borders can also be virtually without thickness, as when their mapped lines materialize only through the discrete materiality of a wire: the Jewish Eruv, which determines the neighborhoods in which objects otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath are allowed to be carried, is mapped in several contexts by Piper Bernbaum. To the exception of its presence in Palestine, which reinforces the colonial logics of the Israeli State, use of the Eruv is purely semiotic and, as such, does not impose its set of rules on bodies that do not associate any particular signifier with it.

The goal of this issue is also to feature maps that are not strictly geographical. Rasheedah Phillips and Bouchra Khalili help us to also think of cartography as a temporal discipline. Just like with geography, temporal mapping has the propensity to enforce a linear and compartmentalized reading of that which is mapped. Phillips therefore helps us to “dismantle the master’s clock” and reappropriate our relation to time through a topological cartography that deconstructs such compartmentalization and linearity.

This issue concludes the third year of this magazine’s publication. In eighteen issues, we have tried to cover a range of topics in relation to “the politics of space and bodies,” and we hope that you will return to read the exciting future issues of The Funambulist magazine in its fourth year of life. In the meantime, for this current one, I wish you an excellent read.