- Cartographic Fictions: Maps, Race, and Identity
The recent rise of cartographic technology—for example, computer and satellite-aided mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS)—has prompted increased critical attention to the ideological power inherent in mapping. Karen Piper's Cartographic Fictions continues this trend by ambitiously covering a wide range of related topics, including women's suffrage, aerial photography, cyborgs, and mapping Libya. Her analyses of these loosely connected subjects is rooted in literary criticism, as she deals with authors as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Rudyard Kipling, Salman Rushdie, and Amitav Ghosh. The result is a fascinating read that explores "the tension between those who map and those who resist or redefine mapping projects" (16).
The wonderfully ambiguous title of Piper's book suggests both its focus on cartography's "fantasies of objectivity" and on fictions or texts that thematize the inherent ideology of the science of mapping (13). Although a majority of the texts Piper examines are literary, she begins her introduction, "Cartographic Cyborgs," with a compelling study of recent advertisements that hawk the latest in personal satellite technology. These images include a wealthy, white businessman [End Page 526] holding a globe in his hand and a human face transformed into a map. "But what all these corporations are selling," Piper argues, "is a body wed to the map, improved and nourished by the consumption of data" (4). If, however, the man/map cyborg of the white, Western, industrialized world consumes data, it needs to feed on the third world, "which is seen as lacking in geographic information" (5). The conclusion of the book returns to this theme and continues its discussion of various groups—third-world cultures, native peoples, and others typically disenfranchised of cartographic technology—that either resist being consumed by the invasive gaze of imperialistic powers or learn to use that technology to their own advantage. She mentions, for example, "indigenous mapping projects that record their own histories of mapping—passed down in songs, sketch maps, and visual arts—in a GIS database" (182). These projects directly connect people and places without a naïve attempt at objectivity. Piper contrasts them with traditional cartographic technology powered by airplanes and satellites that exercise an "impulse to leave the ground in order to escape the dangerously racialized or gendered subject" (13).
The bulk of her book is divided into three parts, each dealing with major developments in mapping. Part 1 focuses on the establishment, in 1884, of the prime meridian (or 0fl longitude) in Greenwich, England. Fixing this standard eliminated competing meridians in Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris. Piper uses Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent to illustrate how this attempt to secure the globe's center in England paralleled a fear of "'polyglot discourses' invading England through waves of anarchist immigration from Russia and France" (15). She also looks at newspaper accounts and police reports to show how the concept of Greenwich time was thought to be under attack by suffragettes. These radical women sought to transcend the imposed limits of their gender and thus represented a fear of "colonial space being out of control" (24).
Part 2 looks at the impact of aerial photography in the 1920s and women's role in its development. Piper ties together the history of photography, the role of women in aviation, and readings of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, "Kew Gardens," and The Voyage Out. The book then jumps to the Nazi mapping of Africa in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. The third part considers GIS technology and its importance in the work of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome, connecting this to antidam movements in India and the writings of Arundhati Roy. The most interesting section of this final part, however, is Piper's discussion of the counterhegemonic use of GIS by groups such as the Cree, a Native American tribe that developed Cree-Tech, "a GIS company specifically designed for First Nations uses" (148). [End Page 527]
Cartographic Fictions is, so to speak, all over the...