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Reviewed by:
  • Maps: Finding Our Place in the World
  • Josef Konvitz (bio)
Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. Edited by James R. Akerman and Robert W. Karrow Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. ix+400. $55.

This is a remarkable companion to an exhibition organized by the Field Museum and the Newberry Library. The history of cartography as practiced since the 1970s is part of a broader cultural movement to give us a better understanding of the relation between people and space. Each of this book’s chapters is a stand-alone essay supported by a substantial bibliography and a rich array of color illustrations. They take us from James Akerman’s “Finding Our Way” and three chapters covering different scales— “Mapping the World” by Denis Cosgrove, “Mapping Parts of the World” by Matthew H. Edney, and “Mapping American History” by Susan Schulten—to three thematic chapters with a strong social-cultural focus, “Visualizing Nature and Society” by Michael Friendly and Gilles Palsky, “Mapping Imaginary Worlds” by Ricardo Padron, and “Consuming Maps” by Diane Dillon. Historians of technology are likely to be more interested in the thematic studies, each of them an authoritative, sweeping survey that will reward those with and without in-depth knowledge of the history of cartography.

To judge from this book, the history of cartography has passed under the star of postmodern criticism. It is not for me to say whether this orb is still ascending, but it outshines the others that make up a constellation of ideas in this field. There was a time when postmodern criticism illuminated brilliantly. By its lights, scholars challenged settled habits, lifted standards, and brought forward new questions that exposed familiar facts and pieces [End Page 254] of evidence to fresh inquiry. In the masterful hands of the late Brian Harley, this shock therapy took the history of cartography out of the hands of antiquarians and into the mainstream of contemporary thought. But the history of cartography is a broad church, and the faithful come from many backgrounds. There is a delicate balance to maintain when trying to build a discipline that does not have a natural academic home, and whose practitioners may be archivists, museum curators, librarians, or academics in geography, art history, literature, or history. What holds this community together is a belief that mapping, and hence maps, are fundamental to the human purpose, which is knowledge.

So what’s the problem? The more traditional approach, eschewed by James Akerman, Robert Karrow, and their coauthors, was structured around chronology and put the mapmakers and their purposes and meta-languages first. By one test, the postmodern approach has been superior: more forms of maps are included in the corpus, and scientific accuracy and objectivity have lost their status as the supreme standards of excellence. As Karrow carefully spells out in the introduction, the essays in this volume embrace a cross-cultural and multidisciplinary viewpoint and pay less attention to notions of “progress” and to leading mapmakers. But taken too far, a focus on the map user and the knowledge he gains of the world and his place in it comes at the expense of the tools and experience needed to make a map in the first place, and how these are codified, transmitted, revised, and supplanted by incremental or radical innovations. Deconstruction almost dematerializes the map. Its size and physical support, the drafting and printing techniques, the scientific apparatus used to frame the map and select and arrange the information conveyed on it—these and other aspects that define the art of map-reading are not given the attention they deserve. Yet they are intrinsic to any discussion of the uses of maps, of their preservation and their critical analysis by the users themselves.

At the risk of exaggerating to make a point, one has the impression reading these essays that some of the contributors simply are uninterested in the systematic and informal methods of mapmaking. The organization of information—fictitious or real—for visual display is one thing; the techniques used in making that representation is another. Put a different way: How we learn to read and make maps as an almost casual part of...


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pp. 254-256
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