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Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 703-706

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Mapping Concepts
(Cartographier la pensée)

Philippe Rekacewicz
Translated by Anne-Maria Boitumelo Makhulu

In his recent essay, Achille Mbembe attempts to move beyond traditional geographic representations of Africa, and proposes instead a new spatial interpretation for the "dark continent." (See "At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa," Public Culture 12: 259-284.) As to the old schemas--colonial boundaries, regional demarcations--he opposes an unobstructed view, identifying regions or territories not in terms of their location but rather in terms of shifts in global politics and global economics that have had an impact on these regions. Mbembe's approach, both thought provoking and visionary, is a challenge to the cartographer. Mapping, which is à priori a compromised mode of representation of materiality, here confronts an additional challenge: to render accurately the territories of the author's imagination. Where then, does one draw the line between these two conceptions of space? It is difficult to trace precisely these new "frontiers" of the African continent, for the demarcation of one region from another is never entirely straightforward. And yet one must equally guard against the tendency to oversimplify the map. One finds, for example, that in those regions labeled unstable or war torn there are certain areas that merit not being included at all.

In deciphering the map at some macro level--on a continental scale--one sacrifices regional accuracy. To write, for example, that a diagonal line cuts across the war zones is one thing, but to draw it is an entirely different thing altogether. The map, which is a representation derived from the text, offers an imperfect [End Page 703] image of the author's ideas because the mapping must on one hand synthesize existing information and on the other hand invent boundaries--often imprecise ones--of which the text makes little or no reference. Thus the practice of cartography achieves its goal of forging a relationship between the various regions and ensures territorial contiguity. The map's legend is also but an interpretation, in particular when it comes to identifying things such as "pillaged territories" as distinct from "regions rich in mineral ores and petroleum."

The complexity of Mbembe's schema did not therefore allow for comprehensive visual representation. For example, the relations or forms of exchange between different regions, crucial aspects of the analysis, could not appear on the map without making the map overburdened and thus illegible. Yet, the map would then have represented Africa as a dynamic continent opening out onto the rest of the world. It is here that the limitations of cartographic representation reside, so that once the elements of the map, in too great a number, are superimposed one on top of another they ultimately efface each other's significance. Inclusion of only some of the information also serves to make the image form a reductionist medium: the cosmopolitan regions of Africa are certainly far more numerous than those that appear on the map.

The centrifugal margins: economic and social development oriented toward the outside.

Sphere of South African influence: powerful economic dependency.

Regions of itinerancy: nomadic societies.

States undergoing a process of implosion: a quasi-permanent state of war. Dissolute states having lost control of sections of their territory (passed into the hands of a number of autonomous armed rebel groups in the pay of other border states).

Pillaged territories: internal struggles for control over mineral and petroleum resources, also significant foreign investment.

Interstitial spaces: countries under competing pressures from the continental border regions (the North African region and South Africa) and extracontinental regions (such as Europe, the Near East, and the Gulf states).

Regulated zones: tourist zones, zones earmarked for hunting, nature reserves, zones whose administrative control is partially extraterritorial.

Access points to Africa: the location of a set of diasporic confluences; cosmopolitan spaces; the intersection of African, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern civilizations and cultures.

As to the difference between this map and more traditional maps, this one is a direct product of the text. The map draws...


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pp. 703-706
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Archived 2004
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