Tuesday 24 October 2017

At the Confluence of Desire & Power

I am busy reading a book review of Simon Springer's The Anarchist Roots of Geography (University of Minnesota Press, USA, 2016). Of course, both Pyotr Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus were groundbreaking geographers as well as leading anarchist theorists - but their contributions to geography are often forgotten, and this Springer hopes to rectify. 
The reviewers, James D Sidaway and Richard J White, write about Kropotkin and Reclus: "Arguably their commitment to writing geography was a means to promote popular appreciation of the diversity of culture, nature, and society without hinging this directly to imperial and racial theory." Because of course, cartography as a modern discipline was grounded in racist imperialism - with the anarchists providing a much-needed libertarian alternative.
One of the criticisms of my book Cartographie de l'anarchisme révolutionnaire (Lux Éditeur, Quebec, 2011) that really touched me was that it was pretty poor on the actual cartography, the reader having desired graphic maps of the movement, not mere verbal descriptions. I partially rectified that in the English-language edition, but I hope to do far better service to the study of class geography with my forthcoming works, in particular the multimedia project On the Waterfront: Anarchist Counter-power in Port City Littorals which maps dockside community politics in Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Santos, Barcelona, San Francisco, Tampico and Berdyansk.
Looking at the 2008 world map made of waste paper by artist Vik Muniz below reminded me of the stunning 2006 birch-wood sculpture by Maya Lin of the depths of the Caspian Sea, its surface bent by the curvature of the earth. All this thinking on how infinitely flexible map-making can be reminded me of a piece I wrote that was published in the pan-African journal Ogojiii last year (below).

Map-making has always been and still remains as much an exercise of fantasy as it is of fact, and Africa’s vast expanses have drawn cartographers as the Bermuda Triangle draws doomed ships
The earliest maps were crudely linear in that they merely charted important trade routes, and were not concerned with the perilous hinterland or with establishing a holistic, interconnected view. The earliest surviving map rendering the entire continent in very rough outline is the Kangnido Map, a schematic 1402 Korean chart of the known world that shows Africa as a distended balloon like the udders of an Nguni cow. 
Humourist Terry Pratchett noted that “cartographers get embarrassed about big empty spaces”, so early maps of Africa tended be crammed with fanciful tribesmen and mythic kingdoms: Sebastian Münster’s squarish 1554 chart features the one-eyed giant Caliban, and the fabled realm of Prester John.
Once the circumnavigation was mapped, it was initially only as an interlinked series of coastal features intended as a linear guide for trading ships. It was still some centuries before the outline familiar to us was represented in the 1584 map of Dutchman Abraham Ortelius.
But Ortelius’ image was incorrect as he used a cylindrical map projection developed by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. Nicholas Crane in his book on Mercator exclaimed that “maps codify the miracle of existence,” but while Mercator is of use to navigators, it distorts landmasses as one moves towards the poles, so Greenland is shown as larger than Africa, which is in fact 14 times its size, while the Cahill-Keyes Projection published by Gene Keyes in 1975 boasts minimal distortion.
“Before maps,” wrote Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, “the world was limitless. It was maps that gave it shape and made it seem like territory, like something that could be possessed…” From the 1737 map by German mathematician Johann Matthias Hase which delineates imaginary territories such as “Ethiopia Inferior”, a huge arc from Mauritania to Uganda, to contemporary artist Wolfwoman7’s Africa Map made of various animal hides, maps have attempted to transform the illusion of possession into something tangible.
A bid at realism that was also hopelessly wrong was John Cary’s 1805 chart, which shows only the polities then known to Europeans, but also a “Soudan” that runs across the entire Sahel, bounded on its south by a continuous chain of fictitious mountains, with the sub-Saharan interior tersely labelled “Unknown Parts”. 
It was that tantalising unknown that drew David Livingston, Richard Burton, Johan Hanning Speke, and Henry Morton Stanley to venture forth, resulting in the 1880 map by Eugène Andriveau-Goujon – recognisably modern and near-complete in terms of its geographic features, an accuracy that would be exploited five years later as the Scramble for Africa began. 
So cartography is ultimately about the confluence of desire and power – and here are four cartographic attempts at balancing those imperatives in very different ways: 

Speculation: the 1402 Yi-Kwon Map 

Despite its many obvious errors, including the absorption of almost the entire interior into a giant version of Lake Victoria, the “Kangnido” map by Yi Hoe and Kwon Kun at least showed that the Koreans knew – via Islamic traders – that the Nile originated in a great lake and emptied into the Mediterranean, though Africa’s outline is hugely speculative. But the map is striking because it was produced a full 95 years before Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape in 1497. The almost identical Chinese Da Ming Hun Yi Tu Map is claimed to date from 1389 though this is disputed. In his bestselling but academically contested book 1421, Gavin Menzies theorised that the Kangnido Map originated in a Chinese rounding of the Cape in 1421, and he adjusted the map (at right above) for longitude, restoring West Africa’s prominent bulge. 

Subversion: the “1844” Cyon Map 

Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon drew an alternative map of Africa – which he renamed Alkebu-Lan, or Land of the Blacks in Arabic – as it would have looked in the year 1844 as an experiment in an alternative world timeline in which the Black Death almost wiped out the population of Europe, leading to a Muslim rather than Christian colonisation of super-equatorial Africa, and the development of independent indigenous states to the south. Drawing in part on the ethnography of Africa, his map – inverted to stress its anti-Eurocentric perspective – shows the north littered with sultanates including Al-Magrib (Morocco and its hinterland) which embraces Al-Andalus (Iberia), and the south with states named after the dominant kingdoms or tribes in the area such as Buganda or Wene wa Kongo.

Humour: the 2012 Tsvetkov Map 

Bulgarian graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov became a best-selling author with his Atlas of Prejudice, which first went viral in 2009 and has since been published in English, French, German, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Italian – and banned in China. His map of Africa shows the continent from a prejudiced US perspective, the only recognisable countries being South Africa and Kenya which are labelled ‘Diamonds’ and ‘Obama’s Birthplace’ (in Tsvetkov’s map of Donald Trump’s view, the entire north is marked ‘Terrorists’ while the south is ‘Obama’s Birthplace’), the rest being designated in huge chunks by some degree of disaster – with the exception of the Arab Spring states which are marked ‘Yay, Democracy!’ 

Politics: the 2015 Roberts-Swift Map

Journalist Pierre Englebert commissioned cartographers Warren Roberts and Robyn Swift to produce this map to illustrate his article in Foreign Affairs titled “The ‘Real’ Map of Africa: Redrawing Colonial Borders”. Africa’s colonial boundaries have proven remarkably resilient: with the exception of South Sudan and Eritrea, the map has barely been redrawn since the 1950s (Somaliland’s new border with Puntland is in fact a retreat to the colonial-era map). Englebert wanted to represent the regions of Africa where the states failed to exercise effective control over their hinterlands, and for this ‘realist map’, his map-makers consolidated in grey the regions that the French government strongly warned its citizens against visiting. He states: “By my count, of the 11.7 million total square miles of African continental land mass, roughly four million, or about 34%, are out of state control.”  As an anarchist negotiating to return to work in that stateless third again, it's a fascinating concept.