March 23, 2007

Robert Fisk on race mapping

Filed under: cartography, race — ubikcan @ 3:12 pm

Robert Fisk’s article gets at something interesting: why “we” (the West) map others so divisively into neat little territories in which everyone is contained and set against other people in other territories:

Take the maps. Am I the only one sickened by our journalistic propensity to publish sectarian maps of the Middle East? You know what I mean. We are now all familiar with the colour-coded map of Iraq. Shias at the bottom (of course), Sunnis in their middle “triangle” – actually, it’s more like an octagon (even a pentagon) – and the Kurds in the north.

Fisk is in Atlanta today where I had an opportunity to see him give a presentation, and he made many of the points above.

I think for him it is a racism, one with parallels to the work I’m doing on the American inquiry and their attempted remappings of Europe and Africa following WWI.

But here’s a response from someone commenting on this:

For a map to reflect the true reality of the thing it’s describing, it would have to be as large as that object. So yes, the maps Fisks speaks of – like all maps – reduce complexity in order to be useful (so does literature, and every other form of human understanding).

Notice how the language is couched; for a map to “reflect the true reality” it has to generalize–spoken like a true cartographer! Notice the appeal to the 1:1 map Lewis Carroll/Borges stories! Yet the failure to appreciate that the map is creating a certain knowledge (there are no colored areas on the ground, that’s all done by the map).

Incidentally, this blog, to which the above comment is posted, refers to this map on the cover of the New Yorker:



  1. Do you remember the title of the Borges story you’re refering to? I know I’ve read it and I’ve been trying to remember it for months…

    As to the substance of the article and comments, I guess it does come down to generalizations, and what one’s intentions are in using easier shorthand. I guess, basically, are these generalizations–in maps or everyday life–prescriptive (well if this is “X” then “Y” should be true, so I should do “Z”) or descriptive (a way to sum up a large amount of data to see the forest for the trees)?

    One example is the ethnic shifts in Iraq. These are included in the BBC’s map “Baghdad: Mapping the Violence” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/in_depth/baghdad_navigator . Note that the BBC actually *tries* to at least attribute these ethnic breakdowns to a source, and at least says “Sunni *dominated*” to give a little sense that maybe this is not so clear on the ground.

    I don’t think the ethnic shifts are happening because of western news coverage. Whether the news/intelligence that gets to U.S. decision-makers is oversimplified seems much more likely. (and what was Time thinking with that Shia/Sunni story Fisk refers to???)

    Comment by brad — March 23, 2007 @ 9:30 pm

  2. Yeah, it’s called “On Rigor in Science” (or “Exactitude”) and can be found in his collection Dreamtigers… and perhaps more accessibly in his “Collected Fictions”.

    It’s only about a paragraph long, here is the link to a wikipedia entry about it.

    Thanks for the link to the BBC map.

    Comment by ubikcan — March 23, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

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