Monday, August 6, 2007

Why we fight and mapping new spaces

A couple of things today. I recently watched a film called "Why We Fight" that I would highly recommend. Thinking again about my comments in my last post concerning the open spaces of democracy, I find myself wondering more and more about the power citizens have to do this. The hope in all the darkness I think is that systems seem to require this stage of control and rigidity in order to find ways to novel forms and processes. A fear that remains with me is the effects of the collapse that is sure to follow the tightening of our current system. Will it be fast? Slow? Painful? I think keeping open the spaces were democracy can thrive is vital, because it is in these same spaces where we find compassion, understanding, and new ways of thinking. The hope is that the new combinations that arise from systemic collapse will lead to brighter futures.

So, that's a little gloomy, but also a little hopeful. Ed Abbey said it well: "Down with Empire! Up with SPRING!"

Second thing today is a piece I wrote about early thoughts on Maps and Space, one of my comp exam questions. It's quite long, so perhaps people can just skim. Anyway, I've been quite intrigued with the questions of power that mapping presents and interested in exploring ways that we can open new spaces and think about alternative futures through the use of old tools. So, here it is:

Maps have always played a roll in encounters between state societies and indigenous communities around the world; including between anthropologists and indigenes. Recent theoretical trends emanating from Western nations have tasked social scientists with exploring the workings of power in these encounters. These explorations have forced reflexive engagements with power as it is expressed in various institutions, discourses, and methodologies at different levels of society. In these reflexive inquiries into the process of inquiry itself maps become critical nexuses interlocking a variety of social-political elements through which we are compelled to consider broad contexts of power. At the same time, maps are also tools, capable of creating effects within the very contexts of power they reflect. Understanding the constructive nature of maps and the effects they create within and between communities are also critical endeavors. At the same time, it is beneficial to consider the activity of mapping as a process that occurs within a specific socio-political context and produces effects at all stages, not only through a final map product. Thus, in considering maps within the context of encounters, it is also essential that we consider the process of mapping.

Harley (2001) has argued convincingly for a discursive perspective of maps as embodiments of specific historical emergences of power. As texts, maps represent not only geographical spaces, but also the political agendas and cultural biases of the map-maker and his commissioners. Thus, we can link Western mapping specifically with the voyages of the Age of Discovery and the establishment of colonial relationships between European nations and other nations across the globe. Early maps and the techniques of mapping grew up in the hands of powerful men who sought to record lands in order to demarcate political boundaries and ensure their access to resources; creating ‘empty’ spaces while lessening the burden of conscience concerning communities on the ground. Therefore maps and mapping, according to Harley and others, are linked to structures of power associated with Western society and colonialism.

The power of maps comes from their ability to reference physical space through abstraction, thereby allowing them to be linked to larger discourses. In his study of the mapping of Siam, Winichakul (1994) expresses the power of such abstraction through his discussion of geo-bodies. The ability to conceive of Siam as a bounded space, argues Winichakul, played an essential role in processes of state-formation. Through their own envisioning of a Siam geo-body Siamese leaders were able to draw on Western mapping techniques and participate in the making of their own state. This raises an interesting set of questions regarding power and cartography. Escolar (1997) suggests that as cartography developed as a discipline it gained epistemological autonomy from the structures of elite power that birthed it, and thus attained neutrality. However, engagements with indigenous communities and mapping have raised new questions regarding any supposed neutrality of maps and processes of mapping.

Clearly, maps are not simply representations of physical space, but also textual representations of mental projections of physical space. What might maps tell us about these mental projections? In an early attempt to address this question, Gould (1973) offers insights into the influence that socio-economic factors have on the mental maps produced by individuals in geographical, and therefore socio-cultural, settings. Brody (1981) and Basso (1996) take us further beyond textual maps to explore the complex cultural processes that serve to link community members (in these cases Native Americans) to their lands through the cross-referencing of geographical features with meaningful stories and knowledge. Ethnographies such as these require that we broaden our concepts of mapping and carefully consider the meaning that ‘maps’ have for indigenous communities. These issues have become particularly critical as anthropologists and other scholars have begun to engage with indigenous groups using mapping as a tool to achieve particular ends. These engagements come as these groups continue to struggle against the powers referenced in Western-style maps.

Engagements between indigenous communities and structures of state power are nothing new; nor are engagements between indigenes and anthropologists. What is new is the use of mapping techniques in these engagements. The earliest attempts at mapping indigenous lands were among First Nation peoples in Canada beginning in the 1960’s. Since that time various mapping approaches and techniques have developed around work with indigenous and other local communities, these include: participatory mapping, community mapping, and public participation GIS.

Though the goals of mapping involving local communities differ from case to case, we might say that the general aim is to represent community landscape perspectives using cartographic techniques. Attempts at ethnocartography, to use Chapin and Threkeld’s term, have made it readily apparent that Escolar’s neutrality is, in fact, extremely elusive. In other words, engagements with indigenous societies have forced into relief the assumptions and biases of Western cartographic techniques. This reflexivity has taken form through attention to the following three areas: 1) the socio-political context in which maps are created; 2) the socio-political context into which maps are placed; and 3) the exclusionary nature of mapping. In sum, maps and mapping occur in socio-political contexts, which they both reflect and influence, ‘freezing’ dynamic processes and resulting in what Fox, et al. call “ironic effects” (2005).

In light of these ironic effects, an appropriate question to ask is: What’s the use of mapping? Indeed, this question has been answered in a variety of ways. Mapping has been used to make counter claims on land (Brody 1981, Peluso 1995), to promote community participation (Weiner, Harris, and Craig 2002), to encourage community cohesion (Parker 2006), and to ensure recognition and resource rights (Fox 2002). The multifarious ways that maps have been employed in work involving local communities suggests that context is key when considering the potential (ab)uses of mapping technology.

In the case of Japan, for example, we must wonder to what ends mapping will be put. Because territorial claims and land claims have been more or less settled since WWII, there is little need for mapping directed at such aims. Yet, Japanese landscapes have changed significantly over the past decades and many rural villages are in danger of extinction. However, the majority of mapping in Japan has taken place at the national level, in line with national interests. Missing throughout much of Japan’s history have been the voices of local communities, despite their bearing the brunt of the asymmetrical impacts of the landscape changes associated with Japan’s urban-focused modernity. Participatory and community mapping could potentially have several benefits for villages in Japan. First, communities would benefit from the process of mapping, which would allow individuals opportunities to work together while interacting with neighbors and the surrounding environment. Second, maps enable a landscape view that would potentially offer new possibilities for managing private and municipal land. Maps would also provide local communities with a medium for conveying their ideas and perspectives to prefecture and national level officials, reversing a top-down trend that has been disastrous for rural areas. Finally, mapping has the potential to illuminate the experience, beliefs, and knowledge of community members that give meaning to village landscapes. This has the potential to reveal values capable of opening new spaces in which the discourses of advanced capitalism can be confronted and countered.

An understanding of maps as points of articulation, conflict, and contestation within broader socio-political contexts invites us to envision novel ways of mapping alternative futures. Anthropological engagements with mapping have revealed the discursive nature of maps. This revelation brings with it new dangers and new responsibilities, but also new possibilities. A common assumption seems to be that once a geographical space is mapped it is no longer open to alternative maps, therefore much work in community mapping occurs at the ‘edges’ of the mapped world. How might we approach community mapping in those areas where maps have long gone uncontested? Might we map new courses of thinking about the world of advanced capitalism?

Basso, K. 1996. Wisdom sits in places: landscape and language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Brody, H. 1981. Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Escolar, M. 1997. Exploration, cartography and the modernization of state power. International Social Science Journal 49:55-75.
Fox, J. 2002. Siam Mapped and Mapping in Cambodia: Boundaries, Sovereignty, and Indigenous Conceptions of Space. Society & Natural Resources 15:65-78.
Fox, J., K. Suryanata, P. Hershock, and A. H. Promono. 2005. "Mapping Power: Ironic Effects of Spatial Information Technology," in Mapping Communities. Edited by J. Fox, K. Suryanata, and P. Hershock, pp. 1-10. Honolulu: East-West Center.
Gould, P. R. 1973. "On Mental Maps," in Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior. Edited by R. M. Downs and D. Stea, pp. 182-220. Chicago: Aldine
Harley, J. B. 2001. "Maps, Knowledge, and Power," in The New Nature of Maps: essays in the history of cartography. Edited by P. Laxton, pp. 51-81. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Parker, B. 2006. "Constructing Community Through Maps? Power and Praxis in Community Mapping*," vol. 58, pp. 470-484.
Weiner, D., T. Harris, and W. J. Craig. 2002. "Community participation and geographic information systems," in Community Participation and Geograpic Information Systems. Edited by W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, pp. 3-16. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Winichakul, T. 1994. Siam Mapped: a history of the geo-body of a nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

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