When I was getting up to speed as a political geographer, browsing through textbooks, I came across a small body of literature on what seemed to be the driest, least ‘political’ area of political geography: the science of state shapes. There’s probably an established name for this, but I’ll just call it “politomorphology.” The politomorphology literature seemed to combine the worst excesses of scientism (let’s create categories so that we can critique them) with fetishism (let’s study the shapes so that we don’t have to analyze the underlying social processes). Just last year, I gently mocked a colleague who showed a video to his undergraduate map analysis class on how the U.S. states got their shapes (and the only reason why the mocking was gentle was because the colleague was my department head!). Of course, twenty years ago when I was going through those textbooks I was equally dismissive of studies of borders, and this has become one of the more vibrant areas of political geography. There’s a lesson to be learned there.
Now, courtesy of two recent posts on Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies blog, as well as my own project examining how a cartographic grammar that essentializes bounded territory as the basis of society fails to represent processes and (especially) spaces of fluidity, I’m thinking that maybe the shape of states deserves a second look, not to enhance our classificatory repertoire, but to enhance our understanding of the power that the state-image has in naturalizing a world of bounded, spatially fixed, “developing” territorial units. To this end, the prism provided by art can serve a powerful denaturalizing function.
The first of the Progressive Geographies posts (from 24 May) points to the online art + politics journal Seismopolite, and I was particularly intrigued by an article in that journal by architect Brian Brush. Brush argues that the state shape itself carries so much baggage that even map art that reproduces the state form in order to denaturalize the state inadvertently reaffirms the hegemonic concept. It’s an argument that others, such as Denis Wood, have made in less absolute terms, but Brush makes the point particularly concisely, and he isn’t afraid to take down much of the map-based art that’s out there. (By contrast, notwithstanding the glee with which Wood takes on traditionalist cartographers, he tends to go pretty easy on artists.) Brush’s point also speaks to some of the queasiness that I’ve addressed elsewhere about the way in which many artists use maps and many geographers use art.
Brush’s response is to produce works that vectorize aerial photography, so that lines connote continuity rather than disruptions and areas connote mobility rather than boundedness. What’s interesting about Brush’s pieces (several of which are displayed in the article) is that they while they blur boundaries (and not just boundaries that separate administrative units, but other social land use boundaries as well), they remain rooted in topography, using a surface base-map with latitude-longitude coordinates as the foundation. The (unstated) assumption is that the mappable phenomena that are masked by state boundaries are still representable through visualizations that have their origins in a world of points in Euclidean space.
That takes us to the second Progressive Geographies post, posted on 31 May), which refers to the Designing Geopolitics (knwn by the slightly too-hip abbreviation D:GP) conference held this past weekend at UC San Diego. The live feed from this conference is no longer available and the archive isn’t up yet, but the website gives a good idea of the material covered. UCSD has a theoretically innovative digital art program (and here I have to give a shout-out to my friends, colleagues, and UCSD art alum power couple Owen Mundy and Joelle Dietrick), and in this engagement with geopolitics the participants at the conference go a step beyond Brush. They suggest that the world of connections (especially electronic connections) in which we now live not only stretches the boundaries of Euclidean space (and the state form that essentializes and reproduces it) but transcends those boundaries. The resulting “maps,” disassociated from Euclidean space, look decidedly (and perhaps even disturbingly) “un-mappy.” Perhaps that reaction is simply a reflection of my own traditionalist aesthetics, but I worry that in the process of destabilizing the significance of fixed points and the representations of groupings of points that still do order so much of our world, the D:GP artists detract attention from space as an actual, practiced, contested arena of struggle. Does the dis-place-ment of space inevitably lead to its dematerialization and thus its depoliticization? The D:GP artists try to avoid this trap by concentrating on things like infrastructure, but I’m not sure that this really answers the nagging questions that remain for those of us who seek to “map” (whether graphically or textually) the construction of fluid spaces. What if all of our efforts at understanding new “shapes” that characterize the world are just leading us to a revived politomorphology?