Cartography: The Ideal and Its History

Matthew H. Edney’s Cartography: The Ideal and Its History (University of Chicago Press, April) is a full-throated jeremiad against the concept of cartography itself—the ideal of cartography, which after 237 densely argued pages Edney says “is quite simply indefensible.” Or as the subtitle to the first chapter states: “There is no such thing as cartography, and this is a book about it.”

On the surface this is a startling argument to make, particularly for Edney, who holds two roles that are very much about cartography and its history: he’s the Osher Professor in the History of Cartography at the University of Southern Maine (where, among other things, he’s affiliated with the Osher Map Library) and the current director of the History of Cartography Project. With this book, Edney is essentially undermining the foundations of his own profession.

He does so systematically. Cartography, he argues, isn’t a discrete process: there are many different mapping traditions that don’t necessarily have very much to do with one another (a fantasy mapmaker doesn’t have much in common with someone working on the Google Maps database, for example); “cartography” forcibly gathers these dissimilar maps together under a normative ideal.

That ideal, Edney says, has a history: it developed after about 1800, and as such is a relatively recent invention; but it’s been applied retroactively to all the mapmaking that went on before that date. That ideal was in the service of a certain kind of mapmaking product born out of the systemic mapmaking surveys of the 18th and 19th centuries. Cartography-the-ideal is public, altruistic, unbiased and empiricist: Cartography’s end product is The Map, a Platonic ideal of universality and accuracy.

It’s teleological, full of assumptions about progress and expertise—and in Edney’s view, completely wrong. It diminishes what we can say about maps except in terms of how accurate they are; and by prioritizing scale as a universal component of all maps (for example) it eliminates maps that don’t conform to the cartographic ideal (such as the Beck diagram) and runs into problems with map projections.

Most problematically, I think, it perpetrates the notion that maps tell the unmediated truth—a notion that has become deeply embedded in popular culture. Why else would the Piri Reis map’s bend in the coast of South America be taken as evidence of an ice-free Antarctica instead of what it almost certainly was: a hack done because the chartmaker was running out of parchment. (See previous entry: The Piri Reis Map of 1513.) Or even that the presence of “Here Be Dragons” on a map could be proof of the historical existence of dragons. The idea that maps cannot be wrong is a product of Cartography-as-ideal.

Cartography is a thought-provoking book, but it’s not for the casual reader. It’s not remotely an introductory text. Understanding its arguments requires prior knowledge. This is a text for college students, for academics, for anyone who has been thinking about cartography in an academic or theoretical sense. But for that audience, Cartography may well be an essential, even formative text. It’s an important book—but it’s not for everyone.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

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Previously: Reviews of Edney’s Cartography.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room. His nonfiction has been published by AE, The New York Review of Science Fiction, the Ottawa Citizen and Tor.com. His sf fanzine, Ecdysis, was a two-time Aurora Award finalist.