Mapping Maps

This weekend, Project New Media Literacies will host an event which brings together educators and new media specialists to brainstorm about ways we can integrate new media technologies — especially Google Earth, Google Maps, mobile phones and handhelds — and new media literacies into the teaching of maps and cultural geography. As we get ready for this “ideation” workshop, I thought it was a good time to share an essay written last year by Colleen Kaman, one of the CMS graduate students, on the role which maps play in shaping her intellectual development. Kaman is now writing a thesis about new media and the human rights struggle in China. She is a researcher at the Center for Future Civic Media, where she is helping to draft a white paper outlining what we mean by “civic media” and where she blogs for the Center’s website.

Maps and National Geographic: of Stories Untold

by Colleen Kaman

One of my earliest memories of the world was the globe that my father brought home. It was almost certainly something he had come to own in exchange for dental work because he often accepted payment this way. I was six or seven and found it magnificent. It stood on a smooth wooden base, tall enough so that I could peer at eye-level while studying the shapes and colors and lines, trying to imagine what might exist in the faraway dots. I remember spinning the orb, glimpsing the spot my dad and I had marked to locate our hometown near Lake Michigan from the blur of countries and oceans. I loved to trace my finger along the horizontal Mercator lines and imagined that they were paths from here to there, wherever that might be. The blank spots on the map, bounded by the intersections between latitude and longitude but otherwise vacant of any suggestion of what might exist there, worried me a bit. I figured the lines might be a kind of rail that I might slip along, allowing me to circumnavigate the world without sliding off into the unknown. Those blank spaces were also a constant source of fascination – and the conflicting desire to understand what I was looking at and to be surprised by it.

Sometimes I spun the globe as hard as I could, waiting in anticipation for the foreign-sounding place my pointed finger would land when it finally came to a stop. I would find places with names like Helsinki, Zinder, Christchurch, or Tashkent. I studied the names, but the words meant very little since I hadn’t even seen a picture of these places. So instead I would imagine what I might find there. Part of the excitement of looking at a map was staring for hours at the continents while letting my mind wander. After all the very nature of exploration was “an assertive action in the face of uncertain assumptions, often involving false starts, missteps, and surprises”(Turchi, p12). Perhaps it was this desire to explore that lead me to increasingly wonder what happened in all that empty space on the map? What stories weren’t revealed?

By the time the globe disappeared from our house, almost certainly the victim of my mother ‘s harsh discouragement of my father’s tendency to barter by eventually banning many of the items that arrived this way, I had discovered National Geographic magazines. They were the perfect combination of detachable foldout maps between the glossy images and fabulous stories of faraway people and places sparked my imagination. My parents enjoyed sharing visions of the future (for example, assuming we survived a Soviet attack, we might one day get all of our food in pill form) rather than tell stories about the family’s history. Maybe this is why I became obsessed with finding places where history existed in the present. I found it in the pages of National Geographic. I thrilled at the images and texts about women in brightly colored dresses, men riding elephants down the streets of Bangkok, young boys racing water buffalo, and a tiger amid lush foliage, and a gaucho riding along the pampas of Argentina was like peering into a jumble of a world rich in narratives and histories. I saw the maps as the common language that we all spoke; it would take a few years and another experience for me to realize that maps could mean different things to different people.

I remember watching the 1984 Olympic games held in Sarajevo, at that time part of Yugoslavia, on television. I was eleven years old. I loved the gymnastics and skating the best but would watch all the events I could when I got home from school. I cheered for the U.S. athletes, especially against the Soviet or German teams. Still, I found the footage of this Socialist country enticing, and resolved that this would be the first foreign nation I would visit when I could. I took great pleasure in finding the places on the map where the Olympic athletes lived. I could better imagine their stories once I’d rooted national identity to place (Malkki, 1992) and touched the name of an athlete’s hometown on the map with my fingers, seen how the words might nestle within the topography, see how far it was from the sea and from other borders. Sometimes a country stood on its own, geometric and stoutly sure of itself the way the state of Nebraska or Kansas looked. But usually they leaned or draped across one another in some fashion. In either case, the global map reflected a world of absolutes. There were no vague spaces or what Trinh Minh Ha has called ‘bleeding boundaries’ but rather as nations fixed in space and on a map “as a discrete spatial partitioning of territory … in the fashion of the multicolored school atlas”(Malkki, 1992).

But increasingly, these borders seemed arbitrary. As I watched the East and West German athletes compete, I considered how the straightest, firmest lines of the national borders never seemed to hold the way the crooked lines of the rivers and arched topographies of mountain ranges did. I had seen old maps of the Roman, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as well as depictions of the borders during the Second World War. I knew from school that the USSR had swallowed up numerous countries, including my father’s ancestral home of Lithuania. I tried to imagine its faint outline on maps at the time and hoped for freedom for them. I’d been taught in school that the thick borderlines on the global map would tend to change only in favor of creating modern, post-ethnic democracies around the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution that same year only confirmed this worldview. What I never considered was that the clear lines of nationhood might fracture in other places, and the future might hold the dissolution of nation-states.

When I heard about the intense ethnic rivalries between numerous groups, including Bosnian Serbs and Croats Yugoslavia in late 1980s, I studied the world map in search of any fault lines that might explain how the country that had been a symbol of the late-twentieth century’s hard fought willingness to overcome the ethnic divisions that had wrought such destruction during the first and second World Wars. I knew that in the past and as a place called the Balkans it had been prone to terrible ethnic divides, but on my map the nation called ‘Yugoslavia’ looked hale and whole. By 1989, National Geographic magazine published a map, the first that I remember seeing, that suggested the depth of the ethnic problems . This map’s multiple colors clearly illustrates what Edward Tufte has called the “struggle between (the) maintenance of context and enforcement of comparison”(76). It represents the numerous fractures between different ethnic groups while continuing to imagine Yugoslav ‘nationhood’, this time in the lack of continuity within the national boundaries. Identity is still territorialized, now seen in terms of various colors (to label as well as for aesthetic reasons)(Tufte, 81) but now also as a cultural construct (although apparently one that doesn’t extend beyond the borders). Malkki, quoting Akhil Gupta (1988), offers insight into this conceptualization of people and space in general as ‘images of break, rupture, and disjunction. The recognition of cultures, societies, nations, all in the plural, is unproblematic exactly because there appears an unquestionable division, an intrinsic discontinuity, between cultures, between societies, etc.’ At the risk of sounding callous or naive, one of the most personally heartbreaking moments of the war for me occurred with the destruction of the famed Mostar bridge (built1566) in 1993. It was the first time I really grasped that that the world was far more complex than the one I saw on my map – that it might look different to somebody else, or that the geo-political nature of a map might obscure culture, identity, and ideology.

I had a boyfriend in college who covered his room with photos from National Geographic magazine. For the most part, he used images of remote places around the world that had been pulled from issues dating from the 1960s, 70s and 80s, peppered with the occasional image from the beginning of the century. There was a certain romance to what he had created, to look at many images and places morphed into one ‘world,’ It also distilled National Geographic‘s parallel history with the field of Anthropology, the study that came of age in the Victorian Era of collecting curiosities and that famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz described as a “science born in Indian tribes, Pacific islands, and African lineages.”

In the end, I refused to sleep in the room more than one night because I found the whole experience too creepy. As much as I liked many of the individual images, I also found the assemblage of photos effectively divorced the images from any sense of place or ‘authentic’ experience and cultural ties in favor of consumer-oriented tourist’s gaze of what Arjun Appadurai (1988) calls ‘natives’ who ‘are not only persons who are from certain places, and belong to those places, but they are also those who are somehow incarcerated, or confined, in those places.’ Moreover, I now believe that these lines of nationhood were largely the imaginations of mid-twentieth-century geo-political elites and that they tend to fail in part because notions of nationhood and ‘nativeness’ rarely express themselves along lines as clear and as smooth as those found on a map of this sort. Such maps assume a national unity and ‘rootedness’ within the straight thick borders that flatten cultural, ethnic, territorial differences (Malkki, 1992) and construct space and place in a manner that reveal a Western expectation that “we live in singular cultural worlds (i.e. imagined communities)” – and that a choice has been made between one world and another (Robins, 2008). Despite this problematic aspect of National Geographic‘s magazine, the images and maps they contain embody but one type of meaningful visualization of the geography of knowledge in the world.

My definition of a map has once again broadened significantly in recent years. The geo-political variety no longer seems quite as interesting as it once it, but still I find the concept of ‘mapping’ intriguing and deeply meaningful. Recently, I was staying in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at an apartment that was about two blocks from the site of a bombing of a school that killed several children. It was a pretty street in a ‘good’ part of town and had every sign of being a safe place. A guard directed traffic. The air was fragrant with the smell of jasmine. Parents walked children dressed in crisp white uniforms home from school. Nothing about the place suggested violence. I looked at the location on a (local) map and still found no sign that this might have happened. I find myself thinking once again about narrative and about the multiplicity of attachments and meaning that people around the world form to places through living in, remembering, and imagining them. How might the resident of Colombo map this experience into all of the other meanings of place and identity? A map might not hold all of the answers but it remains a powerful tool to remember stories that might otherwise be forgotten.


Cosgrove, Denis E. and Veronica della Dora (2005) “Mapping Global War: Los Angeles, the Pacific, and Charles Owens’s Pictorial Cartography.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95 (2).

Malkki, Liisa. (1992) “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, [Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference] (Feb.), pp. 24-44.

Parameswaran, Radhika. (2002) “Local Culture in Global Media: Excavating Colonial and Material Discourses in National Geographic.” Communication Theory 12 (3), 287-315.

Robins, Kevin. (2008) “Media and Cultural Diversity in Europe.” (unpublished manuscript).

Tufte, Edward. (1990) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Graphics Press LLC, Cheshire, CT.

Turchi, Peter. (2004). Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. Trinity University Press. San Antonio, Texas.

Turkle, Sherri. (ed) (2007) Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.