Nate Wessel

“Who decides what goes on the map?”

April 2015

There has always been a lot of discussion in the cartography world about the “authority” of maps. Many people, perhaps because of their long history of state production, take maps as authoritative objects, depicting a ‘non-subjective’ reality, presumably using some well-defined and long-established criteria for definition, identification, inclusion and depiction. These maps almost never identify a human but rather an institutional author if any. The obviously contestable and ephemeral content of these maps though so often belies their authority; state boundaries, so often fortified with the boldest of all lines consist in nothing but the prosaic ink of a page in a musty town hall.

As a natural reaction in a democratic world, a whole wave of cartographic effort has sought to wash the authority of state maps and even the associated authority of cartographic styles themselves associated with state efforts at definition. Maps with obviously biased content appear in the usual styles, and unusual, sloppy, styles are applied to the stagnant and reified artifacts of state production.

The question of “who made this map” becomes important when authority is implied toward contested domains. “Authority”: an interesting double meaning. Authorship seems to imply lack of authority and authority means the faceless view from omniscience: unauthoredness. Who makes the maps?

I do!

To the author, a book must appear a transient tissue of compromised satisfactions, the thoughts of a moment, subject to revision and effacement, historically to almost certain erasure. To the sculpter, a stone must be something softer than to others. To a master of any craft, the product is always contestable. What is a law to a politician? A wall to a mason may always bear the possibility for transgression.

It is not for cartographers to democratize ‘the map’, nor for artists to spread oil paints to the masses of clumsy fingers now supposedly bereft of them. We must rather hope that ‘the people’ will claim each their own domain of expertise, and from there extrapolate to ours.