Reflections for a narrative cartography

The cartographic culture’s paradigm shift

It is not at all new the conception according to which a corpus of graphic representations and communicative artifacts can be regarded as a textual work. For sure one of the examples better structured in this sense is that of cartographic culture and the production of map and atlases. Cartography here represents a precious case study about how an entire visual culture can undergo a radical epistemological transformation, and notably a valorisation of its narrative and literary elements.

In recent years, many critics and historians of cartography pointed out how the production of visual representation of spatial and geographical relations has been, since its very origin, characterized by—and loaded with—elements deriving from a narrative approach. It is possible to verify, in any map predating the 20th century, the presence of allegorical or symbolic representations, short anecdotes, decorations and other signification planes. Yet it is easy to understand how the presence of these literary-narrative levels was not at all supplementary, but represented instead a widening or implementation of representation itself. Starting from the 20th century, this narrative dimension has been slowly surpassed and eliminated by that which was emerging as the cartographic discipline. In the wake of 19th century European positivism, the knowledges and practices revolving around the production of maps and atlases underwent a normalization and rationalization process that gave rise to a canon, namely to a corpus of knowledges and norms defining cartography according to scientific parameters. This process led to a scientific conception of cartography, in which maps and atlases constitute themselves as objective representations of the geographic space. The reproduction’s fidelity, objectivity and neutrality are granted by the one-to-one correspondence between the graphic signs composing a map (dots, lines, level curves, etc.) and the physical objects represented by it (buildings, roads, mountains, etc.). This way cartography presents itself as the mirror of nature, and maps and atlases as precise and coherent transcriptions of the territory, instruments that exactly thanks to their precision and accuracy are able to convey information to the user interrogating them (Crampton 2001).

It is starting from the 80’s that this theoretical and practical paradigm starts to be questioned. This critique is primarily raised by J. B. Harley, cartographer and historian who, in a series of essays and articles published during a decade, commits himself precisely to an epistemological shift within cartographic culture. This veritable revolution is pursued by Harvey through a deconstruction of the myth of scientific cartography and of the dogmatic relation between reality and representation, of which he singles out the cultural origin (Harley 2001). Primarily referring to Foucault’s philosophical system and bio-political analysis, Harley identifies maps and atlases as cultural products where techniques and scientific knowledges, as well as social and ideological positions, converge—and in which specific power relations are expressed. If, in fact, cartography can be considered as a form of knowledge, it must then be true that inside and through it are manifested and exercised forms of power able of determining the modes and the configurations of representation—maps and atlases—and thus, at the end of the day, of establishing specific practices and models of behaviour which find the definition of their action field inside maps and atlases.

Starting from this genealogical research about the relation between knowledge and power, maps and atlases betray their appearance as neutral instruments, nearing themselves instead to a conception of the cultural product more akin to a literary text. «The word ‘text’ is deliberately chosen. It is now generally accepted that the model of text can have a much wider application than to literary texts alone. To non-book texts such as musical compositions and architectural structures we can confidently add the graphic texts we call maps. It has been said that “what constitutes a text is not the presence of linguistic elements but the act of construction” so that maps, as “constructions employing a conventional sign system,” become texts. With Barthes we could say they “presuppose a signifying consciousness” that it is our business to uncover. ‘Text’ is certainly a better metaphor for maps than the mirror of nature. Maps are a cultural text» (Harley 2001).

The new image of the map as a text makes possible an ulterior dimension present in cartographic products, that is the narrative dimension. In Pleasure in the idea. The atlas as narrative form (1986), Denis Wood puts the informative function—the atlas as an instrument able to provide its user with the specific information he needs—side by side with a second entertainment function recognizable in astronomical atlases, where the user is not engaged in the medium by informative-practical ends, but rather because of a natural curiosity, deriving from the strength of the imaginaries evoked in him by those sceneries.

This copresence of the informative and the entertainment function associates atlases and geographical representations in general to literary-narrative texts. Consequently it is possible not only to analyse maps and atlases as narrations, but these narrative potentialities will have to be taken into account also during the planning and construction phase. More specifically, these graphic artifact’s potentialities will have to be maximized, in order to let them be able to reveal different read-write levels—that is signification levels—according to the distance and perspective from which they are observed.

To sum up what has been said up to here—the reflections brought forward by Wood and Harley triggered a paradigm shift within geographic culture, outlining in the following points: first of all maps and atlases are considered no more as the mirror of nature, but as a cultural text. From this ensues that cartographic media are not simple instruments employed to know the territory they represent, but must rather be considered as dispositives [dispositifs] that allow to define the spatial-geographical and cultural conception of that territory—that are thus able of orienting opinions and ideas, as much as deeds and conducts of those who relate themselves to that space. Cartography thus presents itself as a dispositive through which finds expression a specific form of knowledge-power, which on its turn determines a definite connection with the spatial, geographical and cultural reality it describes. Now this relation can assume different aspects in relation to how cartography is conceived, or better in relation to how the relation between the representation—map—and its object—physical space—structures itself. Within the cartography structured as a scientific discipline, this relation undergoes a standardization and normalization process which, defining maps and atlases construction’s canons, ends up excluding whatever form and representation not adhering to that canon. The perfect superimposition between the representation and its physical world referent wipes out, from the production of maps and atlases, the possibility to develop new cartographic paradigms—to develop slanted looks able to travel across the different signification planes stratified over a territory. In this kind of representation whatever space for an imaginary is denied, together with the possibility to develop viable alternatives—and thus also to develop a critique.

Critical and radical cartographies

With the paradigmatic shift started by Harley, the relation that cartographic representation maintains with reality radically transforms itself. The conditions of the socio-cultural environment end up defining the spatial and conceptual limits within which the map’s internal elements structure themselves, and consequently the kind of relation that these maintain with their external referents. This space, delimited by social, cultural, political and ideological factors, thus defines the ground on which the imaginary linked to cartographic culture develops itself: in this way a margin of action establishes itself within this form of knowledge-power—allowing to investigate the conditions that determined that specific kind of graphic and spatial representation, as well as to explore the possibilities that have been denied from that representation. From this point of view, the new critical-literary approach to cartographic culture acquires a profoundly political and utopian value: «[it] refers to the choice of new worlds, new societies. Here, the practice of the cartographer is immediately political» (Rolnik 1989). On the one hand the new image of cartography as dispositive necessarily refers to the dimension of political praxis: processes that appropriate and remodel the external reality’s sensible data come into play in the planning and production of maps and atlases. Under this light, the cartographic practice is thus an act of construction of the external world, or better of the image and imaginary linked to it—on which however our beliefs as well as our projects and actions are based. But the moment in which the dispositive-map is analysed as cultural text, to examine the factors that structured the representation in a specific form means too to reflect on the conditions that would have, and still should, determined alternative—but initially excluded—possibilities and choices.

Ensuing from the reflections of Harvey and Wood, between the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century new approaches to cartographic culture—oriented toward a critical approach to the notion according to which maps and atlases are to be considered as scientific documents, and aimed to identify within them the location of specific power relations—have been shaping themselves. Although these approaches find expression in different fields and application areas (Crampton and Krygier, 2006), it is anyway possible to identify two tendencies toward which critical cartography explores and gets to know its potentialities. The first is represented by that research area engaged in reconsidering the history of cartography in light of the new idea of the map as a cultural construction. The idea of developing a research into the historical, anthropological and social conditions that determined specific cartographic constructions—and thus specific forms of knowledge-power—had been already sketched by Harley: «Rather than working with a formal science of communication, or even a sequence of loosely related technical processes, our concern is redirected to a history and anthropology of the image, and we learn to recognize the narrative qualities of cartographic representation as well as its claim to provide a synchronous picture of the world» (Harley 2001). Through the recourse to Foucault’s archaeological method—quoted by Harley itself—critical cartography makes a step ahead of the previous textual analyses of maps and atlases. These, up to this time, limited themselves to the application, to the map-text, of research methods derived from semiology and rhetoric—reducing thus the map to a more or less complex sign system, but in any case circumscribed to the syntactic and textual level. On the contrary, appropriating Foucault’s theoretical-critical equipment, the new cartography’s analysis will not limit itself to consider the products of cartographic knowledge in their literary and narrative (multi)dimension, but will be aimed at generating a genealogy of the discourses held by power within this knowledge.

The conception of cartography as dispositive, and the ensuing valorisation of its political and social dimension, is the starting point for critical cartography’s second tendency too. While the archaeological research can be framed inside a critical-theoretical effort, this second tendency is oriented toward the experimentation of liberating and radical practices: «We define radical cartography as the practice of mapmaking that subverts conventional notions in order to actively promote social change. The object of critique […] is not cartography per se (as is generally meant by the overlapping term critical cartography), but rather social relations» (Bhagat and Mogel 2008). Within radical cartography, the production of maps and atlases presents itself first of all as a strategy that openly makes use of a given political and social discourse. During the last centuries, the planning and manufacturing of cartographic representations has, implicitly or explicitly, incorporated, reproduced and thus sustained specific power relations, exercised mostly by those subjects that owned and preserved cartographic knowledge—so that a nation-state’s official map absorbed, reproduced and supported the power exercised over a territory by that state. Once this mechanism has been revealed, it will then be possible to develop new representation forms, able to unveil new possibilities and new relational forms. In other words radical cartography experiences new representation forms in order to construct images and narrations addressed to those subjects or to those themes that traditionally have been excluded. In this sense it actively promotes a change of the social relations.

Obviously these representation forms carry also new aspects, that radically alter the maps and atlases planning phase. Here we find ourselves dealing with another important resemblance between cartographic culture and the literary praxis of narration as mythopoeia (Wu Ming 2009), or what Jenkins names converging culture. This resemblance takes form from different contact points between writing and radical mapping. First of all, the issue of the author and of the cartographer/user subdivision: it is most of all thanks to the new technologies, that make easier the spatial mapping process, that this separation starts to vacillate. But it is starting from the Harleian paradigm shift and the ensuing politicization of cartography that the user of a map starts to lay claim to the right to produce his own representation, according to his specific needs. Nonetheless the text-map writing is not reduced to a solipsistic and intimate activity, rather will have to be intended as an intersubjective practice—developed thus between different subjects—aspiring in any case to a collective dimension. The second contact point is provided by the will to privilege the polysemy—and thus the proliferation of meanings—and the multiplicity of points of view; will that in the wake of the digital revolution and converging culture expresses itself as an inclination toward representation’s transmediality. Like writing and communication in general, cartography too will have to privilege the mixture of different media and potentiate the user-artifact interactivity. This transmediality will be necessarily a factor of implementation of the signification planes, and of multiplication of the points of view within a map—at the same time an explorative approach, aimed to investigate and experiment new spatial patterns, will be the preferred choice (Crampton 2001).

Exactly like fan communities or mythopoetic practices, cartography is (re)discovering a collective and transmedial writing: «mapping should proceed through multiple, competing visualizations which are not created by a cartographer and transmitted to the user but made on the spot by the user acting as their own cartographer […] emphasize the importance of multiple perspectives and multiple maps» (Crampton 2001).

Toward a narrative cartography

At this point the different contact and resemblance points between cartographic and literary experience should allow us to hypothesize a new theory and critical praxis, able to conceive maps and atlases as collective and transmedial narrations. A new cartography answers to the need to expand the cartographic language by means of graphical representations able to recreate the multiplicity and complexity of the spatial and cultural experience, the thick network of narrations spreading itself across the territories and the variety of the historical and cultural geographies. By means of stratagems aimed to reproduce narrative effects—as the use of multiple narrating voices, focalization movements, polysemy and ambiguity, intimacy with the reader (Pearce 2006)—this new cartographic (and visual) language represents an attempt to construct a narrative plot able to emotionally and intellectually involve the user-reader—and, starting from this relation, to create thus a new geographical-spatial experience.

The paradigm shift started by Harley transformed an entire culture (founded on representation and visual communication) leading to privilege its literary and narrative aspects—meaning construction, polysemy and surplus of meaning, intersection between more points of view, disappearance of the writer/reader distinction, propensity to transmediality. Cartography’s example can, thus, legitimate further attempts to apply the analytical instruments and the theoretical categories developed in recent years within the narrative-literary sphere to other fields of visual culture—and particularly of graphic design. But most of all it places the possible practical and strategic outcomes at the centre of the analysis, connoting the designer’s practice—in this case the cartographer’s—as an intrinsically political and social activity.


Jeremy W. Crampton
2001 Maps as social constructions. Power, communication and visualization, in Progress of human geography, 25, 235-252.
2005 An introduction to critical cartography (with John Krygier), in ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 4/1, 11-33.

John Brian Harley
2001 The new nature of maps, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat (edited by)
2007 An atlas of radical cartography, Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press, Los Angeles.

Margaret Pearce
2006 Place codes: narrative and dialogical strategies for cartography,

Suely Rolnik
1989 Cartografia Sentimental, Transformaçaoes Contemporéneas do Desejo, Editora Estaçâo Liberdade, Sâo Paulo, 15-16, 66-72.

Denis Wood
1986 Designs on signs. Myth and meaning in maps (with John Fels), in Cartographica 23/3, 54-103.
1987 Pleasure in the idea. The atlas as narrative form, in Cartographica, 24/1, 24-45.

Wu Ming
2009 New Italian Epic 2.0, Einaudi, Torino.