This article was written on 07 Jan 2015, and is filled under Urbanities.

Cartography and Participation

Screenshot from the Mapa Sonoro de México website

Screenshot from the Mapa Sonoro de México website

The pleasure of data, the seduction of statistics:

Paul Kamàck first became interested in Mexico when, still a student, he visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. What caught his attention was not the calculated exoticism of the materials on display, but rather the statistics that showcased the country as a perennial cornucopia. (Rivera Garza 156, my translation)

As Paul made his way through the fair, he ignored everything sensuous or artistic. He didn’t care to learn about monuments, didn’t care about painters or writers. He paid great attention, however, to the numerical details about the waterways and climate zones of Mexico. And once he had arrived in the country, seven years later, he followed up in the archives, spending his mornings poring over articles from the annals of the natural sciences or geography and statistics. He was unimpressed by the country’s progress in engineering—few places in the world could compete with Chicago’s prowess in those days—but he saw this lack as a growth opportunity. He discovered the existence of a mining area north of the capital and fell in love. He loved, especially, the exorbitant numbers of pesos it generated, and he loved also that they needed engineers like himself. He went to San Luis Potosí, and once there “he tried to make love to the very land itself” (159). But it’s unclear what this attempt entailed, since mostly he kept looking at numbers. Someone also gave him an elegantly drawn map, which pleased him greatly, for “there was nothing in the world that Paul so adored as well designed maps where all reality was measured and reduced to scale” (160). He copied it down as best he could on a sheet of white paper.

This episode takes place in Cristina Rivera Garza’s novel Nadie me verá llorar (2000; No One Will See Me Cry 2003). This book is wide-ranging, but its conceptual center lies in La Castañeda, the large, now-defunct insane asylum in Mixcoac that was inaugurated by President Porfirio Díaz in 1910. Rivera Garza, also a historian, has written another book solely about La Castañeda, and Nadie me verá llorar details its own historical sources in a postscript. All of which is to say that this is a fiction firmly based in history. Thus it is unsurprising that much of the chapter cited above, simply titled “Un mapa,” resonates so much with Cartographic Mexico (2004), Raymond Craib’s brilliant study of cartography in modern Mexico. The geographical focus of each book is different, but they describe roughly similar attitudes toward mapping.

Craib’s subtitle gives us a good framework in which to understand these attitudes: “A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes.” In other words, the state desires to fix in place something that is in constant movement. In common metaphorical use, the earth stands for all that is solid, but in the reality of practice, human and otherwise, it is always in flux. This insight lies at the heart of Craib’s analysis of governmental efforts to map Mexico, and in particular the state of Veracruz, during the second half of the nineteenth century up through the PRI era.

These efforts aimed first at forging a coherent picture of a nation that had suffered, during its first few decades, great territorial loss. And at a more local level, they also sought to reframe the land in terms favorable to its commercialization. In neither case was cartographic reality as simple as any finished map would portray it to be. However, generating the illusion of simplicity was an integral part of the process. Early in Cartographic Mexico, Craib cites a conceit at the heart of modern mapping. “Once coordinated, all space became already there, its reality predicted by the global coordinates that posited its very existence.” Modern maps “acquired a disembodied purity, functioning as transparent windows onto a preexisting space” (6-7). This notion of a given reality is useful for both state priorities, given that it generates a squared and regulated picture of the nation as something natural and inevitable.

Nations are neither of these things, and Craib’s study is fascinating because of the way he details the processes underlying the production of their visual gestalt. Long before we open the atlas, the map is a complex elaboration, requiring the participation of many mediators—guides and surveyors, politicians and artists—whose interests are often at odds. This process can’t be reduced to a simple tug of war between the imposers and the imposed-upon. As Craib notes, regarding resistance to the state’s cartographic efforts, it was “always a more complicated affair than one of communitarian villagers united against an encroaching state.” Rather, the state’s failures to map a given extension often stemmed from conflicts predating the arrival of the surveyor: “The inability to permanently delineate and demarcate village borders,” for example, “resulted as much from an array of local conflicts and power struggles as it did from a unified community resistance to land loss” (89). The strength of Craib’s book lies in the way it is constantly attentive to these on-the-ground details of the practice of cartography.

For Paul, Rivera Garza’s fictional character, the beauty of cartography lies in the abstract simplifications it allows: “all reality was measured and reduced to scale” (160). For Craib, this attitude perfectly expresses the ideology of Porfirian Mexico: “What better instrument for, and image of, administered, rational rule?” (189). Both novelist and historian counteract this ideology, in as much as storytelling—fictional or historical—disabuses us of the illusion that things are simple as they seem to be. There is always a mess of characters or actors, a mess of interests and priorities, behind any clean and polished object, maps included.

Both texts make this reality palpable. And Craib’s in particular seeks to tie the maps of early liberalism to their counterparts in the neoliberal era. He begins his study by describing a 1985 plan to “clarify the boundaries and holdings of Mexico’s many ejidos (inalienable concessions of land granted to communities by the state),” a plan that was promptly abandoned by then-President Miguel de la Madrid (1). The reality on the ground was too complex, Craib notes, and the disparity between official documents and lived practice was too great for the completion of the proposed cadaster. He ends his book in roughly the same place, with the 1992 invocation of this same disorder as a reason for reforming the constitution and abandoning the ejido system. The new wave of liberalism, Craib proposes, will inevitably confront difficulties analogous to those that its predecessors faced.

These difficulties are inevitable and have surely taken on numerous forms in the past decades. However, their cartographic context, which is our present context, has changed in one key way: the “fugitive” aspects of the landscape have become integral parts of the “fixations” of the map. The map itself, in other words, has learned to become more shifting and fugitive, and this change bears important consequences for the politics of cartography today.

We can see these consequences in relation to the forms of participation made available to users of maps. Craib highlights the participation of numerous actors in cartographic production, but once the maps are drawn and published, this participation is obscured. They become fetish objects, hiding the reality of their own production. Maps today, particularly the digital ones we use all the time, work differently. For example, there are projects like the Mapa Sonoro de México, a sound map of the country that explicitly asks users to register, take recordings, and add them to the map. (Other countries and municipalities have undertaken similar projects.) It’s a version of crowdsourcing in which participation is ongoing, and in which the map is explicitly not finished, in as much as more sounds can always be added. In other words, this map, the product of a governmental entity, seeks to incorporate, rather than obscure, certain participatory aspects of its creation.

This participatory dynamic is, however, not restricted to such innocuous undertakings. The maps we carry around all the time and access via touchscreens—the same maps that make a project like the Mapa Sonoro de México possible—feed off a more involuntary sort of participation. Our displacements through the world, the ways we turn space into place, generate information that is fed back into the maps produced by companies like Google, maps that form the basis for many other commercial undertakings. We participate in the construction of these maps simply by using them.

In this case, however, participation ceases being active. Today’s maps might not be the same sort of finished and bound objects that could be accessed in a nineteenth-century atlas. They might be eternal works in progress. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wall separating the people who use the map from the people who make it. On the contrary, even if maps today are in some sense (even when not explicitly) in constant beta mode, their production remains opaque. Our participation in their creation is limited to the generation of data, whereas the framework that organizes that data remains veiled from us.

In other words, the newness of how cartography functions today does not mean we participate more or better, only that the seductions of power are much more effective.


  1. Aarti Smith Madan
    January 7, 2015

    Excellent piece, Craig—it brings together Craib and Rivera Garza in beautiful ways and brings to mind the participatory elements of the Millionth Map of Hispanic America.

  2. […] morning I posted a longish post over at Urbanities. It’s on two books I read together recently: Cristina Rivera […]

  3. Craig Epplin
    January 16, 2015

    Thanks, Aarti, I’ll look more into that, now that you mention it.