The poverty of cartography

Imperial College, London, late August. Empire is everywhere. The entrance to the Faculty of Mines is guarded by two stolidly Victorian marble men and surrounded by pseudo-classical visions of ‘mining, but make it sexy’. Nearby, the Royal Geographical Society is also rich in compromising regalia, with the old globes and treasure chests that represent the material and symbolic plunder of the four corners of the world. I am here for my first visit to the annual RGS conference. The chimney of the old aristocratic house (Hyde Park as a front garden, no less) where the conference takes place is tiled with hand-painted coats of arms, blue on white. One of the tiles says that they were painted by a lady of the house, and as a female presence in a patriarchal institution, I can’t help but see it as an analogy of white feminism. The little tiles are still a thousand times more interesting than the garish, useless Albert Memorial across the road. On the day that the Prime Minister suspended Parliament, London was hot and exciting as ever, an everchanging bloom eating away at its own monumentality, and the conference played out its own tensions between insurgence and academic inertia.

People protesting the adjourning of Parliament

People protesting the suspension of Parliament on 28 August 2019

In the first panel I attended, about the everyday spaces of the hostile environment, Phe Amis historicised the emergence of categories like ‘foreign national’ and ‘illegal immigrant’. To historicise means to show that something is made up. But witness how quickly these made-up borders and imaginary lines crystalise as common sense, as in the mostly uncritical compliance of British universities with the UK border regime. As Sanaz Raji explained, and as I have seen in my own experience, very few staff know how the process for criminalising international students works. Meanwhile, the proliferation of surveillance in students’ everyday lives means that even those students subject to immigration control via the university are unlikely to challenge it. While in higher education, everyday bordering has become normalised through unthinking bureaucracy, in the health services it draws on professional attributes like ‘clinical acumen’. As Tarek Younis explained, based on his ethnographic work in the NHS, Prevent training uses the idea of ‘gut feeling’ to disavow the role of race – and racism – in the implementation of the policy.

Against this reductive, administrative way of thinking about people and territory, other models exist. Anticolonial and indigenous perspectives were often cited at the conference. Refreshingly, with a couple of exceptions they are not presented as untainted epistemologies but as pragmatic understandings that can form their own banalities and corruptions. Joanna Morley mentioned the framework of ‘buen vivir’ in Ecuador, now being mobilised by local elites in pursuit of extractive development, and Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane showed how post-apartheid elites have adopted African words and metaphors as empty signifiers of transformation. If the coloniality of power pervades intersubjective relations (Quijano, 2007), and capitalism has been able to hybridise and engulf its contradictions, is resistance ever imaginable? Geography offers its own ways of rethinking the world. It is about undoing borders, changing scales, seeing multiplicity. For instance: seeing the global – national – local not as scales but as entangled dimensions; or understanding that a neighbourhood is a political entity, as Francisco Letelier argued in his paper about ‘lo vecinal’ in Chile and Spain. In her study of national park frontier expansion in Mozambique, Kei Otsuki challenged bienpensant environmentalism, pointing out that in many contexts, the prohibition of hunting has been imbricated with racialised ruling, while current rights-based approaches to environmental justice often fall back on ‘procedural equity’, where a technocratic solution is meant to be found. Otsuki sought instead an anarchist framework that can make sense of free interaction and conflict with no easy consensus, which seems necessary in the frontier conditions that she studies. The frontier, which is not identical to the border, can be a site for remaking society.

The garden at the Royal Geographical Society

The garden at the Royal Geographical Society

The squat is also a frontier. Mara Ferreri argued for vacancy as a way of thinking, where the appeal of the temporary can prepare the ground where communing can root. In her study of squats that turned housing cooperatives, Ferrari does not only trace what may look like a typical process of enbourguoisement and co-optation, but instead offers a non-purist account of resistance. She seeks to understand housing co-ops ‘beyond the mythologies of autonomy’, as antagonistic but negotiated practices that solved specific problems for the people who lived in them, in more or less lasting or ideologically coherent ways. This sense of pragmatic collective action was very clear in Julia Vilela Caminha’s work on occupations in Brazil, where this is less a countercultural movement and more an extension of the same self-building resourcefulness that has shaped the cities of the Global South. Arguments of justice and legitimacy surround these acts of reclamation, again threading a fractious relationship with the State and the law.

The geographies I am drawn to are these: Grounded, messy, borderless. These are not necessarily the geographies you will find in my own work. Film studies and geography have a long and inconclusive affair, where it feels like both parties have used each other without undergoing much internal transformation. Cartographical approaches are by now comfortable and generally uncontroversial, and so it seems we’re back to the stories. Ealasaid Munro and Ian Goode told adventurous tales of operators and audiences of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild, and screened this gem of a film about non-theatrical exhibition. People are seen walking up the road to the village hall; you can almost feel the chill of the rain on your coat. These are stories of journeys, like those related by Italian oral history interviewees, memorably including a long donkey ride into the nearest village in one case recounted by Daniela Treveri Gennari. There were some maps on my slides about the use of village halls as cinema spaces, but what I really wanted to talk about were the patient record cards used by a Kirkcaldy doctor to sketch out the meeting halls where he put up his projector and screen, each with a paper trail of local philanthropy and corporate film services. Like the halls, these bits of card were repurposed, used efficiently for the common good rather than profit. I saw in them a tiny glimpse of what a degrowth cinema may be like.

A few days later I was again showing some maps, the kind that come in film festival brochures and invite people to explore new places in their home town with the pretext of watching a film. This time I was in Liverpool, taking part in a workshop on Mapping Music History, organised by Jonathan Hicks. There were clear parallels with cinema history in Lawrence Davies’ research on the history of jazz clubs and the journeys that bookended participants’ experiences, as well as their use of multipurpose and civic spaces, which touched on dynamics of distinction and respectability not dissimilar to those of the film society movement. Solene Heinzl told the fascinating story of a squatted industrial complex in the outskirts of Paris, where art-led insurgence reclaimed the site as a ‘free space’ (or TAZ), but where legitimation as an art space can run counter to the principle of commoning. Putting some place on the map, making it visible to cultural tourists, is not always an unmitigated good.

When I started dabbling in cartography, satellite and drone imaging were only starting to become available to ordinary users and non-specialist commercial users. The books all spoke about the military roots of cartography, the inseparability of mapping and dominating. At the RGS, Oliver Belcher presented a fascinating and extremely persuasive case study of MIT’s collaboration with the Pentagon in the development of a GIS for counterinsurgency in Vietnam. As a complement to aerial photography, the GIS synthesised data collected ‘on the ground’. Perhaps in the familiar critique of the all-seeing-eye of cartography there was not enough emphasis on the importance of the individual data point: It is all about aggregation. This was a point that became a focus for discussion at the Mapping Music History event. Adam Behr talked about mapping as shorthand for communication with bureaucrats and with the general public. Phil Nelson later argued that the most efficient way of mapping a music scene in this day and age was letting people map it themselves, either by volunteering the information or through the traces of their digital activity. The view of mapping as surveillance was easy to identify here. Nelson, for instance, found that some people were reluctant to contribute information because their venues or events were not fully compliant with licensing rules. (This is also easy to understand in the context of film exhibition, as compliance is relatively expensive and complicated for small-time exhibitors).

In these cases, where information flows need to be understood in the context of a power imbalance, storytelling can again offer an alternative. Fay Young talked about the playful experience offered by her audio tours and quizzes on Glasgow history, and Jonathan Trew talked about the Glasgow City Music Tours, where physical landmarks serve as ‘technologies of memory’ for people to tell their own stories. As a tour guide, Trew also gathers and recounts these memories, so that the commentary has an accretion of unverifiable personal stories. This starts to take on the character of a folklore. In the closing paper, Les Roberts offered a provisional theorisation of songlines as a non-representational way to hold stories without trying to pin down lived memory. While in both cases the appeal to traditional or ‘other’ forms of knowledge poses its own problems (not least the violence of cultural appropriation), they are part of a search, a dissatisfaction, a sense of urgency and realisation that the perfectly compiled database won’t save us.

The kind of ‘epistemic disobedience’ (Mignolo, 2013) that may be needed now is that of refusal, of strike. Anything else will be appropriated: by REF, by Western academia, by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (as bell hooks names it).

At the end of my stay in Liverpool, I went to see Shezad Dawood’s installation Leviathan. Dawood’s use of archive footage of whaling makes her post-apocalyptic short fictions unwatchable at times. “The bodies of Leviathan were the pilings on which our world stood”. Dawood tells a story, a mix of past and future, neither true nor a lie, both archive and myth, about greed, extraction, and divine retribution. Comfortably ensconced in the art gallery, this won’t make it stop, like an academic conference in an imperial institution won’t dismantle the master’s house. But it could at least help break the spell, the illusio, and make us question whether we need to put our energies into sustaining the institutions that oppress us.