Critical Geography

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Craig Dalton and Liz Mason-Deese:

"We begin the paper with a review of critical cartography, its counter-mapping genre and the basis of autonomous cartography in geographical literature. As a type of counter-mapping, autonomous cartography utilizes critical cartography’s points about maps and power, but does so in a new way to promote forms of self-organizing that use autonomous politics and militant research practices. To clarify these ideas, we introduce the concept of autonomy and the autonomous militant research practices of Colectivo Situaciones, Precarias a la Deriva and Hackitectura.

The works of these groups are historical preconditions for our own research practices and intended outcomes. In the second half of the paper, we review 3Cs’founding conditions and two of our maps. Finally, we conclude by examining the methods and impacts of our mappings.

Autonomous cartography is part of the critical turn in cartography and that literature’s critiques of power in mapping and forms of geographic knowledge.

Citing Foucault’s understanding of power as productive, critical geographers point out that mapping is always a situated, political process with a social context, purpose and effects (Foucault, 1995; Wood and Fels, 1992; Edney, 1993; Harley, 2001; Pickles, 2003; Crampton, 2010).

A second part of critical cartography shows the many legitimate forms that this power-knowledge can take beyond standardized, professionalized cartography. For example, the Critical GIS literature shows how GIS is not just a material technology, but also a set of social practices. These practices can include the agency of users with different kinds of subject positions. Finally, GIS can be used for many different kinds of research including less p ositivistic, qualitative work (Kwan, 2002: Kwan and Knigge, 2006; Sheppard, 2005; Elwood, 2010). In light of critical cartography’s points, several recent publications investigate fundamental, even ontological reworkings of mapping as a social process (Crampton, 2003; Pickles, 2003; Chrisman, 2005; Kitchin and Dodge, 2007; Leszyzynski, 2009). Pickles proposes a Deleuzian-inspired theoretical framework that is particularly useful for conceptualizing the role of mapping and social change. He argues that a map is an “inscription that does (or does not do) work in the world” (Pickles, 2003, 67). Practicing mapping is an important part of complex social processes that dually construct both material geographical worlds and visual understandings of them (Chrisman, 2005; Sparke, 2005). Pickles calls on geographers to support and engage in many different kinds of mapping to help create other, alternative spaces and worlds, a logic he describes as “and, and, and” (Pickles, 2003).

Among the many kinds of critical mapping, we focus on one genre, counter-mapping. Harris and Hazen define counter-mapping as “any effort that fundamentally questions the assumptions or biases of cartographic conventions, that challenges predominant power effects of mapping, or that engages in mapping in ways that upset power relations” (Harris and Hazen, 115). Even a cursory glance at the twentieth century reveals a number of examples from the Surrealists to the Situationists to Bill Bunge’s geographical expeditions into 1960-70’s Detroit to Doug Aberley’s low-tech mapping for community organizing (Wood, 2010; Bunge, 1971; Pickles, 2003; Aberley, 1993).

Nancy Peluso introduced the term “counter-mapping” to geography journals to describe mapping practices by indigenous people in Kalimantan, Indonesia as they made maps to contest Indonesian state land-use plans (1995). The concept of counter-mapping not only resonated with indigenous mapping but also the then - emerging GIS and Society/Critical GIS literature (Schuurman, 2000; S heppard,2005). Partly coming out of that literature, Public Participatory GIS (PPGIS) initiatives put the power of GIS technologies in the hands of community members, often in connection with urban planning and development. These initiatives highlight how counter-mapping practices can cartographically and politically represent marginalized groups in relation to governments (Craig et al., 2002). Even with these strengths, Elwood finds that people in the marginal groups sometimes use GIS mapping to replicate the mapping practices of states, such as surveillance. In a reflexive move, she points out that an oppositional dynamic of cooptation/resistance is not always an appropriate framework to understand the multiple dimensions and purposes of GIS use by co mmunity organizations (Elwood, 2006). Other studies of counter-mapping also encounter weighty problems including conflicting priorities, how to practice community organization, integrating mapping into larger movements and the limitations of Cartesian mapping in representing local geographic knowledges (Hodgson and Schroeder, 2002; Walker and Peters, 2001). Bryan in particular points out the dangers of indigenous counter-mapping that is subsumed into state and colonialist discourses (2009). Any reflexive counter-mapping initiative must be prepared to deal with these issues. 3C’s autonomous cartography offers a new approach to counter-mapping that brings critical cartography together with theories and practices of autonomous politics and militant research.

Autonomous cartography builds on the insights of critical cartography and counter-mapping using practices of militant research and ideas of autonomous politics, two traditions which we explain in the following section.

Research shows that some people self-consciously make political counter-maps not only for tactical purposes, but explicitly to create new kinds of maps and geographies (Holmes, 2004; Cobarrubias, 2009). The fact that groups across the political spectrum create these sorts of maps illustrates that counter-mapping itself is not necessarily politically progressive, but that geographical imaginations are important sites of struggle (Wood, 2010). Given these observations and a commitment to autonomous politics, 3Cs uses what Deleuze calls a “new cartography,” a practice that creates new (political geographic) possibilities and other (political geographic) realities, rather than representing already existing geographies (Deleuze, 1988). In practice, 3Cs draws inspiration from the independent, self-consciously political, European counter-mapping described by Holmes, Cobarrubias and Pickles (Holmes, 2004; Cobarrubias, 2009; Cobarrubias and Pickles, 2008). Parallel to the movements they describe, we seek to create change through the power of migrants, students and workers independent of institutional or state powers by using counter-mapping. From another direction, 3Cs’ autonomous cartography also draws on the militant research of Colectivo Situaciones and Precarias a la Deriva. 3Cs’ respective combination of counter-mapping with these particular forms of militant research render autonomous cartography as new and distinct. Our purpose is not to disallow or discount other forms of mapping or cartography. Instead, we apply the proliferating logic of “and, and, and...” to disseminate multiple additional ways of mapping, helping to open up different possibilities and alternatives (Pickles, 2003; Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).

This theoretical trajectory marks 3Cs’ purpose for and approach to autonomous cartography as somewhat different from better documented forms of counter-mapping. PPGIS and indigenous mapping can facilitate democratic geographic decision-making through the state (Craig et al., 2002). While this strategy can work in local planning, mapping can do more and different things.

Autonomous cartography excels at creating new geographic knowledges and related critical, militant organizing. Moreover, this political approach to mapping is not an abstract framework applied by outside researchers (Elwood, 2006). 3Cs maps intentionally and explicitly in terms of a struggle. This strategy of social change, the “autonomous” in autonomous cartography, draws on literatures of social struggle and research that are less focused on maps." (