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Barton & Barton: Ideology and the Map

Barton B. F., & Barton, M. S. (2004). Ideology and the map: Toward a postmodern visual design practice. In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (eds.), Central works in technical communication (pp. 232-252). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Textbook cover

Central Works in Technical Communications. Published by Oxford University Press

Summary: Maps have ideology. This is hardly news at this point. However, the authors’ focus in different ways that inclusion and exclusion reinforce and reify hegemonic power positions is illuminating and remains powerfully valid in today’s info graphic-loving culture. Visualizations have a responsibility to reveal and make explicit their ideological inclusions and exclusions, and to seek new visual representations that reflect lived experience’s complexity and apparent chaos.

Response: Our recent Theory of Networks class took to heart parts of this article’s position. One of those positions is the effort to establish and develop visual representations that reflect the complexity and chaotic organicism of lived experience. As we sought to visualize connections among the various theorists and theories we encountered, the complexity of our visualizations grew and grew. Complexity is part of our lived experience, and our maps should represent that complexity in meaningful ways.

That maps have embedded in them ideological decisions is refreshing, as is the call to make explicit the ideological inclusions and exclusions. I’m reminded of contested mappings of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. And even these terms, much less their mappings, are contested. The West Bank is an indigenous, Palestinian term taken from a Jordanian perspective: to Jordanians, the area west of the Jordan River is, in fact, the West Bank of the Jordan. To Israelis, the area represents the east, not the west; it’s east of Israel proper. Harkening to historical biblical roots, the “Territories” (as they were called when I lived in Israel) are called Judea and Samaria — thus representing, when combined with Israel, the complete territory of the Jewish state. The Gaza Strip has been a less contested term.

Mapping Judea and Samaria/the West Bank/Palestine (as it is unofficially officially known today — more contested names) is hotly contested. Does the “Wall” that Israel has erected along much of the border with Palestine represent the political and territorial border of a future Palestinian state? Does the 1967 armistice line represent the historically accurate borders of the two states, assuming two states eventually emerge? As for Gaza, to what extent is it connected, if at all, to Egypt or to the West Bank Palestinian borders? How does one represent, visually, the political connection between the two Palestinian land masses, separated by Israel?

One interesting outcome of the agonizingly slow birth of the Palestinian state is the decision to call the emerging state “Palestine.” Doing so creates an interesting vacuum among some Palestinians, who have often called what I call the state of Israel “Palestine.” The result is that Israel receives an unofficial official recognition as the name of the country between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, regardless of whether it’s been accepted as a Jewish state or homeland.

Maps contain ideology, and one simply can’t map this area of the Middle East without taking sides in the ideological struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, between Arabs and Jews, and between foreign policies of UN Security Council member nations. Taking sides — and even revealing this level of the ideological background of mapping the region — can be professionally dangerous. There are no objective choices; if nothing else, the ideological struggle of mapping the Middle East demonstrates the lack of objectivity in postmodernism. All mapping is subjective and ideological. Accepting this fact makes mapping much easier and reveals — and revels in — the complexity of lived experience.