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Mapping Politics in/of the City: Cartography as representation

Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
Mapping Politics in/of the Modern City: Cartography as Representation
Dr. Nausheen H. Anwar
Assistant Professor of Urban Studies
Department of Social Sciences
Institute of Business Administration (IBA)
In his seminal book The Image of the City (1960), urban planner Kevin Lynch talked
about maps and cognitive concepts as co-constitutive. His idea ‘cognitive mapping’ demonstrates
how a city’s diverse parts can be differentiated in terms of their legibility. Lynch discovered that
mental images or the cognitive map affects an inhabitant’s sense of identity and belonging to a
particular city. He anticipated the need for a more complex image of the modern city, specifically
where qualities like ambiguity, intricacy and instability could be folded into a strong urban
image. Lynch suggested a strong relationship between the city’s physical form and its memory
image, the cognitive map experienced by its residents. This ‘strong image’ is significant as it
helps the city’s inhabitants make sense of transformations and use cognitive maps to counter the
looming fear of disorientation. Karachi is a city that evokes all kinds of emotions in its visitors
and inhabitants. How do they navigate the city’s paths, its edges, nodes and landmarks? The
concept ‘cognitive mapping’ is expressly tied to ordinary citizens and subaltern’s mental image
of the city and their ability to write the city in subjective experiences. Cognitive maps take into
account the plurality of ways in which urban space is experienced by citizens, for instance along
the lines of gender, sexual orientation, religion and ethnicity. Notably, for urban planners
cognitive maps provide a progressive practice for deconstructing top-down modernist
representations of the city.
While Lynch’s ideas are rooted in the modernist desire for unity and coherence, we can
still appreciate his emphasis on images and perception as important steps of spatial
representation. Cognitive maps bring to the forefront the multiple subjective experiences of
urban space otherwise subsumed by dominant modernist representations. How do we map
something that is hidden, for instance the clandestine journeys of ‘illegal’ migrants? Since
mapping is the creation of different ways of moving through urban space and life in general,
Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
maps are a most effective means of engaging mobility. In this vein, Frederic Jameson’s (1991)
concept of cognitive mapping takes Lynch’s notion beyond the urban and into the national and
global realms. Perhaps one of the most influential writers on cartographic practices, Jameson
perceives cognitive mapping in multiple and complex ways, for instance as an individual’s
subjective attempt to locate her/himself in a social milieu or a supranational production of space
in a late capitalist world system. Jameson concedes that cognitive mapping is a code word for
class consciousness, especially one that is suitable for our global situation.
Even though Lynch and Jameson perceive cognitive mapping as both a practical and
politically progressive activity, there are others who understand cartographic practices as
strategies of power, a hegemonic force bound up with domination that closes down subaltern
perspectives. The geographer Derek Gregory (1994: 65) has posited those who promote GIS 1 as
a science deploy a rhetoric of concealment “that passes over these configurations of power-
knowledge in virtual silence”, thus turning maps as representation into an unproblematic
reflection. Henri Lefebvre (1998) highlighted the importance of cartography as a form of
specialized knowledge that infuses space with meanings and affect. Following the work of
Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, the geographer J.B. Harley (1989) wrote about maps as
relations of power-knowledge. Still others such as Stuart Elden (2007) and Rose-Redwood
(2012) have shown maps are a calculative technique that encode the landscape and reorganize
political space in the context of securitizing territories and populations. Poststructuralist theory
has enabled an understanding of maps as more than just benign communication devices. Instead,
mapping is seen as part of the general discourse of power that both facilitates and disrupts a
user’s ability to communicate political interests. If a map subjugates knowledge then it may
contribute to the disempowerment of marginalized or poor populations.
Even though maps profess accuracy and scientific ability, in doing so they also reflect
political authority. Embedded in maps is a power that is exercised not only by those who make
the map (the cartographer), but also by those who patronize the process of map making (state and
non-state actors). Thus maps embody relations of power that are set within an unstable
institutional grid of state and non-state power dynamics. Thinking of maps as representation and
a site of power-knowledge is a potent means for understanding how colonial/postcolonial history
1 Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer system designed to capture all types of spatial and
geographical data.
Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
affects our lives and how territorial processes help constitute and consolidate state power (Vanaik
2014; Thongchai 1994; Anderson 1991; Mitchell 1988). Certain scholars have shown how the
development of mapping in Asia and Africa had a facilitating impact on colonization both in
terms of direct political control and in terms of the production of knowledge about those
territories and their inhabitants.
The state by patronizing the production of maps invokes its central role in the
legitimation of territorial rule. For instance, property rights in land are administered by the state
and represented on maps. The registration of land rights through cadastral surveys and
descriptions of boundaries that accompany deeds and titles empower the state’s political
authority and establish its agency as the sole arbiter of conflict. As state representatives, planners
use maps to rationalize the geographic coordinates of a piece of land that is privately owned.
Thus mapping becomes a key means of territorializing state control and excluding/including
particular people by reference to a specific piece of land marked on a map. But non-state actors
like NGOs are also active producers of maps through ‘counter-mapping’ strategies. NGO maps
can contest the state’s ideas about who has rights to own a particular piece of land. Such mapping
exercises attempt to de-center state power as they claim to represent the political interests of
those who have been marginalized. So maps are not innocent, but contingent and contesting
representations of urban space and territory. While there can never be a ‘true’ map or an
‘objective’ map that stands above what is being represented, we can, nevertheless, understand
maps as texts that are socially constructed and interpreted in multiple ways.
In this brief essay, I consider cartography or the technical and scientific practice of
mapping as a representational endeavor. I use as examples non-state based forms of cartography
– two prominent maps generated by the print media and a leading NGO in Pakistan. As a caveat I
note that cities are much more complex than the sum of their representations and so in this essay
my intention is to probe, in some measure, the complex relationship between maps and urban
space. The maps I showcase are not examples of subaltern cognitive mapping. Instead, they
present a different kind of representational practice that indicates the social and political.
Notably, these maps are bold metaphors of new problems of perception and conceptualization of
the city in the wake of the war on terror and the longing for an orderly and inclusive city. Even
though the NGO map can be read as counter-hegemonic practice where the official version of
Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
who occupies land is contested, still the representational form is a problematic. I suggest it is not
clear if the NGO map can be understood as a form of political resistance.
In juxtaposing these maps, I argue they attempt to endow urban space with a certain kind
of history and political meaning. In doing so, mapping becomes the political-economic
production of urban space itself. These maps are politicized documents formed within specific
political-economic discourses concerning Karachi’s, and by extension, the nation’s progress. In
juxtaposing these maps, I am interested in the diverse representations of the city, how it is
depicted through competing discourses: on the one hand as a space of crisis [Map 1] in which an
illiberal politics abounds and, on the other hand, a progressive space [Map 2] in which the poor
and ethnically marginalized populations’ property claims are formalized. In his critical
reflections, the philosopher Walter Benjamin emphasized the relationship between print media
and the city, showing how the modern city is increasingly dominated by script-images. As such,
the dissemination of Map 1 and accompanying commentary condenses a set of anxieties that
have come to mark a gritty, violent, terrorism-laden image of Karachi. I underscore the
messiness of these representations where anxieties about liberal/illiberal personhood, property
and violence are bound up in the labyrinth of the unruly city; a city that is not just an urban form
but a maze in which confrontations with others are constantly produced.
Given there is much disquiet in Karachi surrounding issues of land, securitization and
inequality, this anxiety is writ large over the city’s political-economic landscape. For this reason,
cartographic representations are particularly revealing not only in terms of the political-economic
production of urban space but also how these representations advance an idea of postcolonial
utopia/dystopia. Simultaneously, for those who live in the city, maps attempt to showcase space
as a bounded project where the micropolitics of violence and citizenship coalesce. As prominent
signifiers of the unruly city, maps make the question of survival and politics particularly acute,
and the resulting cartographic visualizations and representations provide interesting reading.
Now urban space is recast as a node in which a liberal (propertied) personhood is juxtaposed
with a perforated, dystopic, and violent landscape. Fundamentally, these different cartographic
representations capture the dialectic of progress and its limits: both the utopia of an inclusive city
and the shadow of violence that lurks within.
Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
Security, Property, Territory
In Map 1, which appeared in December 2013 in the leading English national newspaper
Dawn and has been popularized in both local and international academic and policymaking
circles, the authors showcase certain neighborhoods of the city as ‘no go’ areas or enclosed
enclaves that have been overtaken by militant forces or the Taliban. In this map the bounded
territory of the city is perceived as having been infiltrated by ‘terrorists’ or outsiders who are out
to destabilize Karachi, and by extension, the nation. Such maps and the attendant commentary
infuse certain neighborhoods and ethnic populations with feelings of insecurity and enclosure,
suggesting that the economic, social and political integrity of the city has been compromised.
The map exposes to global visibility the city’s topography as a target for terrorism; as a potential
battlespace or a space where a future catastrophic event will be made actionable. Moreover, the
discrete data produced on each neighborhood and the calculations on populations and forms of
religio-legal governance not only reduce the areas to a statistical artefact, but are also a form of
serialized surveillance of territory. This serialization marks specific parts of the city as dangerous
zones. What is significant here is the map’s ability to focus on specific areas, a process which
exploits the map’s capacity to represent space in both a technical and in an abstract sense. This
happens in two ways: first the map’s ability to convey information about a specific area without
any in-depth reference or knowledge about its particularities and histories. Second, the map
separates the parts from the whole of the city while at the same time maintaining reference to the
larger whole. Through a conjectural style of reasoning and sweeping generalizations, the
journalists as experts speak to the impending catastrophe in terms of what needs to be done, to
insure against, to build resilience, to mitigate risk. Is this an impairment of cognitive mapping or
a reconfiguration of how we understand the urban? How do we challenge mapping practices
based on a conjectural style of knowledge? Or is this a workable cognitive map for navigating a
rapidly restricting socio-spatial landscape defined by crisis and uncertainty? Markedly, the map
signals the distance between state power (or the absence of sovereign power) and an
uncontrollable population of ‘outsiders’ cast in the spiraling uncertainty associated with the
messy war on terror.
Turning to Map 2 that was generated by the prominent NGO Orangi Pilot Project-RTI,
we see a different narrative unfold about Karachi. The OPP-RTI has focused much of its
advocacy in Karachi on upgrading infrastructure and mapping people’s claims on land. The maps
Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
of people’s claims do not necessarily coincide with the government’s ideas of who has rights to
land in the city’s periphery. The NGO’s counter-mapping strategy has been used to identify lands
held by villagers and new settlers. The fêted map makes visible those spaces of the city where
land has been disciplined (regularized) to make room for the poor, dispossessed populations who
have found shelter in the margins and on public land. By using the language of property rights or
territorial claims, this ‘counter-map’ is expected to gain legitimacy, to show the spectacle of
urban transformation underway but presumed to be taking place on more inclusive terms due to
the NGO’s interventions. By counting, enumerating and imaging, the NGO map translates a way
of seeing property and representing resources in new abadis or urban settlements where the poor
can establish clear territorial claims and formalize property relations. This map projects an idea
of a postcolonial utopia where the liberal entitlements of personhood function within the
progress narrative of modernity. Thus the OPP-RTI map represents the transformation of the
violence of dispossession and exclusion into seemingly benign socio-economic relations of
autonomy based on the achievement of propertied citizenship. At work in the map is the
representation of contract relations based on the formation of subjects within a modern state
apparatus. This apparatus recognizes and confers a liberal personhood on the basis of contractual
relations in terms of the transactions of property. It is from within the dynamic of liberal
personhood that the marginalized or the dispossessed win their claims to land, toward becoming
propertied citizens who are ultimately protected by a territorial state.
As representational devices, both Map 1 and Map 2 are a problematic as they obfuscate
more than clarify. Neither map really achieves the status of a ‘true’ map and remains constrained
by the configuration of modern politics: security, territory and modern property. Maps are
textual practices that weave together elements such as property with social relations and power to
develop distinct narratives about urban space. In this essay, I have called for a critical reflection
of the contradictions, limitations and affects of cartographic strategy. My emphasis has been on
map-making as a political process rather than a technical one. At the same time, I have
underscored that maps are partial representations of a dynamic political-economic landscape and
can never accurately or objectively capture the shifting correlates of the modern city. Maps are
immersed in a particular texture of time and politics; they are political documents that contain
both technical and personalized forms of knowledge through which future state action is desired
and secured.
Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
Map 1
[Insert here Dawn Map]
Map 2
[Insert here OPP-RTI Map]
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Final version published in Exhausted Geographies (2015)
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