Borat, Chili con Carne and Soccer Moms: these are just a few of the labels that graphic designer Yanko Tsvetkov uses to distinguish parts of the known world. At first glance, these obscene, bright colored words take its readers aback with the audacity of the map’s creator to publish such a provocative map. They temporarily blind the audience into thinking that this piece of cartography has no credibility. Having created this map in 2009 as a part of his book, Atlas of Prejudice, Tsvetkov, going by the pseudonym alpha-designer, describes his work as “cartographic caricatures ridiculing the worst excesses of human bigotry and narrow-mindedness” (atlasofprejudice.com). But as we examine why the map has come to be, it is clear that Tsvetkov uses rhetorical symbolism (stereotypes) to begin the conversation about social conventions and cartography.
Tsvetkov uses a Mercator projection, a widely accepted and familiar depiction of the world. It slightly emphasizes the size of the northern hemisphere of the globe, while many argue that it does not reciprocate the same generosity to the southern hemisphere. However, it is not the projection that deems this map the focus of this week’s blog, but the author’s choice to marry two concepts that are hardly seen together: satire and cartography. He has pointed out the anomalies of stereotypes and maps: because of their ability to shape public opinion, they are often believed as the truth.
Every map has its silences, whether it be the lack of a representation of the wandering tribes of the jungles in the National maps of Peru, or the sea monsters used as distractions in the early stages of cartography –a way of saying, “we don’t know what’s out there but here’s a dragon!” All of these examples show how a map cannot share the full account of what is going on around the world. And yet despite that knowledge, people see maps as scientific constructions; they see maps as truths. On the surface, words such as ‘Commies”, “Uncle Allah”, and “Borat” all are tributes to popular culture’s depiction of the world, an obvious commentary on the skewed social norm. It can also be pointing out a flaw in the science of cartography, that even though it tries to be as scientific as possible, that maps, like stereotypes, are actually products of social construction.
Social construction is the idea that a map is based on the reality that is socially accepted at the time. This is directly speaking to how a map is a product of its time, meaning it lives within the context that was surrounding it at its creation. Stereotypes work in a similar manner, therefore there is a duality that is presented within this map. It brings out the point that people would rather believe what is shown to them, rather than question its motives. This is often the case with cartography. Due to the switch after WWII, when cartography became a “science,” once a map has been published analysis stops when it should just begin. Tsvetkov is trying to say that just like stereotypes, our blind acceptance of maps is a fault that should be mocked.
However, the map also demonstrates how its power is within its ability to create rhetoric, not by showing the reader what to think, but instead giving them ideas to think about. For example, although it is not clear what viewpoint the cartographer used to establish his stereotypes, one could easily argue that it is a western viewpoint, or more specifically an American view of the world since the United States of America is seen as the “civilized world.” Now the question that comes to mind is why did he choose America to be the civilized nation? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the author centralized it with Bulgaria, the country he was living in at the time of the publication of the map? Perhaps the author is trying to emphasize that no matter where one is in the world, the power of America –whether it be social, economic or military- is felt like an ever present shadow lurking behind the corner
It is clear that the Map of Stereotypes has achieved its goal of sparking conversation. Tsvetkov’s creative and crude representation of the world has managed to mock the idea of social norms. Yet, what is surprising is the method of delivery of his message. By choosing to publish a map, he shows the similarities of map and stereotype, proving that they are both social constructions and products of their time.