“Mapping” Our Course

On December 2nd and 3rd of 1989, amidst an eventful season of political change across Europe, Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush held a summit meeting at Malta. International relations scholar Alan K. Henrikson recounts a particularly tense exchange between the two leaders,

Gorbachev handed President George Bush a blue-and-white map allegedly showing the Soviet Union’s encirclement by US bases as well as American aircraft carriers and battleships….President Bush was at a loss for words. President Gorbachev then said tartly: “I notice that you seem to have no response.” Bush, in response, pointed out to Gorbachev that the Soviet landmass was shown on the map as a giant, white, empty space, with no indication of the vast military complex that US forces were intended to deter. “Maybe you’d like me to fill in the blanks on this,” he said. “I’ll get the CIA to do a map of how things look to us. Then we’ll compare and see whose is more accurate.”

Such a tense exchange between American and Soviet leadership at the end of the Cold War is a perfect encapsulation of how maps are bound up in power and politics, and art and science. Throughout the course of an eventful twentieth century, cartography was not only a tool of the important movers and shakers of America’s growing international power—but it actually shaped and changed the entire way in which we perceived and acted in the world.

In addition to being scientific collections of data and artistic works of beauty, maps are also, importantly, rhetorical documents. And if you don’t quite know what that means, well, that’s why you’re here. For the sake of this introduction, what you’ll come to see (hopefully) about maps is just how important they are to the exercises and strategies of national power, but even better, how they actually teach us, for better or for worse, what it means to be Americans in a global landscape. Maps place us in the world, and that is a monumental political act.

Overall, this course is a historical and critical interpretation of how maps aided and complicated America’s rise to international power. The processes, production, display, and circulation of maps gave way to a “geographic imagination” that constrained both policy and popular culture—in turn, Americans saw their place in the world in very spatialized ways. From a rhetorical perspective, maps gave us specific and partial perceptions of the globe and cartographers from a host of different institutions and with various national and international interests (government institutions like the State Dept., the CIA, the Department of Defense, academic institutions like the American Geographic Society, popular magazines like National Geographic and Time, and corporations as diverse as Rand McNally and Google) sketched the contours of American identity in both longitude and latitude. The course teaches students how to critique maps as systems of visual codes and also contextualizes for them how maps are used as rhetorical strategies by American elites and publics; by both the powerful and those challenging the powerful. Not only then is this a course on cartography; it’s a course on the wild world-making processes of U.S. geopolitics and international space.

Here is our syllabus.