The Culture of the Map: Tracing the Global onto the Local

William Boelhower

From William Boelhower's Through a Glass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford, 1987; added by Beth Soucar '91

In reading the selection from Boelhowe below, consider what written forms -- especially those belonging to literature -- are related (or cognate) to the ideological act of mapping the global onto the local. How might fiction about another culture (particularly of the "third-world") or travel writing be a kind of mapping? In what ways is the "geometry" of global imposition still functioning? Is something new replacing it in the "world system map?"

While nationalist aspirations and the scientific episteme that made the age of discovery possible did put the explorer in a vis-a-vis relation with the unknown, the infinite, his pragmatic impulse led him to reduce it to the rules and the degrees of the scale map. This triumph of geometry, this abstract territory of the traced design, then served to represent the increasing territorial wealth and power of the mother nation. In the words of Michael Serres, "That which the seventeenth century had foreseen--that we would be masters of it [the world]--, that which the nineteenth century had prescribed--that we would transform it--, these philosophical sayings are by now children's games that we play quite well." . . .

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century maps of the world remain the ideal text type for tracing the West's radical act of removal, the substitution of a uniform scientific writing in scale for its aboriginal center, the earth. When European reverie became a concrete desire for colonial possessions, then the only thing separating desire and its object was the voyage. The hero of the day, the European explorer, then set the terms for the cartographic pact that the colonists subsequently made with the new world. The map allowed them to say, "This is mine; these are the boundaries." . . .In other words, the map was above all a national signature of possession and a public declaration of the right to settlement. This is ultimately why the colonist and the explorer did not really see the Indian as much as they saw through him (46-48).

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