Alternative maps of human history

New maps and new ways of reading maps give us a new geography of human suffering and extinction

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 13th Feb 2019   12:12 am Updated: 12th Feb 2019   11:35 pm

There are new maps of the world, but not the kinds we have been used to thus far: from Mercator’s Projection and portolan maps to the present. Maps help us locate countries, peoples, languages, routes, products, animal and plant life, monuments and other such components of life on earth. In some cases, they give us histories of a kind that we wish never happened.

Far from the maps we are used to, alternative maps of human history are now available. However, we are not talking Google Earth alone, whose politics sees, Joshua Ewalt notes, ‘embedded violence’ as integral to the African continent.

Desperate Journeys
Take a look at the Refugees Operational Portal from the United Nations Refugee Agency
(https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean). The map shows us arrivals in Europe of refugees fleeing terrifying regimes. It links to crucial documents such as the series Desperate Journeys. In the new issue released on 30 Jan 2019, we are told: An estimated 2,275 people perished in the Mediterranean in 2018 – an average of six deaths every day.

It tells us that 7,421 refugees had arrived by sea till 12 Feb in 2019 alone. It tells us how many arrived dead and how many went ‘missing at sea’. Geography lessons clearly need to be redone in the light of those who arrive, dead or alive, from countries and regions where human life is unsustainable.

human history

Maps of Camps
Then there are maps of camps in various parts of the world where various categories of foreigners, aliens, strangers and outsiders arrive, are made to feel unwanted, even as those have lived in these regions for generations suddenly find themselves missing from NRC (National Register of Citizens) maps and other state modes of census taking. In some parts of the world, maps of rape camps (such as those in Sudan) tell us that maps, like borders, divide the land, and the people.

We need new maps and new ways of reading maps. Hotspots, sites of genocides and violence are also to be mapped onto the latitudinal and longitudinal grids we learn from our school days. This kind of map offers us an entirely different view of the world. In contrast to, say, the ‘map of mankind’ that shows us evolution from ‘out of Africa’ to the present or our civilisational progress, we have a new geography of human suffering and extinction, as the anthropologist Veena Das proposes.

Linguistic Map
Other trajectories in maps are also visible today. The Sentinel Project (https://thesentinelproject.org) after mapping contemporary and ongoing genocidal violence and the initiatives taken by NGOs in these hotspots of the world offers us an extraordinary map of the contemporary: a repository of hatespeech. Called Hatebase, ‘it is an attempt to create a repository of words and phrases that researchers can use to detect the early stages of genocide and remains in active development’ (https://thesentinelproject.org/2018/10/26/hate-in-every-language-we-need-your-help/).

The Open Source software enables researchers to map misinformation, keywords that indicate hatespeech, rumours and other linguistic acts that presage genocide and violence. It seeks to document hatespeech in as many languages as possible, offering, thereby, a new linguistic map of the world. We understand that any language is capable of hatespeech.

These maps, like traditional maps, are modes of representation, but unlike the traditional map, they do not rely exclusively on visual representations. Incorporating sounds and human faces that stand in for the spaces they live in or came from, for example, ensures that the human face is a map of a culture of suffering. Conversely, maps of the world’s hotspots tell us where human life is no longer liveable.

Cultural Productions
The map, the myth goes, is objective and scientific. But maps, as JB Harley demonstrated in his pioneering essay, ‘Deconstructing the Map’ (1989), are not just scientific texts but cultural productions: they are created within specific social and historical contexts of which the scientific laboratory is one component: ‘we have to read between the lines of technical procedures or of the map’s topographic content. They are related to values, such as those of ethnicity, politics, religion, or social class, and they are also embedded in the map-producing society at large.’

Harley is right – scientific knowledge, including cartographic knowledge, is influenced by and embedded in numerous contexts. When, for instance, a culture created maps of the world, it positioned specific regions at the centre and the rest of the world around the peripheries. The Hereford Mappa Mundi (14th century) placed Jerusalem at the centre. The 1602 Ricci map, created by European Jesuit mission led by Matteo Ricci and the Chinese scholars imperial court, placed China at the centre.

Evidently, the map’s locational accuracy is subordinated to the political expediency of claiming the superiority of the culture that crafted the map. These maps were instrumental in generating specific views of the world.

A Different Agenda
Given this history, contemporary maps – which now include digitally archived data such as the ones discussed here – emerge from not the scientific community alone. They must be read as productions determined by a very different agenda: human rights. Thus, the focus on deprivations of refugees, the horror of rape camps or the proliferation of hatespeech in these modern ‘maps’ are alternative histories of these spaces.

These maps of the world are cultural products whose task is to identify places where humankind lives an inhuman life, as a preliminary to ethical action. They constitute a form of globalisation directed at the mobilisation of public sentiment and public support to alleviate misery. Admittedly, the humanitarian movement is also a form of imperialism (as many scholars including Noam Chomsky have argued).

But if we see globalisation as neo-colonial and governed by commodities and the transnational movement of capital and images, the new cartography asks us to see the world as a place for potential ethical intervention, prevention and recuperation. Globalisation brings the distant to us via the screen which, as media theorist Roger Silverstone put it, ‘is the space of the appearance of the Other’. These maps bring us different Others.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)