The Rhetoric of Maps

In my Reading Metaphors class, we spend a day considering maps as metaphors. We consider how texts that students see as factual, as logos, are rhetorical, cultural, and value-laden.

Opening Writing

We begin class with a short writing assignment. Students describe the visual features of the Mercator world map: Which countries and continents look the largest? Where does you eye go first? What is at the top? The bottom?What is the size of Africa compared to the United States? What information does the map convey about the world? Next they determine whether maps are a type of ethos, pathos, and/or logos.

Here's what students often come up with:
  • Often their eye first goes to the top right, which I explain is our cultural convention for beginning reading.
  • Other students say their eye goes to the middle, to Russia because of its size, or to the United states because its "our country." Each of these depends on culturally reinforced notions about what is important--something in the center, something large, something that is mine.
  • Students say that Africa looks cluttered or crowded with the names of all the countries on the continent and that Africa and Greenland look huge. I note the metaphor George Lakoff names in which largeness correlates with goodness.
  • Students suggest that the United States stands out because on our map it is red, and that overall, the colors divide different countries.
  • Students largely agree that maps are a type of logos.

Lecture on Maps

After we brainstorm, I tell students maps are metaphors. Maps are not the actual land features, rather they are representations of these features. As representations, they are always created from a position of culture, bias, and values. In short, maps (and all types of logos) are rhetorical.

Then, I show them some maps that demonstrate the size differences between countries and continents, focusing in particular on the last map of Africa (#17). The Mercator map does not demonstrate the relative size of Africa in comparison to other countries well. This point is particularly well explained by an episode of the West Wing--the video is at the bottom of the same page  of maps (#19).

We watch a clip in which a group of cartographers petition the White House to change from the traditional Mercator geography map to the Peters projection. The group argues that the Mercator map “fostered European imperialist attitudes for centuries and created an ethnic bias against the third world” because it distorts the size of nations and continents for the outdated purpose of making navigation easier in the 16th century. Greenland, for example, appears to be the same size as Africa, while in reality Africa is roughly 14 times larger.

The characters build their case linking maps to cultural ideology: “In our society, we unconsciously equate size with importance and even power. When third-world countries are misrepresented, they’re likely to be valued less. When Mercator maps exaggerate the importance of Western civilization; When the top of the map is given to the northern hemisphere and the bottom is given to the Southern, then people will tend to adopt top and bottom attitudes” (Sorkin).

Even this more accurate map of Africa, though, is not really Africa itself. To put it simplistically, one could never take in the whole of Africa in a single moment; a view from land is only of a specific place from a specific direction; a view from the air obscures the people, formations, plants, and animals below.

As Samuel Ichiye Hawayaka says succinctly in Language in Thought and Action, “The first of the principles governing symbols is this: The symbol is not the thing symbolized; the word is not the thing; the map is not the territory it stands for” (19). So, I show students that while we can strive for objectivity and accurate descriptions of reality and experience, these descriptions can never be complete, universal, or divorced from the sign systems within which they work.

Group Work

Class Discussion 

We discuss the characteristics of each map, the purposes each would be useful for, and the likely target audiences.

For map 1, students note that roads and zip codes are highlighted, a numerical presentation. Parks are presented in green and water in blue. The map, they say, would be useful for navigation while driving.

For map 2, students note that the neighborhoods are labeled and even divided by color. While most of the New Orleans neighborhoods are brightly colored, signalling excitement, the ninth ward is "grayed out." This different color scheme clearly marks the ninth ward as different, as somewhere you don't want to visit in contrast, and we discuss the racist and political implications of the map. Students thought this map might be used by younger students learning their city because of the color and simple markings or for people who just moved here and want to make sure to live in a certain neighborhood.

For map 3, students note the landmarks, museums, and tourist attractions. Only the French Quarter and the Garden District, the two main tourist centers, are marked  in black. Students said this map wouldn't be useful for navigating, but perhaps for use in a taxi to signal where you want to go or to figure out the places to visit.

For map 4, students ask what the purple outline represents, and we discuss how this is the entire space named New Orleans, a much larger area than the other maps showcase. This map is the only one to include the Wildlife Refuge and New Orleans East. They believe it also shows the city as more unified and less differentiated by neighborhood. It could be used for an overall view of New Orleans or for travel to the refuge or New Orleans East, they say.

For map 5, students note that it is the most creative and subjective. It marks only the "pretty parts" of New Orleans, and some students compare it to a fairy-tale or children's book. The locations might be places to go for the wedding activities or important locations to the couple.

I then explain to students that the final map, while the most creative and subjective, actually reveals that all of the maps have been creative and subjective. They have all selected certain things to highlight for certain people and purposes. Cartographers can strive for objectivity, but it is only a goal, never an attainable reality. Any version of objectivity always depends on certain parameters and contexts--one might depict roads for driving or parks for local entertainment or attractions for tourists.

Final Writing

At the end of class, students write on the following topic for about 10 minutes: Which map of New Orleans do you think is the "best"? Define what you mean by "best," perhaps: clearest, most useful for a certain activity, most encompassing, most representative, etc. You may also choose to compare the "best" map to the "worst" map in your mind. What makes one stronger than the other?

Readings on Maps

Unique Maps

Please share any resources on maps you think are useful in rhetoric classrooms and feel free to comment on the lesson.

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