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Colección: La Educación
Número: (119) III
Año: 1994

Why Postmodern Social Cartography Now?

In this essay we focus on the concerns of three academic practitioners, Val Rust in comparative education and J. B. Harley and Edward Soja in geographic cartography. These practitioners have called on colleagues in these areas to move toward a postmodernist integration in order to become more explicit, comparative, and open to heterogeneous orientations in their academic discourse. Postmodernism is not promoted here, but rather the possibilities for comparative fields to expand their knowledge bases through an appropriate, thoughtful, and skillful development and application of social maps. The postmodern turn opens the way to critical mapping exercises.

Arguing that postmodernism “should be a central concept in our comparative education discourse,” Val Rust calls for the application of postmodernist theories to strengthen other representations of reality. Rust notes that Foucault believes in a need to move beyond determinism and universalism, and that Lyotard discerns in the postmodern a distrust of modernist metanarratives. Rust also notes Richard Rorty’s observation that metanarratives are “the theoretical crust of convention that we all carry and tend to universalize.”4 Postmodernism calls for deconstructing those universal metanarratives of social valuation common to the modernist era; metanarratives that are seen as totalizing, standardizing, and predominating.


Rust contends that postmodern discussions and criticisms address the history of modernist society and culture as one which is obsessed with focusing on time and history. These two measures of the modernist world were not always separate cognitive structures, but links holding each at least parallel to the other, if not often viewed as the same entity. Moreover, Rust sustains that postmodernism’s liberating influences transcend not only combined time and history, but combined space and geography as well. Space becomes more important than time in our postmodern mapping discourse.

Rust contends that postmodern discussions and criticisms address the history of modernist society and culture as one which is obsessed with focusing on time and history. These two measures of the modernist world were not always separate cognitive structures, but links holding each at least parallel to the other, if not often viewed as the same entity. Moreover, Rust sustains that postmodernism’s liberating influences transcend not only combined time and history, but combined space and geography as well. Space becomes more important than time in our postmodern mapping discourse.

Rust entreats educators to relocate into this space, to extract from modernity the metanarratives to be dismantled—metanarratives containing the multiple small narratives previously hidden in the invisible space of modernist society. The small narratives that Rust suggests we draw our attention to can be the focus of comparative mapping efforts in a reflective and self-critical postmodern social science.

Social cartography might also advance Heidegger’s argument that “truth” is best understood not as correspondence or correctness of assertion or representation, but as the absence of concealment, i.e., what the classical Greeks called aletheia. When literary space is revealed in visual space, the map becomes a kind of language, the mode, or dichtung (literally a saying) in which what we see as truth happens. According to Heidegger, dichtung is prior to the technical instrumental understanding of language. Like Cartesian metaphysics in general, Heidegger considers it difficult to understand regional fields such as linguistics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, etc. without the more primordial, pre-reflective realm with which dichtung proper is associated. This language realm inaugurates a “world” and gives things appearance and significance. It is perhaps best uncovered in poetry using literary theory. From this view, the essence of language is not propositional form, but openness to a resonance or nexus of relations out of which the “real” and the “human” may emerge.5

Suggesting, as does Rust, that the search for “the silent blueprint for life means looking into areas of darkness,” a search for new growth in an old growth forest, Star also directs our attention on these small and previously hidden narratives, on making the invisible visible.6 Her five rules help us track omissions and understand the mechanisms of power tied to the deletion of certain kinds of practical and intellectual work. They also provide a powerful rationale for reflective practice and opening up mapping opportunities to all cultural communities in an intellectual field.

We consider it possible for comparative studies of social narratives to develop similarly to those of the studies and cartographic representations of the land. As social cartographers, we look for the small and large erosions and eruptions of the social masses as an opportunity to map changes, to analyze and interpret events. We take the event and make it consumable—a commodity for our readers—by filtering, fragmenting, and re-elaborating it “by a whole series of industrial procedures...into a finished product, into the material of finished and combined signs.”7

Mapping social space is an effective method for addressing Rust’s thoughtful arguments calling for a postmodernist application to strengthen emerging representations of reality. There is, however, much we must learn and understand to become effective mappers. This requires an association with an academic field experienced in representing geographic space on a map. For this reason, we introduce in our invitation to a postmodern reflection utilizing a social cartography, two cartographers who have observed in their field several of the same concerns and needs addressed by Rust.

A leading advocate of the postmodern enterprise in geography and its practice of cartography, J. B. Harley, suggests that cartographers, both in academia and in the field, might consider postmodernity’s potential for revitalizing their cartographic efforts. Harley contends that the premise of cartography has long been foundational, that map makers were compelled to create knowledge limited by scientific or objective standards.8 Earlier than Harley, however, Robert McNee9 observed that the tenacity of the cartographic process and its practitioners in the retention of positivist traditions could be attributed to their attraction to both the label and the role playing associated with being objective scientists. However, McNee and Harley differ in their explanations for the reasons cartography remained steadfastly grounded in positivism.

McNee argues that during the long history of cartography, this tenacious holding to the positivist ideal of the objective scientist resulted in the continued essentialist construction of textual metanarratives, both in the maps and in the semiotic representations used by the mapper. Harley, however, considers a more potent influence, arguing that after the last three decades, when much of academia moved toward or into the postmodern enterprise, cartographers adhered to a modernist style of application of knowledge, not only out of a concern for their reputations as objective scientists, but because of the influence modernist power structures had on the creation of maps. Harley states the field might better be served now if the power structures gave way to the new ideas postmodernism makes applicable for a critical cartography, a cartography permitting the interpretation of the map, as well as opening the map to the intent and need of those who use it and those who assume the responsibility for its creation.

Harley makes an important distinction between the external power and the internal powers regulating the creation and reading of maps—or, by extension, any texts. External power, emanating from patrons, monarchs, and elite institutions, controlled what went into the map. Internal power was “embedded in the map text,” determined by the inclusions and exclusions of information written into the map at the will of the external power. Internal power limited all map readers to only the knowledge included by the external power, to what Foucault calls a “spatial panopticon.”10 The reader had no practical way for developing an awareness of the excluded knowledge. These modernist maps that served to control and limit the knowledge of readers who were not included in the power structure are similar to the modernist objects that Baudrillard suggests “can be historically and structurally defined as the exaltation of signs based on the denial of the reality of things.”11


Figure 2 develops the relationships in Harley’s suggested top-down power influences as they controlled what little knowledge the reader could gather from a modernist map. These relationships, developed by Harley and visually reproduced in the map in Figure 2, represents what we know as the comedy of pageant. Baudrillard finds this display to be “bogus to the extent that it presents itself as authentic in a system whose rationale is not at all authenticity, but the calculated relations and abstractions of the sign.”12 It is, as Baudrillard suggests, a finished product of combined signs, available to consumers expected to use it without altering its design or questioning its origins or purpose.

Note that in Figure 2 there are no “markedly different proposals seeking to improve the rigor and relevance of research in education [or cartography] by encouraging tolerance, reflection, and the utilization of multiple approaches in knowledge production and use.”13 Foucault offered a similar criticism of modernist social science, finding it a contemplation of space and time that treated space as “the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile,” while time was “richness, fecundity, life, dialectic.”14 These perspectives of positivist restrictions to the concepts of knowledge and space are represented in the style of the map in Figure 2.

Urban cartographer Edward Soja is as concerned as Rust and Harley with the problem of overcoming modernism’s positivist treatment of space. He contends that in the past “space more than time, geography more than history, [hid] consequences from us.”15 Arguing, as we do, for the use of space to represent space as claimed by cultural clusters, Soja advocates making space and geography the primary focus and framework for the critical study of social phenomenon. Situating the cultures and the events driving their realities is a better framing choice for the questions we ask and the answers we receive as we pursue meaning in the postmodern world.16

Soja’s postmarxist analysis portrays modernism’s purpose and influence as a deliberate obfuscation of the spatiality of the map, “blurring [the reader’s] capacity to envision the social dynamics of spatialization.”17 Postmodernism encourages us to detail the map—as in Figure 3 below, particularly where multiple mininarratives are revealed to occupy geographical and ideological space where only a metanarrative served before. Advocating space as the primary starting point for research diminishes the importance of time and creates the opportunity for researchers to apply to their craft the critical cartography advocated by Soja. Postmodern space is the research domain containing the objects to be mapped—the multiple social ideologies and convictions arising from modernism. The postmodern researcher in education, who may also become a postmodern cartographer, prizes both the space within the social milieu and the possibilities for a more inclusive mapping of that space, motivating the creation of multiple and inclusive maps.

Recall how Figure 2 shows external power’s relationship to the creating and reading of knowledge from the map text, and consider whether this map represents a construction appropriate to Rust’s argument for “the critical task of disassembling these narratives [while increasing] our attention to small narratives.”18 Clearly, Figure 2 is not an appropriate model for Rust’s argument. Rather, this figure authenticates Charles Hampden-Turner’s telling comment that the “visual-spatial imagery of the human is a style of representation largely missing from the dominant schools of psychology and philosophy, [so] there can be no pretence of impartially cataloguing the status quo. The image-breakers are still in charge.”19 Our advocacy of a critical social cartography has as its purpose the breaking of the image-breakers, the encouraging of comparative analysts to become image-makers and, in doing so, including a visual-spatial imagery of the human in a new educational discourse.20

Rust’s and Harley’s challenges to their respective fields of comparative education and cartography encourage illustrating the global vision, reflecting the spatial as advocated by Soja. Critical cartography offers education the possibilities for examining educational problems “in the light of culturally determined needs, objectives, and conditions.”21 What is this social cartography we advocate? What is the benefit of critical social cartography to the practice of educational studies?