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Critical Cartography and Performativity of 3D Mapping


Reuben S. Rose-Redwood
Department of Geography
Penn State University
[email protected]


The recent proliferation of 3D maps and other multi-dimensional visualizations has gained considerable public attention, resulting in a growing body of scholarly literature that explores the interconnections of spatial representation, geographic information science, and virtual reality (VR) studies (Raper, 2000; Fisher & Unwin, 2002; Li, 2007).

The current obsession with virtualizing “reality” and realizing the “virtual” has also been reinforced—if not manufactured—by the mass media. Hollywood films, such as last year’s Déjà Vu, mesmerize audiences with the fantasy of techno-scientific machines capable of warping space and time, thereby rendering real-life simulations of past events that can be manipulated by “external observers” from the future (Fig. 1). The 3D simulator is enmeshed in a series of performances that actively shape the narrative plot of the film, which involves nothing less than the grand intrigues of terrorism, murder, and romance. Reality begins to intermix with simulation as the past and present collide, leading even the most hard-nosed realists to wonder if everything is mere postmodern simulation after all.

The present paper engages the emerging field of critical cartography to argue that 3D maps, models, and simulations are much more than spatial representations but can also be conceived as performative practices that constitute a set of interventions within a contested field of geographical narratives. Each narrative stakes a claim in the “emplotment” (White, 1973) of the interactive 3D image within a broad narrative structure or a more fragmented and contingent conception of the “real.” Similar to any textual production, the designers of a 3D map likely have their own interpretive understanding of its place in a given conceptual horizon, yet the multiple audiences that encounter this map are not categorically bound to the tyranny of the designer’s original intentions (for a discussion of geographical rhetoric and multiple audiences, see Smith, 1996). Indeed, the sovereignty of the designer over his or her simulated world is fleeting at best, as the 3D model either gets incorporated in a diverse array of narratives or gathers dust in the motherboard of computational oblivion.

In what follows, I provide a selective overview of critical approaches to cartography and suggest how such perspectives have the potential to offer insights into 3D mapping as a spatial practice that enacts particular geographical narrative performances. I then draw upon my own experience in the field of 3D mapping to illustrate the rhetorical ambiguities associated with placing 3D maps within a circuit of performative representation that is, in many respects, beyond the map designer’s control. This lack of narrative control is not something that should discourage map designers from making digital 3D cartographic models. Rather, if 3D modellers are conscious of the field of competing historico-geographic narratives—as well as the rhetorical performativity of their 3D model vis-à-vis this discursive field—then they at least stand a chance of critically intervening in this performative arena.

The historiography of cartographic mapping is in the midst of a considerable reevaluation. One of the major sources of inspiration for this historiographic shift has been the History of Cartography Project, originally founded by J.B. Harley and David Woodward, which is currently in the process of publishing a multi-volume textbook series entitled, The History of Cartography, from an interdisciplinary perspective. Harley played a pivotal role in drawing attention to the social context and power relations that underpin mapping as a spatial practice, which is now a major focus of critical cartography (for a compilation of many of his important works, see Harley, 2001).







Fig. 1: The 3D simulator as techno-scientific fantasy in the Hollywood film, Déjà Vu.