Thursday, 21 April 2011

the map made nation

In the Amazon review of Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt, “Big Jim” writes

Hewitt explains how the Ordnance Survey grew from the Highland uprisings as the Hanoverian forces tried to explore the wild territory in which the clansmen lived and indeed hid. Ironically it was a lowland Scot, William Roy of Lanarkshire, who led the team that criss-crossed the rugged terrain - … (my emphasis)

My criticism of the review is that it simply wasn’t/isn’t ironic.  To be ironic it would have to fulfil the criteria whereby Roy’s Lowlander status as the leader was

2. fig. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In French ironie du sort.)

I’m sorry Big Jim but I don’t agree.  To consider a Lowlander’s involvement in the map’s construction ironic is to assume that the Lowlands and the Highlands were parts of a unified national whole and that a Scottish identity meant the same or at least a similar thing on either side of the lowland/Highland fault line.  It is wrong to assume that Scotland existed prior to the map.

This post considers that prior to the ‘reform’ of the Highlands there was no Scottish national identity that was common to either side of the fault line.  Consequently, the post does not accept that the map simply describes the landscape’s incidental natural features – that it was/is a representation of a naturally occurring area. Contrarily this post insists that the map made Scotland.

The discourse of nationalism is so embedded within the space that other discourses take place that it largely goes unnoticed.  To acknowledge that this post was typed in Scotland is to accept and acknowledge the prevailing and dominant modes of geopolitical representation, (Shapiro).  Can I say, as I did, on the recent census that I don’t ‘feel’ that I have a national identity that that means this wasn’t written in Scotland. Is utopia a state free from the discourse of nationalism?  I can’t give you a map reference  to where I then am, (which would be ironic).   Whilst it’s certainly possible to argue that social relations are constructed through available discourse (D843 SEP) the discourse of the national space is not simply available (in the sense that one can take it or leave it) but unavoidably available.  It’s such a given that it’s almost perfect because, for the most part, it’s buried so deep that it seems natural or, in Althusserian terms, ideologically obvious.

Where was I?

Although Hewitt doesn’t really provide a detailed critical geosociological analysis of Roy’s activities that isn’t to say that she leaves the reader unaware of the map’s constructionist role.  Hewitt outlines the differences between the Lowlands and the Highlands over a number of early pages- the differing political, religious and dynastic allegiances, the different languages (Scots and English in contrast to Scots Gaelic/Irish), the difference between social infrastructure, the differing legal systems and culture and, of course, the differing terrains.  Hewitt is left to conclude that whilst the 1707 effectively united Lowland Scotland with England the Highlands were ‘almost a separate nation’, (p.12).  In other words the Highlands were not effectively part of the Union – they were not Britain and in that sense the Highlands weren’t Scotland.  That is, of course, an Anglocentric piece of reasoning but it does mean that there was no one thing as Scotland, and it follows that there was not only no map of a place that didn’t exist, but that there couldn’t be a map of a place that didn’t exist.

Baudrillard makes use of Borges’ 1:1 map and accurately identifies in Scotland’s case that ‘the map precedes the territory’ (1983, p.2).  In other words the map’s accuracy was, not entirely, irrelevant but to now consider it either ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’ would be to enter into an altogether different discourse, and to make the mistake that the map was intended to serve as a representation of Scotland. The map was, for want of a better expression, the real, whilst the nation was it’s (re-) product.  Scotland was constructed by the map in order to be represented by it.

Reflecting on her own book, Hewitt considers what it was like to inhabit a nation that lacked a map and how it felt to acquire that mirror, (xxvi).  It’s easy to interpret that Hewitt considers the map to be the mirror.  I disagree: the nation was the mirror.

So that’s where I was … through the looking glass


"irony, n.". OED Online. March 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed April 20, 2011).

Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations, USA, Semiotext[e].

Shapiro, M. (2009) 'Textualizing Global Politics', in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S. and Yates, S.J. (eds) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, London, Sage, The Open University Press.