Apollo’s eye: a cartographic genealogy of the earth in the western imagination

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Cosgrove traces how ideas of globalism and globalization have shifted historically in relation to changing images of the earth, from antiquity to the Space Age.

He connects the evolving image of a unified globe to politically powerful conceptions of human unity. Subscribe Now. Table of Contents.

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Apollo's Eye. Denis Cosgrove. Paperback Hardcover.

Publication Date: Brotton, In the Information Age of the twenty-first century, with the development of digital mapping technologies, it would appear that this 'Apollonian dream' of cartography — to look down on the earth from above like the Greek god Apollo — has been fully realised Cosgrove, While scholars have increasingly challenged the concept of cartographic 'objectivity', applications such as Google Earth, offering a seemingly omniscient view of the world, threaten a resurgence of the scientific positivism that has severely limited the scope of past scholarship.

However, by employing the approach of 'critical cartography', and adapting pioneering ideas regarding how vision itself is a culturally specific rather than a transhistorical perspective, historians of cartography can continue their commitment to understanding the map not as a 'transparent opening', but as 'a particular human way […] of looking' at the world Harley, 3.

In order to contextualise the present article within wider scholarship, it is first necessary to survey the historiography of the field. From its genesis in the nineteenth century to the late twentieth century and beyond, the history of cartography has been largely dominated by a positivist teleology in which maps are studied through the lens of geographical objectivity. Influenced by traditional history of science approaches, as well as the geographical field itself, scholars have constructed a retrospective narrative of increasing accuracy towards modern 'scientific' mapping.

Fundamental to this idea is the ontological assumption that the world possesses an unambiguous existence that can be objectively known; there is a world of geographical facts 'out there', separate and distant from the observer, which can be 'discovered' and depicted on the map, a repository of 'unambiguous geographic facts' which varies only in its degree of geometrical accuracy and comprehensiveness of those facts Edney, Many scholars of cartography therefore presuppose the a priori actuality of geographic facts which must simply be collected through the scientific enterprise of the explorer and surveyor, and depicted through the neutral technologies of the cartographer.

The positivist narrative of scientific progress in mapping that has been created by this empiricist epistemology has had a profound impact on the history of cartography. Decontextualised and judged against the criteria of 'objective' geographical representation, medieval and early modern maps are reified as 'protoscientific' objects Brotton, As Christian Jacob explains, the 'errors, lacunae, and myths' of historical maps have been traditionally denigrated, but no effort made to 'conceptualize a different arrangement of knowledge and degrees of rationality'; ultimately the very historicity of maps has been overlooked Jacob, 4.

An indicative example of this positivist perspective posits the existence of an 'informal, prescientific phase of cartography', when mapmakers had 'neither the geographical knowledge nor the cartographic skill to make accurate maps' Rees, The concept of teleological development is evident when the historian suggests that this state of inaccurate and decorative mapping continued 'until science claimed cartography' Rees, Against this background, however, the work of the so-called 'new cultural cartographers', influenced by post-structuralist and postcolonial thought, has problematised traditional notions about the presumed objectivity of maps in accurately and neutrally representing geographical fact Craib, 7.

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Postmodernism has created an intellectual climate in which every image is open to critique, producing a 'crisis of representation' which has challenged even the most presumably value-free of cultural objects, such as maps, as embodying power relations all the more oppressive and dangerous due to their naturalisation Craib, 8.

Subsequent scholarship has employed the strategies of deconstruction in order to 'break the constrictive and exclusive link between reality and representation' that dominates cartographical thinking and that constitutes the 'implicit epistemology of its history' Jacob, 4. Paralleling shifts in the history of science, where 'contextualist' studies have historicised science itself as grounded in the culture that nurtures it, historians have contested their previous aim of 'objective' judgement; as one scholar argues, 'the historian has no stake in adjudicating the truth of past convictions' Dear, 2.

With the linguistic turn, maps have been studied as a 'kind of language', a way of articulating and structuring the human world, subjectively representing rather than objectively uncovering Harley, Particularly central to this movement has been the work of J. Harley, and the approach of 'critical cartography' which it has advanced.

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Harley argued that scholars should encourage an epistemological shift in the way that the history of cartography was understood; instead of the 'myth' of maps as an 'unquestionably "scientific" or "objective" form of knowledge creation', historians should rethink the nature of maps from different perspectives Harley, 15, 1—2.

To achieve this aim, critical cartography treats the map as a text, constructing the reality that it purports to neutrally represent. An acknowledgement of the textuality of maps means that interpretation can go 'beyond the assessment of geometric accuracy, beyond the fixing of location', to reading the map as a 'thick' text that constitutes a culturally constructed form of knowledge Harley, 8; Harley, Through this avenue, Harley deconstructs cartography through the Foucauldian concepts of discourse and power, and Derridean notions of rhetoric.

Maps as texts constitute a 'cartographic discourse' which is evaluative, persuasive, and rhetorical, as opposed to simply naming, locating, and recounting Harley, With these analytical tools, science is decentred as simply one representational strategy, with the 'symbolic realism' of modern maps seen as a rhetorical device as defined by its cultural context as the 'prescientific' mapping that historians have denounced Harley, 7— No map is neutral or value-free, as each step in the process of their making — selection, omission, classification, the ordering of hierarchies — is inherently rhetorical Harley, This perspective has even manifested in a revised definition of the map itself, as suggested by Harley and his colleague David Woodward in their seminal History of Cartography series.

Maps are defined as 'graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world', and thus the surface of the earth is not specified as the necessary object of cartographic representation Harley and Woodward, xvi.

On an epistemological level, and adapting developments from the history of science, historians of cartography have begun to look beyond the absolutes of scientific knowledge to the multiple processes by which knowledge was created within maps. Yet, contemporary changes in mapping technologies accompany a resurgence of the scientific positivist narrative, and the monopoly of the doctrine of 'objectivity' that for decades has undermined these more constructive and pluralistic approaches to the history of cartography.

Digital developments in the twenty-first century seem finally to have established the 'Apollonian' perspective promised by the scientific narrative of cartographic progress. It is an age in which we can physically, as well as imaginatively, look down at the surface of the globe from orbiting satellites; in which we can capture this view with photographic imagery and surveying technology; and in which this information can be digitally mapped through Geographical Information Systems GIS and made accessible through online geospatial applications, which combine geographical information with computer software.


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The most prominent of these, Google Earth, has been downloaded by more than half a billion people in an online global community of around two billion Brotton, Using the application, the world can be rotated, tilted, and panned; directions and destinations can be plotted around GPS locations; and users can zoom down through layers of data, travelling from thousands of miles above the earth to within a few metres of its surface, presented with photo-real images Brotton, Many have praised GIS such as Google Earth as a revolutionary new way of viewing the world, constituting the first convincing attempt at creating a mirror-world or simulacrum of the earth Allen, 1.

It would seem that the entire world is within our perception; each of us has transformed, more than ever, into what Michel de Certeau calls a 'voyeur-god' Certeau, Despite the ubiquity and power of these recent technological developments, scholars have largely failed to analyse their potential implications for the history and theory of cartography.

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As Jerry Brotton suggests in his own constructive, albeit narrative-centred and pseudo-popular, work, anything approaching a history of these developments and their significance in the historiography of cartography is necessarily still to be written, as the technology continues to evolve on an almost daily basis Brotton, While many maintain that the development of digital mapping constitutes a scientific pursuit capable of producing objective knowledge of the world, some have begun to criticise GIS for its positivist epistemology, its instrumental rationality and data-led methods Kwan, Others have expressed concern at the widespread perception of digital mapping as a 'beacon of scientific truth', ostensibly providing a neutral 'eye of God' which is accepted unquestioningly by an uncritical public Schuurman, 77; Schuurman, However, there is an urgent need for an analysis of the possible effects of these technological changes on our historiographical perspective.

With regard to the history and theory of cartography, GIS and the ideology of 'total mapping' that surrounds the technology threaten a revival of the scientific positivism which has been the 'taken for granted' epistemology in many areas of the history of cartography Harley, 3. The Apollonian perspective of digital mapping is one which privileges a 'particular form of seeing', characterised as 'distanced, objective, and penetrating' Pickles, As Jacob articulates, contemporary geographers have a long-standing stake in such a 'referential and positivist approach'; graphic sobriety and standardisation, functionality and the primacy of measure, are considered the inherent properties of the 'true map' Jacob, 4.


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This 'myth' of progressive science has, furthermore, been uncritically accepted by a wider scholarship and public. The lessons of Harley's critical cartography seem more important than ever, as this renewal of the concept of geographical objectivity leads to a new positivism that threatens to undermine alternative approaches to historical cartography, which cannot simply be understood through an anachronistic lens of 'objectivity. The idea of historicising 'vision', taking the perception and comprehension of the visual not as transhistorical but as deeply embedded within the cultural context of the time, offers an avenue to extend the framework of Harley's critical cartography and to challenge the resurgence of the scientific positivist approach.

To employ Foucault's concept of the 'episteme', the specific 'epistemological field' of any one period is defined by the 'conditions of possibility' for knowledge, which have changed across time and space Foucault, xxii, At all points in history, individuals look and have looked on the world with an 'encoded' eye, using a conception of vision culturally specific to the locus of perception Foucault, xxi. Indeed, following the influences of post-structuralism, it is now widely accepted that in any age visual experience, like its linguistic equivalent, 'can only mean something in relation to pre-existing cultural and social formations' Clark, 6.

This idea has led to concepts such as the 'period eye' in the history of art. In particular, the late medieval and early modern periods have been stressed as a critical point in the development of 'visual epistemology' Robinson, 8—9. In this context, it is necessary to examine the question of how cartography might have been intellectually engaged with: how the map text might have been viewed and understood in a profoundly different epistemological and cognitive climate.

Source: Wikimedia Commons. To a certain extent, the 'cartographic gaze' offered by historical maps seems to be decidedly modern in its seemingly omniscient perspective Pickles, Invited to situate oneself at an elevated point of view by the personified clouds and winds that frame Renaissance maps such as those of Agnese, the observer seems to perceive the whole world from a commanding height Figure 1.

Indeed, from the medieval period intellectuals had begun to emphasise the use of 'geometrical forms' to view and thereby understand the world, asserting that 'we can understand nothing fully unless its form is presented before our eyes' Bacon, c. Early modern writers continued to emphasise the primacy of vision in mapping, in language evocative of the scientific rhetoric of neutrality and objectivity which seems to suggest that the sixteenth-century map sought to provide its readers with a perspective on the earth that parallels the modern positivist interpretation of cartography's nature.

Maps are said to provide a 'discription of the face, and picture of th'earth', a portrayal of real geography formed 'according to the rules of Geometrie' with the task of creating a 'full finished similitude' Cuningham, ; Agrippa, However, historicising vision is in fact deeply problematic for the positivist approach of charting increasing cartographic 'objectivity. With regard to the early modern period, for example, historians such as Stuart Clark have persuasively undermined the notion that vision was 'objectively established or secure in its supposed relationship to "external fact"' Clark, 1.

Although the Renaissance shifted the relationship between sight and knowledge towards a more empirical, rather than symbolic, value, the fractured intellectual context of the Reformation and various philosophical movements undermined and destabilised 'visual epistemology' Myers, —; Robinson, 2. Some movements such as Pyrronhism even proposed the modern-sounding notion that human subjects 'make' the objects they perceive, creating them out of the qualities that belong intrinsically to perception, not to the objects themselves Clark, The period was therefore characterised by cultural anxieties over the meaning of images and distrust of visual representations rather than a self-assured sense of 'objectivity'.

European visual culture experienced 'not so much the rationalization as the de-rationalization of sight' Clark, The model of visual epistemology based on a rational and empirical relation between sight and comprehension, Clark suggests, was only conclusively re-established during the Scientific Revolution, on different philosophical principles Clark, 3, Overall, by historicising vision in this way, it is possible to understand the ways in which sixteenth-century visual epistemology was ambivalent and contested, despite the rhetoric of geometric omniscience. One fascinating example of this ambiguous perspective is the metaphor of the theatre, prominent in European atlases at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth Blair, By presenting the map as a 'theatre of the world', these early modern cartographers employed a metaphor that symbolised the dual nature of reality.

As an architectural emblem, the playhouse embodies the principle of replication, with the stage as a separate and independent space within the larger circle of the auditorium; this duality distinguishes the mimetic dimension of drama as an image of life van den Berg, 45; Daniels and Cosgrove, Thus, the map as a theatre represented a self-declared imitation of reality to the sixteenth-century viewer. With cartography, as with the playhouse, the observer turned away from cosmos itself in order to contemplate its theatrical image, 'held apart from its referents in the outer world' and placed within the 'heterocosm of imagination' van den Berg, This contrasts with the modern, scientific conception of the map as an objective 'mirror' or 'window' on the world.

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An effective visual example of this perspective is given by the frontispiece to Mercator's atlas of , which depicts Atlas as a map-maker, inscribing the features of the earth on a blank globe while he looks down on the world itself, set at his feet. While this depiction exhibits the sense of epistemological scope that the geometric rationalisation of maps brought to early modern cartography, it also shows an awareness of the abstraction from reality that the map-making process inherently involves.

Maps, it may therefore be argued, signified to the sixteenth-century observer a more explicitly metaphorical and representational abstraction from the reality of the earth; the metaphor of the theatre provides an insight into this conception, albeit one that needs further research. Thus liberated by the idea of vision itself as a culturally constructed perspective rather than a transhistorical 'Apollonian' position, historians can challenge the doctrine of geographical objectivity in modern digital mapping, thereby problematising and historicising these representational strategies.

All visions are grounded in the knowledge-making modes of their particular episteme. One reason that GIS technologies often avoid critique is their use of satellite and aerial imagery. Though the photographic image has undergone intense scrutiny with regard to its status as an index of reality, the photograph still holds a connection to material space that is unmatched by traditional, hand-crafted maps Farman, ; Cosgrove, This is extended even further as, while photographs are often associated with a photographer as 'witness', taking the picture at a particular moment in time, satellite and aerial photographs used in programmes like Google Earth are more commonly associated with the machinery that produces them, distancing maps from a creator and thus from a sense of subjectivity Farman,