Barton and Barton: "Ideology and the Map: Twoard a Postmodern Visual Design Practice"

Barton, Ben F., and Marthalee S. Barton. “Ideology and the Map: Toward a Postmodern Visual Design Practice.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 232-252. Print.


Originally published in:


Blyler, Nancy. Professional communication : the social perspective. Newbury Park Calif.: Sage, 1993. Print.





Ideology of visuals. Response to Sless''s call to "go beyond the study of visuals as embodiments of cultural conventions to the study of the ideologies that, in turn, inevitably underlie those conventions" (233). "Thus a critical study of the ideology of visuals focuses on the ways in which visual signification serves to sustain relations of domination" (233).


The Map as Quintessentially Ideological


Huck-- assumes Indiana is pink b/c of portrayal on map. Borges-- lifesize map of the region (ala Steven Wright).


The map is not the territory, but the map carries with it a certain ethos, assumption of representations of truth.


"Let us turn to an analysis of the relation between ideology and power in mapping practices--specifically to an analysis of a discursive mode that, in Barthes''s (1970) term, naturalizes and universalizes a set of practices so that the phenomenon represented appears to be described rather than constructed (p. 129)" (235).


Ultimate argument-- map in particular/ vis representations in general "are seen as complicit with social-control mechanisms inextricably linked to power and authority" (235).


Denaturalization of the Natural


Uses Gramsci''s (1971) notion of hegemony "a process by which certain definitions of reality attain dominance in a society, rather than a conspiracy on the part of the ruling group and a passive compliance by the dominated ones" (235).


Looking at what is emphasized (inclusion) and what is excluded or repressed (exclusion).


Rules of Inclusion


Map use during wartime. Iraqi maps depict Kuwait as 19th province-- legitimize, possess.


Feature maps tend to focus on what is positive, desirable (citing Trieb); optimist world view.


"Space is not perceived isotropically, i.e., as everywhere having equal value (Arnheim, 1974, p. 30). Because space is perceived anisotropically, the placement of visual elements becomes a way of imparting privilege. Positioning to privilege may be effected in various ways. Privileging through centering has not escaped notice in the cartographic literature" (236). Also placement on top (237) as well as privileging through ordering (first and last elements gain distinction). Effects naturalization. Creation of more impressive visual signs, iconic structures, etc. for emphasized points.


Not just order of social/religious tradition, but also "order of geometry and reason" (Marin 173 qtd in B&B 237). Using grids, etc. to increase scientific sense of map gives more credibility. Gestalt-- turn attention from figure to the ground. Example of the Mercator map representing distortions (e.g., Russia at 22 mil km2 of area, looks larger than Africa with 30 mil km2 of area).


Rules of Exclusion and Repression


centering also marginalizes. Historically-- illegal for Port. Ren. pilots  to sell / give charts to foreigners. Omission of nuclear waste dump sites from official topographical maps of US Geo Survey (239).


Synchronic Perspective:


Othering. Exclusion of lower "class" from organizational charts or maps. Otherness of the other. Features exclude living conditions of the Other. Again, optimistic world view. Also production practices of the Other. Differences can be repressed. Naming practices (e.g., naming Kuwait as province of Iraq). International maps-- e.g., Allemande rather than Deutschland (exonyms).


Diachronic Perspective:


Map is "process rather than product, and strategies of representation take the form of the repression of process in map discourse" (240).


  • Repression of the Act of Production: medieval maps (pilgrimage) memorandum prescribing actions (what inns to stop at, important shrines, etc.). Narrative figurations (ships, animals, human figures). No longer is the enunciator (the scientist, cartographer, patron) expressed (now suppressed) in map. (241042).
  • Repression of the Act of Reception: Maps can limit--e.g., London Underground map. One is unempowered, only having discrete options. Compare how underground represented in 1924 (squirrelly) vs. late 1980s/early 1990s (linear, geometric). Standard symbols for stations disguise physical differences between them. Modern map = "object of desire" vs. "object of use"; consumer rather than user.


Denaturalizing Mapping Practices


Mercator map still used. Perhaps design maps that do ''frankly proclaim themselves as sign systems'' (Barthes 66 qtd in 244). But that''s too tricky (cites Peters''s Third World Map as example); doesn''t really work.


"What is really needed is a new politics of design, one authorizing heterodoxy--a politics where difference is not excluded or repressed, as before, but valorized" (245).


Propose two new mataphors: map as collage "for addressing the suppression of the spatial or synchronic perspective"; "for addressing the suppression of the temporal or diachronic perspective, we propose the metaphor of the map as palimpsest" (245).


Synchronic Perspective: The Map as Collage


label outliers, write messages in the plotting field to explain the data, label interesting points. Tables and graphics should be run into text whenever possible. Occur within linguistic or pictorial systems. Language strikes again-- suppressing exonyms.


Diachronic Perspective: The Map as Palimpsest


Limitations of map as collage-- synchronic or spatial.


  • Denaturalizing the Act of Production: challenging tenets of current publication policy. Not suppressing the extended quote, the footnote, etc. Example of historical atlas of Canada-- not just bar graphs and flow charts, but original maps, town views, landscapes with people and artifacts. Not representing meaning as fixed and stable. Design often used to stabilize meanings-- why not destabilize? E.g., multiple radiographic views of cardiac cath. Include a statement of who occupies Kuwait, historical situation, UN position.
  • Denaturalizing the Act of Reception: Acknowledge that looking is an interpretive act. Tell reader how to interpret map. Adopt perspective of traditionally disempowered (248). Uses sample of the "egocentric" chart categorizing people in relationship to the report writer; not as inferior/superior/equal.




less is more (modernist) vs. less is a bore (post-modernist). Claims "unity may still be achieved, but it will be a hard-won unity--a unity eschewing the reassuring grand synthesis in favor of the uneasy collocation of competing and rival claims, the difficult unity of inclusion rather than the easy unity of exclusion--perhaps in fact, the only meaningful unity of our time" (249).