Essay: Maps and the Imagined Community: A Review of Important Works on the Epistemic Foundations of Nationalism (2015)

Abstract: Benedict Andersen’s Imagined Communities demonstrated that in Europe and then the world, the idea of the nation emerged and developed in coincidence with modern mapping techniques.  This paper surveys several works of recent decades to explore this relationship between nations and maps, as well as suggesting how that relationship has structured the simultaneity of the global present.

Time frame:  early-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries

Works Reviewed:

Benedict Anderson, Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (Verso, 1998) and Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983, 2006).

Martin Bruckner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (UNC, 2006).

Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America, U Chicago: 2012.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale, 1999).

Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (U Hawaii, 1997).


The one world can deal with ‘chaos,’ but it reduces all true complexity to sameness & separation. Consciousness itself ‘enters into representation’; lived experience which demands presence must be denied lest it threaten to constitute another world beyond enclosure. In a heaven of imagery there persists only the afterlife of the screen, the gnostic stargate, the glass of disembodiment. Infinitely the same within an infinity of enclosures, infinitely connected yet infinitely alone. Immeasurable identity of desire, immeasurable distance of realization.”

Hakim Bey, Millenium


Since the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, modern statecraft has grown ever more complex in its functions, responsibilities, and claims to authority.  The state has extended its reach both territorially, by domesticating frontiers; and socially, by domesticating subject populations.  In the process, this extension of governmental reach, and the technologies that made it possible, have  transformed the world both human and non-human into a form that better aligns with state objectives.

Cartography played a formative role in this power extension.  For all kinds of reasons, maps effectively squeezed reality through “the bottleneck of the signifier,” making it possible to know places well enough—even if only as a set of coordinates—to exercise political power over them:  Thongchai Winichakul writes that a map “encodes a space which, in turn, can be decoded to disclose knowledge of the supposed real space.  It is a product of scientific method as well as of the social institutions of our modern time.”[1]

Maps performed a second, less obvious function over the long term: along with other tools of governance, they helped to remake reality in the image of their representations.  Kain and Baigent wrote on this that a map is active, because “in portraying one reality, as in the settlement of the new world or in India, it helps to obliterate the old”—which it does by bracketing the existence of  phenomena that defy rigid classification, whether plant species, new minorities, or traditional city neighborhoods[2].   Winichakul wrote in detail about “the ambiguous relationship between a map and its anticipated object” especially in the case of the dual emergence of modern Siam as idea and place.[3]  Likewise, James C. Scott wrote that maps, along with other kinds of state intelligence:

did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice which interested the official observer.  They were, moreover, not just maps.  Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade.[4]

Claiming to reproduce reality, maps symbolically reduced it to a system of abstract referents distributed across abstractly-measured space.   Belying the myth of the detached observer, these symbolic reductions coincided with a generalized loss of diversity—biological, cultural, political and perceptual; as emerging nation-states promoted universalized institutions (such as education) and classifications (for example, the social categories of the census) .  Needless to say, these radical simplifications were not politically neutral.  The “singular world” of stable, serialized, and quantifiable beings in Cartesian space that maps and mapped data sets posited was the conceptual scaffolding of the modern nation-state, which ‘saw’ its members in radically simplified terms.

Thus, the emergence of sovereignties based on territory–that is, the emergence of nations–coincided with the spread of modern mapmaking and the knowledge system underlying it.

The ideal of a correspondence between sovereignty and territory is now taken for granted, as it has been in the West for centuries.  But it was very new to the rulers of Europe well into the sixteenth century, and still completely alien to most of society.  Often, when political feuds broke out, “negotiations would be over places, or maybe collections of people based on identity, jurisdiction, or where they were allowed to reside, but not in terms of linear demarcations between claims.”[5]  This began to change in the late renaissance, however (at least for the elite), when “the visual language of mapping that we are familiar with: longitude, latitude, spatial expanses colored in, homogenous territorial claims” introduced a symbolic representation of interregional political order which gradually took on political reality[6]

This paper will survey several histories of nationalism and cartography, and highlight a recurrent theme–namely, that each work draws a fundamental link between the development of modern mapmaking and the emergence of internally homogenized nation-states.

In the conclusion, I briefly discuss how the system of knowledge common to maps and nation-states, premised on the radical simplification of phenomena, has fared in the twilight years of territorial nationalism.

Benedict Andersen: “Census, Map, Museum”

Benedict Andersen’s 1983 book Imagined Communities introduced a constructivist reading of the history of nationalism upon which many later studies were modeled.  Below, I discuss a few highlights from the expanded 1991 edition of that text, with an emphasis on the theme of mapmaking and nationalism as mutually reinforcing phenomena.

In the chapter titled “Census, Map, Museum,” Andersen explores the system of knowledge underlying the structure of the nation by way of its discursive and material products.  Examining post-colonial states, Anderson argues that they derived their nationalisms from the “grammar” of colonial power.  He examines three ubiquitous cultural exports (the census, the map, and the museum) as cases in point, because each played its part in enforcing the colonialists’ perceptual framework onto subjected peoples.  Post-independence, the new officialdoms preserved and inverted these symbolic systems to serve their own interests.

The census, Andersen found, created the “fiction” that “everyone is in it, and that everyone has one—and only one—extremely clear place.  No fractions.”[7]   In the case of Cirebon, Java, at the end of the seventeenth century, the traditional local habit of classifying people according to their rank and status was giving way to racial categories introduced by the Dutch.  The term “Chinees” fell onto the heads of presumably lighter-skinned locals who had never, “no matter what their origins,” thought of themselves in this way.[8]  Importantly, over time, “the flow of subject populations through the mesh of different schools, courts, clinics, police stations and immigration offices created ‘traffic habits’” that reified “the state’s earlier fantasies.”[9]  The map, itself a novel construct, was the surface on which these social fantasies were written.

Drawing from the work of Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul, Anderson stressed just how foreign the logic of the European cartographic grid really was for Asian people.  In Siam, the only maps to speak of were the Buddhist cosmograph and guides to military campaigns drawn in “queer oblique perspective.”[10]  But In the second half of the nineteenth century, surveyors in Southeast Asia “were on the march to put space under the same surveillance which the census-makers were trying to impose on persons.”[12]  The notion of mapping territory “from the air,” and of interfacing physical space with straight lines intersecting at right angles, had no precedent.  In this way, Western mapmaking cemented racial categories by “delimiting territorially where, for political purposes,” they were supposed to be.[11]

“Census, Map, Museum” includes a short discussion about the phenomenon of the “map-as-logo”—that is, the map as “pure sign” and no longer “compass to the world.”[13]  (This theme was also explored in Martin Bruckner’s 2006 The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity, which is discussed below.)

Anderson traces the logoization of the map to colonial powers’ practice of color-coding imperial maps so that “each colony appeared like a detachable piece of a jigsaw puzzle” and could be “wholly detached from its geographic context.”[14]  Thus, the imagined shape of the nation became “available for transfer to posters, official seals, letterheads, magazine and textbook covers, tablecloths, and hotel walls.”[15]  Subject populations meanwhile adopted the map-as-logo as an emblem of resistance, and later as a symbol of post-colonial nationalism.

In the post-colonial era, the map-as-logo legitimated Indonesia’s struggle to wrest West New Guinea from Dutch hands.  Anderson argued that the logoization of the area by the Dutch (on colonial maps, West New Guinea had nothing to its east) gave it “a central place in the anticolonial struggle,” even though few nationalists had ever actually been there.[16] Indonesia took control of the islands in the 1960s, and what ensued was a “painful” period in which the island’s multiethnic, polyglot population was found to have a very different conception of themselves than their Indonesian “brothers and sisters.”[17]

The museum, and the “museumizing imagination,” also played a crucial role in reifying the idea of the nation.  As Andersen suggests, the boom in colonial archeology in the late nineteenth century gave a “historical” dimension to the colonial map, which was then transmuted to serve post-colonial nationalisms.  Sites like the Borobudor, Pagan, and Angkor were “unjungled” and “repositioned as regalia for a secular colonial state.”[18]   Their grandiosity was thereby “draped around the mappers,” not the locals.  Moreover, like the map, “sacred sites” were logoized and reproduced in all manner of ways, and the transfer of their political capital from colonial states to nationalist regimes was an easy one.  “Angkor Wat,” the author tell us, became “the central symbol of the successive flags of Sihanouk’s royalist, Lol Non’s militarist, and Pol Pot’s Jacobin regimes.”[19]


Benedict Andersen: “Memory and Forgetting”

The final chapter of Imagined Communities, called “Memory and Forgetting,” details the effects of “new modes of apprehending the world” on American nationalists.  Anderson looks at the peculiar practice of naming colonies after Old World toponyms (e.g. New York, New Orleans, Nova Scotia), and how their newness was always understood synchronically; new and old were “comparable,” “coexisting within homogenous, empty time.”[20]

Also of note is an addendum to the 1991 print titled “The Biography of Nations.”   Anderson here draws a comparison between the modern person’s need for pictures and other memorabilia to construct an identity that affirms its continuity across developmental ruptures of consciousness (like puberty) with the imagined community’s habit of extending itself backwards to “wherever the lamp of archaeology casts its fitful gleam.”[23]  Or rather, upwards, because as he says, the genealogy of nations is marked not by “a chain of begettings,” but by deaths and undoings.  The author writes that “all profound changes in consciousness, by their very nature, bring with them characteristic amnesias.  Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives.”[22]


Martin Bruckner: The Geographic Revolution in Early America

In The Geographic Revolution, Martin Bruckner suggests that, in his own words, “the construction of the American subject was grounded in the textual experience of geography.”  As geographic knowledge evolved and spread among eighteenth and early nineteenth century white Americans, he argues, it deeply informed their sense of identity and made possible the invention of a national character.[24]

For most of the seventeenth century, colonists delineated the boundaries of their properties according to natural landmarks such as streams, rocks, or trees.  Beginning in 1690, however, the practice of “platting” the land was adopted; whereby colonists demarcated the boundaries of their properties according to a grid plan.  On the one hand, the plats portended an age in which land would be abstracted and commodified; on the other, the art of platting allowed colonists “to take visual and textual possession” of their personal space.  Both of these effects would prove critical to the later formulation of national identity, and not incidentally, to the dynamic between American society and the environment.[25]

In his second chapter, Bruckner describes how revolutionary rhetoric was embedded with a growing awareness of America as a continent, whereas previously it was represented as a series of islands, or worse, “a fragmented elusive territory.”  Patriots like James Otis and Thomas Paine emphasized the vastness of the continent, and the absurdity of its subordination to a small and distant island (80).[26]

Chapter three examines the power of maps to visually convey the formerly inconceivable idea of a unified American nation.  In the post-revolutionary era, maps could be found in public offices, taverns, schools and homes.  Moreover, a “structural nexus” between alphabetic and map literacy was deepened, as educators like Noah Webster and Jedediah Morse sought to inspire in students an “attachment” to their nation’s “interests” through geographic studies.  This was also the age in which, significantly, national boundaries were represented on maps by darker lines than were state boundaries.  In other words, for the first time, the shape of the states united was visually “privileged”, becoming a kind of logo that “erases local knowledge, regional claims” and Indian possession of western territories.[27]

Chapter four examines early American geographic instruction and its inclusion in nearly all school curricula.  The popularity of geographic writing at the time was outdone only by bibles and spelling books, and Bruckner argues that the ever-present map helped to foster an imperial consciousness among ordinary whites, while connecting their sense of self more firmly to a national rather than local space.

Chapter five explores the profound influence of geographic awareness on early American novelists, including Royall Tyler, Susanna Rowson, and Charles Brockden Brown (all of whom ended their literary careers in favor of geographic writing).  In their prose, Bruckner locates an American subject that is fundamentally shaped by a mapped-out world.

Chapter six is a novel analysis of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Bruckner argues that the official expeditionary map and the men’s journals constitute a textual record of “confrontation” between “two epistemologically different modes of geographic representation”: the European versus the AmerIndian mode, as Lewis and Clark relied entirely on their Indian guides for descriptions of unknown lands.[28]

In chapter seven, Bruckner argues that the spread of geographic literacy in the post-revolutionary era served to consolidate a national identity, and eventually prepared Americans for the bloody politics of imperialism.  As he shows through contemporary sources including textbooks and editorials, by the 1820s many Americans saw the need for westward expansion as an aesthetic issue.  Writers complained of the “irregular figure” of the nation as it appeared on the map, and longed for the more “beautiful picture” of a transcontinental republic.  Therefore, he argues, the will to expansion (and the extermination of those beyond the map) cannot be explained by federal land policy or boosters alone.  Rather, it was the “applied expression” of a “culture of geographic letters.”[29]

The Geographic Revolution remains a uniquely thorough case study of the effects of the map on: human perception, the imagining of community, the growth of empire, and the deeply troubled relationship between modern societies and their environments.  As such, it is an important contribution to the “spatial turn” in American history,  which proceeds from the understanding that “space itself is historical.”[30]


Susan Schulten: Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America

Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America charts the development of mapping, especially the emerging practice of thematic mapping, in America from the 1830s onwards.  Schulten describes how mapping expanded knowledge in many different fields in the 19th century, from epidemiology to “Indian affairs”.  In the process, the technology of mapping took on new complexity, becoming a powerful means of data visualization with strategic as well as polemic force:

By the end of the century, thematic mapping had become a language all its own, but one where the logic of the traditional map was reversed: topography and borders were secondary to hypotheses, problems, or themes, such as the distribution of disease, illiteracy, or rainfall.  In the process, the very purpose of a map had shifted.  If traditional topographic maps were akin to description, thematic maps functioned more like an argument, and this made them particularly relevant for science, social science, education, and governance.”[32]

Schulten pays close attention to the lineage of cartographic innovations and the points of intersection between mapping technology and other fields of knowledge.  As a history of technology, her study is enriched by an appreciation for seemingly minor advances in cartography that cumulatively transformed the very structure of knowledge and perception for nineteenth century Americans.  She writes that the resulting work “is not a comprehensive history of thematic mapping in American life, but a study of the new kind of thinking that these maps represent.”[33]

Schulten traces the emergence of this new kind of thinking from the early nineteenth century, when educators like Emma Willard first taught “American history” using visual aids, including maps, “that emphasized the territorial dimension of nationhood” and extended the nation backwards in time.[34]   In this same period, popular interest in historical maps rose steadily.  As Schulten points out, the Library of Congress owned only fifty maps in 1812, an indication of how little the latter were valued in comparison with other documents.  But by the 1850s, official interest in maps had greatly increased, and Congress, resolving to build an official archive, funded a search for historic national maps.[35]

A big part of the epistemic transformation that Schulten describes was the emergence of the imagined community of the nation.  Schulten echoes Andersen and Bruckner in arguing that “geographical and historical knowledge substantiated what might otherwise have seemed artificial: a national Union that superseded local, religious, or colonial loyalties.’[36]  In the American context, “National identity abhorred territorial uncertainty,” because national identity was inextricably bound up with territory.[37]   Thus the ability to visualize the nation at a panoptic glance, as maps made possible, gradually reified the idea of the nation and fed into the desire for physical expansion.

At the same time, the challenge of understanding large sets of data—such as the U.S. Census, which grew steadily in complexity from the 1820s—led to the novel use of maps as pattern-recognition devices.  By the 1850s, maps were thus employed to “analyze as well as describe the landscape—hypothesize as well as summarize.”[38]  Their applications were widespread among climatologists, public health advocates and in other fields of applied science.  Baltimore city physician Thomas Buckler used public records to create a map of the 1849 cholera epidemic, and thus to pinpoint its origin (an almshouse) and means of spreading (fecal matter).  As Schulten documents, a German geographer visiting the Smithsonian expressed the optimism that such this new analytical form of mapping inspired:

Why should we be satisfied with the mere outlines of the political boundaries of states, provinces, counties, and cities, when the Indian tribes, European races, languages, customs, manners, crimes, diseases, &c., are equally subject to geographical distribution, and can be delineated with the same precision and clearness?[39]

Interest in statistical mapping spread quickly after the Civil War, as the identification and visualization of social, economic and geographic categories led to the gradual discovery of society as “an abstract ‘population’ with particular attributes that could be managed and administered.”[40] Schulten documents how the U.S. Census played a hugely influential role in this process, especially under the direction of Francis Walker, who persuaded Congress to fund the 1874 Statistical Atlas of the United States, which succeeded in visually mapping census data for the first time.[41]  Fourteen years later, Hollerith machines made it possible for census data to be sorted at superhuman speeds, and made an “even wider range of statistical correlations possible.’[42]  These and related technologies greatly heightened the visibility of individuals to the state, and accordingly magnified state responsibility for the health and safety of individual subjects.

James C. Scott: Seeing Like a State

James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State explores the epistemic foundations of modern statecraft as well as the fundamental aims of state-directed projects.  Whether in the case of Florence imposing surnames upon its people or in the case of Soviet collectivization, Scott identifies a ubiquitous and characteristically modern trend: the bureaucratic desire for radical simplification—of terrain, resources, societies and individuals—for the sake of legibility and control.

Scott argues that the modern state’s management strategies were structurally linked to the visual lexicon of mapping, and worked upon reality in much the same way:

These state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft, were, I began to realize, rather like abridged maps.  They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer.  They were, moreover, not just maps.  Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade.[43]

Scott’s study thus draws from a wide range of scholarship to chart the spread of radical simplification as an administrative practice across time and space.  The author examines several instances where this practice yielded catastrophic results in the hands of authoritarian states, as for example with China’s Great Leap Forward and compulsory villagization in Tanzania.  In other cases, the presence of a strong civil society worked against state simplifications, or else generated “a ‘dark twin’ of informal spaces and practices that performed “the various needs that the planned institution fails to fulfill.”[44]


Thongchai Winichakul: Siam Mapped

Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped is a detailed account of the spread of cartographic knowledge in nineteenth-century Thailand.  As he demonstrates, the very idea of the Thai nation was inseparable from its graphic representation—indeed, the image preceded the object, and in this respect the Thai experience was hardly unique.  Winichakul writes:

Taking Siam, the former Thailand, as its case, this book examines how nationhood has been arbitrarily and artificially created by a very well known science—namely, geography and its prime technology of knowing, mapping—through various moments of confrontation and displacement of discourses.  Even the most concrete identification of a nation, such as its territory, and its related values and practices, all of which I term the ‘geo-body,’ was discursively created.[45]

Siam Mapped draws conceptual as well as historical links between cartography and the rise nationalism that can be generalized to other regions and societies.  In describing the pre-modern “Thai” experience of space and the spatial extensions of pre-modern “Thai” states, it also partially recovers systems of knowledge that might otherwise face permanent obfuscation under the regime of “homogeneous, empty time.”


 A map is a plan.  A map is a representation of space.  A map is a representation of reality.  A map is a doubly abstracted representation of reality.

Maps act upon space.  Their power to do so has risen continuously since the early nineteenth century, when representations of terrain were first overlaid with quantitative data (on populations, resources, weathers patterns and other phenomena) to produce spatial representations of life and society in the aggregate.

Nineteenth century sciences produced a new kind of map, representing not only space but the spatial distribution of phenomena simplified into typologies and classes.  In the long run, the new maps’ effect was to make society, resources and terrain visible to power, at least visible enough for the state to directly manage all three.  Maps served as panoptic re-constructions—models, in other words—of space that have since become deeply embedded and in many ways determine the fabric of everyday life.

Early statistical maps were static models, however, frozen in time.  Since then, time has become a sort of last frontier of official knowledge, and much of the innovations in mapping and data visualization generally have advanced the goal of real-time modeling, which is now technologically feasible (and partially instituted) on a global scale.  In fulfillment of nineteenth century visions, time and space in the twenty-first century have been all but ‘annihilated.’  On the one hand, this condition of apparent simultaneity makes artificial barriers to knowledge very difficult to sustain.  By imaging global conditions, it also gives hope to the project of finding balance between complex human systems and the delicate web of life that sustains them.  On the other hand, the condition of technologically-enabled simultaneity is absent the traditional constraints to direct rule over subjects by a self-interested and secretive state: thus in the so-called developed world, what prevents such a total concentration of power are the remaining legal avenues to public participation in governance.  These must be identified and expanded.  Moreover, in acknowledgement of power’s technological extensions, the right to public participation must include equal and universal access to surveillance technologies and networks of remote (as well as direct) communication.

[1] Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (U Hawaii, 1997), 55.

[2] Roger J.P. Kain and Elizabeth Baigent, The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State: A History of Property Mapping (University of Chicago, 1992).  Quoted in James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale, 1999), 47.

[3] Winichakul, 30.

[4] Scott, 3.

[5] Jordan Branch and Loughlan, V. (2014) ‘Theory Talk #65: Jordan Branch on Google Maps, State Formation, and the International Politics of Cartography’, Theory Talks, (1011-2014), 7.  Accessed January 2015.

[6] Branch, 7.

[7] Benedict Andersen, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1983, 2006), 166.

[8] Andersen, Imagined Communities, 167.

[9] Ibid., 169.

[10] Ibid., 171.

[11] Ibid., 174.

[12] Ibid., 173.

[13] Ibid., 175.

[14] Ibid., 175.

[15] Ibid., 175.

[16] Ibid., 176.

[17] Ibid., 177.

[18] Ibid., 182.

[19] Ibid., 183.

[20] Ibid., 187.

[21] Ibid., 191.

[22] Ibid., 204.

[23] Ibid., 205.

[24] Martin Bruckner, The Geographic Revolution in Early America: Maps, Literacy, and National Identity (UNC, 2006), 6.

[25] Bruckner, 23, 50.

[26] Ibid., 80.

[27] Ibid., 103, 113-14, 124-6.

[28] Ibid., 209.

[29] Ibid., 239.

[30] Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” Spatial History Lab: Working paper; Submitted February 1, 2010, Accessed October 2014.

[31]    Walter Benjamin, section VI of “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).  Web transcription found at  Site managed by Lloyd Spencer, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Media, Trinity and All Saints College.  Accessed October 2007.

[32] Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America, U Chicago: 2012, 2.

[33] Schulten, 4.

[34] Ibid., 5.

[35] Ibid., 41-42.

[36] Ibid., 14.

[37] Ibid., 61.

[38] Ibid., 93.

[39] Ibid., 108.

[40] Ibid., 183-4.

[41] Ibid., 173.

[42] Ibid., 193.

[43] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale, 1999), 3.

[44] Scott, 261.

[45] Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (U Hawaii, 1997), x.


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