Another course I am enjoying teaching this semester is Geopolitics, a graduate course in our International Studies program. The course should really be called “Critical Geopolitics” as it mostly brings the tools of discourse analysis to bear on key texts in the geopolitical tradition, beginning with Halford Mackinder’s seminal “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), through George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (1947) to Samuel Huntington’s infamous “Clash of Civilizations?” (1993) and beyond. These short articles, despite the limited intrinsic merit of their analyses, had profound and lasting impacts on the policies of the world powers that produced them.
Much of the course consists of deconstructing these geopolitical texts and exposing the assumptions they contain about a great many far-away places and peoples. This analysis is way too dry to make for a good blog post, so I will spare readers here. However, the course also considers maps as discursive documents, and these look great on the web, so here goes:
Today, I presented students with maps as discourse. Maps can be as discursive as any text. Certain “facts” are presented while others are kept silent. Certain facts are brought together to lay out an argument while facts that might mess up the neatness of the argument are omitted. While some geopolitical maps are “serious” in their analysis, circulated among a coterie “intellectuals of statecraft,” others are satirical, cartoons published in newspapers with the intent of swaying public opinion. These are the ones I present below.
Size counts, doesn’t it?
Contrary to texts, maps make discursive arguments through graphic design. For instance, a “threat” can be graphically represented on a map by sheer size; the visual “fact” of the great size of an enemy entity is sufficient to convey the message about who the “aggressor state” must be. After all, a much smaller entity cannot possibly aggress a much larger one, can it?
The point here is that neither of these maps proves anything at all as there is no correlation, let along causation, between size of a polity and military aggression (and the “Arabs” can hardly be said to have constituted a single polity in 1973 or at any other time in recent history).
Another common trope of geopolitical maps is use of arrows. Arrows are among the strongest map symbols (right up there along with skull and crossbones, nuclear radiation symbols and exploding bombs). They can make any “threat” evident to the eye.
Not shown on the above map was the ability of the much larger and more modern German air force to attack every part of Czechoslovakia from multiple directions.
Not shown on the above map was the ability of U.S. missiles to obliterate the island of Cuba many times over at a moment’s notice. Neither was a map showing the ability of U.S. missiles based in Turkey to reach deep into Soviet territory published along with this one. In both of the above maps, the arrows “actualize” a threat, decontextualize it, and make it feel dangerously real.
Next-door to arrows on the graphic threat scale are encircling pincers. The cartoon map below, from the early 1990s, shows hapless Israel watching helpless as Iranian ayatollah Khomeini, crescent pincers emanating from his beard, encircles it with radical Islamists in Algeria.
Geopolitical cartoon maps of the late 19th and early 20th century personified the great powers of the day in a menagerie of national characters. They showed the British lion (sometimes also John Bull the bulldog), the French rooster, the Russian bear and various eagles jostling over territories.
Of all the characters in the animal kingdom, two would go down in cartographic infamy: the octopus and the spider. For reasons entirely beyond their control, these two animals inspire equal measures of revulsion and fear in children and sentient adults alike. They also happen to have eight tentacles/legs. If humans can grab territories with only two arms, imagine how much territory might be grabbed by an octopus or a spider.
In the late 1940s WWII was succeeded by the Cold War and the Octopus was reincarnated as Stalin in the American map cartoon below.
Geopolitical discourse, and the maps which accompany it, has changed since the overtly imperialistic and militaristic heyday of the 1890s-1940s. The spiders and the octopi have gone, though the bears and lions and eagles still make an appearance. As the semester proceeds, I will show my students more recent expressions of geopolitical cartographic demagoguery, and I plan to post some of these in this blog. A suivre…