Perspective Shift: Oh, Inverted Africa

…In which I take what was once a brief setup for a longer thread of linkbait, and post it as a somewhat cohesive (definitely rambling) critique of a map.

Originally posted in This Week in “Read and Burn” – April 19, 2016 edition.


Geographical perception creates mental images and offers viewers more than the denotative information stored in maps – new perspectives and insights into cultural ways of seeing and knowing the world. These projections may be visualized in different ways: maps are one. Turkic toponyms reflect specific, culturally-valued colors for cardinal directions, for example. Jerusalem sat at the anchor of most medieval T and O maps, the center of the known and inhabited universe for producers and consumers in that particular web of knowledge. The situation of Europe on the “top” of the map is a relatively recent perspective, and the grotesque distensions and attenuations offered by both Mercator and Gall-Peters projections are richly normed with implications about place (and in some cases, navigational time to said place): center, periphery, home, away, here, there – pick your heuristic. Fans of “The West Wing” will pick up on what I’m talking about.

Any readers affiliated with the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality?

In the “reversed map” tradition of 11th century Berber Amaziɣ cartographer Muhammad Al-Idrisi, Jordan Engel’s “Endonyms of Africa” (at The Decolonial Atlas) posits a map of Africa and adjacent Eurasian landmass south-up in a state of reverse erasure. Absent are lines of any sort (European-drawn or otherwise; what’s to establish and defend here?) and sparse text in native languages (rendered in Roman or modified Roman script) locates endonyms  referring to specific human and physical features.

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Endonyms of Africa, by Jordan Engel

I would cautiously approach the proposition that this map is a device for “finding and founding”, to paraphrase James Corner; it’s an interesting sketch of what could become or could have been a post-Western geography, which I’m sure means something totally different and infers nothing of what I try to tease out herein.

As a critique of geographical imagination, the map opens new perspectives and possibilities…Less an inversion or declaration of an independent cosmic order in the world (see Joaquín Torres-García’s “América invertida (Inverted America)”; see also The Shins), Engel’s map exposes the trope of the “dark continent” to a new light – if through tilted blinds. Local expressions of place exist, though the sites of translation co-exist in a tense bind with loci of the Transatlantic slave trade. Their names hug the coast and gird the interior, rusty heads of rebars buried deep in the interior of the continent, the so-called “African Foundation” of “the magnificent superstructure of American commerce and naval power.”  Engel’s map is both product and victim of what is learned from Eurocentric spatial-historical processes, but let’s call them Norcentric (why not?) processes in the context of the map’s initial inversion. That there’s a West that, frankly, sucks. Sucks peoples into/out of history, not that these peoples were without history, but that the (always-raised) voice of the West is the demand to which these entrepots, like Nkran – the Twi-language exonym for what Europeans would later call Accra, on what Europeans would coin the Gold Coast – provided the supply: chattel, gold, the exploited wealth.

This isn’t to say that this omission of nuance or situation should be pegged squarely on the mapmaker. On one edge of Africa we are left with traces of a familiar developmental scheme: the West as inherently in opposition to and removed from cultures beyond transactional points and nodes structural domination. It’s the inside-out upside-down world, extracted of interiority. It’s the emptiness that the West creates through its endless, mechanical reductions of the Other – an accursed share of zero. With some positive space on the map reserved for nodes of European extraction, some of the negative space rightly deserves naming as well. Notably missing from the map’s denotative structure, for example, is Great Zimbabwe, which (to the best of my knowledge) flourished contemporaneously but externally to the European slave trade. And what about Gao of the Songhai?

With all this in mind, I like Engel’s approach and I find the map fascinating as palimpsest. Admittedly with maps, I suffer from an acute, if playful, horror vacui. All must be named, in total archival completeness (the sin of the mapmaker is in the eye of the viewer.) Even if the story is incomplete or warped by a particular bend of history – all maps are – as reclamation and investigation, the project is worthy. Thankfully, Engel has a few other maps up, including one of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation – in Lakȟótiyapi (Lakota). I hope to give the cartographer’s other efforts as much thought and appreciation as I did this map.

While on the topic of upside-down maps and the yawning void: The Blue Marble.

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“The true camera image is upside-down by earthly standards, showing the South Pole at the top of the globe, because the camera was held by a weightless man who didn’t know down from up. Most reproductions invert it to align with our expectations.

Our expectations… – bolding and italics mine; words are Al Reinert’s, 2011 – …of seeing the world in a specific color and orientation, and the terrific weight of these expectations. As if NASA were not culturally situated, even there in zero-gravity translunar coast. The righting of The Blue Marble is the power-knowledge of the spirit level, a deadening of perspective and a fussy pair of housebound, utterly myopic eyes.

I’m rambling here. What I really mean to say is that the performative potential of Engel’s map finds its stage in “Civilization 2.” Like, tonight.

That and I want to buy Cyrus a Dymaxion Airocean Map. That’s the featured image, BTW, and thank you Esther Hunziker, for hosting the image (which was originally published in Life magazine in March, 1943.)

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