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The Social Lives of Maps, Volume 1

2022: Volume 92-93

Beyond the Artifact: Unfolding Medieval, Algorithmic, and Unruly Lives of Maps

  • Stephan Wöll
May 2, 2022


Found on the walls of ancient caves in northern France, the earliest known maps do not depict the earth but the brightest stars of the milky way. Although we know little about the people who painted these maps, we know that they, like us, looked for answers and meaning. Mapping as material testimony of this desire signals a basic function of human placemaking. Discarding the biographical shallowness of cartography, this paper investigates how maps might assume social agency. Since spaces are (socially) constructed not only of sight but also of memories, affect, or tactile experiences, I investigate how maps enter spatiotemporal relationships and become agents of social critique by asking: When do maps exceed their role as material artifacts by interfacing with mental geographies of individuals or societal structures? Unfolding the social lives of maps, the paper proposes, demonstrates their ability to exceed traditionally assumed utilitarian roles as lifeless transmitters of ‘objective’ facts, instead revealing cartographic assemblages of identity, memory, trauma, and protest.