Despite the popularity of this kind of world map, it's only one of many possible ways of depicting the earth, its lands, and its various people. More importantly, in terms of accuracy and sociopolitcal equity, it's also a bad way of depicting the earth, and of imagining it, because it reflects and encourages Eurocentric, "white" notions of superiority and centrality.
This popularly accepted image of the world is called a "Mercator projection," after Gerhardus Mercator, the Flemish mathematician and cartographer who invented it in 1569. In order to make it easier to navigate the globe, Mercator filled a rectangle with the surface of our spherical earth by shrinking some of its details and magnifying others. This distorted image comes to mind for most Americans as the way the world looks on a map because it's long appeared as the most common type of world map in textbooks, classrooms, and daily life.
In order to make the globe fill out a rectangle, Mercator enlarged land masses near the North and South Poles. A distortion commonly cited to illustrate this problem is the way the map portrays Greenland and Africa as about the same size. In the real world (or rather, on it), Africa is actually about fourteen times larger than Greenland. Also, since Europe and North America are distant from the equator, they too appear proportionally larger than they really are. A general problem with the Mercator projection's popularity occurs when many of us go on to confuse this distorted map for the territory.
Aside from fostering a distorted understanding of what the world really looks like, this map also reflects the location of its maker and users in Europe. It does so by placing this completely arbitrary geographical location directly in the center of the world (or almost directly--given Mercator's method, its location north of the Equator means that it has to be a bit north of dead center).
This manifestation of a European tendency to put themselves "at the center of things" brings to mind a famous New Yorker magazine cover, which depicts a map of America from a New Yorker's perspective:
This cover became a popular poster in the late 1970s, primarily because it effectively satirizes the ironic provincialism of arrogantly "cosmopolitan" New Yorkers. By depicting New York as so much larger and more detailed than the rest of the U.S., and other parts of the world, the artist suggested that New Yorkers have a way of assuming that their city is the center of the earth.
I'm sure that few if any New Yorkers literally do imagine the world this way, and the map on this New Yorker cover probably also struck many of them as funny, and yet in a way, accurate. But in terms of actually trying to represent the world in the form of a map, many groups of people have literally put their land at the center, implying in the process their own heightened significance. Perhaps its natural to do that. Again, though, the problem with the Mercator projection, and especially with its popularity, is that it embeds in people's minds a false and arrogant notion of European (and thus by extension, "white American") significance.
In his book Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past, David Roediger analyzes a reworking of the Mercator projection that was published in 1929 by a group of Surrealists. Roediger points out how this map uses absurdist hyperbole to lampoon the Mercator projection's Eurocentric bias, in part by shrinking Europe and eliminating some of its countries. He also notes that other cultures have produced ethnocentric world maps, such as "an ambitious map drawn by members of Chief Powhatan's confederacy" during the period of British colonization:
The map placed the land which the Native Americans inhabited at the center of a flat world. Near the map's edge, a small pile of sticks represented England. In the early 1720s, remarkable Chickasaw and Catawban maps came into the possession of British officials in Charleston, South Carolina. One Chickasaw map placed the "Chickasaw Nation" in Northern Mississippi at its center, and one produced by a member of a Catawban group enlarged the Piedmont dramatically.
So seeing one's group at the center of things is probably a common human tendency, and indeed, there's a word for it--ethnocentricism. However, this tendency becomes a problem when one group enforces its own ethnocentric version of things onto other groups, washing away and often blasting away their ways of being, in favor of the dominant group's "naturally" more "civilized" ways.
The problem with the Mercator projection, and with other maps that place Europe at the center, is that they foster the common American perception that Europeans, and especially their American descendants, are also at the center--socially, culturally, politically, lingusitically, aesthetically, and in many other ways.
Americans learn in school that the colonial powers of England, France, and Germany are long gone, but most American teachers and other adults don't like to acknowledge that their own country has long engaged in what amounts to imperial abuse. The encouragement in our classrooms of a seemingly common-sense notion of "American exceptionalism" helps our corporate-funded leaders justify America's long tradition of racist resource- and labor-grabbing practices abroad. The continued use of Eurocentric maps like the Mercator projection is just one way of instilling this artificial form of "common sense."
Surprisingly enough (to me at least), the writers and producers of a corporate product, the defunct TV show The West Wing, addressed the role played in this indoctrination process by distorted world maps; they even went as far as having characters explain the arrogant and dismissive implications of the Mercator's projection to a presidential aid, in the hopes that the president would demand its widespread replacement. And, they even discuss an actual, viable replacement, the Peters Projection (of which I've included an example below).
I haven't seen the full episode--have any of you? Unfortunately, the following three-minute clip suggests that it deploys the usual corporate-media tactic: dismissing radical dissent by presenting its representatives as scruffy weirdos. Thus, I doubt that the show's fictional president eventually decides to recommend widespread adoption of more accurate world maps.
It's been a long time since I was in school--I wonder how many teachers have replaced Eurocentric world maps with something more like the Peters Projection (a.k.a., the Peters Equal Area World Map)?
This map was created by Arno Peters, who caused quite a stir in cartographic and scholarly circles when he presented it at a press conference in 1974. Peters argued that although his map also distorts some parts of the world, its depiction of the world's countries in more realistic proportions to each other could encourage a more equitable sense, and thus treatment, of all the world's people.
In case you didn't catch the Peters Projection in that West Wing clip, here it is again:
Although Europe is still centralized on this map, its decreased size works against the Eurocentic bias of maps like the Mercator Projection. And "Eurocentrism" is the problem I'm basically writing against here.
The term "Eurocentrism" is sometimes used interchangeably with "whiteness," but I think their meanings differ. Both are grounded in a largely unexamined perspective that favors and calls upon European or "Western" "civilization," but "whiteness" has more to do with notions of race that are buttressed by Eurocentrism. And of course, European whiteness differs from American whiteness.
In their book Unthinking Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam use the notion of "mapping" as a metaphor in their explanation of what Eurocentrism is, and why it's a problem. Their explanation makes this overly long blog entry even longer, but it's worth quoting at length, to flesh out the larger problem that Eurocentric maps are a part of:
Endemic in present-day thought and education, Eurocentrism is naturalized as "common sense." Philosophy and literature are assumed to be European philosophy and literature. The "best that is thought and written" is assumed to have been thought and written by Europeans. (By Europeans, we refer not only to Europe per se but also to the "neo-Europeans" of the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere.) History is assumed to be European history, everything else being reduced to what historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (in 1965!) patronizingly called the "unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe."
Standard core courses in universities stress the history of "Western" civilization, with the more liberal universities insisting on token study of "other" civilizations. And even "Western" civilization is usually taught without reference to the central role of European colonialism within capitalist modernity. So embedded is Eurocentrism in everyday life, so pervasive, that it often goes unnoticed. The residual traces of centuries of axiomatic European domination inform the general culture, the everyday language, and the media, engendering a fictitious sense of the innate superiority of European-derived cultures and peoples. . . .
Europe is seen as the unique source of meaning, as the world's center of gravity, as ontological "reality" to the rest of the world's shadow. Eurocentric thinking attributes to the "West" an almost providential sense of historical destiny. Eurocentrism, like Renaissance perspectives in painting, envisions the world from a single privileged point. It maps the world in a cartography that centralizes and augments Europe while literally "belittling" Africa.
The "East" is divided into "Near," "Middle," and "Far," making Europe the arbiter of spatial evaluation, just as the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time produces England as the regulating center of temporal measurement. Eurocentrism bifurcates the world into the "West and the Rest" and organizes everyday language into binaristic hierarchies implicitly flattering to Europe: our "nations," their "tribes"; our "religions," their "superstitions"; our "culture," their "folklore"; our "art," their "artifacts"; our "demonstrations," their "riots"; our "defense," their "terrorism."
I'll end by emphasizing that the Eurocentric maps commonly used in American classrooms and textbooks are not the only ways our educational system instills and promotes Eurocentrism and/or white hegemony. In many fields, including history, literature, biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology and others, the basic, grounding fundamentals remain Eurocentric and white American.
These "European" fundamentals, which often remain unacknowledged and unexamined, include an academic area's presumptions and perspectives, its lauded figures and "heroes," its methods and practices, and in most cases, even the teachers themselves. Adding "mulitcultural" lessons, chapters, images, books and so on about and by non-white people can help broaden students' perspectives, but what does this add-on approach really do to identify and challenge the culturally and racially specific center?
If you have an American education, in what other ways was your schooling Eurocentric and/or white American?
Do you remember any teachers countering that central bias, perhaps by explaining the problems and effects of distorted maps like the Mercator projection, or in other ways?
And if you happen to be a teacher, are you doing anything in your classrooms to directly mark and challenge the whiteness buried at the heart and methods of your field?
[This post covers a lot of ground (so to speak), but in order to avoid losing readers, I've left a lot out. The differences between Eurocentrism and whiteness, for instance, call for further elaboration. I also wanted to cover the "North/South, Top/Bottom" problem--if that interests you, take a look at "The Upsidedown Map Page." Finally, I'm not a cartographer, so if I got something about maps wrong here, or anything else, please do correct me in a comment.]