New medieval geography & third cultural space: Mapping the modern world

Authors: Kirill Savinov, Ekaterina Motyakina

Why it is time to make the case for geography.

Alastair Bonnett. Photo: Dmitry Smirnov/ British Council Russia

Geography is humanity’s great intellectual tradition stretching back thousands of years. Some believe that its earliest precursors can be seen in rock carvings that might be maps – one of the earliest means of communication.

Since then, humans have evolved and thought of new ways to schematically describe and measure our planet. Maps can contain a variety of information, from charting energy networks to pinning the location of Twitter users or the hot spots of global warming. In his book ‘New Views: The World Mapped Like Never Before’ (2017), social geographer Alastair Bonnett presents a unique collection of 50 maps in which our physical, political and cultural world is visualised, measured, and mapped like never before.

A professor of social geography at the University of Newcastle, Alastair Bonnett is the author of 10 books, as well as over a hundred scientific articles. His scientific interests include geopolitics, sociology, national and cultural identity, issues of globalization, migration, self-determination, racial conflicts and ways to resolve them. 

Strelka Magazine spoke with Bonnett about the latest trends in geography during his stay in Moscow. His visit for the Non/Fiction book fair was organized by British Council Russia.


Maps as a ‘third cultural space’

Geography disappeared from higher education in many countries in the late 20th century, because unlike astrophysics or epidemiology or other specialisms it is a holistic enterprise that brings together scientific and socio-scientific information from the humanities. That means it’s an interesting and often troublesome intellectual tradition in an era of specialism. But because of our need today to have an integrated view of knowledge, and because of environmental crisis, there’s never been a better time to make the case for geography. And the fact that it can bring together the physical and human world is precisely why we need it.

Often maps will confirm what we already know. But I think there’s something particularly important about visual representation, which enables you to see comparisons and draw lines literally. And it also has to be understood as more than just information. Maps are on the border between science and art, and they’re also like a third cultural space, where you have texts, written words, novels and so on, on the one hand, and then you have purely visual material, on the other.

They’re not just a synthesis of the visual and the textual like comics. And I think they have a direct appeal. Maps are in fact older than geography. I have an argument that they’re actually the oldest form of human cultural expression.

When people look at cave or drawings or rock carvings, they often don’t know what they are, because strange symbols are carved in the rocks. I think a lot of these are maps. A lot of the ways that people first expressed themselves was through maps, because they had to find and communicate to the tribe or group where the food was and where the dangers were.

So, where I live there are these ancient rock carvings, like in a lot of places in the world, and I think they might be 30,000 years old. They’re just like circles and circles, and circles ‒ you find them in the rocks. People don’t understand them: why were people drawing these strange carvings in the rocks? But one theory, and it’s one I support, is that they are forms of cartography. And that supports this idea that the first thing that we did as humans is we wanted to express ourselves and so we started to draw maps. That’s my cartocentric vision of human history.


The reemergence of medieval geography

A new medieval geography has emerged, in which you have little city-states battling it out.

In Syria and Iraq, the geography has exploded, and no one knows how to draw the map of that area anymore. People pretend they can draw the map but they don’t know how. And lots of little enclaves come and go in a night at the borders around where one lives. So, that’s very strange and very frightening.

You find that in eastern Ukraine as well, although it’s not nearly so violent, but it’s still pretty bad. This shows that throwing out modern borders is not always a good thing, that they do provide a lot of stability and comfort. And people sometimes ask why we have borders and do we need borders, wouldn’t it be good to get rid of borders? Actually, stable national borders have been very good for people’s security. And we can see what happens when they fragment and disappear. It isn’t a lovely world of liberation. It’s more a sense of uncertainty.

Alastair Bonnett. Photo: Dmitry Smirnov/ British Council Russia

I understand why borders have been such an important feature of the modern world, why they provide so much security, and why they really are necessary. I don’t think we’re ever going to have a world without borders, not that I really want one.


‘New nomads’

The new nomads is a rather wealthy elite phenomenon of people who have very flexible working lives and are able to work in an office in Berlin for a few months and then in New York or wherever. So these are the mobile, entrepreneurial group of people often associated with the IT sector, and they have been the driving force of this phenomenon called “the new nomads”. And this has created a fashion for creating mobile living structures, little moving houses or boats ‒ things that are of a small size and that can be transported with you as you move around the world. And it’s quite an exciting vision that you don’t have to have one house, one home that you are anchored to, rooted forever. That is increasingly seeming like a kind of rather oppressive vision of having a home.

The new nomads do, however, also represent a kind of footloose capitalism, which doesn’t quite understand why a lot of ordinary people ‒ I count myself as one ‒ actually need a home, need a place that they can feel rooted to, need a sense of community, and are not comfortable or not able just to move around the planet in this network of young wealthy people. It’s just not available to the great majority of us.

There’s an association between wealth and the capacity to ignore borders, to feel like you’re transcending borders, and to feel like you are cosmopolitan and above the ordinary world and ordinary people.

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