Christopher Law, CHASE funded student at Goldsmiths, University of London
4 October 2017
What is a place like before it is named? Echoes of this question, issued in the opening pages of Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay (1987) could be heard as CHASE researchers joined JM Coetzee during a visit to the archive of Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south east London, ahead of an international, CHASE-sponsored conference on ‘Coetzee and the Archive’ held at Senate House. Carter’s seminal affirmation of ‘spatial history’, read by participants in advance of the visit, describes a ‘curious rhetorical trick’ deployed by historians, one which works ‘to efface the historical nature of the events described at the very moment their importance is apparently, and piously, asserted’.
As we grouped around tables at the archive, Carter’s insight struck with all the more force. Analysing cartographic records contemporaneous with the colonization of Argentina, South Africa and Australia—alongside maps of London and other northern metropolises—we traced the relentless standardization of mapping technologies that accompanied and enabled capitalist and imperialist forms of expansion. In a method analogous to that by which the abstractions of historical discourse enact the erasure of historical events precisely when they are its purported subjects, the materials we encountered exemplified the paradoxical and often uncanny challenges of archival research: they bore witness to the erasures of the atrocities of colonization as much as to those atrocities themselves. The formal device of the grid, for example, was increasingly deployed by cartographers in the conviction that all space is identical, without history, and empty—and hence, according to the precedence of the ‘right of cultivation’ concisely articulated in Coetzee’s own White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988), colonizable.
As we stumbled over details that seemed to problematize or interrupt this narrative of technological homogenization, however—a cartographer’s notes to self, an outmoded typographical process, an outlandishly subjective description of a body of water— another insight of Carter’s text came to mind: that linguistically irreducible inscriptions—‘acts of naming’, in Carter’s terminology—enact the beginning of ‘spatial history’ each time anew, and so remind us, contra the abstractions of linear history, of the radically finite and irreducibly spatial nature of historical events. As the very medium in which such spatial histories can be recognized, the archive and its materials not only alerted us to the violent eradication of place that continues to accompany colonial technologies of mapping, but also prompted us to consider the possibility of other possible ways of thinking about and with cartography. After the ‘Literatures of the South’ seminars inaugurated in recent years by Coetzee, one name for this practice might be ‘Cartographies of the South’: acts of mapping that do not presuppose the exchangeability of the spaces they encompass, beyond the shifting, local, and perhaps ungraspable yardstick of the ‘South’.