Mapping America: re-creating in the cartographic imagination.

Author:Conrad, JoAnn

The Shaping of a National Citizenry

Maps have long been part of the American cultural landscape. Plotting military advances and territorial expansion; regulating and demarcating land through surveys, thereby inextricably merging land and property, maps have shaped our sensibility of the landscape at the same time as they have guided our movement through it. The mapped identity of the U.S. as the visualized outline of the forty-eight contiguous states is, by now, a naturalized phenomenon both in the sense that it is taken for granted, and in the sense that the natural boundaries have been set by nature--originating at the Atlantic and terminating at the Pacific Ocean. (3) The shape of the continental United States, established cartographically, unproblematically represented in road maps, railroad maps, atlases, school texts, advertisements, and news, has become iconographic. Inscribed onto the popular imagination, it has "entered the national collective image bank ... [T]he shape of the United States is so ingrained in the minds of those who live here ... that it stands for the nation as a symbol" (Holmes 1991, 7), which is then conflated with the continent--"America". In this nation/continent homology, however, nature operates metonymically with culture, and the cartographic presentation belies an ideological and historical shaping of the country that is anything but natural. In fact, the sleight of hand by which the "irrefutable" materiality of the ground that is presented and the scientific cartographic processes by which the in-itself-material map is produced transform the ideological possession of that land into its own reality and into claims that "we Americans" are here, coast-to-coast. This obscures alternative, often highly contested, mappings, and effaces the processes of coercion and consensus building which involve the interwoven strands of politics, economics, ideology, social change, power, and domination that have resulted in a singular narrative of national identity, visualized in the map of nation.

This notion of continental integrity fused with national identity is thus one of an imagined and contested space, in which neither the nation nor the space it occupies can be postulated a priori as preexisting or fixed, but is the outcome of specific historical, narrative processes. "America," thus, ontologically, is not an immutable, taken for granted "ground," but a potentiality to be filled with meaning and thus recognized as meaningful. Maps play a critical and yet largely unchallenged role in the ideological work of fixing such meaning. The apparent capacity of the map to hold together the nation from the internal and external forces of disintegration, the semiotic and rhetorical potency of the map, based, in part, on the deceptive fixity of the mapped terrain and the naturalness of the continental nation, can be seen as the imposition of a hegemonic view masquerading as "common knowledge." In other words, "it is the map that precedes the territory"(Baudrillard 1983, 2); "mappings do not represent geographies or ideas; rather they effect their actualization"(Corner 1999, 225).

In a sense, then, the maps of the continental United States show the development of an American [creation] myth which "... functions to control history, to shape it in text or image as an ordained sequence of events. The world is rendered pure in the process; complexity and contradiction give way to order, clarity, and direction. Myth, then, can be understood here as an abstract shelter restricting debate. But myth can also function as ideology--as an abstraction broadly defining the belief system of a particular group ..." (Truettner 1991, 40). But these ideologies which undergird the overdetermined sense of order in any map are only possible through the continued discarding, forgetting, and evacuation of those strands that run counter to the main narrative; those counter mappings which threaten the integrity of the national space.

The narrative of "America," with hindsight as its perspective, presents a seamless and naturalized series of such myths--presumptions which subsume the Americas into a metageography which obfuscates its ideological underpinnings: the myth of continents; the myth of the nation state; and the myth of the East to West progression of civilization (Lewis and Wigen 1997, xiii), all of which have been mapped onto the terrain and the national consciousness. In this narrative, continents become fundamental building blocks of geography which are reified, acquiring the status of a "naturalized geographical taxonomy" (Lewis and Wigen 1997, 8-9). The idea of this continental America thus justified continental conquest in the name of national integrity, while the concept of a continental nation supported notions of American exceptionalism and privilege.

Although this dominant narrative seeks to organize the unified nation ideologically through the cartographic image of an imaginary America which is naturalized by the representation of a contiguous land mass, a reinvestigation of these maps reveals the sub-texts which constantly threaten to destabilize and challenge the singular narrative strand of American continental/national unity, as well as the historical changes that belie this mythic unity--the recuperative adjustments which seek to contain and subdue alternatives.

The Ties Bind the Nation

Although in the territorial uncertainties of the colonial period the map of America was shifting and contested, the general impulse of continental expansion was nonetheless dominated by an EastWest logic (i.e., a N-S Frontier) until the Civil War. Here, again, the cartographic process inscribed the shatter belt of the astronomically surveyed Mason-Dixon Line, rupturing the East-West logic, threatening to expose the disorder in the apparent order of the map. As the United States reinvented itself as a unified, whole nation in the wake of the Civil War the West became even more central to the national mythos, and westward expansion and continental unification along the East-West axis resumed, marked, significantly, by the completion of the transcontinental railway in May of 1869, joining the Union and Central Pacific Lines.

The physical incorporation and linkage of the mythic landscape of the West to the rest of the nation provided the focus for American regeneration, reunification and self-affirmation. The marriage of mapping and the railroads served further to solidify the image of the unified, continental nation, sutured and reinforced by the iron rail grid. The story of these maps is one of masculine domination and conquest over Nature in the form of presidential acts rather than the story of those whose physical labor produced the railways, or who were displaced or dislocated as a result of them.

The railroads, as major landholders in the late nineteenth century, were to dominate the changing ways in which the nation was apprehended, not only through their linking of the continent, but through the hastening of the in-migration of settlers into more of the West, reconfiguring settlement patterns along the narrow corridors of railroad development. The American landscape was reduced to strips that criss-crossed the mapped surface, with vast, unknown, and emptied territories beyond, many of which had been stripped of their former significance.

The growing strength of the railroads and the increased demand for rail travel also ushered in a significant new presence into the landscape--tourism. Railroad tourism offered growing numbers of the elite a comfortable way to view and travel through the country. Tourism became typified as the act of viewing--sightseeing preselected natural wonders from the comfort of the Pullman car windows, or, at the very most, from the vista points provided by the luxury hotels that grew up at such destinations along the rail lines. Situated alongside or nearby the spectacular sights of Nature--the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, (4) and Yosemite--tourists were guided in an act of national communion and reaffirmation. As such, tourism initiated a new form of collective citizenship; the embodied retracing of a shared destiny, and a shared experience in the space of America.

One of the earliest to reconfigure and repackage the landscape around the logic of the rail lines and the new viewing tourist was Fred Harvey, who famously repackaged the West as a series of motorcar "detours" that took city "dudes" to various vista points in luxury cars that conveniently detoured from the rail line into landscapes in which imaginary "natives" were colorful, silent, and static. (5) [Fig. 1].

After the antagonistic and hostile natural and human forces in the West had been subdued, the tourist was able to romanticize and "experience" these forces in a repackaged state. (6) These decontextualized and recontextualized tourist destinations, then, became imagined places, the precursors to contemporary theme parks, where reminders of suffering and social conflict are removed from the touristic purview. These touristic itineraries restaged narratives of conquest of the native peoples who were evacuated from the newly constituted national parks, put on reservations, and presented as ethnographic remnants of "authentic" Indian cultures in a decontextualized setting for the consumption of tourists seeking a palliative to the rigors of modern, urban life.


With the emergence of the vacation as an individual right, and the configuration of touristic sights as encapsulating the essence of the nation, tourism addressed and shaped a particular America and collective American identity. Tourism and nation building were conjoined--structuring the meanings of experience, desire, visuality, mobility, and consumerism; defining the "good life" as a social and moral imperative. Thus tourism, during this early period of railroad travel, allowed for an affirmation of the tourist's rightful place at the...

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