Ma lecture de l’Atlas des Etats du Golfe

J’ai le plaisir de signaler la parution sur Jadaliyya Cities de mon compte rendu de Philippe Cadène and Brigitte Dumortier, Atlas of the Gulf States. Leiden: Brill, 2013. Cet ouvrage était paru en français en 2011, comme je l’avais alors signalé. Mon séjour d’enseignement à Abu Dhabi, en septembre, m’avait permis de me faire une petite idée de cette région. Cet ouvrage permet évidemment d’aller beaucoup plus loin. Dans ce compte rendu destiné à un public anglophone, j’explique certains des trucs de conception d’un tel atlas, si typiquement français. Sur un ouvrage concurrent, mais franchement mauvais, on lira aussi ce billet.

Mapping as a French Academic Tradition and its Critics

It seems that English-speaking geographers and urbanists publish many fewer atlases, and draw fewer maps, than their French and—at least until recently—German counterparts. In France, there has been a frenzy of publishing atlases of everything and everywhere since the 1990s. What was first, at the advent of digital cartography, limited to academia, soon became a larger movement covering many topics and countries or regions of the world. The academic tradition of regional geography contributed to the launching of scientific books illustrated by various digitally processed cartograms and other varied infographics. The series « Dynamiques du territoire, » which geographer Roger Brunet launched in the 1990s, was pioneering in this perspective, with more than twenty-five books. But soon, other publishers followed a similar path, which soon transformed into an editorial highway. This is particularly the case with the publisher Autrement, which has also translated and/or adapted historical atlases initially written in English. With less than a hundred pages, these books, intended for the general public, have transformed the genre, pushing colored and attractive images and illustrations at the expense of text, limited to short notes. They offer interesting introductions to many subjects and areas, particularly those associated with current geopolitical issues such as Atlas de l’Islam dans le monde or Atlas mondial de l’eau.

Using a more demanding approach, the team of Le Monde Diplomatique and its famous cartographer, Phillippe Rekacewicz, have introduced a series of critical atlases, dealing with globalization, global conflicts, and environmental issues. In so doing, they are subverting the usual canons of mapping, often viewed by its critics as a tool in the hands of (military) powers, rather than an instrument of revolt and awareness. The former is probably the reason that, since the cultural and post-colonial turn of the 1990s, English-speaking academics seem to be wary of such intellectual products, seeing them as instruments of domination that utilize oversimplified—if not altogether flawed—categories intended to impose facts on the ground that in reality do not exist. Indeed, most governmental statistical data contribute to the legitimation of borders that often continue to be irrelevant.

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