‘This is a war universe’ (William Burroughs): Mappa Bellum or Mapping the War Universe

In his lecture series given at the College de France in 1975-76, Foucault asked whether or not it would be appropriate to use the model of war to analyse the operation of power in society. In the second lecture he dismissed the philosophical question “who has power?” replacing it instead with the questions “where is power” and “how does power function?” This essay will look for the “where” and “how” of power on the map. It will offer an extra premise to Foucault’s conclusion that politics is the continuation of war by other means. Maps and war are intimately linked. ‘Geography grew up in the shadow of the military’. Power and war are intrinsic to the meaning of maps. So if it can be shown that maps are the way we see the world, or, more precisely, the way we see a world; and if it can be shown that society’s will-to-map has in some way changed our perception of the world and our relationship with space, then does it mean that we already see, as William Burroughs put it, the ‘war universe’? The easy answer to this question is no, or not exactly. It would take a radical rethinking for society to be comfortable with the idea that politics is the continuation of war by other means. The same radical rethink would be needed to see, and this is my thesis, that maps are the image of politics as the continuation of war by other means. By looking at the writings of a few radical theorists and theoretical geographers it should become clear that we can indeed see the war universe if we heed the schematic framework that maps are firstly subjective, secondly intimately bound up with the phenomena of war, and thirdly profoundly affect our perception of space by significantly altering the mechanism of the gaze due to the internalization of a “map-vision”, a map-vision predicated on, and borne of, war. If, as Baudrillard said, ‘the map precedes the territory,’ and if the map is a technology of war, then it should follow that we do act and perceive in the war universe.

In an interview printed in Power/Knowledge, Foucault said that a ‘whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers’. The discourse of cartography could be a useful place to start this history if we view it as a truth-producing discourse that is entirely at the whim of political factionism. Recognising this would be taking a conceptual jump from the status quo; it takes a ‘new radical awareness’ of postmodern cartography and a certain methodological leap from academic doxa to really understand the archaeology of geography in terms of war, or to understand how power and space perform a war dance on the image of a map. It might sound counterintuitive but there can be no such thing as a completely transparent and objective map. Due to the inevitable distortions and selective conventions in the making of maps, not to mention the size and the texture discrepancies, a map’s representation of a territory is always flawed; there are inevitably many cartographic silences in any attempt to reproduce real space on a map. Contrary to esoteric cartographic practice and exoteric geographic use, maps are not mimetic. They are always biased, partisan, and politically circumscribed.

Phillip Muehrcke concisely espoused the intuitive but mistaken view of cartographic verisimilitude. He said that ‘the map is only reflecting the mutable world in a passive way; it is not a living, active thing’. Quite the opposite, maps are always an active political argument, a world-view, a technology of power, and a formidable component in the rhetoric of discipline and control. As Geoff King put it in Mapping Reality, ‘the map is more than just passive representation of the territory’. Maps have a definitively active relationship with the space that they represent. Maps sculpt the geopolitical world. They mould territory into partial political systems, reproducing their own image in the territory. Maps are the mask that eats into a territory’s face. They exhaust the reality of the territory. Boundaries and borders, for example, are socially imposed, and the way that they are imposed has profound effects on the way society is organised. National frontiers, once concretized on a map, have the force of law. Or, as J.B. Harley put it, mapped borders have some kind of ‘cosmological significance’ when it comes to ordering our lives. Maps have ‘the power to strengthen territorial claims’ with authority. Additionally, a flat map of a spherical world always entails distortion, and distortion has all sorts of power-knowledge consequences. The Mercator map of the world that we are all familiar with in Europe is itself saturated with ideological proclivities: there is a specific reason why Europe takes centre-stage, crowned of course by Britain. These decisions are ultimately national-imperial. Maps always have a geopolitical context that at once denies any scientific neutrality and any atemporality being attributed to them. They are, therefore, the filter through which we see the historico-political landscape both in time and in space, they change the landscape that we exist in by turning it into a politico-topographical domain whose function and identity is defined ultimately by war. To recognise this is to make a radical break from the cartographic and indeed cultural status quo. Harley saw the philosophical necessity in this new radical awareness when he argued that,
Both in the selectivity of their content and their signs and styles of representation maps are a way of conceiving, articulating, and structuring the human world which is biased towards, promoted by, and exerts influence upon a particular set of social relations.

Maps, then, are a subjective text, a language or, more precisely, a “literature” awash with power plays and directives of war (even though they hide them pretty well). This means that cartography is a politically bound discourse with its own truth-effects. Maps as a truth-seeking or ‘scientific’ discourse are weapons of power. They create their own discursive formations based on the principle of war and hold these formations as gospel. They are, therefore, an instrument of power that fits well within the Foucauldian definition of a technological apparatus of knowledge: ‘It is the actual instruments of power [e.g. maps] that form and accumulate knowledge, the observational methods, the recording techniques, the investigative research procedures, the verification mechanism’. Maps are a specialized weapon of power, they are saturated with traces of war, and they are how war is waged on a subject to subject, state to state, and subject to state level.

Like many other instruments of power, maps undergo a curious transformation. Somehow, even though maps are undeniably social in construction, they garner the aureole of science. Once fixed and objective, maps have the sheen of sincerity and the authority of nature. They transmit a permanence, stasis, and sense of control when in fact they possess an intrinsic image of faction, antagonism, agitation, and war. It is this mechanism (the magical shift from subjective to objective representation) that turns a map into weapon of war and a powerful tool for government, empire, and nation. Maps are how nations “speak”, and by their nature they only speak of war: of us and of them. It has been said that ‘the map is the perfect symbol of the state’ and that ‘the national map and the concept of nationalism are inextricably linked’. It is worth asking, then, how far do maps create the nation that they appear only to represent. It looks like maps have the power to create a national domain geo-coded by war; in a definitional sense, the map’s meaning is war. Maps impose meaning onto the world and in doing so they impose a structural war, an organizational war, a war intrinsic to the society of the mappers and the mapped. Maps reify a nation in the imagination of its nationals. They alter a national’s schema of perception and their relationship with the space around them based on an imposition of territorial anxiety and abstract antagonistic identity; this anxiety, being so deep-seated, might even by quite hard to spot, it might feel normal. Nations become normalized and standardized when they are reproduced and “authenticated” by maps; it is because of this that ‘we are all inevitably someone’s adversary’. This means that maps have a discernible agency over a national’s perception. They entail their own internalized, systemized gaze. They have woven into them a sense of surveillance that reinforces national identity.

It is this sense of surveillance that imperial conquest was predicated on. Maps gave the sense that one can watch the world from a bird’s-eye-view. As King noted, ‘with the help of the map, territory could be understood as a whole rather than a series of separate local impressions’. And as Harley pointed out ‘maps anticipated empire’. Maps classify, delineate, and appropriate land in an imperial context. They offer the world as an object capable of possession:
To map a territory is to stake various kinds of claims to it, to make the assertion of ownership, sovereignty and legitimacy of rule. [… Maps were] a ritual of conquest, an act of conceptual appropriation seemingly inseparable from the seizure of the land itself.
Maps provided would-be colonizers with the prospect of domination. They ignited or maybe even created the imperial drive in the form it has come to take. Being able to have a representation of an area of space in front of you, especially under the guise of objective science, must have had all sorts of complicated consequences for your relationship with space. It turns real territory into a kind of fiction with seemingly fictional consequences. It can ‘foster the notion of a socially empty space’. It provided the opportunity to conceptually carve up land, which inevitably had myriad effects on the working of power relations from territory to territory and person to person. A stroke of a pen could instigate battle. Deluded despots may even fight their wars on the surface of the map only, this is an extreme case but the power-relations at play in a map and the anticipation of war in the form of a map contains this potential. In terms of empire it probably had an effect. Harley conjectures that killing real bodies ‘on a map’ might be more easily contemplated: ‘Military maps not only facilitate the technical conduct of warfare, but also palliate the sense of guilt’. Perhaps this is what Jean Baudrillard meant when he said in a 1991 article in The Guardian that the First Gulf War was an ‘unreal war, a war without symptoms’. Because it was a war fought via images and maps it never actually happened in the eyes of the Americans, they only got the technological coverage, the simulacrum. Bombing an area on a screen, map, or any other image questions its claim to reality; the map-image itself becomes the theatre of war. Baudrillard was not devaluing the loss of Iraqi lives, but he was being facetious by parodying an American view on the war. More importantly, however, is that he cottoned on to something more serious in his polemic.

By implying that the American army fought an unreal war through map-images only, Baudrillard hints at the internalization of map-vision. With the will-to-map comes the “geographication” (for want of a better or real word) of the mental space of an individual. It cultivates an ‘inner geopolitical space which responds to the outer political and cultural situation’. The geographication of the mind is the conscious and unconscious recognition of a mapped territory, it is the feeling felt when surrounded by chartered and demarcated boundaries, it is a socio-geographical understanding conceived in the cognition of gridded territory, and the effect given merely by the familiarity with the concept of a map, but, most importantly, it is the fact, and not necessarily the knowledge, that you are the recipient or relay of many circulations of power that flow through the map to the individual mapped. The process of geographication, in a sense, turns reality into a map, not just by normalizing war-defined territorial arrangements, but also by turning reality into an image, an effigy, and a catachrestic spectacle in the Debordian sense of the term.

It has been said that ‘for those who inhabit particular mappings they are likely to be viewed simply as reality. To those born into them they tend to appear natural’. With the continuous and on-going mapping of every bit of space on the planet, everybody now is born into a map. Google Maps is making sure of it. Everybody, then, is under surveillance. Everybody is mapped, and it feels normal to be so. With this incessant and escapable mapping, then, everybody is in some way related to war in that nobody resides outside the lines of force and everybody occupies a space that marks a point of collision. Through affiliation to nation, everyone is in some sense defined by war. The concept of a map, being mapped and seeing maps, decrees this. But this is not natural. This system is one born of cultural codes. It is a man-made frame imposed upon the world. It comes from the mind of those implicated by what I have called a state of geographication. This state of being was necessary for Baudrillard to announce that henceforth it is the map that precedes the territory. In Simulations, he gave a vivid example of the effects of our engendered map-vision. Using Jorges Luis Borges tale about an empire that commissioned a map of its territory to-scale, and then declined as an empire with the deteriorating condition of the map, Baudrillard offers us a metaphor for the retreat of the real.
It is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the [Borges] fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own’.
Again, Baudrillard cottoned on to something important. The mapped individual has internalised the image of the map so fully, and this image of the map is so engendered with traces of war, that the war universe is the only thing the mapped individual can see. Interestingly, if you look up ‘off the map’ in the dictionary you will find that it means ‘out of existence’, ‘into oblivion’, ‘obsolete’, and ‘of no account’. And if you look up ‘on the map’ it means ‘in existence’ and ‘of some account’. So to slightly alter Burroughs’ announcement in light of the understanding that Baudrillard offers: this is a war universe in that all we can see is war, the simulation or mask of war, the map.

Up until now this essay has been giving examples of the war universe from the juridico-political sphere of geographication, explaining how this works on a national and imperial level. But it must also be stressed that this internalization of map-vision defined by war occurs on a local level as well. An anecdote might help explain this. A friend of mine works in a community centre in the Govan area of Glasgow. The centre offers a scheme based on interventionist care to adolescent gang members. One day he gave them a practical exercise to do. He asked them to draw their version of a map of their home area. Many struggled to “correctly” offer the standardized district and street names. Instead they drew a map showing where it would be safe for them to go and where it would not. Their relationship with the space around them was on a go and no-go basis. Now there is something very interesting in this. The standard map does not apply. But the concept of mapping does. Space is outlined and mapped according to the a sense of confrontation: this is how they saw their world. Once the sovereignty of the “neutral” and “objective” map has been stripped away – a process that we should all get into the habit of doing – mapped territory fully and explicitly enters into the idiom of war. To rid ourselves of the ruse of objective cartography is to make patent the latent underpinnings of war in maps. This anecdote should be read as an example of what Deleuze calls the War-Machine. It is war in a state-free setting as well as war in a national, imperial, and so legal setting. Or more precisely, war emerges from the geographication of the individual in a stratum that exists outside the juridico-political setting as well as within it.

Foucault’s proximity to geographic discourse was only ever cursory, but the influence he has had on theoretical geography or the history of space has been fittingly substantial. I have here offered the potential to extent his proposal that the best/only way to interpret society is through a war-model by arguing that we already do look at society in terms of war because of our intimate and irreversible connection with maps. Understanding the knowledge systems and surveillance mechanisms that maps put in place – on an international, national, and local level – is key to the cultivation and perception of the war universe. Cartographic certainty has become the Golden Lie, the ruse of peace in the arena of war, and cartographers have become the unacknowledged legislators of both public and private warfare. Maps are ubiquitous in more than one sense, and from a detailed analysis of this state of affairs we can affirm, as Foucault did, that ‘a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently’.

Peter William Slater


Baudrillard, Jean, Simulations trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983)
Baudrillard, Jean, “The Reality Gulf”, The Guardian, 1st January 1991, Quoted in King, Geoff, “World-views” in Mapping Reality: An Exploration of Cultural Cartographies (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)
Burroughs, William, “The War Universe” in Grand Street No. 37 (1991)
Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994)
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum Impacts, 2004, originally published in 1987)
Foucault, Michel, “14 January 1976 – War and Power etc.” in Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin Books, 2004)
Foucault, Michel, “21 January 1976 – Theory of Sovereignty and Operators of Domination etc.” in Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin Books, 2004)
Foucault, Michel, Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin Books, 2004)
Foucault, Michel, “Questions of Geography”, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings 1972-1977 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980)
Harley, J.B., “Maps, Knowledge, Power” in The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Harley, J.B., “Power and Legitmation in the English Geographical Atlases of the Eighteenth Century” in The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography (London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
King, Geoff, “Maps of Meaning” in Mapping Reality: An Exploration of Cultural Cartographies (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)
King, Geoff, “The Map That Precedes The Territory” in Mapping Reality: An Exploration of Cultural Cartographies (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)
King, Geoff, “World-views” in Mapping Reality: An Exploration of Cultural Cartographies (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1996)
Mcluhan, Marshall War and Peace
Monmonier, Mark, How to Lie with Maps ((Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996)
Muehrcke, Phillip “Map Reading and Abuse” in Journal of Geographers, Vol. 4, May (1974)


1 Comment

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One response to “‘This is a war universe’ (William Burroughs): Mappa Bellum or Mapping the War Universe

  1. Interesting piece. Also brings to mind how the roots of Ordnance Survey mapping lay in a desire to accurately map the Highlands of Scotland – post the Jacobite rebellion – to construct ‘military roads’. At the same time the Scottish landed gentry began to realise how good mapping could aid the management of their estates. Therefore military and economic interests coalesced to form what was effectively the state mapping office.


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