Problems with spatial mapping

There are problems associated with spatial mapping of societies. The following long quote is from the postcolonial historian Arif Dirlik:

The nation, or the nation-state, has been the privileged unit of modernity, but has never ruled out entirely other units of mapping cultures – from the “tribal” units of anthropology to the civilizational units of high cultures. These mappings establish boundaries that are thought to express something about what they contain – more often than not a political unit that derives its identity from particular social and cultural practices, the one not clearly distinguished from the other. These practices are usually taken to radiate from a center somewhere within the boundaries, fading to near invisibility by the time they have reached the boundaries, or are checked in their progress either by the obstacles of physical geography, or encounter with another unit in search of it.

 The encounter produces a boundary, but also a “contact zone,” which Mary Louise Pratt has used to conceptualize “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict.”

 We might add that the “colonial encounter” is only one among a multiplicity of possible encounters that shape the contact zone. In contemporary postcolonial criticism, which has stressed the interaction rather than the hierarchy aspects of the encounter, the interactions in the contact zones have been credited with the production of hybridities that point to the possibility of new social and cultural departures and formations.

 Modernity’s ways of mapping the world in terms of nations, cultures and civilizations have served to provide with a historical geography forms of power created by modernity, but in the process have erased alternative ways of conceiving space, as well as complexities in the dynamics of “the production of space,” as Henri Lefebvre put it, that might point to alternative ways of organizing society and culture. (Dirlik, 2006, p. 418)

Dirlik, A. (2006). TIMESPACE, SOCIAL SPACE, AND THE QUESTION OF CHINESE CULTURE. Monumenta Serica, 54, 417-433. Retrieved from

As an operationally closed communication system, society does not have a size; it is measured in time (the past/future distinction) rather than size. A society exists in time because communication happens in time, not space: One person makes an utterance and waits for another person respond. “Why hasn’t she responded to my text?” This a temporal experience. It doesn’t matter if the participants are thousands of miles apart. Relationships have a duration, an symbolized by things like marriage anniversaries.

From an outside observer’s perspective, societies (like relationships) have beginnings and ends. However, from the perspective of the society (its self-observation), its beginning and end are unknown and inconceivable because its past and future are uncrossable horizons. There must always be the assumption that something is coming next.

All societies are operationally closed, as communication cannot extend beyond communication; therefore, there can be no communication outside of any society. For instance, if one society communicates with another society, then two formerly distinct societies or (communication systems) are now one. We can think in terms of hybrities; however, when we start talking about hybridities, it’s clear that classical logic has failed us–the old categories used the reduce complexity don’t work anymore. For instance, we might speak of racial hybrids, showing that race is a failed, obsolete concept. We might get around these problems by switching to a temporal orientation–that is to say, observing through the lens of the past/future distinction. As Luhmann put it,

System boundaries can no longer be understood as edges of the system, as skins or membranes by which a system fortifies itself, so to speak.

(Theory of Society, vol. 1, 188-89)

In other words, we can conceive of a time before and after two individuals, groups of people, or “civilizations” met, before and after the contact zone was established. This is a kind of temporal mapping.


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