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The Visual Conquest of International Law: Brute Boundaries, the Map, and the Legacy of Cartogenesis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 March 2018


The late critical geographer Brian Harley forewarned that modern cartography had come to control and even ‘imprison’ spatial understandings of the earth. Where does this leave international lawyers when they encounter a quintessential ‘World Map’? Quite bluntly: tied to an inscriptive institution that has embodied the modern legibility and visualization of earth space. When speaking about the global arrangements of economic and political power constituted through law, what emerges, therefore, is the need for an expanded spatial literacy among international lawyers that critically engages the graphic legacy and influence of the geometric map. To enhance that literacy, I reach beyond the doctrinal field to engage a powerful spatial critique that has thus far encompassed scholarship across geography, international relations (IR) and sociology. A critique that took impetus over 20 years ago with John Agnew's assertion that modern social science had become captured by a ‘territorial trap’. The article attempts to enrich that critique with Mark Salter's insight on material power, Marshall McLuhan's emphasis on the medium of communication, and Bruno Latour's critique of cartographic naturalism. Specifically, I introduce the concept of cartogenesis as a way of underlining the deeper legacy and consequence of modern cartography, and specifically how the map medium should be grasped as a historical actant that has inscribed a particular ‘ground map’ of international authority. Lastly, the article looks at how geometric mapping now confronts new inscriptive ordering in the forms of transnational lists and contracts, which assert a growing scale of authority over earth space to an extent not seen since the Mercator Projection was recognized as an overriding geographic model.

INTERNATIONAL LEGAL THEORY: Symposium on International Law and Political Economy
Copyright © Foundation of the Leiden Journal of International Law 2018 

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