IIAS Lunch Lecture

Opening up cartographic studies to insights from Global History: The case of Japan

In an oft-quoted article, Bruno Latour illustrates his discussion of maps as ‘immutable mobiles’ with a description of the exchange between a Chinese and a French cartographer. Framing this example in terms of ‘differences between a savage geography and a civilized one’ ignores the richness of Asian cartographical production, reinforcing the bias towards a history of Eurocentric progress. In contrast, maps are being reassessed as a ‘discourse function’, corresponding to Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the dialogical nature of the world, reenacted every time we engage in conversation. The analysis of patterns of this reenactment in the case of maps has been called ‘process cartography.’

I am applying the above ideas to maps from the collection of Leiden University Libraries, which I am co-curating for an upcoming exhibition* at the Japan Museum SieboldHuis. Most of these maps belonged to Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a medic and scholar who visited Japan and exchanged geographical knowledge by engaging with the East Asian practice of literati (ch. wenren, jp. bunjin) intellectual gatherings.

By studying seals, inscriptions and other cartographic paratexts preserved on the maps in the Siebold collection, we can recover their social and material agency within a collaborative frame. This approach contributes to the decentering of the Eurocentric narrative by acknowledging the synchronicity and intermeshing of multiple ‘movable centers’.

* The exhibition in the SieboldHuis is held in the framework of the LeidenAsiaYear which celebrates the opening of 'The Asian Library'. The topic is also related to the two-day conference 'Mapping Asia' (15-16 September 2017).

Inline image: Matsumura Kyube, Tenpo saisen kaisei Nihon zu, 1843, East Asian Library Ca27, University of California, Berkeley.

Dr Radu Leca (lecaradu@gmail.com) is an affiliated fellow at IIAS.

About IIAS Lunch Lectures

Every month, an IIAS researcher or visiting scholar will present his or her work-in-progress in an informal setting to colleagues and other interested attendees. IIAS organises these lunch lectures to give the research community the opportunity to freely discuss ongoing research and exchange thoughts and ideas.