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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


Edited By András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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The Rhetorical Lives of (Cold War) Maps (Timothy Barney)

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Timothy Barney

The Rhetorical Lives of (Cold War) Maps

The September 17th, 1951, issue of Time magazine featured a peculiar and striking image over a two-page spread – a map of the sprawling Soviet Union. The map reveals a network of red circles, shaded areas, and pink hammer-and-sickle icons dotted all over the topography of a stark gray and white Soviet landscape, each indicating the location of “Gulag” system prison camps. The accompanying text in Time tells a story of the map’s provocation of an incident between the U.S. and the Soviet Union at the 1951 San Francisco conference to inaugurate a Japanese peace treaty. Here the “Gulag–Slavery, Inc.” map became a cartographic weapon when Missouri’s Congressman O.K. Armstrong walked up to Soviet Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andrei Gromyko, and asked him if he wanted to see a map of Russia. “I’d be delighted,” said Gromyko. Unfolding the map, Armstrong helpfully explained: “It happens to contain an accurate portrayal of every slave labor camp in the Soviet Union”. Gromyko blinked at the map, mumbled “No comment,” and handed it to an aide who tossed it into the aisle. Indeed, below the imposing map are before/after-style photos of the “incident” – on the left, we see Republican Rep. Armstrong unfolding the map before a sitting Gromyko; on the right, we see a stone-faced Gromyko staring ahead, as the map sits beside him on the floor of the conference room (News in Pictures 1951: 28–29).

Of course, the Armstrong-Gromyko exchange can be added to a long list of the minor anecdotes in the history of chilly, Cold War diplomatic relations. Yet, a deeper exploration of this map reveals a compelling case about both the strategic and ideological functions of mapping. Before the map became a kind of diplomatic prank in the hands of Congressman Armstrong, it began as a collaboration in a global labor research project between the AFL-CIO and the United Nations Economic and Social Council, authored by a Russian emigrant ghostwriting journalist, underwritten by the CIA, and publicized internationally by The Voice of America radio. The many uses and appropriations of the piece has led to its citation as “one of the most widely circulated pieces of anti-Communist literature” (Young 1958: 601).

In this era, maps were constantly appropriated, debated, revised, and re-appropriated. Cold War maps lived; they were active and malleable documents. Such a seemingly, bi-polar, universal, and fixed conflict as the Cold War required immense work to maintain an image of fixity. Maps, thus, had to continually ← 83 | 84 → reproduce and maintain the essential artifice of the conflict. Bruno Latour has written of the concept of “immutable mobiles,” in which a visual image of scientific data is frequently seen as a fixed and finished product, hence immutable, yet at the same time an image that is constantly moving and reproducible for a multitude of contexts (Latour 1990: 26). A map has an age-old power, then: to appear as an unimpeachable representation of the world, while its easy usability makes for a remarkable flexibility in what it can offer its users (Raffestin 2000: 9). The hardened lines between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and by extension America’s allies and satellite adversaries in its so-called “spheres of influence” across the globe) may appear immovable and essential on Cold War maps; however, the hardening of these lines only comes from the maps’ ability to draw and be drawn into the active construction of the Cold War.

These active constructions can be traced through a specific, critical approach to analyzing cartography. A map possesses what I would call a “rhetorical life”. In other words, a map has a particular lifespan in which it exists as a communicative practice, as it works through the intersections of public and private spaces, institutional and popular contexts, and artistic and scientific modes of collection, synthesis, and expression. By noting the concept of a rhetorical life, though, I am not concerned with some kind of defined origin point or “end of life” death moment for a map. Such points are always debatable and shifting, depending upon context – and therein lies the point: a map is never a finished product (Hartnett 1998: 287–288). Rather, the notion of a map’s “rhetorical life” merely points to how a map reflects and shapes its multitude of contexts, as it lives and functions as a usable, material document (see also Certeau 1984: 121). Finding the connections, say, between the production techniques of a map, and the ways in which that map is re-used and re-copied allows us to keep the business of cartography properly historicized and dynamic across wide expanses of time (Pickles 1992: 219–220). Cara Finnegan has written of the “eventfulness” of visual images, specifically photographs, wherein the meaning-making of an image stems from the contexts of its production, the details of its composition, and the movement of that image through the complex contexts of its immediate reproduction, its circulation, and in the variety of responses from audiences (Finnegan 2010: 251). For the lives of Cold War maps, we can similarly trace the residues of a map as it moves through the culture, and how it assumes a diversity of particular roles for its users.

The concept of a rhetorical life emphasizes the engagement of a map with its immediate context, but also with other Cold War artifacts. Denis Wood and John Fels have argued that the map continually advertises itself to be taken authoritatively, and that advertisement takes the form of a paramap. The paramap is a ← 84 | 85 → construction that goes beyond the map itself and includes all of “the verbal and other productions that surround and extend” a map’s presentation (dedications, inscriptions, epigraphs, prefaces, notes, illustrations) (Wood–Fels 2008: 8–9). In addition, the paramap includes all of the elements not just appended to the map, but circulating in the social space around the map (advertisements for the map, reviews, production information); for Wood and Fels, “ultimately it is the interaction between map and paramap that propels the map into action” (Wood–Fels 2008: xvi). What this approach seeks to prove is that a map is never just a map, but a confluence of social forces that constrains a culture’s sense of its relationship to, and in, the world. Maps are central, then, to a concept prevalent amongst geographers and historians, of a “geographic imagination” where cultures obtain and circulate geographic knowledge.1

The idea of the paramap can extend to how mapping is described and accounted for by its practitioners and circulators. Shawn Parry-Giles has emphasized the need to examine not only the public discourses of the Cold War, but also the need to evaluate and weigh the covert actions and motives of its powerful actors (Parry-Giles 2002: 183–186). How these agents, often behind-the-scenes, actually talk about and conceive of their roles and their messages reveal the very fluidity and the constructed nature of the Cold War, as well as what kinds of collaborations and contestations brought certain ideologies forward while relegating others to the background. Map producers and users wrote and spoke often about the role of space and how geopolitics positioned the United States in particular ways, and thus that “cartographic talk” is as important as the maps they accompanied. While the finished displays of Cold War maps often rested upon an aura of “truth” and objective detachment so common to scientific work of the era, the producers and users of maps showed a remarkable understanding of how maps could be molded to create very specific visions and advance complex arguments (Harley 2001: 37; Pickles 1992: 219).

This kind of movement of a map through Cold War culture, as well as the ways in which cartography is contested and debated by its users, is borne out through examples like “Gulag–Slavery, Inc.” Across an enlarged Russian Caucasus was a rash of red dots indicting what Soviet officials were denying in international media. This AFL map is certainly important for how its visual codes and symbols politicize the space of the Soviet Union as a landscape of secrecy and oppression; ← 85 | 86 → yet, adding to the map’s display on the page is its provenance and its remarkable life as an active, evidentiary weapon. The Gulag map was a collaboration between popular journalists, the State Department, and an AFL looking to strengthen its anti-communist credentials. And the map arrived in a political culture rife with Holocaust memory and visuality as well as with the charged discourse of “slavery” against ideological foes. Lawmakers quickly adopted the map as an icon for hardline anti-communism, American teachers used the map to teach current affairs in classrooms, overseas labor unions circulated the map to their “brothers” to protest working conditions, and official Soviet reaction to the map (in charged diplomatic exchanges and even in seizures of it on the streets of Eastern Europe) brought out the hostility against Western propaganda.

Other examples from the period offer intertextual support to the “life” of the Gulag map. Also in 1951, the American Geographical Society, through sponsorships from Army and Navy research grants as well as major pharmaceutical companies, embarked ambitiously on a project to map current knowledge of diseases and health epidemics such as polio, malaria, yellow fever, even starvation. The resulting Atlas of Disease produced an influential series of innovative, detailed maps between 1950 and 1955 that showed a world filled with parasitical invaders.2 Particularly during a tumultuous period of decolonization, the Atlas of Disease visualized the so-called “three worlds” that theorists and practitioners of development and modernization were using to “bring up” the “diseased” sub-equatorial nations. But, again, more than mere visualization, the lives of the Atlas of Disease maps showed the active movement of cartography into Cold War spaces: used by corporations such as Pfizer to develop international markets where its drugs could yield the best profits, brought into the Army to study the viral encephalitis that U.S. troops in Korea were suffering from, re-drawn in Congress to support funding and expansion of the Mutual Security Act, and used to study where “advisers” could safely tread in Vietnam.

Despite their different aims, the Gulag map and the Atlas of Disease maps are united in the ways they fuse institutional and popular discourses together, and in the ways that their eventful rhetorical lives made them usable, material documents. Both also intersect with the immensity of Cold War state power in the United States as they reify the importance of spatial perception in defining American interests vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and the so-called rest of the world. ← 86 | 87 → The Gulag map served to edify the stark lines of the East/West dichotomies of the early post-World War II era, while the Atlas of Disease foreshadows the ways in which new North/South dichotomies would come to constrain the decolonizing Cold War landscape and America’s increasingly intervening hand. Such rhetorical lives even show the kind of important conversations that maps, in a sense, shared with other maps. At one point, for example, the producers of the Atlas of Disease consulted with the leaders of the American Federation of Labor and their Gulag map data to pinpoint where the Soviet government was holding its prisoners, in order to plan their own map of human starvation.3 Even small connections like these create a tangible sense of a wide cartographic scope that encompassed the Cold War and the compelling ways that American officials and other prominent institutions were dependent on particular cartographic perceptions of the world.

Cases like these affirm that cartography, and by extension, the production of Cold War space, was above all, a practice. The “production of space” is often a term that is invoked vaguely – an idea easier to theorize about in the abstract than it is to see in everyday interaction. And yet, as geographer Jouni Hakli notes, “cartography offers a productive momentum to political practices”; in other words, the relevance of maps is based on the “immutability in the relationships that maps establish between cartographic representation and the world of practice within which they emerge” (Hakli 2009: 28).

Maps like the Gulag project, for instance, reveal what geographer Trevor Barnes and others have called the “mangle” of collaborations and competitions between the foreign policy institutions of the executive branch of the U.S. government, the defense apparatuses of the armed forces, private and independent organizations such as the AFL, the popular journalism at outlets such as Time, and even supranational powers like the United Nations (Barnes 2008: 7). Common amongst these groups was the impulse to work out the spatial parameters of what exactly the Cold War was, and how it should be, or should have been, fought. And while the rhetorical presidencies of central figures such as Truman and Eisenhower remain vital to Cold War study, as does the critique of its famed architects like George Kennan and Walt Rostow, one of the best ways to trace Cold War space is to follow its mid-level bureaucrats, practitioners, and policymakers who were actively writing world space and circulating geographic visions (this approach is modeled in Farish 2010). ← 87 | 88 →

To take Bruno LaTour too far, though, is to see maps as actually immutable; rather, the perception of maps as immutable is what powers cartography. Maps are fundamentally insecure.

Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge express that a map is:

[…] brought into the world and made to do work through practices such as recognizing, interpreting, translating, communicating, and so on. It does not re-present the world or make the world (by shaping how we think about the world); it is a co-constitutive production between inscription, individual and world; a production that is constantly in motion (Kitchin–Dodge 2007: 335).

Maps, then are “always mapping,” attempting to appear representative, and this process is what makes maps so dynamic in Cold War culture (Kitchin–Dodge 2007: 337).

Thus, from the origins of particular Cold War maps and their techniques of production and data management into their appropriated usages and diverse interpretations by sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating Cold War institutions and audiences – the story of how the U.S. mapped itself and the world in the second half of the twentieth century is a vital story about the synthesis, the framing, and above all, the practice and the movement of America’s international power. For geographers Denis Wood and John Fels, to map is to claim that “this is there” – and America required images of strength and commitment in maps to legitimize its self-interest as commensurate with the interests of the rest of the world, and for those images to have productive (and inevitably contentious) lifespans across a wide array of contexts (Wood–Fels 2008: xvi).


Barnes, Trevor J. (2008): Geography’s Underworld: The Military-Industrial Complex, Mathematical Modeling and the Quantitative Revolution. Geoforum 39: 3–16.

Certeau, Michel de (1984): The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Farish, Matthew (2010): The Contours of America’s Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Finnegan, Cara (2010): Studying Visual Modes of Public Address: Lewis Hine’s Progressive-Era Child Labor Rhetoric. In: Parry-Giles, Shawn J. – Hogan, J. Michael (eds.): The Handbook of Rhetoric and Public Address. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. 250–270.

Gregory, Derek (1994): Geographical Imaginations. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. ← 88 | 89 →

Hakli, Jouni (2009): Mapping Politics. Political Geography 28: 335.

Harley, J. B. (2001): The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Edited by Paul Laxton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hartnett, Stephen (1998): Michel de Certeau’s Critical Historiography and the Rhetoric of Maps. Philosophy and Rhetoric 31: 283–302.

Kitchin, Rob – Dodge, Martin (2007): Rethinking Maps. Progress in Human Geography 31: 331–344.

Latour, Bruno (1990): Drawing Things Together. In: Lynch, Michael – Woolgar, Steve (eds.): Representation in Scientific Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 19–68.

N.A. (September 17, 1951): News in Pictures: Gulag–Slavery, Inc. Time. 28–29.

Parry-Giles, Shawn J. (2002): The Rhetorical Presidency, Propaganda, and the Cold War, 1945–1955. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Pickles, John (1992): Texts, Hermeneutics, and Propaganda Maps. In: Barnes, Trevor J. – Duncan, James S. (eds.): Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text & Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape. London: Routledge. 193–230.

Raffestin, Claude (2000): From Text to Image. Geopolitics 5: 7–35.

Schulten, Susan (2001): The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wood, Denis – Fels, John (2008): The Natures of Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Young, William R. (1958): Gulag–Slavery, Inc.: The Use of an Illustrated Map in Printed Propaganda. In: Daugherty, William E. (ed.): Psychological Warfare Casebook. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 597–601. ← 89 | 90 →

1 Derek Gregory has provided a full theoretical treatment of this “geographic imagination” concept (Gregory 1994). Another rich historical application of these notions can be found in Schulten 2001.

2 These materials are collected in the Jacques May Papers Collection and the American Geographical Society Medical Geography Archives at the American Geographical Society Library (AGSL), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

3 Specifically, this information is archivally drawn from: Letter From A. Larkin to Jacques May, 22 June 1953, Folder 1: Plates 8 and 9, Correspondence 1952–54, Box 3, Series 1: Professional Records, 1943–1960, Jacques May Papers, AGSL.