Cartographic Mexico

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Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes  
Cover
Author(s) Raymond B. Craib
Publisher Duke University Press
Publication date Nov. 2004
Pages 328
ISBN 082233416X

Raymond B. Craib’s Cartographic Mexico: A History of State Fixations and Fugitive Landscapes explores the spatial history of Mexico’s state-formation throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In defining ‘spatial history,’ Craib argues that the “history of the modern Mexican state is inextricably entwined with [space] it has not only occupied but actively produced” (2). Specifically, he defines this phenomenon as a series of “contested, dialectical, and social (not merely technical) processes by which explorers, surveyors, and cartographers attempted to define, codify, and naturalize space in cooperation and struggle with the people they encountered in the field” (2). In short, Cartographic Mexico examines a familiar theme in Latin American history, that being the relationship between the burgeoning bureaucratic state and the local rural people, through the novel lens of spatial theory and map-making. Maps, at least in the national imaginary, help define the space a nation occupies concerning itself and its neighboring nation-states. They affirm the boundaries and reach of the government’s authority, justifying a nation’s material existence by delineating its beginning and end. However, Craib complicates this ideal spatial imaginary by introducing a dialectical relationship between state agents and local people on the ground. It is this interaction, between government intermediaries and villagers in the rural countryside, that serves as the primary theme and driving argument for Cartographic Mexico.

Over the course of nine chapters, each structured as independent essays organized chronologically from the 1820s to the 1930s, Craib presents the Mexican state’s goal in defining the nation’s boundaries akin to that of an existential dilemma. He defines this dilemma as the need to “demonstrate that [the] nation” is “something more than mere conjecture” (19). In contrast, the government’s quest for territoriality clashes with the realities of those physically living in these vast swathes of unmapped territory. Focusing closely on the region of Veracruz, Craib describes this dialectical back-and-forth between state and local as a competition between “measurement” and “memory,” “inscription” and “inheritance,” and “technical abstraction with social experience as arbiters of reality” (57). Throughout the book, the specific context of the state-local dialectic shifts from topic to topic, with each essay highlighting the introduction of new technologies or obstacles. For example, chapter one addresses the nascent Mexican state’s crisis of identity in the wake of independence in 1821, while chapters four and five follow the creation of the Comisión Geográfico-Exploradora and its ties to the goals of Porfirio Díaz's regime. Regardless of the period, Craib relies heavily on a Foucauldian-style ‘knowledge is power’ analysis of the state’s motives in acquiring geographical and statistical information. Furthermore, he draws inspiration from other similar academics in the fields of history, human geography, anthropology, and spatial theory, including James C. Scott, Edward Said, and Fernand Braudel. In contrast, most of Craib’s arguments for local peoples' maneuvering through state apparatuses comes from primary sources on the period and authors such as Bernard Cohn and Deborah Poole, both historians of imperialism and imperial subjects. Furthermore, Craib’s excellent use of primary sources, from first-hand accounts to his use and interpretation of period maps, are at the forefront of his analysis in each chapter.

On the note of source material, Craib grounds his reasoning for the use of spatial theory in historical analysis as necessary and productive. The choice to utilize maps in an examination of Mexican state-formation is not one made purely for the sake of academic fashion. He criticizes the uncritical use and disdain for spatial theory in the discipline, generalizing these detractors as seeing space only as a “static and neutral category, a pre-political object, and little more than a passive stage upon which historical subjects play assigned roles” (3). Instead, Craib argues that “space as a stage,” in this case the Mexican state’s fixation with territoriality, “has a history, one inextricably linked to the social abstraction of commodity exchange and the political abstraction of the modern, territorial state” (5). In this sense, he contributes to the historiography of geospatial analysis in history by introducing new voices from the fields of anthropology and human geography as vital in the field’s historical understanding of cartography and human interactions with the physical environment. Craib drills down on these interactions, identifying a dialectical relationship throughout much of Mexico’s modern history. Specifically, the topic of the ejido, or land administrated by the state for public agricultural use, comes up over and over in the sources as a site of contest between the state and the local. At the high point of this debate, as presented in the book’s epilogue, the Mexican government passed legislation in the 1990s that allow for public land to be privatized and sold to foreigners or individuals. In response, native locals, who related the ejido with the promise of nationalization from the Mexican Revolution, treated this like “the slaughter of one of the sacred cows of revolutionary iconography” (256). Craib here reinforces the political and social weight of space, arguing for the ejido’s changing political value and interpretations.

However, Cartographic Mexico’s key strength may also be its greatest weakness. Using maps involves a great deal of interpretive work and although there are numerous primary sources reinforcing Craib’s thesis on state desires for territoriality, there are also examples of ‘artistic’ interpretation that may be less credible. For example, chapter three is dedicated to the study of land plotting, divisions, and the use of foreign intellectuals in the state’s survey work. Craib describes one of the maps as a “compelling image of the land division as well as the mindset that promoted it,” stating that the “grid of property does not sit lightly over the land but appears almost to strangle it, forcing a fractured land into Platonic forms” (91). This argument is initially difficult to accept, as it focuses too much on a non-technical style of interpretive analysis. It is in later chapters that he develops this socio-cultural lens he outlines in his introduction, focusing less on the specifics of the physical maps and more on the symbolic work of state surveyors and the competition between local knowledge and the state imaginary. In this sense, Craib’s abstract analysis of maps seems less like a stylistic choice made for the sake of entertaining reading, although it falls through at times nevertheless, and more a key component in formulating the relationship between state and local interpretations of space.

Craib’s work contributes a great deal not only to Latin American historiography on state-formation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but also helps legitimize the use of spatial theory and geography in history. Utilizing a wide variety of theories and methods and an extensive collection of primary sources, Cartographic Mexico presents a new angle in readings of the nascent Mexican state. Instead of purely political or economic examinations behind Mexico’s shifts from republic to dictatorship, Craib’s argument presents a contest between a struggling nation in search of identity, native peoples struggling to retain their native customs, and a new appreciation for space and land as analytical lenses in defining the role of the state in everyday life.