Implications of the Map

One reason we might turn to maps as a representation of genocide is that we think of maps as an objective display of information. Maps represent genocide in a mathematical way that is not vulnerable to the same skepticism with which we might confront a narrative presentation of genocide. I hope the previous section has cast doubt on this view. Making a map of genocide involves a great degree of choice concerning which data to display and how to display it. These choices give the map creator great control over the effect the map has on its viewer. But if not in objectivity, where lies the value of maps as a representation of genocide? What do maps teach us about genocide that other modes of representation do not?

One advantage of maps is that they can convey detailed information about the totality of a genocide in an instant. This advantage was hinted at in the first section of the paper. Because language transmits information in a linear sequence, transmitting a detailed description of an entire genocide would take a great deal of time. A human would be unlikely to retain all this information, forgetting some of the information and unable to grasp the overall structure of the event as it is conveyed piece by piece. Robinson and Petchenik write that

The range of comprehension for any individual human being is rather limited, the environment experienced directly rather small, but there have always been some individuals who have attempted to transcend the limitations of the bounded personal milieu. They have searched for ways of encoding human experience in order to produce knowledge that would facilitate more general understanding of the spatial and temporal aspects that bear upon individual and collective human existence in complex and multitudinous ways. (vii)

A map enables a human to hold in its consciousness all at once a representation of the totality of a genocide. A genocide is a very complex chain of events, but this complexity can be quickly comprehended if it is displayed visually.

Another important aspect of maps follows from the nature of maps. Maps display information spatially, so maps can help us understand spatial aspects of genocide. We are led to ask certain spatial questions about genocide. Is the killing spread out uniformly or concentrated in certain regions? Does the killing tend to take place near the border of a nation or in its interior? Allan D. Cooper claims that

[a]nother common attribute to be observed about genocide is that it occurs in territorial centralities and not along coastlines where immigrants converge and demographical hybridization dominates. Even when urban areas are involved, the initiators of the genocidal campaign tend to be individuals who have migrated to urban locations of state power from rural, demographically homogeneous environments. Furthermore, when cities are involved in genocide it is usually because the ‘disgusting Others’ targeted for destruction occupy these urban landscapes. (59)

Interestingly, Cooper’s book titled The Geography of Genocide contains not a single map. The map of the Armenian genocide represents population flows, so it also has a temporal dimension. Thus, it can help us see the genocide as a process that evolves in spacetime. Cause and effect relationships are one aspect of a genocide that can be revealed by a spatiotemporal representation. (Or, if cause and effect is too rigid a notion, it at least displays the influence that events have on one another.) A map can show us how a genocide is organized, whether it is controlled from the top down or is an emergent phenomenon resulting from the sum of small-scale activity that, while not unrelated, has no direct connection.

However, it is also important to keep in mind the aspects of genocide that maps do not display. In fact, the advantages of a map can be viewed as a consequence of the information that a map suppresses. A map does not display the particularities of a genocide. It does not tell us about individuals, their families, their work, the particular circumstances of their murders, etc. We do not see the human view of the suffering. A map offers a low-granularity, high-compression, large-scale picture of genocide. We should remember when looking at a map of the Armenian genocide that we could theoretically choose any red circle and zoom in on it to see images like this: