Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Metaphors: creating maps, creating reality … draw your country and colour it in …

Published on 26 July 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

A well known fable begins by describing how the cartographers of an Empire were asked to create a map. They create a map that is so perfect that it matches the Empire in every point. It not only matches the Empire, the map covers it in every point. With time, the Empire falls into ruins but so does the map. How can we be sure which one is real? (1)

Aldo, I like your recent blog in our debate on metaphors and analogies. You answer me by saying that “[y]es, Katharina, analogies and metaphors are (mental) maps.”

You say you have nothing against metaphors but that you “raise warning flags” in cases where the map doesn’t track “geography” but becomes a mental map. The more “mental,” the more problematic?

It seems that you suggest in parts of your blog that metaphors are useful as long as they stay in touch with reality (e.g. have points of congruence). Cases where a metaphor maps the immaterial as opposed to the material are the part where the trouble begins for you. After all, mental maps can be flawed. “By smuggling in spurious elements metaphors can seriously mislead by giving us the cuddly feel that we know and understand. A distortion of a distortion seldom yields undistorted understanding.” At the end of your blog, you call for the need to verify the kinds of metaphors, the kinds of mental maps, we use. 

All the above points share one common feature: the assumption that there is a reality against which we can test our mental maps. Words such as distortion and verification suggest a empirical mindset: the idea that there is a reality to be found somewhere out there.

Let me answer this with a question: what if it is only the map that matters instead of the “reality” that it is supposed to “represent”?

The fable mentioned in the beginning is the starting point for Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. He argues that we have arrived in a condition where the reality no longer matters. It is the map that takes precedent. Maps are no longer a form a representation or abstraction which would suggest an underlying reality that is being referred to. The map simulates reality for us an it is this simulation that we live in and that matters.

All of us who blog here share an interest in diplomacy. Diplomacy is a social institution that wouldn’t exist without the idea of a community of people on a territory. In other words, it is the state that necessitates diplomacy. And part of me wants to say that the state is nothing more than arbitrary lines on a map. There is no physical reality to the state that would constitute it necessarily as a state. Yet, those lines on maps matter greatly. In your blog you write that “maps are ideological statements, which organize reality in accordance to our political intents.” I couldn’t agree more. But if we take that seriously, the final consequence is to let go of any notion of verification. We need to engage the idea of simulation and not hide behind the idea that we are talking about “reality” or can somehow “verify” our most important concepts.  


(1) Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, p. 1

Related resources

Load more
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog