Reflecting in later life on the publication of his Outline of World History, H. G. Wells wrote that “in Mr J. F. Horrabin, the author has had the good fortune to find not only an illustrator but a collaborator.” Horrabin’s maps, Wells added, “are a part of the text, the most vital and decorative part.” By the late 1920s, Horrabin had become arguably the most widely-known cartographer in Britain, referred to in advertisements in the Times Literary Supplement as “the man who makes maps speak,” and at the same time a well-known activist on the radical left.
In Working Class Education, co-written with his then-wife Winifred, Horrabin wrote that his interest was in “a particular kind of education, aiming primarily at meeting the specific needs of workers as a class, and undertaken by workers themselves independently of, and even in opposition to, the ordinary existing channels.” For Horrabin the production, circulation and consumption of geographical knowledge and facts was not an innocent pursuit. Instead, he believed, it was central to the political and economic project of capitalism to render certain geographical facts more important than others. To challenges this, Horrabin tasked himself with using cartography as a tool to foster the emergence of radical political alternatives to capitalism.
Horrabin was not concerned simply with the dull and lifeless transmission of geographical facts. Indeed, in one of his most famous maps, Production and consumption: A Map of the World (1921), he deployed biting satire to attack the illogical dynamics of capitalist production and its circulation of resources and goods. Yet, Horrabin’s maps themselves were often aesthetically formal. Their radicalism lay not in their form but in their mobilisation of geographical facts and commentary in his pursuit of a new political project.
Here we bring into view the dual definitional difficulty confronting any account of radical cartography. What do we mean by radical, and how do we define a work of cartography? It may well be that worrying over such matters is beside the point. Radicalism in cartography, as in any other artistic work, can be present either in the form of the work itself or in the message it seeks to convey (and both). The quest for a strict definition of radical cartography can never be settled, just as the boundaries of the radical are changeable and unfixed. Similarly, and especially in the days of Geographical Information Systems, one person’s map can be another’s annotated photograph. It is better, I think, to treat radical cartography as a mode of political and aesthetic practice, the success of which can only be decided once a map has begun to circulate in the world. Maps cannot be hermetically sealed off from the world at large, and their potential radicalism stems as much from their use by social movements and campaign groups, as from what they themselves represent. Aesthetically formal and simplistic maps, such as those used to organise the Occupy LSX encampments, can be radical when they are used as a tool for social change.