Figure 1 Overlapping territories of First Nations in the perception of their members. Screenshot from the geomatics site .

Unstable borders are a cartographer’s nightmare. The simple task of reporting on demographic changes quickly becomes a headache in a country whose municipalities merge, divide, and even change their spatial contours according to the projects of their inhabitants and councillors, who feel no pressing need of being aggregated on a national scale.

The fantasies of thematic mapping

The Swiss Federal Statistical Office (FSO) has even published a software program1 to spare the cartographer-statistician from confusion and madness. It lists more than 7000 changes in the division of the territory since the foundation of the federal state in 1848. In the case of mergers, it is easy to add up the populations and to keep only the merged municipality on the map, the ideal aggregate to which the cartographer will give a transhistorical reality by saying that its population has increased or decreased for a century, whereas it has only existed since last year. By talking about the centenial evolution of a political entity that has only just appeared on the map, we are already tipping over into the realm of fiction, but as long as the calculation sum up, everything is fine.

Figure 2 A mathematical fiction of the demographic evolution of merged and split municipalities.

The math becomes more fanciful in the event of a split. Let’s imagine A, a municipality of 1000 inhabitants. One day, it decides to take note of a creeping dissension by splitting into A and B. A keeps 700 faithful citizens, B gathers the 300 refractory ones. In terms of evolution, this makes -300 for A, and +300 for B; numbers that are easy to plot on a map. But how will someone who knows nothing about the split interpret it? Has a massive emigration hit A? Is B celebrating a baby boom? The other option would be to create a fictitious agglomeration, the observation commune AB, which would make it possible to disregard the split; it would exist only in the head of the demographer for the peace of numbers.

Hundreds of such micro-fictions underlie the renowned Atlas of Spatial Change in Switzerland2 , a work whose authors would not confess the slightest trace of poetic license in their approach, and yet… The myth haunts the “data” as much as it haunts the fate of the protagonist of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. Admitting this does not mean discrediting the atlas: without such works, it would be impossible to observe the phenomena of rural exodus, peri-urbanization or subsequent re-urbanization that have marked the evolution of the territory over the course of a century. Like any fiction, that of a measurable territory is a necessary fiction. It has the merit and the defect of being supported by a collective consensus. On the one hand, it is better than the solipsistic fantasies of a post-empirical geographer; on the other, its status quo must be challenged. There is a happy middle path between the pitfalls of a psychorigid science and a charismatic science’s grand narratives.

The empire of idealities

It would be absurd to give up adding up numbers under the pretext of the incompleteness of mathematics exposed in Gödel’s theorem. The statistical entities that they allow us to construct offer as many holds on space; they found the very existence of our digital society3 . Like any other society, it has an imaginary that structures it and allows it to manage itself4 . But when she fails to remember the fictional status of her imaginary, she becomes its victim. The categories “man”, “woman”, “Swiss”, “foreigner”, even “head of household” divide and stratify Swiss society not only in the fantasies of the Federal Statistical Office; they also divide and partition all political thought, which in turn partitions them. It will soon be a hundred years since the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl denounced “data” as an “empirical measurement of increasing precision, but under the guidance of a world of idealities already objectified in advance by idealization and construction” (Hua VI, p. 34). It would be useless to repeat it if the conscience of the problem were more present in our sciences and in our political debate.

And while we can be sure that our state offices enjoy some degree of epistemological oversight, nothing is less certain for data collection companies like Facebook and co. What do Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk think about international borders and social categories?

The empire of measurable idealities is far from its apogee. We have so far only felt a vague premonition of its power, which is growing with the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning: this statistical learning that relies entirely on the division of the world into measurable entities. Algorithms wandering in our data lakes will be the Norns, Moires and Fates of the third millennium.

To this domination of delimited things, we could respond with radical deconstructivism; substituting grand narratives with tweets, categories with random borborygms, maps with splashes of gouache-soaked sponges thrown from the third floor onto A0-sized posters… this will amuse us for a few months. One day we will want to measure, delineate, differentiate, assert, verify, observe across time and space again. We will want words and things. There is no debate without concepts, no geography without spatial entities.

Scales and fluidity of the territory

The cartographic challenge of finding a middle ground between the crushing of reality in its representation and the impossibility of representing anything has troubled me again by publishing a historical map collection on the GitHub open source platform5 . On the face of it, the idea is simple: to make available a set of geometric files of state and cultural region boundaries. Open-sourcing the data allows experts of specific regions and eras to correct the many errors in the original set. But the effort gets bogged down as soon as one considers that the concept of territory and national borders has only been meaningful since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and that this relevance is limited to Europe. Even the hardened positivist senses in drawing the contours of a Comanche “territory” that he is committing an anachronistic projection; a fictitious geometry. To this problem is added that of the interweaving of territories and of the power structures that control them: the Kingdom of the Odryses in 2e c. BC enjoyed too great a regional autonomy to be strictly assimilated to the Roman Empire; the British Raj is not the United Kingdom. A territory, like anything else, exists only in the relationship between a subject and an object; the unilateral delimitation of Rupert’s Land never negated the conviction of the Montagnais people to live on their land. The Corsican irredentists do not perceive their island as part of French territory. Almost half of the UN member countries do not recognize Kosovo. The civilizations of prehistory overlap: the cultures of Andronovo, Afanasevo and Sintachta differ while interpenetrating in a complex archaeological whole. Not to mention the cyclical territories of the nomads: the Tuaregs, the Rroms… How can one account for all these aspects with the conceptual tools of geomatics and vector drawing limited to points, lines and surfaces? Some graphic subterfuges such as transparencies and blurred contours mitigate the problem only to a certain extent. In order not to renounce all forms of visual representation, it remains necessary to assume a fictive part; the imaginary status of the image.

Literary fiction facilitates the task. My readings of Franz Kafka, most of all, helped me to think about space6 . Eight years ago, after a trip to eastern Romania, they even inspired me to write a sublimatory novel born of the paradoxes of geography7 . I sent the protagonist to map the border of the European Union. His task is to digitize and harmonize the mythical map of the boyar Kraiensky, a nostalgic landed gentry and the last of his lineage, whose name in Slavic languages means both “land as far as the eye can see” and the “border”, the “landscape” and the “periphery”, “the beginning and the end of time”.

The historical maps contradict each other and the protagonist gets stuck in a swampy landscape reshaped every day by a strange river. The land eventually swallows up the castle and its boyar, his family, his relics and the power structures they embody. The inhabitants of the region gather at the edge of the remaining crater and chant an incantation for the emergence of a new spatial constuct.


This article has first been published in French under the title “L’impossible territoire et les cartes du boyard Kraïenski” in GeoAgenda No. 4/2021.


2 Schuler, M., Dessemontet, P., Jemelin, C., Jarne, A., Pasche, N., & Haug, W. (2006). Atlas of Spatial Change in Switzerland. Federal Statistical Office.

3 Cf. Nassehi, A. (2019). Muster: Theorie der digitalen Gesellschaft. C.H. Beck.

4 Cf. Castoriadis, C. (1975). The imaginary institution of society. Seuil.

5 Ourednik, A. and GitHub contributors (2021). Historical boundaries of world countries and cultural regions [GeoJSON].

6 Ourednik, A. (2011). Kafka et les territoires de l’espérance. Compar(a)Ison, An International Journal of Comparative Literature, 28.

7 Ourednik, A. (2015). The maps of the boyar Kraienski. Baconniere.

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