Dr. Joseph MacKay: research fellow, the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University (ANU)

As the door to Dr. Joseph Mackay’s office opened on the fourth floor of a spacious building on Kinugasa Campus, beyond the name plate that gave the impression of permanency, stood a welcoming and engaging man by an open laptop – clearly enjoying the quiet of a private study with an enviable mountain-view and the opportunity to engage in some (almost) uninterrupted research and writing.

The RU ANU Dual Degree Program Q) Can you tell me about how you came to be involved with the Program?

It was the coming together of two things. I am partnered with Professor Yamashita of Ritsumeikan’s College of International Relations, who I had been on a panel with at a conference about a year ago at the International Studies Association, where he was giving a talk which was a precursor to what I’m doing here; so, my relationship with Professor Yamashita, together with a call from ANU to come up here to build relationships for the new ANU-RU Dual Degree Program, led to my putting in some paper work and it was pretty much just that.

Q) What was your motivation for applying?

It’s always nice to get some time to spend in another institution; Japan interests me, though the project is not strictly about Japan, but it involves early modern east Asian history ‘writ large’. Professor Yamashita is also a great person to work with for this, so it was a good fit. We’re working on related topics from several other points of view. Also I wanted to have a look at the system here, see how things work and what the new program will entail.

Q) Can you tell me a little about your academic background?

My PhD was in the history of counterinsurgency; so I looked at cases of policy learning, or failure to learn as the case may be, in irregular wars. The cases were manuals (a manual being a record of what the author learned about counter-insurgency), so you look at the learning output of the manual, personal writings, memoirs, diaries that sort of thing to get to the learning process and you reconstruct to get to how they arrived at the conclusions they did, thereby explaining why we have lots of different ways of fighting these wars.

I took a case from The Algerian War, a Frenchman; one from The Boer War, a British imperial military officer; and then one from the American Revolutionary War, a Hessian mercenary who goes back to Germany after the war and writes some of the earliest written documents in how to fight irregular wars. My postdoctoral work turned to macro-historical matters – more related to hierarchy, things to do with different kinds of imperialism and how they’ve played out in the international system over the last few hundred years.

And that’s what led me to an interest in maps, I guess, and my research here.

Google: A well known Mercator Map - Ritsumeikan
A familiar representation of the contemporary world, perhaps, but how did such a representation arise and what does it represent conceptually, historically?

Q) Do you see maps then as a point of visual reference, a kind of visual explication for a way of thinking about international relations?

Yes. But not just as an explication. Historians of cartography find — or, for example, Jordan Branch’s work in international relations finds — pretty good evidence that maps don’t just record the way people think, but they change the way that people think. So, things like strict, sovereign and exclusive territorial states in Europe, that is to say states that have things like hard borders, where you put up fences and troops and enforce them – that way of thinking about the spatial character of a state emerges later than the maps of them. People start drawing borders on maps and coloring states in long beforehand; so maps actually precede the practice in an interesting way. It was a convenient way of making states visibly present on paper and then states started acting it out.

I’m interested similarly in how world maps precede the way that people thought about the international system, or came to think about the international system after the early modern period.

We start in the European case from mappae mundi— medieval European maps of the world, of which the Hereford Mappa Mundi is the largest and arguably the most famous.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi full map Ritsumeikan
The Hereford Mappa Mundi 'World Map' (dated circa 1300) - images below reveal some of its fascinating detail

Some mappae mundi are quite simplified, but that one’s not: there’s a lot there. They just kept inputting new data into it, new points of reference and so on. Anyhow, you go from, in the early modern period, maps that look like that, or the map of the east Asian world; you go from documents like that to documents that look like a modern Mercator projection, so there is a massive change in what people think the world looks like.

My hunch, and it is a hunch, is that the one shaped the other in some fairly dramatic ways. So, the way the international system was re-construed as a sort of poly-centric system of empires, and eventually a system of notionally sovereign states that we have today, emerges in part out of a set of visual distinctions that already existed. That’s an argument at the systemic level rather than the level of the actors, the states involved.

From the 1500s onwards you get rapid advancements in integrating world maps into navigational charts and vice-versa; you get geographical data, different ways of depicting things that are useful in different ways. But it’s not just the usefulness that interests me — you have to sail to America somehow — it is the way it shapes one’s cognitive framework and represents what one’s world looks like.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi Jerusalem
Jerusalem, represented by a circular wall enclosed by eight towers or gates, is at the center of the Hereford Mappa Mundi

Compared to contemporary satellite map data, you can think of medieval maps as just being wrong, but historians of cartography show that we can also recognize that they were for something else. They usually had texts attached in quite an extensive way, for example. They often appeared in books as a potted history of the world. They were used to tell stories in a way we don’t use maps for anymore.

Probably there will be similar chronological narrative aspects in the east Asian experience as well, I think. So there are interesting historical overlaps despite the fact that the episodes occur quite separately - there’s something structural going on there, the way they have similar underlying characteristics, whatever their differences are.

Q) How does this link in to some of your more recent work and the topic of your research here at Ritsumeikan?

My history here is a little peripatetic; but it links in to things like my empires work. I’m concerned in part there with how empires report to legitimize their rule over subject populations – often failing to, but attempting to — because it is desirable to look like you are rightfully ruling what you claim to. Those practices shift over a long period of time, particularly coming into the long arc of the modern world. From the 1500s, the 1600s onwards you get a club of competing empires in Europe and others elsewhere in the world.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi The Tower of Babel
The Hereford Mappa Mundi detail: The Tower of Babel (colored to highlight form)

Eventually if you look at empires long enough what you’re doing is looking at them visually and the way you do that is by looking at a map. This started my interest in how empires chose to depict themselves spatially.

I have a Soviet-era map from a school atlas of the British Empire, for example. It looks like the British Empire, but it’s full of extra markings for where the natural resources are, because, if you are a good communist, a materialist, you think resource extraction is important, and extracting material resources from peripheries is central to your understanding of how empire works. So that depiction of the British Empire is quite different to how you would have found it in a 1900 British school atlas, for example. And so you can see that there are motives to the way land and empires are depicted.

What interests me in part is looking at maps as ‘sites of cultural exchange’, or ‘information exchange’. Thinking of the British Hereford Mappa Mundi for example, if you think the world looks like that and then you have to accommodate a Chinese map (below), you have to start drawing the world differently; and you also have to accommodate the way people in China draw maps. And vice-versa. So you are not just encountering spaces and populations, you’re expanding your cosmologies and stories of what the world looks like. There’s a sizable literature in the humanities on this stuff, but surprisingly little so far in International Relations.

Ming Dynasty World Map circa 1390
Da-ming-hun-yi-tu: Map of the Ming Empire (depicted around 1390 - date of creation unknown)

For the Jesuits arriving in China in the mid-1500s, the big challenge is ‘What does the world look like?’, because the cosmological prior in the Ming Dynasty is that the earth is flat. If you’re late medieval European, the earth is round. It’s not, or not just, a matter of having the right story to tell, so much as you have different conceptions of what the world is. Then you have to talk to each other somehow, you have to get to some sort of shared understanding.

This is the process of ‘world-making’, the frame of reference for the study.

As the snow began to fall outside Ritsumeikan Kinugasa Campus library, photograph taken, Dr. Mackay rearranged the lapels of his coat, shivered and turned to make his way back to his office. We look forward in anticipation to the publication of his research – Latitude: 35° 01' 57.28" N Longitude: 135° 43' 26.55" E: Kyoto and Ritsumeikan Kinugasa Campus.

On Ritsumeikan: Ritsumeikan was great – including the new library, and I was generally glad to have the use of such a lovely campus.

On Kyoto: Kyoto was a wonderful city for walking. It’s just small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to be surprising, from time to time. I spent hours on foot and always saw (or ate or drank) something new. Kyoto ranks among the best food cities I’ve ever visited (and I think it’s fair to say that’s saying something). For all of the obvious reasons, I was especially taken by the cultural institutions east of the river.