The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, 1997

Human cartographic renderings of the world frequently fail to meet more rigorous standards of inspection. The prejudices, beliefs, and biases of cartographers, geographers, and historians often obscure cartographic complexities, emphasizing overly simplistic spatialization of the world along with misguided conceptions of human geography. With such problems in mind, Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen’s The Myth of Continents contributes to the dialogue concerning “metageography” by critiquing past systems while offering considerations for the development of new more nuanced mappings of the world.
While each of the world cartographic systems analyzed by The Myth of Continents held its own unique strengths and weaknesses, Lewis and Wigen identify several problematic aspects that seem endemic to geography. First, the persistence of environmental determinism when utilized to map the culture and people of a region continually essentializes and distorts human geography. Second, even in ideal models, the nation state repeatedly takes precedence, as cartographers continue to reify its existence. Such an emphasis on political borders, they suggest, obscures the more complex human element without historicizing such developments. Third, the ethnocentrism of geographers, cartographers, and historians often results in a hierarchy of spatialization in which, often, the West dominates.
Accordingly, the authors signpost three main principles that academics would do well to consider. First, they suggest we should avoid “defining regions in terms of specific diagnostic traits, focusing instead on historical processes.” Second, in order to reduce the efficacy of the nation state while offering a more nuanced schematic of the world, cartographers should ignore political and ecological boundaries and emphasize instead “the spatial contours of assemblages of ideas, practices, and social institutions that give human communities their distinction and coherence.” Third, critiquing Toynbee while supporting the work of Marshall Hodgson, William McNeill and Fernand Bernal, Myth argues that civilizations do not exist in isolation nor should they be envisioned as such. Rather, drawing on postmodern ideas of space and relational identities, they suggest that attention should be paid to regions relations to one another.
The Myth of Continents pays close attention to the preconceptions of cartography and geography. The authors note that even the best world region systems illustrated flawed perspectives of the world. Most regions, especially near their “boundary zones” feature high levels of hybridity. Moreover, the books more complex examples can only be integrated into curricula at the college level and higher. Pedagogically, Myth concedes younger students will need simpler global representations than those offered here. Still, as the Lewis and Wigen note, their goal was not to remake global mapping but rather “one contribution to an ongoing dialogue.”

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