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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 205-210

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The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. By Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xv + 344. $55 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen have written a pretentious, preachy book, but an interesting one. The pretentiousness is evident in the title, The Myth of Continents. Surely all historians and geographers are aware that the conventional division of the world into continents is rather arbitrary and somewhat misleading. On the one hand, the separation of Asia from Europe at the Ural Mountains is arbitrary. The identification of sub-Saharan Africa with the African continent as a whole can be misleading. And so on. On the other hand, Africa, South America, and North America are large and discrete chunks of land, and there is nothing inherently wrong about calling them continents. There are problems with this word, but to preach a long sermon against "the myth of continents" is somewhat pretentious. Equally pretentious [End Page 205] is the subtitle, "A Critique of Metageography": the word metageography seems to have been coined by the authors as an impressive-sounding synonym for "world cultural geography." But The Myth of Continents is pretentious also in another and more disturbing way. The authors claim that the problems dealt with in the book are of momentous importance; that many of these problems have not been tackled or even noticed by other scholars; and that the way the problems are analyzed in this book is radical and unorthodox. These claims are exaggerated. Some of the problems dealt with in the book are important, but none is earth-shaking. Some of them remain unsolved, but not for lack of scholarly effort. And the way these problems are analyzed in The Myth of Continents is, on the whole, rather conventional and indeed rather conservative.

Most of the book is devoted to criticism of various ways in which the world is carved up and mapped. A long introduction focuses on the idea of the Third World and the idea of the nation-state. Lewis and Wigen remind us that the "second world" no longer exists as a world-scale region, so we no longer have literally a "third" world region. Therefore, they say (correctly) that the Third World "is essentially a political-economic category" (p. 3). But they dismiss it as an economic category because they claim (incorrectly) that a substantial part of the region is undergoing rapid development. They say almost nothing about the region's historical and political character. They fail to notice that all parts of the Third World share a common history of overt or disguised colonial rule by European countries and share many important after-effects of colonialism today. One of these is neocolonialism and its constant companion, political dependence or limited sovereignty. The authors believe that too much attention is paid by geographers to sovereignty: this reflects "the myth of the nation-state," a "debilitating geographical misconception," "pernicious," and a cause of "mischief" (pp. 7-9). Their argument here is centered on the evident facts that most states are not culturally homogeneous and that some of them oppress minority nationalities within their borders. Therefore, states are not "natural and fundamental building blocks of global geography," but rather are "constructed, contingent, and often imposed political-geographic units" (p. 8). This judgment would not be applauded in the U.N. General Assembly or, for that matter, in the U.S. Congress.

Next to be criticized is "the myth of continents." This critique occupies three full chapters, the first of which ("The Architecture of Continents") provides a good review of the history of the continent idea and continental classifications, and an excellent discussion of the [End Page 206] Eurocentrism underlying the idea that Europe, a smallish piece of Eurasia, deserves to be called a continent. Chapters 2 and 3 dissect the geographical and cultural biases inherent in European notions about "east" and "west," "Orient" and "Occident" ("this single most important pair...