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  • Captain Cook and the Discovery of Antarctica's Modern Specificity:Towards a Critique of Globalization
  • Mariano Siskind

"Antarctica is the last great journey left to Man"

Ernest Shackleton

One can affirm that by the end of Captain James Cook's first circumnavigation of the world, in July 1771, almost every region of the Globe had been discovered, explored, charted and was being incorporated into what the colonial powers conceived as the world. There was still Terra Australis Incognita, or the Southern Continent (as Antarctica was referred to), the only space on Earth still absolutely virgin, unexplored, undiscovered. On August 2nd 1773, after having been the first man to cross the Antarctic Circle during the previous summer, but unable to land on Antarctic soil, Cook wrote on his journal about the need for exploring Antarctica and its seas:

Having now crossed or got to the north of Captain Carteret's Track [near Tahiti], no discovery of importance can be made, some few islands is all that can be expected while I remain within the Tropical Seas. As I have now in this and my former Voyage crossed this Ocean from 40° sign South and upward it will hardly be denied but what I must have formed some judgment concerning the great object of my researches (viz) the Southern Continent. Circumstances seem to point out that there is none but this is too important a point to be left to conjenctor [sic], facts must determine it and these can only be had [End Page 1] by visiting the remaining unexplored part of this Sea which will be the work of the remaining of this Voyage.1

In fact, as Philip Edwards notices, the precise instructions imparted by the Royal Society for Cook's second global sea travel were to "further discoveries towards the South Pole."2 During the three years that this expedition lasted (1772-1775) he attempted three penetrations into Antarctica, failing each and every time, although he achieved the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, and reached a more southern point than ever before (71° sign10'S) in the history of navigation. Most importantly, however, he was the first to make modern-scientific observations about Antarctica, which would mark all of the subsequent attempts to explore the White Continent until today.

Although omnipresent as scientific topic or as the background for fascinating adventure narratives, Antarctica has not been studied systematically as a problematic nucleus within the history of modernity. This paper will try to articulate a few questions that do not come up in the very few existing critical approaches to this territory: how can Antarctica and the South Poles (the Geographic and the Magnetic South Poles) be incorporated into the study of what Margaret Cohen calls "The Waterways of Modernity"?3 How do the incorporations of Antarctica and the South Poles interrogate our idea of what Modernity is? And, can one think of a specific "Antarctic Modernity," of Antarctica's modern specificity?

I will argue that by failing to explore Antarctica, Captain Cook discovered in fact the very specific way in which Antarctica relates itself (critically) to a certain vein of modernity that could be named globalization. Contemporary to Cook's circumnavigations, Immanuel Kant's political writings on the idea of "universal history" and "perpetual peace," and later on, G.W.F. Hegel's developments on "world history" would shape a notion of Modernity as the historical and territorial expansion of reason to the whole world. Kant and Hegel produced the conditions of possibility to conceive the passage from reason considered as a universal attribute, to the universal (global) expansion of that same reason and its objective manifestations, the state and property rights. In other words, what I will call "a genealogy of globalization" begins with the territorial spatialization of the universal premises of modernity: what is conceptually universal must be also geographically universal, global that is. The reconstruction of Antarctica's modern specificity, of the way Antarctica intersects the history of Western modernity (an encounter epitomized in Cook's disappointment), produces a critique [End Page 2] of this "genealogy of globalization," understood as an instance of mediation between the philosophical meditation on modern reason and the economical...


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