Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 93-100
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On Myths and Maps: A Rejoinder to Lewis and Wigen
James M. Blaut
Forum: Debate on The Myth of Continents
As I said at the end of my review of Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen's Myth of Continents, this book is a solid and useful contribution in spite of its shortcomings. Perhaps I overemphasized the shortcomings; if I did so, it was because the tone of the book is more than a bit off-putting. Although Lewis and Wigen tell us a lot that is valuable and new, they make exaggerated claims for the originality and importance of their work, and they give the false impression that they are addressing problems that other geographers and historians have pretty completely neglected (Lewis and Wigen 1997:ix, xii, xiii, 113, 141, 142, 146, 155, 158, 163, 186, 193-201, 254). Also off-putting is their denunciation of Afrocentrism, criticism of postmodernism, and snaps and snarls at such other targets as radical ecology, "Third Worldism," the nation-state, and Freudianism. None of this is really necessary or helpful in a book that demonstrates very nicely what is wrong with the way we regionalize the world, proposes an improved map of world cultural regions, and exposes many of the errors of Eurocentrism.
But I am not writing a second review of this book. Lewis and Wigen have challenged me on some of the points I made in the review, and I will simply try to respond to these challenges, roughly in the order in which they were presented.
Originality. I did not assert or imply in the review that The Myth of Continents "is not a particularly original work." See above. However, I did comment that geographers are already aware of the ambiguities in the idea of continents.
Metageography. Lewis and Wigen give an elaborate definition of their neologism metageography (see their reply), but throughout the [End Page 93] book the term is used to mean specifically a person's or group's or culture's cognitive geography (or map) of the world or some part of the world (Lewis and Wigen 1997:xiii, xiv, 4-5, 17, 48, 106, 131, 137, 146, 166, 186, 189, 192, 193, 196, 197, 201, 207). This is a very familiar concept to geographers and may not need a new label.
Orientalism. The discussion of Orientalism in The Myth of Continents is indeed original in the way it points to Orientalism's Eurocentric mapping of the world. But the authors neglect a body of work that analyzes the geography of Orientalism; there is no "geographical lacuna" (Lewis and Wigen 1997:47). And their harsh if respectful criticism of Edward Said's work (which I believe they misinterpret) suggests that they do not fully appreciate the fact that when you critique Orientalism as Said did you do not thereby deny Enlightenment universalism.
Southeast Asia. Lewis and Wigen object to my criticism of their treatment of southeast Asia. I view the discussion in their reply and in the book itself as contradictory and grounded in questionable ideas about this region's supposed lack of unity. It is not true that "the 'high cultures' of southeast Asia were largely imported from other regions" (that is, India and China). These authors' commendable dislike of environmental determinism and economism may, conceivably, have prevented them from giving due attention to the fact that most of southeast Asia has a common subsistence base in tropical, mainly wet-rice, agriculture, and the fact that precolonial as well as modern trade was intense throughout the region. For other arguments, see my review.
The "metageographical canon." I did indeed criticize this phrase, but not for the reasons the authors give. If there are many metageographies, which one is the canon? Their own? Is it perhaps a bit immodest to introduce a new term and immediately describe it as canonical?
Afrocentrism and Africa. On the matter of Afrocentrism, to which Lewis and Wigen give a surprising amount of attention both in the...