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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 81-92

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Third Worldism or Globalism? Reply to James M. Blaut's Review of The Myth of Continents

Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen

Forum: Debate on The Myth of Continents

James M. Blaut (1999) contends that The Myth of Continents (Lewis and Wigen 1997) is not a particularly original work. He is no doubt correct in regard to the parts of the book with which he agrees. As the book's introduction clearly acknowledges, our critique of received metageography builds on the insights of many scholars, including Marshall Hodgson, Jack Goody, and Blaut himself. Nor do we profess to have the last word; our book concludes with an invitation to further dialogue on a subject that we believe has received less explicit consideration than it deserves. Owing to our respect for his own work on these issues, it is an honor to engage Professor Blaut in debate. Owing to our remaining sharp disagreements, we think that the debate may prove to be illuminating.

Setting aside the many fundamental issues on which we concur with Blaut, this reply will focus on three areas of disagreement raised by his review: our overall project, our case against Afrocentrism, and the place of political economy in general--and European imperialism in particular--in our map of the world.

Our purpose in writing this book was, as the subtitle declares, to advance a critique of metageography. Pace Blaut (1999:206), the term metageography is not a synonym for "world cultural geography." Its definition is clearly given in the second sentence of the book: "By metageography we mean the set of spatial structures through which people [End Page 81] order their knowledge of the world: the often unconscious frameworks that organize studies of history, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, or even natural history" (Lewis and Wigen 1997:ix). Needless to say, "culture" is merely one dimension of metageographical discourse. Blaut's own work is informed by a particular metageographical vision, one that overlays rather conventional world regional and continental divisions on a "First World-Third World" template, which in turn reflects convictions about the world historical centrality of European colonialism. The point of our book is precisely to bring to light such implicit visions of global geography and subject them to critical scrutiny.

Although we attempted to make the aims and organization of The Myth of Continents clear, it is evident from Blaut's review that we did not entirely succeed. In his third paragraph, for example, Blaut (1999:207) claims that our treatment of the geography of Orientalist discourse is derivative, although he goes on to allow that our review of the ways in which concepts like "the West," "the East," and "the Orient" have migrated over the map is "indeed original." This is puzzling, since it is precisely the movement of such labels across the map that constitutes the unexamined geography of Orientalism, which we sought to expose in our second chapter ("The Spatial Constructs of Orient and Occident, East and West").

Blaut's discussion of chapter 6 ("World Regions") again suggests a misunderstanding of what we are doing. To reiterate our basic stance, we endorse both the basic framework of world regional divisions and the area studies complex that has been built on it. Area studies has come under concerted attack over the past decade, both from positivist social scientists, who think that universalistic laws can be applied across the globe irrespective of cultural differences (see the discussion in Bates 1997), and from certain poststructuralists, who are so suspicious of labels and categories that they would rather see regional distinctions dismantled (Rafael 1994). By contrast, we concur with the Ford Foundation (Volkman 1998) that area studies continues to fill a pressing educational need, and that its revitalization can best be accomplished through a deliberate program of "border crossings": one that highlights interregional linkages rather than essential regional identities, and in which border zones are seen as dynamic regions in their own...