In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Journal of Interdisciplinary History 37.3 (2007) 495-496

Reviewed by
Mary Hancock
University of California, Santa Barbara
The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories. By Sumathi Ramaswamy (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004) 334 pp. $60.00 cloth $21.95 paper

It was achingly ironic to read this book as news of December 2004's tsunami captured print and electronic headlines across the globe. Just such a deluge is claimed by some to have submerged the fabled "lost continent" of Lemuria in aeons past. The history of such imaginings during the last century and a half in Europe, North America, and southern India is what Ramaswamy tracks in The Lost Land of Lemuria. The book supplements existing historiography of the natural sciences with its attention to how and why paleoscientists invented Lemuria and presents new materials about its afterlife as a cultural symbol among occultists and south Indian nationalists, among both of whom Lemuria continues to anchor discourses of memory, identity, and futurity.

The author's agenda is ambitious; she examines how loss—of places and ways of life—is marshaled by and for modernity in the canons of historiography and in the subjugated knowledges that constitute what she glosses as "eccentric" and "off-modern" ways of constructing and grappling with the past. She suggests that the desires for such lost worlds, of which Lemuria is but one example, appear to fly in the face of modernity but are, in actuality, its progeny: Disenchantment, the price of technocratic mastery, triggers desires for the very magic that rationalism has banished.

Ramaswamy's account begins in the mid-nineteenth century, with the invention of Lemuria by Euro-American paleoscientists who speculated that Madagascar, Africa, and India were once part of a single landmass [End Page 495] (Chapter 2). Though scientists shortly abandoned this claim, others enthusiastically embraced it. Chapter 3 introduces the Theosophists, and their latter-day progeny, explaining how they incorporated Lemuria into a knowledge system that borrowed Victorian evolutionist principles but re-organized them into a racialist system of spiritual evolution. Chapters 4 and 5 describe the appropriation, by Tamil nationalists, of paleoscientific notions about Lemuria to yield a genealogy of Tamil nationhood. These thinkers developed an elaborate discourse on Lemuria's status as a submerged Tamil homeland, initially in nationalist tracts, but later in government-issued textbooks and in a state-sponsored video. Chapter 6 provides a brief history of cartographic representations of Lemuria, noting the extraordinary richness of such representations among its Tamil proponents.

Ramaswamy's work is interdisciplinary, albeit to different degrees, in its selection of primary source materials, in its methods of analysis, and in its exposition. Like most cultural histories, it relies on an eclectic array of primary sources, including visual images but mainly text-based sources. The methods of analysis employed are conventional. Ramaswamy approaches visual materials via straightforward content analysis, devoting less attention to such aesthetic dimensions as composition, tone, perspective, or, in the case of video, to matters of cinematic production. Although Ramaswamy alludes occasionally to interviews with present-day "Lemuria-philes," interview data do not contribute significantly to her interpretation.

The work's interdisciplinarity is most evident in its exposition. Chapters are organized to follow the transcultural career of Lemuria, itself, from its European birth to its Tamil re-invention. By presenting her materials in a way that mimics the path taken by this cultural artifact over time, Ramaswamy moves outside the space-time compartments by which disciplinary history is organized, thus pointing toward a more globalized practice of historical inquiry. She offers a useful model for historiography that takes on the challenge of global history by retaining a sharp and rigorous focus on the specific artifacts and media by which global connections are forged.

The book concludes on a normative note at which scholars may bristle. According to Ramaswamy, Lemuria is a "fabulous" phenomenon that has failed empirical tests of validity but represents a laudable form of history making that, by re-enchanting the world, engenders utopic possibilities...