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  • The West and the Rest in TechniColor
  • Kathryn VanSpanckeren (bio)
Reading National Geographic By Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. 309 pages. $59.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).

After much theory, contemplating a subject as seemingly specific and concrete as the National Geographic comes as a relief—almost a guilty pleasure. An august institution, the Geographic is important in itself and to its readers, who imagine it as authoritative, scientific, and quasi-official, more like an encylopedia than a magazine. It is timely to examine it now that renegotiations of fields of study—replete with geographic metaphors of boundaries, margins, centers, and bipolar opposites—confirm the rhetorical importance of geography in articulating current thought. 1 Geographical rhetoric over the last two decades has helped usher such disparate disciplines as literature, history, sociology, communication, and anthropology into a vivid, energetic global village. Though this erasure of disciplinary boundaries has not always been welcomed, particularly by anthropologists, few would deny that eclectic approaches have brought fresh perspectives from such scholars as James Clifford, whose Predicament of Culture employs literature, history, ethnography, art, museum display, and tribal arts to demonstrate that authoritative accounts of other [End Page 167] cultures are themselves contingent fictions. 2 Similarly, geographers, such as David Harvey, have drawn on economics and culture, as well as literature and history, while those writing anthropology, such as Eric Wolf, have addressed questions geographical. 3 Walter Benjamin’s imagined European cityscapes of image and representation have provided the seed for ebullient theoretical and human contemplation in the Latin American works of Taussig, writing from half a century and half a world away. 4

Behind the metaphors of contested terrain, there is an urgency, a sense in which geography is felt to be real and morally pressing. Taussig’s Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man begins with a contemplation of death squads and torture in Chile. Who can think of Benjamin without recalling his death at a border in his desperate bid to escape the Nazis? Quotations from Baudrillard and bell hooks feature self-reflexively in city installations critiquing urban renewal. 5 Metaphorical maps have real-life parallels. Maps can be used for military strategy, as well as adventure or photography; those the Geographic helped develop were used during World War II. Every house—even one-room clay, wood, or stone huts—showed up as black squares on the maps of remote western Nepal, as I discovered as a freelance photographer for the Geographic in the early 1970s. (Even then, they gave photographers all the free film they could use.) Used for red-lining, busing, or disaster evacuation routes, maps can carry grave, even mortal cargoes; maps can inscribe consequences unimagined by New Critical tenors and vehicles.

The coauthors of Reading National Geographic, anthropologist Catherine A. Lutz and sociologist Jane L. Collins, are alive to the potential urgency of geography. Their frustration with U.S. ethnocentrism and militarism in Vietnam led them to question the neocolonial roles of the United States in the twentieth century. A brief, personal preface and an epilogue surround the nine-chapter text. In the preface, the authors describe their authorial intent. They were eating lunch at the campus pub when students burst into cheers as a television news anchor announced the U.S. invasion of Grenada. This unthinking celebration of U.S. militarism inspired the authors to analyze the Geographic as a way of understanding their mainly white and middle class students’ responses to the world outside the United States. The epilogue poignantly notes that as the book neared completion, the United States began to bombard Iraq.

This comprehensive and generous-spirited book offers almost everything one wants to know about the Geographic’s photographs (the writing is not addressed). The readable analysis, enjoyably documented with well-chosen [End Page 168] photographs, sees the magazine as both commodity and purveyor of “images of the non-Western world, a topic raising volatile issues of power, race and history” (xii). It asks how the magazine affects readers’ abilities to “imagine and value differences” (xiii). Chapter one introduces the subject and its magnitude (thirty-seven million readers worldwide). The National Geographic Society in Washington, D...

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pp. 167-177
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