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  • Dark Continents: A Critique of Internet Metageographies
  • Terry Harpold

“The Blankest of Blank Spaces”1

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Figure 1.

“Map of Africa, Showing Its Most Recent Discoveries.” W. Williams, Philadelphia, 1859.

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Figure 2.

Detail of Figure 1. Note the blank field straddling the equator, labeled “UNKNOWN INTERIOR.”

It was in 1868, when nine years old or thereabouts, that while looking at a map of Africa of the time and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of that continent, I said to myself, with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now:

“When I grow up, I shall go there.”

And of course I thought no more about it till after a quarter century or so an opportunity offered to go there—as if the sin of childish audacity were to be visited on my mature head. Yes. I did go there: there being the region of Stanley Falls, which in ‘68 was the blankest of blank spaces on the earth’s figured surface.

—Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record

Joseph Conrad’s account of his discovery of a map of Africa in his grandfather’s library is among the most famous anecdotes of modern literary biography. (Which map he found is unknown; it must have resembled one published by W. Williams of Philadelphia about nine years earlier [Figures 1 and 2].) Marlow, Conrad’s narrator, will repeat the memory as his own in the opening chapter of Heart of Darkness; Conrad will describe the event again near the end of his career, in a sympathetic essay on the British Empire’s great explorers. As Christopher GoGwilt has shown, the seductions of the map’s “unsolved mystery” are central to Conrad’s authorial project; they bind the physical and imaginary geographies of his fictions to one of the defining visual tropes of high colonialism (126).2 The period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the most active of the modern partitioning of Africa, with a half-dozen European powers scrambling for position on the continent through territorial exploration and appropriation, armed conflict, and diplomatic negotiation. This activity depended on the accuracy and completeness of the maps used by the Europeans to describe their African possessions (McIlwaine 59–62).

Now, maps, in the narrow sense of the word—pictorial representations of a physical terrain, commonly in the form of planar (2D) projections—are never merely descriptive; they are also heuristic, suasive, and hegemonic. (My reasons for stipulating this narrow definition of “map” will become clear shortly.) Individuals, communities, and nations rely on them to manage spatial and political complexity that would otherwise exceed human perception and memory, and to adjudicate claims of ownership and jurisdiction. Mapping appears to be fundamental to human consciousness of space and time. All cultures record their experience in artifacts which are consumed in plainly maplike ways, though these artifacts may little resemble the brightly-colored wall hangings that most Americans (for example) recall from grade-school geography classes.2 This universality of mapping practices may account for the persuasiveness of a broader, more metaphorical sense of the term “map” used in many disciplines and technical practices to describe any intentional structuring of space, time, or knowledge—thus we speak of “maps” of a text, “map” views of data, “cognitive maps,” and so on.

Because they are fundamentally cultural things, maps (again, in the narrow sense) are embedded in the epistemological and ideological structures that Roland Barthes calls the “my thologies” of semiological systems (111). The “unsolved mystery” Conrad discovers in the map of the Congolese interior names one such mythologizing structure. We may safely assume that the mapmaker did not believe there were no topographically significa nt features in the region left blank, only that no European had witnessed and described those features. (This is precisely the sense of the observation encoded in the label “UNKNOWN INTERIOR” in Figure 2.) The blank region is “empty” only in relation to the comparable fullness of the rest of the map. The blank represents the essence of...

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