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  • Putting French Studies on the Map
  • Tom Conley (bio)

A good deal of work accomplished in new historicism over the last decade has opened new perspectives on the relations of literature to cartography. If new historicism tends to be affiliated with Shakespearean scholars who reconstruct the world of the Globe Theatre in the context of London and the Elizabethan world picture, it almost goes without saying that cartography, whose mobilization and rapid growth occur from the beginnings of the printing press to the middle of the seventeenth century, plays a significant role in the analysis of print-culture in general. 1 The convergence of the two disciplines has shown that Renaissance authors, obsessed with the beginnings of writing, valorize both its geographical and spatial virtues and the ways that its pictogrammar constitutes “a grid for comprehension of the world” [Martin 14]. Humanists discovered that it simulated divisions of land in transactions devoted to their negotiation. What early archeologists of writing discovered is comparable today to what we gather about the meaning of the crosshatched rectangles and insignia we admire on the great prehistoric petroglyph of Bedolina standing over its arable valley below [Jacob 41–48; Thrower 4–5]. In the early modern age cartographical issues are central to broader inquiry about the power of writing.

New historicists take up early modern cartography not just to assess the impact of Ptolemy on humanism but to develop agendas that concern how a sense of habitus was conceived, projected, and betrayed at a time of tumultuous change. They ask how the “world” could be both imagined and experienced when its boundaries were expanding at exponential rates. Cartographic studies have shown where the unknown, vital for any definition of consciousness or even the drives of life itself, was located and bracketed. 2 The unknown was an integral part of cartography prior to the eighteenth century. But to assert, as many have, that cartography sought to contain the unknown within the terrae incognitae it indicated on its maps does not solve the relation of the discipline with the [End Page 23] unknown. Evidence shows how much in the early modern age the unknown inhabits most written and schematic representations of the world. 3 Unnamed patches that we retrieve on maps printed in the sixteenth century prompt reverie of spaces that can be fancied as unknown by virtue of the maps themselves. The cartographical impulse in early modern studies cannot be dissociated from our own drive to find spots that can remove us from the regnum of nonplaces that define our world, that is, other places, whether heterotopical or “anywhere out of this world,” valorized when the “nonplace” has come to define contemporary human geography [see Augé 1992].

Concurrently, the history of cartography remains one of the most immediate modes of access for what we can understand about the imagination of power, control, statecraft, and economy at a time when maps figured with increasing regularity in matters of administration. In broader terms, we can say that the unforeseen growth of map production and the consequent stress laid on fantasies of power that accompanied cartographic representations from the beginning of print culture to the establishment of “state reason” under Louis XIV bore witness to a greater spatialization of knowledge. What in the study of literature goes by the name of discourse is seen through a cartographical lens as patterns of utterances and exchanges that owe much to the influence of Ramism, monocular perspective, and diagrammatical logic. It is a truism to note that when the world became a function of cartographical representations made accessible to a public at large, the ways it was configured bore great impact on communication in general. 4

In this issue of Diacritics, where the current plight and uncertain future of French studies is being pondered, it also goes without saying that many teachers and scholars are wondering what can be done to invigorate one of the richest of all literary canons. The assault that American media have led on French culture (among others, articles in the New Times by Roger Cohen and Craig Whitney) would lead us to believe that literature has [End Page 24] become equivalent to freeze-dried croissants, a...