AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN W. LEWIS, AUTHOR OF 'THE MYTH OF CONTINENTS'

Martin W. Lewis is a Senior Lecturer in International History in the Department of History at Stanford University. He is the co-author of The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (University of California Press, 1997) and the former associate editor of Geographical Review. In December 2009 he started Geocurrents.info, a blog which offers "brief, map-illustrated analyses of current events, both major and minor, from all reaches of the world."

You describe yourself as a "historical geographer." What does a historical geographer do, exactly? Could you give a thumbnail sketch of the development of historical geography as a research field? And how has new technology such as GPS and Google Earth changed your field?

By the standard definition, historical geography seeks to uncover the spatial patterns of earlier societies and to analyze the evolution of landscapes. The classic work in areal reconstruction is H.C. Darby’s six-volume Domesday Geography of England, which gives a snapshot of the English countryside in 1086 CE, based on the famous survey completed twenty years after the Norman conquest.

I was trained in the Berkeley school of historical geography founded by Carl Sauer, who emphasized the environmental consequences of the subsistence activities of rural peoples. But I now view the field much more broadly, regarding all works of historical inquiry that use maps to advance arguments as instances of historical geography. In this sense, more historical geography is currently being conducted in history departments than in geography departments. That said, the small number of geographers who conduct historical research produce some high quality work (see especially the Journal of Historical Geography).

Most historical geographers use basic documentary methods, focused on the close reading of primary sources. A few also employ scientific techniques, charting ecological change, for example, through tree-ring data or sediment cores. Another method is repeat photography; comparing archival and current photos can reveal all kinds of landscape transformations. Historical geographers use more maps than other historians, and they are generally keen to personally explore the places that they write about.

My own historical-geographical research has relied on a variety of methods. My current work entails examining old maps and geography texts to see how cartographers and other scholars divided the world in past times. My earlier work on environmental change in Northern Luzon in the Philippines was more multi-disciplinary. To determine the environmental baseline conditions of the late 1800s and early 1900s, I turned to papers of nineteenth century German ethnographers and Spanish officials, governmental reports of the American colonial administration, and unpublished diaries and photographs of early twentieth century American scholars, teachers, and administrators. To examine the transition from subsistence cultivation to intensive market gardening in the mid-twentieth century, I relied most extensively on living memory; I traveled widely to search out and interview elders, and then used standard techniques of oral history to assess the reliability of their accounts. Newspaper accounts and agricultural and forestry reports also proved useful.

The main technological innovation in geography over the past few decades has been GIS, or Geographical Information Systems, which weds mapping to digital databases to allow the ready construction of complex map overlays. A number of historical geographers and geographically inclined historians have made excellent use of GIS; see any of the works of Anne Kelly Knowles, especially Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History. I would also recommend the work of my colleagues in the Stanford Spatial History Project.

According to the University of California Press webpage of the now-classic The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, you and co-author Kären Wigen "reexamine the basic geographical divisions we take for granted, and challenge the unconscious spatial frameworks that govern the way we perceive the world." The book was published in 1997. Have there been any developments (a) in the field of geography or (b) in geopolitical events in the last decade that a new edition would have to consider?

The most important recent academic development is the rise of ocean- and sea-based studies, especially in world history. Atlantic history, Mediterranean history, Indian Ocean history, and so on, have expanded significantly. In The Myth of Continents, we gestured toward this development in advocating the use of multiple, overlapping regionalization schemes, but we did not delve into it in any detail. If a new edition were to be forthcoming, I would want to devote a new chapter to maritime geographies, examining the historical development and the intellectual implications of viewing the world from such a perspective.

Although most of The Myth of Continents is devoted to the intellectual history of dividing the world into large areas, it does in the end advocate a rather conventional scheme of "world regions" for teaching purposes (East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and so on). Such regions, we stressed, should be regarded as convenient categories rather than as pre-existing entities. Today I tend to highlight the "fuzziness" of regional boundaries more strongly, emphasizing how demographic, cultural, and geopolitical dynamics are causing regional realignments. When The Myth of Continents was written, for example, we assigned Xinjiang—the vast so-called Autonomous Region in northwestern China—to Central Asia, due largely to the fact that the majority of its people were Muslim in faith and Turkic (Uyghur-speaking) in language. Owing to migration from central and eastern China, Xinjiang now has a Han Chinese majority, substantially so in most of its eastern districts. As a result, Xinjiang is now not just geopolitically part of East Asia, but is also becoming East Asian in cultural terms. Historically, however, it remains part of Central Asia.

You are currently working on a project called Misled by the Map. Can you tell us what this is about? How does it relate to The Myth of Continents (if it does)?

My thinking on Misled by the Map has continued to evolve since I wrote about it on my website. Much of what I was planning to do in the book, I am now doing in a more diffuse manner through the Geocurrents blog. So I now conceive of the prospective book as a more scholarly work of intellectual history, much like The Myth of Continents. Only where that work looked at continents, civilizations, and world regions, the new project turns to the next level down in the spatial taxonomy. In the contemporary world, the map that really counts is the one that divides the Earth’s land area into 190-odd countries. Misled by the Map will trace the cartographic and textual history of splitting the continents into discrete regions and, ultimately, into the countries of today.

You write on your webpage: "I also write on environmental politics, propounding a technoenvironmentalist position that seeks to maximize habitat preservation and restoration through pragmatic politics and the decoupling of economic processes from natural ecosystems". What is "technoenvironmentalism"?

"Technoenvironmentalism," as I define it, seeks high-density, high-tech settlement forms, both to enhance human capabilities and to leave more room for wildlife. The closer people are packed, the fewer resources they need and the less space they occupy. In agriculture, high yields per acre reduce the overall human monopolization of land: To the extent that genetic engineering increases agricultural productivity, I’m all for it. Synthetic fibers and plastics made out of oil or coal are environmentally preferable to cotton and wood, as they leave more space for nature, and do not extract as many resources from ecosystems. The development of realistic, ersatz meat-substitutes cultured from vegetable proteins would be a godsend. By the same token, I prefer nuclear power to biofuels, which grab land and thus reduce habitat. "Split woods, not atoms" was a common slogan among my contemporaries in the 1970s; I embraced the creed to the extent of spending four months in 1979 cutting and splitting firewood for a living. It didn’t take long to figure out that if we all had to "split wood" for our energy needs, the United States would soon be a cut-over wasteland.

If you want to see such a wasteland, visit the so-called Demilitarized Zone and peer into North Korea. The South, by contrast, is a land of technoenvironmentalist renewal. South Korea is densely populated: nearly fifty million people on less than a fourth of the land area of California. Fifty years ago, it was an impoverished agricultural country barely able to feed itself, its mountains denuded and its wildlife nearly gone. Today South Korea’s uplands are almost fully reforested, and the state is working with environmental groups to create wildlife corridors linking areas of natural habitat. As high-yield South Korean farms over-produce rice, marginal paddies are being abandoned to nature, while villagers relocate to high-density, internet-saturated cities linked by efficient mass transit systems. This settlement pattern is a win-win, benefiting both the Korean people and Korean wildlife. It’s true that South Koreans import much of their food and energy, but it’s also true that they live surprisingly well with a far smaller carbon-footprint than ours.

I have played with some of these ideas in fictional form; roughly half of my novel Terranova: The Black Petaltail takes place in a technogreen northern California of the future.

You began the blog Geocurrents back in December 2009. What are you trying to accomplish with it? How do you pick what events and regions to blog about?

Geocurrents has been a compelling forum for me for several reasons. First, I have long wanted to spread geographical literacy to a wider audience. For the past few years I have been periodically teaching in Stanford’s adult education program ("Continuing Studies"), and I have enjoyed it immensely. Several of my courses are available on iTunes and YouTube, and I have been pleased to interact with listeners on email. There is a real hunger for knowledge about the world, in part because our school geography courses are so rudimentary. Most people in this country are ignorant about the world, and they know it. The infamous YouTube video of Miss Teen South Carolina pathetically attempting to answer a simple question about geographical knowledge has garnered more than forty million views. Whether they find that amusing or appalling (or both!), a lot of people seem to want to work on their mental maps, to master what differentiates places—and borders—from each other. Whatever small part my blog may play in imparting that kind of geographical knowledge makes it worthwhile.

I also use Geocurrents to learn more about the world myself. I have basic knowledge of the topics I write on, but the blogging process gives me an excuse to dig in further. An idea for a post usually starts with some news-making event, and that invariably leads me to Wikipedia, an indispensable, comprehensive, and constantly improving compendium of knowledge. I typically follow the links to a number of the sources listed in any given Wikipedia article, and then do further Internet searches on the topics of interest. As a general rule, I don’t visit the library, simply because I don’t have time for that kind of research on the Geocurrents timeline. I am, however, contemplating a more in-depth series of mini-atlases, somewhat like the "Atlas of Indian Development" posted in July in Geocurrents. For those, I would definitely do a combination of internet and conventional text research. China is the prospective next topic in this series, but the necessary statistical data does not seem to be readily available. A little library work, it seems, will be necessary.

The inspiration for a particular post can come from any of several directions. Sometimes I read an article that piques my curiosity and then delve into the issue; more often than not, that leads to related topics. Recent Moroccan protests around the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, for example, led me to think about Gibraltar as well, raising broader issues of Spanish sovereignty, nationalism, and regionalism. On other occasions I decide in advance that it’s time to take a look at a particular part of the world. In that case, I search the web until I find an article of interest. Such searches often bring me to obscure local publications, many of which are amazingly good. The Shan Herald Agency for News, operating out of Chiengmai, Thailand, for example, offers first-rate coverage, in English, of events on the violence-scarred Shan Plateau of eastern Burma.

Finally, Geocurrents has become increasingly connected with my teaching. I have long been frustrated with the typical research paper assignment: my students do a great deal of work, I laboriously grade their papers, and yet most of this effort ends up in the recycling bin. This quarter, I’m experimenting with blogging assignments for the students enrolled in my Stanford seminar called The History and Geography of Current Global Event. If all goes well, their first efforts will appear on Geocurrents this November.

LESS

From The Boston Globe's The Big Picture, a photo essay of the miners rescued in Chile.

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Andreas Follesdal (Oslo): Religious Liberty Versus Gender Equality: In Memory of Susan Moller Okin. Denise Walsh (Virginia): Culture Versus Women’s Rights Conflicts and Multicultural Policies. Charles Taylor on solidarity in a pluralist age. On multiculturalism, the cardinal rule is that all immigrants to Canada love their adoptive country but cling to the habits of home, but some immigrants chose Canada to get the hell away from their homescape and after arrival never gave the old country a second thought. How multiculturalism fails immigrants: Grouping people according to their "historical" cultural identity is both divisive and dangerous — migration is about change, not ossification. Slavoj Zizek on how liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face: Across Europe, the politics of the far right is infecting all with the need for a "reasonable" anti-immigration policy. From Alternative Right, Fjordman on Thilo Sarrazin vs. the multiculti oligarchs (and a response by Paul Gottfried). A review of Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths by Rumy Hasan. In the hands of today’s students, multiculturalism is a fruit that has over-ripened — the fact that all human beings are born equal has thoughtlessly become confused with the myth that all cultures are born equal.

The New York Times has a review of newly translated works by Roberto Bolaņo. The man without a country: Robert M. Downey on the cottage industry of Roberto Bolaņo (and more and more and more and more and more at Bookforum). From Swans, Peter Byrne on Roberto Bolaņo's Poetic Justice.

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