Friday, August 08, 2008

Unknowing the world

Some comments inspired by chapter one of Mignolo's The Idea of Latin America, first mentioned here.

UPDATE: Now, a bit more readable (I hope).

A "T-in-O" map from a 1472 edition of the Etymologies of St. Isidore (7th cen., Seville), oriented to East. The "O" is the "mare oceanum" (more familiar to us as the phrase "Ocean Sea," which, recall, Columbus would be designated as Admiral of. The crossbar of the "T" is formed by the Don, the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Nile. Older versions of this map would have located Jerusalem in the center of the map. The "T"'s vertical is the Mediterranean. Underneath "Asia," "Africa" and "Europe" are written, respectively, "Shem," "Ham" and "Japeth," the sons of Noah, consigned to those spaces by Augustine in his City of God. Image found here.

A map created by Muslim geographer Al-Idrisi from the 12th century. The map is oriented to South; Mecca is at its center. What we now call Africa dominates the upper half; "Europe" is in the lower-right; "Asia" is in the lower left. Image found here.

Maps are fascinating texts. We have become so accustomed to accepting their renderings of the earth's surface as truthful, if not Truth, that we forget that their makers determine their "narratives," which is to say, everything from their form (such as the various projection methods for depicting the planet's curved surface on a 2-dimensional surface) to their contents. When looking at maps, who among us has not felt some surprise at one time or another by what has been included in or excluded from one and wondered why that information is or is not there? Map-making is far from a value-neutral activity, therefore--or, as these ancient maps indicate, a culture-neutral one. The fact that modern maps are far more accurate in their renderings of the outlines of landmasses does not mean they have become any less value- or culture-neutral. That we here in the West rarely wonder about our maps' objectivity means only one thing: The West's way of framing the world, of thinking about it conceptually (which is what a map represents), won out over all those other culturally-specific ways.

Or, to put it another way:

"But don't African people know they live in Africa, and Asian people in Asia?"

Well--now they do."

More below the fold.

Mignolo's task is that of swimming against 1500 years or so of culture to get his reader to see the cultural construct beneath our accustomed way of picturing the world. The T-in-O map above is his starting point. According to Mignolo, thinking about the world's landmasses in terms of continents was peculiar to Europeans; other peoples thought in terms of regions distinct from each other, both topographically and culturally. Moreover, Europeans saw the world much more overtly through the lens of the Bible--in the case of the T-in-O map, through the story of Noah's three sons and where each went to live. Shem's line settled in Asia; Jesus, a descendant of Shem, was born there (or, as Augustine puts it in City of God, was first revealed there). Japheth ("enlargement") and his descendants lived in what came to be called Europe--as Augustine notes, the home of Christ's church. Ham, though, "was included neither in the first fruits of Israel nor in the full harvest of the Gentiles. He could only stand for the hot breed of heretics" (Augustine, in Mignolo 28).

It is no blasphemy, nor is it politically-correct, to say that to read the world and its peoples through such a reductive lens as this was, to put it very charitably, problematic. Most of us would agree with that statement. It was because of this frame, after all, that for most of the 16th century there were actual debates regarding just how human were the indigenous peoples of this hemisphere were: they didn't fit this paradigm--Noah had three sons, yet these are clearly a fourth people. Mignolo's larger point, despite his at times hectoring tone, thus becomes clear: it is to recognize that thinking of the history of the past 500 years--in particular, re his book, the history of the Americas--not only has determined how the West thinks of that history but also how we in the Americas think of it: as having originated in/emanated from Europe. That is a legitimate narrative, to be sure, but it's not the only one or, for that matter, the one that most truly relates the Americas' full history, the one that begins prior to and is its own history--not a negation or rebuttal of European history's version of American history. That we now recognize the absurdity, not to say the offensiveness, of those debates regarding the Indians' humanity is a sign that that paradigm is no longer so in force; but what are 100 years in comparison to the 1400 before then?

By contrast, the Islamic map is quite literally Islamo-centric--its center is Mecca, after all, no more strange a thing to do for a Muslim mapmaker than for a Christian mapmaker to center his map on Jerusalem. But the Islamic has no names for the continents it depicts, much less some implicit categorizing of the peoples therein--even though Noah and his sons appear in the Qu'ran as well.

So, which map is truer? If your impulse is to say that it no longer matters, Mignolo would say that that is precisely his point in this chapter: that once upon a time, competing maps, competing ways of describing the world, did exist, and the fact that the Western depiction of space won out has not been necessarily all to the good. Except for Westerners, of course. The modern world's eventual acquiescence to that depiction is not like acknowledging that the earth orbits the sun; it's a genuflecting before the West's economic and cultural power.

So, on the one hand, we have become so accustomed to thinking of the history of this hemisphere in Eurocentric terms that it becomes hard for us to conceive of that history in some other manner. On the other, those familiar grand historical narratives--even the ones indigenous to a place--can also obscure other, just-as-valuable narratives. That second point reminded me of Edward P. Jones' masterful first novel, The Known World, which I posted about here. Though set in the antebellum world of northern Virginia, a place and a time we think we know, we realize fairly quickly that the story Jones is going to tell us--one based on fact--is one that we may never have heard before: in part, it's the story of a black man whose parents had worked to buy his freedom and who then buys slaves to work his land and who sees nothing wrong with doing that. What is the frame of that world, after all, but the preeminence of the Peculiar Institution? Everything, from law to social relations, exists to affirm and maintain that frame. So where, then, is the inconsistency if a newly-freed slave chooses to participate in the affirming and maintaining of that frame? The power of Jones's novel is in not telling us but showing us slavery's warping of human relationships in a way that the old, familiar, no-less-true narratives can never quite do on their own.

In a similar way, Mignolo has to make his reader see the Eurocentricity of the history of the Americas before he can begin to show what alternate histories of this part of the world would look like. The familiar has to be made to look strange before we can see and come to accept the familiarity of the strange.

8 comments:

R. Sherman said...

Completely ill-formed thoughts flying around my skull when I should be doing something (monetarily) productive.

It would seem that the maps or more precisely "views" of the world were dependent upon how those views facilitated a culture's/people's goals. That is, the Islamic map may be geared to jihad, i.e. Dar al-Islam versus the rest.

European maps were made as attempts to facilitate navigation and thus the view of the world, perhaps going back to Marco Polo, was designed to get from point A to B.

Query where the fact that the European (or Western) view "prevailed" had more to do with the fact that Europeans developed a broader horizons sooner.

I need to think more about this.

Cheers.

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting, Randall.

Christians of the time (I mentioned this in the Reading Columbus post a while back) certainly had their own version of jihad: the goal of retaking Jerusalem had as its long-term intention the hastening of the Second Coming; one common reading of the Spanish desire to convert Indians to the faith is that they would thereby be more compliant subjects of the king as well. And in Spain, after the defeat of the Moors, there came along in the aftermath the forced expulsion/conversion of Moors and Jews; the Inquisition, meanwhile, sought out heretics (read: Protestants) and, well.

But am I misunderstanding you? It's the Christian map that divides the world into continents; the Islamic map doesn't.

As to your query: It's at that point in his argument that Mignolo's politics lose me. Sure: trade, the desire to get rich, was an enormous motivating factor in the West's fervor, in the wake of Columbus, to discover and lay claim to new lands. But Mignolo seems to imply that that's all there was to it. It's an essentially Marxist reading of the Encounter. But I've read enough from that time to believe that those other, more noble reasons were at play as well, imperfectly manifested though they may have been.

R. Sherman said...

John, I should've emphasized the "ill-formed" part of the above comment. As stated, I want to think about this post some more, if for no other reason than I harbor unnatural affections for maps of all types.

Cheers.

zunguzungu said...

Have you guys seen this site: http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/
It warms the cockles of my heart inordinately.

John, this phrase got me thinking:

"once upon a time, competing maps, competing ways of describing the world, did exist, and the fact that the Western depiction of space won out has not been necessarily all to the good"

I'm uncomfortable with the idea that the West "won out." There's a sense in which that's true--various forms of Western dominance of the world are pretty manifest--but there's also a sense in which it isn't. "The West" isn't a monolith, and within that West there have been a great many different conceptions of space, many in significant conflict with each other (christian visions of the earth vs. secular ones, for a start, a battle which still rages). Plus, and this is where my real beef is, the death of alternative visions of space has been much exaggerated to me. The idea that what Westerners put on maps (or Western knowledge in general) is a hegemonic force sweeping across the globe is something I'm always a little dubious about; I tend to think that people understand and imagine the world in ways that make sense to them, and while a great many third world people do seem to have adopted Western knowledge systems, the extent to which those Western knowledge systems shape them (as opposed to th people reshaping it to suit their needs) is one of those things that people like Mignolo always seem too quick too assume. Gonna think a bit more about it.

John B. said...

Z. and Randall, thanks for coming by. Z., I have a link to Strange Maps towards the bottom of the right gutter. You're right--it's great fun to look at. You're also right about the phrase "won out" and Mignolo's tendency to make big, sweeping claims with precious little qualifying, much less support. In his defense, he calls his book a manifesto, but still. And it appears that he's headed in a sort of Frantz Fanon approach to talking about Latin America, which is not where I personally am headed with my work. I didn't intend to give the impression I'm thinking uncritically about this stuff--I admit to finding compelling his discussions of medieval maps, though. At the local and regional levels, not just in this hemisphere but throughout the world, there's plenty of otherness unsubsumed by the West. There'd be precious little to talk about if that weren't the case.

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