Martin Lewis: Metageographies, postmodernism and fallacy of unit comparability

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (August 2010) Tags: Metageographies postmodernism fallacy of unit comparability Historical Spatial Ideological Development Constructs Taxonomy Ideas Systems

Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis

Dr Martin W. Lewis (Coos Bay Oregon, 1956) is a Senior Lecturer in History at Stanford University. He obtained his BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed by an MA and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

The research interests of dr Lewis include the historical development and political usage of key geographical ideas, environmental politics and the historical geography of an area in the Philippines. He further works on a project that critically investigates the geopolitical division of the Earth’s surface.

For more information, please check these pages:

Personal page of Martin Lewis on Stanford University website Geocurrents – Blog of Martin Lewis

In the interview, dr Lewis discusses metageography from different perspectives. How is it defined? What are its flaws? Does ideology come into play? And is metageography a social construct?

He then explains how postmodernism views metageographies and what limitations this theory has. Finally, he elaborates on related concepts such as the “fallacy of unit comparability” and the “jigsaw-puzzle view of the world”.

Metageography- the concept

What is metageography and why is it relevant?

“Extreme examples of metageography would include discussions of Japan as Western nation, the classification of Kyrgyzstan and Moldova as belonging to the global South, and discussions of “Asian values” that are limited to East Asian societies.”

By “metageography” I mean the relatively unexamined and often taken-for-granted spatial frameworks through which knowledge is organized within all fields of the social sciences and humanities. The distinction between the merely geographical and the metageographical is not always clear-cut.

“Europe” is merely a geographical label that is defined in different ways by different writers, but if one essentializes the category and begins writing about European culture or the European mind, one clearly moves into metageographical terrain.

Put differently, geographical concepts become “metageographical” concepts to the extent that they lose their specific spatial coordinates and become imbued with extraneous conceptual baggage. Extreme examples would include discussions of Japan as Western nation, the classification of Singapore and Dubai as parts of the global North and of Kyrgyzstan and Moldova as belonging to the global South, and discussions of “Asian values” that are limited to East Asian societies.

What are the disadvantages of metageographies?

“By relying on metageographical constructs, we unduly simplify the world, avoiding complexities. Vast areas of the world are reduced to a handful of supposed commonalties, and specific places are transformed into cultural essence.”

Robert Kaplan’s article

By relying on metageographical constructs, we unduly simplify the world, avoiding complexities. Vast areas of the world are reduced to a handful of supposed commonalties, and specific places are transformed into cultural essence.

A good example would be Robert Kaplan’s recent New York Times op-ed, “For Greece’s Economy, Geography Was Destiny.” Here we are told that the Mediterranean has poor soils, which led to large landholdings, which in turn created a “inflexible social order.” The end result, Kaplan tells us, is “economic and political pathologies like statism and autocracy”. Such features, Kapan argues, apply to the entire Mediterranean, and do so transhistorically.

On the one hand, this is obviously as form of old-fashioned geographical determinism. But the “Mediterranean” framing pushes it into the realm of the metageograpical: the most important thing to know about Greece is its crude spatial position within the benighted world of the Mediterranean Basin. Such thinking is both prejudicial and simplistic.

What is the impact of ideology on metageographies?

“Different ideological systems tend to arrange geographical classification schemes to match their preconceptions. Interestingly, however, opposed ideologies can deploy very similar metageographical ideas, changing only the valuation.”

Metageographical constructs are necessarily ideological, in the broad sense of the term. Different ideological systems tend to arrange geographical classification schemes to match their preconceptions. Interestingly, however, opposed ideologies can deploy very similar metageographical ideas, changing only the valuation. The notion that the world is bisected in “The West” and “The Non-West,” for example, is common to certain segments of the left and the right. Those of the right, however, see the West as the font of reason, enlightenment, and all things positive, while those of the left are more inclined to see it in terms of greed, imperialism, and domination.

Are metageographies nothing but social constructs?

I would prefer to use the term “intellectual construct”, as this implies a more active, purposive engagement with the raw material, but I suppose that what starts out as an intellectual construct morphs into a social construct. But I would balk at the “nothing but” formulation. Metageographical schemes are used to order knowledge about the real world, and hence must engage with physical reality – although the level of engagement can be quite tenuous.

Metageography and postmodernism

What is postmodernism and how has it affected your views on metageographies?

“To the extent that postmodernism calls for the continual questioning of received categories of knowledge with a view to uncovering ideologically driven preconceptions that warp our view of reality, I am all for it. To the extent that it denies that knowledge of reality is possible, and that categorization is intrinsically stultifying, I am opposed.”

I have been told that “The Myth of Continents” is a postmodernist work, and I have been told that it is an anti-postmodernist work. I suppose that it is a bit of both. To the extent that postmodernism calls for the continual questioning of received categories of knowledge with a view to uncovering ideologically driven preconceptions that warp our view of reality, I am all for it. To the extent that it denies that knowledge of reality is possible, and that categorization is intrinsically stultifying, I am opposed.

What criticism do you have of postmodernism?

“Postmodernism tends to erase its own position, if taken too far.”

Too much theory – too little geography. Social theory, I was once told, is a bit like cheesecake: delicious in small servings, but nauseating in large doses. I find that I learn little about the world in reading most postmodernist geographical accounts. Postmodernism also tends to erase its own position, if taken too far. Postmodernism decries binary divisions, but then goes on to reinscribe them everywhere: east and west, north and south, right and left.

Metageography – other matters

What is the meaning and relevance of the “fallacy of unit comparability”?

“In nearly all atlases, each country is portrayed as a holistic unit fully comparable with all others. In such a way, vast areas of the world are overlooked and others are unduly magnified.”

The idea that spatial entities of the same kind necessarily form appropriate “containers” for all manner of comparison, which is how knowledge about the world is routinely organized. Go to almost any atlas or statistical compendium, and you will find that every country is portrayed as a holistic unit fully comparable with all others; thus China and India are regarded as the same kind of places as Nauru and Monaco, and often even receive roughly the same level of attention ( the CIA World Factbook is particularly egregious on this score). In such a way, vast areas of the world are overlooked and others are unduly magnified. Indian states and Chinese provinces are better regarded as comparable to European countries, not to provinces of those countries, except when it comes to actual issues of sovereignty.

What is the meaning and relevance of the “jigsaw-puzzle view of the world”?

“The basic world political map, like the map of continents, shows the world clearly and unambiguously divided into a set number of spatial units. In actuality, the borders so portrayed vary tremendously: the border between North and South Korea, of example, is not really the same sort of “thing” as the border between France and Belgium.”

This is similar to the ideas sketched for the preceding question, but it also gets to the issue of boundaries. The basic world political map, like the map of continents, shows the world clearly and unambiguously divided into a set number of spatial units. In actuality, the borders so portrayed vary tremendously: the border between North and South Korea, of example, is not really the same sort of “thing” as the border between France and Belgium. Many boundaries between sovereign states, of course, are contested – and are contested to varying extents.

Many countries, moreover, do not really control all areas within their internationally recognized boundaries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, with annual state revenues lower than that of Monaco (according to the CIA), is simply not what it appears to be on the map. Or take the case of southern Lebanon: who has a “monopoly on the legitimate used of violence” there, the government of Lebanon or Hezbollah? What does Somalia appear on our maps but not Somaliland? Much of the world political map portrays diplomatic pretence, yet we habitually use it as an overarching framework of global understanding.

Why do you advise against using a taxonomy of territorial units?

I think that we have to use taxonomies of territorial units, but we should always be questioning them, and we should try as much as possible to simultaneously entertain multiple, incommensurate, overlapping schemes of division.

How could we achieve a cosmopolitan perspective on global geography?

  • Pay attention to all parts of the world, not merely those considered important or problematic.
  • Organize information around areas of similar size and/or population, rather than mere geopolitical status. Sichuan and Uttar Pradesh should be almost as familiar to our students as France and Germany.
  • Examine and learn from ways of dividing the world and organizing geographical knowledge that arise in different intellectual traditions.

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