The Myth of Continents

April 6, 2008

Lewis and Wigen unveiled a very dangerous part of what we considered as “science”, as they revealed that continents are nothing but geopolitically constructed discourses that change their shapes with socio-political implications. Area studies in the U.S were founded to provide a good knowledge about unknown parts of the earth for the new hegemonic power.

Earth labeling is an old game that Europeans have been playing to explain their imperialist maneuvers. Whether based on civilizational divisions, world system logic or world regions’ classification, the game of labeling is still a stereotyped euro-centered academic discourse, designed to back up geopolitical aims.

In this paper I would try first to explain the logic of Metageography that Lewis and Wegen suggest. Then I would try to follow the progression of Area Studies in the U.S in time explaining what could be its future role. Moreover, I will try to expose the metageographical units of division of the earth, with a focus on the World Regions’ alternative scheme and explain each unit’s weaknesses.

In “The Myth of Continents: A critique of Metageography” the historian Martin Lewis and the geographer Karen Wigen argue that continents are irrelevant. The two writers arguments provides a good understanding of how Area Studies served Geopolitics by labeling the Earth and constructing reductionist discourses, as to satisfy the Great Powers’ pragmatic needs. Zoogeography and Geology prove that Geographer’s division of continents is irrelevant if we analyze the Faunal, the Floral, and the Tectonic truths.

In this process of labeling the Earth in a Euro-centric way, Europe stands as a big anomaly in the continents’ scheme from a physical geographical perspective. “Europe is by no stretch of the imagination a discernible landmass; it can’t be reckoned a continent according to the dictionary definition of that term” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997). Europe is an extension of Asian, yet, most geographers still consider it as “an archetypal” continent because of human geography characteristics that distinguish it from Asia. This just tells how much geography is a constructed discourse to serve hegemonic supremacy as well as to justify in“scientific” way imperialism. In a peace on Environmentalism and Eurocentrism James M. Blaut says that “the crystallization of northern European’s tiny feudal polities into modern states occurred for reasons that had little to do with topographic differentiation…” (J. M. Blaut, 1999). Geographers like Henry Thomas Buckle or Paul Vidal de la Blache, claim supremacy for their local civilization within Europe, but no one seemed to contest Europe’s supremacy. Environmental determinism and Social Darwinism played a huge role in Imperialist discourse about “The White Man’s Burden” or the French “Mission Civilisatrice”. Russia in Lewis & Wigen arguments is the geographical and cultural face of the European anomaly, since it’s both Asian and European. History has proven that even Russian used its two faces following geopolitical strategies, moving from the 19th century typically European Russian to a more Asian- turned Cold War country.

If we admit that cultural distinction can provide basis for continental division, how can we call Asian one continent, when the Indian Subcontinent, the Gulf region, South East Asia, and other parts of it are completely different entities? Does it mean that the cultural logic that applies to Europe doesn’t apply to others? Andrew March suggests that the answer to these questions “say more about European scholars’ psychology than about Asian geography”.

Mental maps in popular imagination are very revealing of how much areas’ labeling can blur realities. In Area Studies for example, Asian studies don’t include Iran or Siberia or Lebanon. The same logic is applied in the press and official discourse. “The boundaries of the continents have become loose from their geographical moorings; these categories have become increasingly vague in the public imagination, reducing their usefulness even as locating devices” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997). What is alarming are the endless geopolitical designations that the public adopt without any criticism, like: the Middle East, The South, the third World… Lenus Hoskins in Euro-centrism vs. Afro-centrism, questions our way of looking at realities, and suggests looking from the eyes of Mother Africa for example instead of the eyes of Father Europe (L. A. Hoskins, 1992). Contemporary geographers aren’t much different from their racist Euro-centric predecessors, since they all still play the game of labeling the Earth. Even Lewis & Wigen alternative scheme is nothing but a modified version of Metageography.

Area Studies:

Area Studies are one of the key studies to understand Metageography and how geopolitical discourse was constructed, that’s why I suggest examining the emergence of area studies and the challenges it faces today. Hence, I have analyzed scholarly papers which were produced in different periods since the rise of Area Studies in the 1940s to nowadays.
American government and universities understood after World War II the necessity of understanding the unknown areas. Since, in Foucault’s terms “Power is Knowledge”, and the U.S was about to become the most powerful country, it opened government financed Area Studies divisions in prestigious universities. “American Military personnel had never before attempted to coordinate a worldwide effort, and the ensuing search for international expertise, both for planning military strategy and for orchestrating the post-war settlement” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997). Consequently, the American Council for Leaned Societies, the National Research Council, the Social Sciences Research Council, and the Smithsonian Institute merged together during the 1940s to create the Ethnographic Board, which was meant to operate in Area Studies.

Werner J. Cahnman, a member of the Association of American Geographers and a live witness of the creation of area Studies in the early 1940s, wrote in 1948 that “the new trend responds to a new need. Areas Studies is another way of saying that the United States of America has become mindful of the international expansion of its interests” (W. J. Cahnman, 1948), Cahnman’s statements shows the pragmatic perspective behind the creation of these studies. Yet, the main fears of that phase were that “Area Studies are being viewed as the chambermaid of Politics”, and the influence of Ratzelian “life-space” and Darwinism on the divisions of Area Studies in the U.S.

Marshall K. Powers in 1955 points out that Area Studies, as an attempt of understanding of the other, can prevent another World War. During the 1950s, Area Studies wasn’t yet a well established scholarly discipline, so it needed to undergo “the challenge of acquiring respectability” (M. K. Powers, 1955). Afterwards, Arian Studies became very popular and the trend of the 1980s in these studies was focused on Area Studies Economics (Philip A. Kuhn, 1984). This trend can be historically explained by the Capitalism vs. Socialism dichotomy of the Cold War.

Area Studies nowadays, are facing a real crisis as the cold war is over. It struggles to reinvent it self in a “scientific” or post-modernist shape. Yet, “Globalization as the dominant concept of the 1990s suggests powerful processes of homogenization and convergence that make increasingly irrelevant the detailed knowledge of internal affairs of different countries and regions” (Peter J. Katzenstein, 2001). One can argue that Katzentein’s fears are premature, as 9/11 revealed that Area Studies are still relevant but in cultural and religious terms. I also think that the challenge that Area Studies face today is deeply philosophical, since it needs to go from epistemology to ontology, from the (How?) to the (Why?), as to understand cultural phenomena far from the Core.

Units of Metageographical Divisions:

According to Lewis & Wigen there are three major ways of Metageographical divisions which have been used to divide and classify the Earth: Civilizations, Systems and regions. The historian and the geographer suggest as a solution for the blur divisions a new division by there own, based on World Regions as unit of analysis.

The first Unit of division is Civilization. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in the beginning of the century, “took civilizations as his operative categories, describing these geo-historical formations as quasi-isolated and essentially comparable units of analysis.” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997). According to Toynbee, all civilizations undergo Ibn Khaldoun’s phases of “birth, growth, decline, and fossilization”. Toynbee wanted to challenge the Hegelian Euro-centric “Unity of History”, but meanwhile, he drew a rigid line between what he calls “civilized” and “uncivilized” societies and ignored cultural interchange and religious minorities across civilizations. For this historian, written texts of religious value determine civilizations, because civilizations rise with the rise of a new world religion. Therefore, regions with oral traditions were considered uncivilized by Toynbee. This elitist division of the world to historical and a-historical influenced the early Area Studies’ classification. The end of the Cold War broke the bio-polar system and gave birth to two theories; Fukuyama’s End of History unipolar theory and the Huntington’s civilization-based system. Samuel Huntington, a public intellectual that is both a Harvard scholar and a statecraft-man, stood as the heir of Arnold Toynbee by claiming in 1993 that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… the principal conflict of global politics will occur between civilizations” (Samuel Huntington, 1993).

Huntington was both right and wrong. He predicted in a way the great doctrinal disputes. At the same time he missed the fact that transnational terrorist actors with religious extremist believes can’t be spotted clearly in a map. Moreover, the recent conflict is not between two civilizations, but between states that have certain “modern” values and non-state actors that produces an anti-modernist discourse. How can Huntington’s theory fit in a world where Islamist movements carry out terrorist acts in other Muslim countries?

The second unit of metageographical division is Systems. William Mc Neill pointed the rise of a world system beyond civilizations, whereas, Braudel “focused on systemic interactions that transgressed both state and civilizational boundaries” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997). According to Immanuel Wallerstein, civilizations aren’t isolated, and what civilizationaists label as marginal areas have played an important role in history of the core. These peripheries provided row material and cheap labor for the core in a neo-Marxist perspective. Hence, world system theory is economic-centered and gives little sense to cultural considerations as Weight would say. Another danger of this division is the mapping of “cultural centrality” over “economic centrality”. It is wiser to consider the world from a postmodern perspective, which says that identities aren’t rigid and new identities continue to be created everyday. Even Karen Wigen argues that; culture, power, and place interact endlessly to create new schemes both culturally and economically, as it is the case in Asia (K. Wigen, 1999).

Alternative Scheme:

Lewis and Wigen suggest remedying to the incoherence of previous divisions, by introducing an alternative scheme based on Regions, which they define as “large socio-spatial groupings delimitated largely on the grounds of shared history and culture” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997). The two authors explain this new unit of division saying; “where the continental scheme is based on a spurious identity between human grouping and landmasses they inhabit, the world regional framework attempts to delimitate areas of shared ideas, related life ways, and long-standing cultural ties” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997).

The cartography of the 17th and 18th century established sub-continental divisions based on size, political feature or languages, which served for the American Area Studies divisions. Even if these classifications changed once and forth and may appear inconsistent. Yet, they offer certain “fluidity” compared with the continental division. “Meanwhile, the world regional grid gradually acquired a life of its own outside of American institution” (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1997), as people in these regions entered in a self-identification process, adopting these classifications as their identities. According to Robert stock “the most important of Lewis and Wegen’s proposals include the treatement of central asia as a distinct region and the separation of an African American region” (R. Stock, 1999). Still, this Regional model of division is very geographically deterministic. We could even say that Lewis and Wegen tried to avoid Metageography and fail in Metageography again.

Going from the civilizational scheme of labeling the earth to World systems theory’s economic and European-centered division and ending in Lewis and Wegen’s World regions alternative divisions, all are nothing but stigmatized temptations to label the earth on the metageographical level for geopolitical reasons. Nowadays geographers explore new categories like Oceans and hydrographic based divisions of world region, as a new trend that Duke University is exploring (M. Lewis & K. Wigen, 1999).

Area studies as a major machine of geopolitics operated since W.W.II closely with politics to draw a biased map of the world. These Studies are still very relevant today after 9 – 11 but in a cultural and religious sense, as to go from explaining societies to understanding them.

Reference List:

– V. Lieberman (1997). The Eurasian Context of the early modern History of Mainland South East Asia. Modern Asia Studies, pp. 463- 546.
– L. MartinW & Karen E. Wigan (1997). The Myth of Continents: A critique of Metageography. Berkley: university of California Press, pp.124-188.
– W. J. Cahnman. (1948). Outline of a theory of Area studies. Annals of the Association of Americans Geographers, p.233-243.
– L. MartinW (1999). The geographical review.
– Oyvind Ostreud. (1988). The Use and Abuse of geopolitics. Journal of Peace Research, p.191-199.
– L. MartinW & K. Wigen. (1999). A Martimie response to the crisis in area studies. The geographical review, p. 161-168.
– L. MartinW. (2000).The Geographical review, p.603-628.World- city Network: A new Metageography. Annals of the association of Americans geographers, 123-134.
– K. Wigen. (1999). Culture, power,and Place: The New Landscapes of Esat Asian religionalism. The American Historical Review, p1183-1201.
– P. A. Kuhn. (1984). Area studies and the Disciplines. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, p.5-8.
– M. K. Powers. Area Studies. The journal of Higher Education, p.82-89+113.
J F. Butler. (1950). Toynbee and the categories of interpretation. The Philosophical Review, p.230-233.
– P. J. Katzenstein. (2001). Area and regional Studies in the United States. PS: Political Science and Politics, p.789-791.
– L. S. Hoskins.( 1992). Eurocentrism vs. Afrocnetrism : A geopolitics Linkage Analysis. Journal of Black Studies, p.247-257.
– D. C. Engerman. (1998). Review [Untiteled]. The Pacific Historical Review, p.610-611.
– J. M. Blaut. (2007). Environmentalist and Eurocentrism. The Geographical Review.
– J. A . Agnew. (2000). Review : global political geography beyond Geopolitics. International StudiesRreview, p.91-99.
– R. Stock. (1999). Review [Untiteled]. Canadian Journal of African Studies, p.184-186.
– E. Shohat. (2001). Area studies, Transnationalism, and the feminist Produsction of knowledge. Signs, p.1296-1272.


One comment

  1. As an American teacher with a specialty in Geography, I would like to inform you that Europe traditionally ends at the summit of the Ural mountains, and at the western edge of the Caspian Sea.

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

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