The Myth of Continents by Martin W. Lewis and Kären E. Wigen

Nonfiction — print. University of California Press, 1997. 344 pgs. Borrowed.

Subtitled “A Critique of Metageography”, Lewis and Wigen offer a critique of the way we divide the world – East versus West, First World versus Third World, the seven (or eight depending on who you ask) continents. Going beyond the argument that holding the “West” above the “East” or assigning countries into rank is racist and paternalistic, Lewis and Wigen argue that topographically the continents of the world do not make sense and that perpetuating such a myth allows the citizens of the world to construct themselves in a us versus them mentality. The authors trace such constructions of the world throughout history and offer not only a resounding critique of Eurocentrism — the mapping of the world around Europe — but explain how the “solution” known as Afrocentrism — the examination of the world around Africa, particularly Egypt — is also flawed.

I’m not entirely sure how this book made it into my parents’ home but as my family’s resident geographer and cartography nerd, Lewis and Wigen’s book quickly made it into my hands after I read the word “metageography” in the subtitled. Metageography, defined by Lewis and Wigen, is the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world: “the often unconscious frameworks that organize studies of history, sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, or even natural history” (pg. ix). None of my professors in the geography department ever called what we were studying as “metageography”, but I have read many articles and had many discussions in my undergraduate and graduate courses about the ultimately racist and xenophobic labels of “West”, “developed”, etc. I have yet to have a conversation about the flaws in labeling parts of the world as Europe, Asia, North America, South America, etc.

Most of my professors and classmates railed against Eurocentrism instructing cartography students not to use the Mercator projection because it conflates the size of Greenland and understates the size of  Africa. I won’t bore you with a long explanation of how the Mercator projector is actually the best projection in certain cases, but I was very surprised to read an argument against Afrocentrism. Basically, the authors argue that this particular line of thinking embraces the same faulty geographical thinking found in Eurocentrism and lumps the entire continent of Africa into a similar, homogenous landmass rather than respecting the ethnic, historical, and linguistic differences between the many people who live on the continent. It is, in fact, a very colonialist view of the continent, and I finished that particular chapter with a new understanding of how alternatives can some times be the same problem masquerading as something else.

Lewis and Wiggen end their book with a map of the way they divide the world and teach human geography to their students, which they term a Heuristic World Regionalization Scheme. The world is divided as follows: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia (subdivided into Islamic and Lamaist zones), Southwest Asia and North Africa (commonly termed the Middle East), sub-Saharan Africa (with an Ethiopian subdivision), Ibero America (commonly termed South America), African America, North America, Western and Central Europe, Russia-Southeast Europe and the Caucasus, Australia and New Zealand, Melanesa, and Micronesia and Polynesia. Good luck memorizing that to a jingle in grad school.

The author argue this map is better because it avoids defining regions in terms of specific diagnostic traits focusing instead on historical process and ignored both political and ecological boundaries, but I would argue that this too is ultimately a flawed way to divide the world. Personally, I find the question of who is European and therefore allowed to join the European Union to be a interesting geopolitical question steeped in history. The process of applying requires years of work to implement certain “standards of Western democracy”, and the application of certain countries has been dismissed or questions as to whether they are European or not – Turkey, Hungary, and Greece. By lumping Greece in with Russia on the basis of a non-Latin alphabet, for example, Lewis and Wigen ignore the fact that certain Native Alaskan communities also used Cyrillic script, and placing countries like Hungary or Greece into the realm  of Russia allows the argument that Eastern European countries are “others” and, therefore, should not be allowed to join the European Union.

Or, to examine another part of the world in Lewis and Wigen’s classification scheme, coastal portions of Brazil are allocated to African America and separated from Ibero America never mind the fact that the Dominican Republic has a long history of interaction with Spain from which the label Ibero comes. Mexico is separated from the United States and Canada, which comprise North America, perpetrating this idea that Mexico is separate from the rest of North America as has been much expressed in the news as of late. Ultimately, in their effort to provide an alternative, Lewis and Wigen show just how futile the argument for clear geographical divisions actually is. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out why they wouldn’t have divided the world based on tectonic plates, even if it would remove parts of California from the rest of North America.

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