AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

THE MYTH OF CONTINENTS: A CRITIQUE OF METAGEOGRAPHY. MARTIN W. LEWIS AND KAREN E. WIGEN. BERKELEY: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. 1997. 359 PP. $55.00 (CLOTH), $19.95 (PAPER).©

Geographic scholarship has recently become much concerned with issues of language and representation, with the multiple ways that depictions of spaces and places embody biases, naturalize contingent social relations, and emphasize some political perspectives while marginalizing others. Readers interested in Eurocentrism, Afrocentrism, Orientalism, post-colonial thought, and geographic education will find The Myth of Continents a useful volume that summarizes a great deal of classic and contemporary research. It serves as an important stepping-stone between frequently obtuse, jargon-laden academic works on the one hand, and popular views of geography on the other.

Lewis and Wigen's concern is metageography, which they define as "the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world" (p. ix). Geographies are thus much more than just the ways in which societies are stretched across the earth's surface. They also include the contested, arbitrary, power-laden, and often inconsistent ways in which those structures are represented epistemologically.

Lewis and Wigen's critique of metageographies (e.g., First and Third Worlds, North-South, etc.) reveals how earlier notions of world geography as a neat series of continents tends to disguise both an implicit environmental determinism and a blindness to the politics of space as a social construction. For example, the distinction between Europe and Asia has had many uses throughout history, including different sides of the Aegean Sea, the Catholic and Orthodox realms, Christendom and the Muslim world. Ostensibly "clear cut" boundaries such as the Urals, which separate European and Asian Russia, reflect changing political interests, particularly the desire to naturalize certain distinctions in the name of imperial expansion. Thus "Europe" as a separate region was largely a construct essential to the emerging hegemony of European culture and power. Similarly, as Edward Said has so powerfully shown, the Orient was also a construct of the overheated fantasies of the West. "Asia" has steadily migrated in Europe's eyes, from northwestern Turkey to the Muslim world, to the East-West divide of the Cold War, to the Far East of the Pacific Rim, in the process giving rise to terms such as the Middle East and South Asia as they were spun off from the broader conception of the Orient. Typically, the farther a region is from Europe, the more internal variations are overlooked, so that varying cultures within Europe's 'Other' are lumped together under convenient labels (e.g., "India," despite its massive linguistic diversity). Associated with these regional labels are ethnocentric, and often racist, views of the people who live within them. Asians, for example, were often portrayed as submissive in nature, resigned to life in stagnant and despotic societies (e.g., Wittfogel's infamous Asiatic Mode of Production), in contrast to Western individualistic rationality. Even critics of these ideologies (Said included) incorporate simplistic East-West divisions into their critiques.

Readers of this journal will be most interested in Lewis and Wigen's critique of Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism. If Eurocentrism has persistently marginalized Africa's role in intellectual history, Afrocentrism repeats the error in another form. Radical Afrocentrism makes exaggerated and untenable claims; essentializing Africa's numerous real contributions in the form of some abstract quality of black people. In both cases, regions (Europe or Africa) appear to acquire a life of their own, attaining an aura of being "natural," pre-social, and immutable. Critical geography seeks to denaturalize this tendency, to unpack the political origins and consequences of regions as discourse. Although Lewis and Wigen resist the label of postmodernism, their work falls broadly within that perspective. Postmodernists are concerned with the linguistic construction of social and spatial reality; with the inescapable oversimplification that language always brings, of a complex and messy world, with the politics of the choices that underlie every categorization, and with the social consequences, as well as the origins of, discourse.

Lewis and Wigen cover an extensive body of literature concerned, among other things, with the use of civilizations as discrete units of analysis, Arnold Toynbee's influential conception of history, Sinocentrism, Wallerstein's world-systems theory, and the role of culture in the demarcation of regions as coherent entities. They explore how the formal system of world regions that pervades geography textbooks today arose after World War II, and provides the basis for most forms of "area studies" within universities, despite the fact that this scheme legitimatizes some regions, such as Southeast Asia, which is fundamentally incoherent, and delegitimizes other regions, such as Central Asia, which has a long history as a trading cross-roads and as a center of Turko-Mongolian heritage. This discussion prepares the groundwork for Lewis and Wigen's own regional classification, implicitly assigning priority to religion (e.g., the Eastern Orthodox realm) and/or race (e.g., African America, which includes the Caribbean, although Cuba is only 15% black, and northeastern Brazil). Their format strongly resembles most existing regionalizations. They conclude the book with ten principles of a critical metageography.

A strong concern for geographic education and literacy runs throughout the book. Given the abysmal, embarrassing, and widespread ignorance of world geography among university students in the U.S., pedagogic representations of the world's peoples and places are an important matter. Very few students are in a position to interpret regional schemes critically. The recent revival of interest in geography, particularly in light of the complexities of post-Cold War ethnically based geopolitics, has made geographic understanding all the more significant.

Readers interested in the politics of space, in questions of representation, and those who wish to introduce geographic pedagogy to contemporary social theory will find this volume useful. It would be especially so for instruction at the undergraduate college level as a supplement to existing texts in world geography. I highly recommend it.

Barney Warf
Florida State University, Department of Geography