Metageography and Reality


(Wayan, Chris. “Welcome to Turnovia,” (2003)       

       “Having never been exposed to a critique of the simple geography taught in elementary school, we continue to seek correspondingly simple maps for much more problematic phenomena, expecting to see their spatial patterns conveniently arrayed in large, contiguous, colorful blocks.” (Lewis and Wigen, pg. 11)

Lewis and Wigen, in their work The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, expose the dangers of an outdated and overly flawed view of the world that plagues our understanding of world geopolitics and the population as a whole, grounded in our propensity to accept the simplicity of categorizing, grouping, and subdividing an undividable world. Metageography represents the basic building blocks of geographic understanding, providing people with the core tools and heuristics to study and understand the complexity of our planet’s geographic makeup. In fact, Lewis and Wigen refer to this as “the highest level of our geographical taxonomy” (pg. 1). While the idea of having this core set of methods to understand geography appears useful, if this conception becomes fallacious, the consequences in terms of our understanding of the world can become disastrous. Today, particular fallacies dealing with the shaping of our idea of the world map as well as the specious puzzle that is our idea of nation-states and continents both can and have posed a significant threat to our conception of the “real” world, resulting in subjugation grounded in a misleading sense of geographic superiority.

Size and Placement

One of the most fundamental instances of today’s problematic metageography is the map itself. In particular, the shaping and placing of both continents and countries feeds a false sense of geographic superiority. With something as simple as size, humans innately associate size with power. Thus, the depiction of some land masses like Europe as significantly larger than its real size or Africa as no larger than Greenland, which in actuality (as represented in the map below) should be miniscule in comparison, provides Western culture with a specious sense of security. Lewis and Wigen highlight this phenomenon: “Europe and the United States appear in swollen importance, while the rest of the world is shrunk into a distorting miniature” (pg. 10). Unfortunately this has led to further perpetuation of faulty epistemology associated with the African continent, as will be explained in the coming section. In regards to placement, at a meta-level, there really is not a “north” or a “south” part of the Earth. Such directional terms are abstract concepts, created by humans for the purpose of navigation. That Europe and the rest of the global North are featured on the top of every major world map has no basis in the reality of planet orbits or any geographic principle. However, while such placement may seem insignificant, at a subconscious level, much like the concept of heaven and hell, that which is viewed as higher than something else is naturally considered to be superior, again allowing for the further perpetuation of eurocentrism as an intuitive explanation for such geographic superiority.


(Common Understanding)                   (Reality)


Nation-States and Continents

    Despite what we are so drawn to believe, country borders are not visible from space. The interlocking machine that is the modern geopolitical understanding is entirely human made, but sadly, no longer holds any natural sense. At the fundamental level of this hierarchy, nation-states, we see a nicely fitting, what Lewis and Wigen call “a handful of fundamental units” that “[do] injustice to the complexities of global geography and [lead] to faulty comparisons” (pg. 1). Specifically, they point to Switzerland, Nigeria, and India as specific examples of countries that we refer to politically as single units, completely oblivious to immense cultural diversity that fills these countries (pg. 8). In fact, these assumptions prove disastrous to our understanding of the “real” world in the specific context of Sudan. Lewis and Wigen point to the fact that despite northern Sudan’s closer resemblance to Egypt than to southern Sudan, which has a closer resemblance to Uganda, the fact that Sudan is appropriated as a single national unit distorts our ability as a global community to recognize that their problems are not merely internal strife, but grounded in the very foundations of our metageography. Beyond nation-states, as these smaller units are combined into the larger continental understanding, our comparisons are further distorted. In the case of Africa and Asia, Lewis and Wigen refer to our propensity to see China and India’s relationship to Asia as synonymous to Germany and France’s relationship to Europe, when in reality, India and China could represent the entire continent of Europe with its immense amount of geographic diversity, a major distortion of our perceptions of reality.


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