Spaces Where Maps Fail

By John RiederJuly 13, 2015

An Empire of Air and Water by Siobhan Carroll

AMONG THE MOST NOTABLE publishing phenomena of the late 19th century were the spectacular successes of Edward Bellamy’s utopian fiction Looking Backward (1888) and H. Rider Haggard’s lost-race adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Looking Backward’s main character falls asleep in a sealed vault in 1887 to wake 113 years later to a society transformed into utopia by the triumph of social planning and technocratic management. Bellamy’s millennial Boston is a dream of order where distance and scarcity have been defeated by the instant availability of commodities and entertainment, a reconfiguration of urban space that resembles not so much a well-cultivated garden as a meticulously and impeccably managed department store. King Solomon’s Mines, in contrast, narrates the penetration into the uncharted interior of Africa by three white explorers and their black servant. They are guided by a 200-year-old handwritten map that, promising the enormous wealth of King Solomon’s diamond mines as a reward, exhorts its European readers to raise an army and invade the isolated African nation that inhabits the site. The map indeed amounts to something like a deed or title to the “lost” property of the mines, and the entire story can be seen as a fantastic representation of colonial “discovery” where the explorers’ invasion of the African territory is framed as their heroic return to claim a lost legacy.

Taken together, Looking Backward and King Solomon’s Mines comprise the complementary halves of what we can call a collective cartography. If the mapping of social space into tightly controlled regularities in Bellamy’s Boston finds its counterpart in the mapping of the African interior as the repository of hidden treasure in Haggard’s fantasy, the figure of the map here is more than just a metaphor. One of the most extensive and significant scientific projects in history, it could be argued, was the British empire’s mapping of the world in the 19th century — a project that not only surveyed the coasts and then the interiors of the non-European world for military and commercial purposes, but also yielded the theory of natural selection, independently arrived at by both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace via the evidence provided by its mapping of the distribution of species. It is against the contours of this cartographic project, including not just scientific mapping of the world but capitalist management of social space and the imaginary representation of the world’s availability to colonial expropriation, that Siobhan Carroll’s An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination 1750-1850 takes shape. Carroll’s subject is what she calls “atopia,” which she defines as “natural regions […] which, because of their intangibility, inhospitality, or inaccessibility, cannot be converted into the locations of affective habitation known as ‘place.’” Carroll is interested, then, in an endemic and unavoidable failure of cartography that supplements and haunts the project, where intangible elements and unmappable spaces provide both imaginary and real sites of resistance to capitalist, colonial, national, and imperial control.

The four atopic regions Carroll identifies are the poles, the ocean, the atmosphere, and the underground. These are, not coincidentally, the sites where Haggard-type adventure fantasies migrated in the late 19th century as the blank spaces on the map were more and more filled in. They are also (not coincidentally?) regions where the long-term devastation of the environment by modern industrial production — or capitalist over-production — has become alarmingly manifest: in the melting of the polar ice caps, the Texas-sized mass of discarded plastic called the Pacific garbage patch, the carbon-laden atmosphere that is attributed primary blame for global climate change, and the depletion of water tables and still uncertain but profoundly worrisome effects of fracking. These contemporary signals of environmental catastrophe comprise the historical moment for Carroll’s interrogation of the cultural logic that has lead to the present dire state of affairs. Fredric Jameson has argued over the last 30 years that we at present reside in a postmodernity structured by the cultural logic of late capitalism. Our most cogent resource in the state of disconnected affect and spatial disorientation that goes under the name of globalization, according to Jameson, is the exercise of “cognitive mapping.” While Carroll never invokes Jameson or the theory of cognitive mapping, her project is indeed an attempt to trace the genealogy and articulate the contours of the present crisis by undertaking a precise and original analysis of Western mapping in its broadest sense.

Carroll begins by pointing out that the blank spaces on the map of Africa — the ones that Joseph Conrad dreamed of exploring as a child and then rendered into the Heart of Darkness in his most famous work — are in fact a relatively recent modern construction. In the first pages of the book she shows us a 16th-century map, Giacomo Gastaldi’s Il disegno della geografia moderna de tutta la parte dell Africa, in which the interior of the continent is densely filled in with sites derived not only from travelers’ accounts but also and more abundantly from myth and legend. On the next page she then displays Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville’s 1749 Afrique where the interior has been wiped clean of secondary and fictional accounts, arguing that d’Anville’s map represents “a seminal moment in the history of European spatial thought” that testifies to the onset of “a new phase of state-sponsored exploration and cartographical representation [of] geo-imaginary spaces.” This surprising and engaging exposition leads quickly into her definition of atopia and inaugurates her engagement with four ongoing scholarly conversations. The first two involve quite broad, widely influential currents of 20th-century thought: first, the discourse of cultural geography, from which she singles out the contributions of Martin Heidegger on the concept of “dwelling” and of Henri Lefebvre on the spatial practices of everyday life; and second, the inquiry into colonialism and the formation of modern national identities issuing from the work of Edward Said on orientalism, Benedict Anderson on the “imagined communities” of national identities in general, and Linda Colley on the formation of British national identity. The second two conversations are more disciplinarily specialized, as Carroll cites recent studies of the impact of colonialism and imperialism on English Romanticism, and the older but still fruitful inquiry into the English Romantics’ turn to the local and the rural in search of a sense of belonging and community felt to be damaged or absent in the emergent urban environment.

Carroll’s investigation mixes together scrutiny of canonical literary texts (e.g., Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, William Falconer’s The Shipwreck, the adventure fiction of Frederick Marryat, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) with a wide, and quite fascinating, variety of archival materials. These include some minor literature (e.g., Elizabeth Inchbald’s The Mogul Tale; or, the Descent of the Balloon [1784] and the anonymous The Aerostatic Spy: or, Excursions with an Air Balloon [1785]) but also scientific and journalistic accounts of exploration, travel diaries, guidebooks, technical manuals, and ephemera such as the 1797 board game The Bulwark of Britannia. Her emphasis in her analyses is not so much on the recalcitrance of atopic regions to settlement as their utility as sites of resistance to hegemonic, homogenizing grids of measurement and regulation. They are, significantly, often invested by the kind of imaginary locality expunged from d’Anville’s map. In another register of analysis the atopic spaces of the ocean and the underground reveal themselves to be sites of carefully constructed social hierarchies — the ship and the mine — that enable economic exploitation and military domination in the interest of nation and empire. These are also crucial sites of technological innovation; Carroll reminds us that the very term “technology” emerged in relation to the technical vocabulary of navigation. But the sophistication of the technology responds to the dire threats to survival posed by the atopic regions themselves. Thus maritime fiction, according to Carroll, depicts on the whole “a world of tension, in which a fragile zone of shipboard order is poised above the annihilating, planetary chaos of the ocean.” A sentence like this epitomizes both the power and the method of Carroll’s reading, which is much less a matter of explicating details in close reading of individual texts than of discerning large-scale patterns across a wide variety of writing.

I could not help thinking, as I read through Carroll’s wonderful book, of all the great pieces of literature that she was leaving out. Her chapter on the atmosphere seemed to me to practically beg for a reading of the agency of the air in Percy Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” or of Shelley’s even more startling atmospheric rhetoric in the final stanzas of Adonais. The chapter on the underground similarly kept reminding me of the figure of Demogorgon rising from the volcanic depths in his Prometheus Unbound. And I also found myself leaping forward to the latter half of the 19th century. Carroll provides some excellent commentary on the subterranean realm as “the province of the excluded Other” in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but I was inspired to think more than once of the relevance of Carroll’s analysis to the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne — to the way Captain Nemo’s literal immersion of his vessel in the supranational space of the ocean in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea coheres with his defiance of national borders and nationalist ideologies, in stark opposition to the values of his unwilling passenger Ned Land, for instance. But I am by no means registering a complaint against Siobhan Carroll for having left these texts out of her book. On the contrary, what better sign that a work of literary criticism and cultural history has succeeded than that it keeps provoking its reader to make more out of the connections and the patterns it sets before them?


John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University.

LARB Contributor

John Rieder has been teaching at UH Manoa’s English Department since 1980, the year he received his PhD from Yale University. For the first 20 years of his career he was mainly a specialist in English Romanticism, publishing a book on William Wordsworth, Wordsworth’s Counterrevolutionary Turn (University of Delaware Press, 1997) and numerous essays on the poetry of Percy Shelley. From around 2000 on his research agenda has focused on science fiction. His book on early science fiction, Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2008. In 2011 he received the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pioneer Award for his essay “On Defining Science Fiction, Or Not: Genre Theory, Science Fiction, and History.” He currently serves on the editorial board of Extrapolation, the oldest journal in the field of science fiction studies.


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