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Book Review


Gunnar Olsson. ABYSMAL: A Critique of Cartographic Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007; 553 pp. $40.00 (cloth)

     What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live in the human world? How do we find our way in the unknown? How do we remember the absent and forget the present? Why and how has the territory of human beings (interpreted as human knowing) expanded in some directions and not in others? These are the questions Gunnar Olsson asks to frame his wide-ranging explorations into western religious, philosophical, literary, artistic, and geographic traditions. The biggest questions may not be answerable, but, as befits a philosopher of geography, Olsson does expose the limits of the human world through the conceptual tool of the map.

     As the subtitle suggests, this work fits into the genre of the philosophical critique. Olsson explicitly presents his work as "the fourth critique," a continuation of Kant's three critiques of pure reason, practical reason, and the power of judgment. He redefines his eighteenth-century predecessor, as well as two other key figures in his genealogy of cartographic reasoning, Plato and Wittgenstein, as "practicing geographers more than theoretical philosophers" (214). This re-categorization is consistent with Olsson's use of geography as "my way of teaching philosophy" (111). Its implications are, however, more than pedagogical.

     In Olsson's reading, western philosophers become geographers because they are explorers and mappers of the frontier between separate worlds: the sensible world of things and the intelligible world of meaning, the imaginary heavenly world above and the real terrestrial world below, presence and absence. The zone in between these two worlds is the abyss that has been excluded from conscious investigation. Olsson constructs maps of Plato's The Republic and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason not primarily to teach their contents or the trajectory of their arguments, but to lay bare the invisible maps of western thinking that are revealed in their work. These maps tell us where we are and where we should go not in a physical sense, but in our search for meaning.

     Reduced to their essential features, maps consist of a fix-point, a scale and a surface for projection. In the second section ("Mappings") the author traces the history of cartography in its strict sense, highlighting the key elements in western cartography: the invention of an imaginary point in the sky used to correlate and fix places on earth, the relation of the length of the day in the sky to the latitude of a place on earth leading to the emergence of lines of longitude and latitude (both attributed to Pythias from Massalia), and the projection of numerical data and place names on a surface (first papyrus) (attributed to Ptolemy). Unlike most historians of cartography, Olsson underscores the significance of the last of these elements. It is the surface that makes it possible for abstract geometric forms to be transformed into real objects like rivers, mountains, cities, coastlines and provinces in the human imagination (35). By analogy, in Plato's allegory of the cave it is the wall onto which the images of the objects were projected that de-limits human knowing. The leitmotif in Olsson's epic critique is then how the wall was constructed and maintained, and whether and how we can look beyond its boundaries.

     The structure of this magnum opus reflects Olsson's anatomy of cartographic reasoning whereby selective incisions are made in the body of western cartographic literature and art to reveal its lifeblood ("Instruments"), functions ("Imaginations"), organic structure ("Collation"), key moments in its evolutionary history ("Atlas"), and, finally, its dissected body ("Requiem"). Yes, it takes time and effort to decipher this map, but I enjoyed the many trips in the end.

     In the more technical section on the instruments or techniques of cartographic reasoning the author takes us on an excursion to what he calls the "Bar de Saussure." To be human means to be a semiotic animal, that is, to produce signs or maps of meaning. In this rendering of Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistics, human beings live at the juncture of the Signifier (S) and the signified (s) (or at the bar of ). The following section explains how human beings cross the divide between the sensible world of things (Signifiers) and the intelligible world of meaning (signifieds). Imagination is the answer. Imagination is, however, not simply an attribute of individuals; it has been structured by cultural paradigms. In Olsson's reading of the western canon, there have been two paradigms for eliding the divide. In the polytheistic world of the Greek epic the invisible is represented through the recall of realistic detail. In the monotheistic world of the Judaic Bible it is represented by the call of the One God who proclaims to be the only reality. Olsson correlates these two paradigms to two different, if compatible, maps of power: the Aristotelian laws of logic outlining the rules of rational thought, on the one hand, and the Ten Commandments codifying the submission of the human world to the One God, on the other hand. The reconstruction of these maps of power provides answers to a question that has defined Olsson's scholarly as well as artistic oeuvre: how did we become so predictable and obedient?

     Moses and Aristotle are called in to testify to the archeological foundations of western cartographic reasoning; the broader history of its unfolding and more recent exposure Olsson depicts in a chronological series of historical vignettes set in "Uruk," "Peniel," "Thebes," "Nicaea" (in the section titled "Atlas"), "Philadelphia," and "Uppsala" (in "Requiem"). Gilgamesh's struggle with the gods and animals, the exchanges between the Holy One (here denoted as "Yaweh") and Job, Sophocles' human tragedy of Oedipus Rex, and debates about the divine or human nature of Jesus Christ are "the most pivotal battles" (247) in the construction of human territory and thus in defining what it means to be human. In "Requiem" we jump from a fourth-century Nicaean conference and tenth-century Russian churches to twentieth- and twenty-first century post-modern exhibition halls. The author analyzes how the installations of Marcel Duchamp and Gunnael Jensson (the artistic name of Gunnar Olsson and Michael Ole Jensen) reveal the cartographic reasoning that has shaped human knowing. For example, Duchamp's installation, titled "Given" ("Étant Donnés"), consists of a used door with a hole, a dismembered dummy in the middle, and a landscape picture in the background. Yet, when looked at through the hole in the door, it creates the illusion of a nude spread out in the grassy foreground of a mountainous landscape. By focusing on how we see, the artist exposes the illusion of fixed points, scale, and canvas. Here, as throughout this book, the author attributes the exposure of "the taken-for-granted" (the limits of our thinking) to artists; do we have to assume that now that the mass for the departed has come to an end we also have a fundamental philosophical critique of it? Or does artistic understanding differ from religious or scientific understanding (the three modes of understanding Olsson maps) in its ability to redefine human territory?

     Readers of this journal who have read this far will surely wonder what's in it for world historians. Apart from the wise aphorisms and unusual tour of western cultural memory, there are two aspects of Olsson's book that appeal to the world historian in me. First, his unorthodox readings of standard texts and artifacts in the western canon (ranging from Enuma Elish, Gilgamesh, The Bible, The Odyssey, The Republic, Oedipus Rex, the Erbstorfer Karte and Kant's Critiques to the artwork of anonymous Russian icon painters, Alberti, Brunelleschi, Tintoretto, Vermeer, Magritte, Cézanne, Kandinsky, Malevich and Duchamp) will certainly bring new insights (and cause controversy); his ability to integrate them into a history, however skeletal, of what it means to be human may prove inspiring to teachers seeking to revamp their world history lecture course. Second, methodologically, this book's weakness in horizontal historical reasoning is compensated for by its audacious links of all manner of texts and artifacts across the longue durée.

     As my (incomplete) list of texts and artists attests, this work fits squarely within the "western civilization" paradigm; that may be its principal weakness. There is an odd tension between the author's self-proclaimed agenda to expose "western" cartographic reasoning and the universal claims made for the answers to such questions as what does it mean to be human and how do humans know. Things that are discovered to "lie at the heart of European culture" are time and again expanded into things that "perhaps" pertain to all cultures (e.g., 181). The best illustration of this slippage from what is western/European to what is universal is Olsson's own Duchampian experiment, "Mappa Mundi Universalis," a crystal palace that exposes through its transparent triangular walls the limits of human knowing mapped in ABYSMAL. Like his medieval predecessors the author assumes and claims a universal application for his mapping of the human territory, but the territory of human thinking outside of the western canon remains uncharted.

     This is a book for anyone who is willing to be entertained, enlightened and frustrated by an emeritus professor's erudite ruminations on the limits of human knowing. It is a work that cannot and need not be categorized as it will benefit readers who operate in diverse disciplinary territories and will make us think about the limits of disciplinary knowing. I doubt it will obtain the popular success that the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk obtained for his Critique of Cynical Reason in the 1980s, but that does not mean that Olsson's critique of western thinking and its history is any less worthwhile than that bestseller's critique of twentieth-century society.

Hilde De Weerdt is the Dr. Stanley Ho University Lecturer in Chinese History and Fellow and Tutor in Chinese History at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. She can be contacted at


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