17 March 2008

A Surrealist Map of an Anticolonial World?

Strange Maps has once again posted a fascinating piece of cartography—a surrealist map of the world from 1929.

[Click here for enlargement.]

At first blush, this map reads as just so many nonsensical inversions of expectations and subversions of conventions. Or as Strange Maps tells us, “This is a very weird world indeed.” But I think there is something more to the layout of this globe than mere perversion for its own sake.

Let me explain.

The year 1929 falls smack dab in the middle of the interwar period, a time I am particularly interested in as my dissertation concerns anticolonialism during the 1920s and 1930s. This was a period marked by rising movements against empire and the proliferation of supranational ideologies and movements. In this moment, a number of theorists addressed questions of space and scale in novel manners in an attempt to confuse Eurocentric notions of geography and history and to propose alternate orderings of the world.

Since I spend all day thinking about such nonsense, I immediately thought when I looked at this map, “This is as much an anticolonial map as it is a surrealist map!”

This connection isn't just my innovative genius. In an analysis of Black intellectuals’ attraction to surrealism, historian Robin Kelley points out, “Surrealists explicitly called for the overthrow of bourgeois culture, identified with anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia, and turned to non-European cultures as a source of ideas and inspiration in their critique of Western civilization.”* In other words, we might think of surrealism as an internal critique of the West and anticolonialism as its paired external assessment. This parallel may be a bit simplistic, but it provides an entrée to an interpretation of the logic of this map, if such a thing exists.

So let’s see how such an analysis plays out.

First, note the re-centering of the map around the Pacific, rather than the Atlantic world, pushing Europe off to a small corner of the West. “So much for your Eurocentric ideas!” our surrealist cartographer exclaims.

Additionally, the map-maker has endowed the northern Pacific territories with enlarged representations, particularly hefty in the case of Russia, home to the anticolonialists of the Third International. The two countries immune to “gigantism” are the major imperial powers on the Pacific—the United States and Japan—which have disappeared completely, though the American colonial territories of Hawaii and Alaska remain.

As Europe is a little squished, it’s hard for me to make out exactly what’s going on. But I think that England has nearly vanished and it has been replaced by an enlarged Ireland. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong, the label is illegible to me.) Imperial France bit the dust and only cosmopolitan Paris remains, one of only two cities worth mentioning in the world, the other being Constantinople. The rest of the continent is just an expansive Germany and Austria-Hungary. Perhaps these territories were saved as the birthplaces of Marx and Freud, the two fathers whose seminal ideas spawned surrealism. As for fascist Italy and the rest of the West, we bid you farewell!

Looking to Latin America, we find only Mexico and Peru, a fact that puzzles the viewers over at Strange Maps, but makes complete sense to me. Freed from the yoke of yanqui imperialism, the two nations that dominate Latin America are what I imagine to be the anticolonial Mexico of Emiliano Zapata and the Peru of the talented Marxist theorist Jose Carlos Mariategui, whose collection of essays on Peruvian socialism had just been published in 1927.

Of course, for an anticolonial map, the shrunken Africa and India are somewhat disappointing and these distortions may belie my reading.

Actually, this whole interpretation is a little thin. Or at least it ignores the large role played by nonsense in the logic of this map. I suppose one of the dangers of writing a dissertation is that you start to see the whole world through the lens of your narrow, little topic. But I do think there’s something to my take on this.

What do you think?

*Kelley’s statement appears in his foreword to the 2000 edition of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism.


rootlesscosmo said...

Well, the enormous Labrador is a bit odd, and the reduction of Latin America to Mexico and Peru could also allude to the two centers of early Spanish imperial administration. That doesn't mean some hipster Left Bank anticolonialist ideas weren't sloshing around in the mapmakers' heads, of course.

"Ebb of empires" between the wars?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Yeah, rootless, you caught me. Originally that read "the apparent dawning of an ebb of empires," but that sounded like awful prose. Plus the dawning of an ebb? Now I've got historically inaccurate. Maybe I'll change it to the something about a rising movement against empire...

I'll think on it.

And I take your note on Mexico and Peru, which I should have thought of. But can you spin that into an interpretation of this map?

kg said...

I think you're on to something - certainly, I would agree that there's no such thing as a neutral, a-political map (go Peters projection!) But the problem with doing a sustained, consistent reading of this map is that it brings us to the fact that the Surrealists' anti-colonialism was not the committed, thought-through position we might want it to be. Kelley writes, “Surrealists explicitly called for the overthrow of bourgeois culture, identified with anticolonial movements in Africa and Asia, and turned to non-European cultures as a source of ideas and inspiration in their critique of Western civilization.” True enough. They tried to do the same with the realm of the unconscious. But the trouble was that in their turning to non-European cultures or "the feminine", they tended to exoticize and primitivize these perceived sources of freedom, often through dandy-ish voyeurism that strikes one today as doing more harm than good where undoing the bourgeois logic of thinking about Otherness was concerned. As the map amply shows, to them, the Soviet Union - still a white, Western-ish culture - was the most concrete example of possible change, which is why "Russie" is so enormous (with its connection to the Alaska it sold emphasized probably as some sort of fuck you to the puny continental U.S.). The re-centering on the Pacific is significant, and the emphasis on small islands largely forgotten by Europeans opposes the logic of giant empires driven by desire to consolidate land and power. But there's also something very symbolic of the Surrealist pursuit in the fact that emptiness (around the word "ocean") forms the very heart of the map. An interest in negation of everything for its own sake ultimately takes priority - the void of non-land is the center around which land swirls - while Africa and South America are just as written into the margin as Europe (and the myth of the three being roughly the same size is maintained - as far as I understand, Europe is significantly smaller). What informs this map more than an over-arching anti-colonialist vision, I think, are the Surrealists' vague intimations and personal biases. Africa still figures as a continent - no countries, it's all one giant place; Mexico is huge b/c it forms a contrast with the US and b/c the Surrealists had connections there - Frida Kahlo, whom Breton praised highly, and the communist-oriented muralists. Europe is split into Francophone and Germanophone spheres of influence - also a totalization and a hardly liberating proposition if you happen to be European. Perhaps the most surprising accent is on republican (I think) China - but as you noted, at the same time, the Indian sub-continent is rather shrunken. The fact that it occurred to the Surrealists to remake the world after their own liking is indicative of an awareness of the scandalizing power of such a move, but the way in which the re-vision is done probably says more about the ends, means, and limits of the group's imagination at the time than it does about the concrete situation of the anti-colonialist movements around the world...

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


Yeah, certainly the surrealists' anticolonialism wasn't committed nor thought-through. The next two paragraphs of Kelley's foreword go on to explain that most Black thinkers attracted to surrealism used it as a path to rediscover their own Black radical tradition. The elements of exoticism you talk about no doubt played into this distancing.

I also totally think you are right about the focus on "empty space" in the map (both in the enlarged Pacific, Russia and Alaska AND the weird doodles that appear in the negative space). But this didn't fit my interpretation, so like all bad writers, I chucked it out of my narrow write-up.

Also, the size of China might be explained by the global "Hands Off China!" campaigns swishing through lefty elements of the world and the revolutionary movements afoot in China. But the timing is touchy (1929 seems late, but who knows when this map was drawn excatly, or how informed the cartographer was)--a subject I won't get into since I imagine only rootlesscosmo is interested in the leftist sectarian battles of the 1920s and probably already knows more about it than me, anyway. Suffice to say that China would have been on the minds of European left elements in the mid- to late-1920s, even if we can't say exactly what they were thinking. Actually, this ties into your overall point, I imagine.

Your comment replaces what I was calling nonsensical elements with an analysis of what you call "the Surrealists' vague intimations and personal biases." Your version is smarter. Thanks.

nadia n said...

Okay I'm really no expert on the Surrealist view in particular, but I tend to associate the affinity of artists for Africa in the early 20th cenury with the Fauvist, primitivist idea, which to me seems more infantilizing than empowering, so it wouldn't surprise me if that was an influence.
The big Labrador makes sense to me, seeing that Ireland figures big here as well.

nadia n said...

Actually I'm looking at it again and I think the enormous Labrador might be more about emasculating the rest of North America than about Labrador itself, the Canada that was British territory and America that thought they were such hot shit post WW1. Also the total absence of Quebec.

rootlesscosmo said...

I imagine only rootlesscosmo is interested in the leftist sectarian battles of the 1920s and probably already knows more about it than me, anyway.

Aww... maybe anecdotally, not in any systematic way, but thanks. (Did someone really picket George Oehler's office with a sign saying "Oehler is an Oehlerite"?)

I think kg really nails the incoherence of mapmakers' general viewpoint, which is one reason I can't incorporate the Mexico-Peru allusion (if that's what it is) into an interpretation of the map. S.J. Perelman wrote about a movie one of whose subplots "appears to have fallen into the developing fluid by mistake;" this kind of thing may happen oftener than we recognize.

Chrisius Maximus said...

Given that the Surrealist Group was mainly composed of Communists, I do not see the large size of Russia as being surprising. (Even though the CP famously refused to let Breton et al. join.)

Lyndon said...

Fascinating. I especially liked the wavy Equator. I may not have the requisite academic chops to comment on this in an informed way, but the first thing that jumped out at me in your interpretation is the strangeness of referring to a "Russia" (not "USSR") that includes all of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Finland, as "anticolonialist."

Chrisius Maximus said...

Well for one thing the notion of "colonialism" is very murky when one is talking about a contiguous landmass in which people have been travelling and shifting power back and forth for millennia. Things are much clearer when talking about entities such as the British Empire with their exclusively overseas holdings (unless you count Wales and Scotland). For instance, "Russian colonialism" in the North Caucasus is a very problematic notion, as Russians have lived in the area since the 15th century, this long predating the Imperial drive to the south as part of its maneuvers against the Ottoman Empire.

Lyndon said...

Of course, Chris, although I wasn't really talking about the North Caucasus, but rather the South Caucasus (the area that looks more like the "Transcaucasus" when looked at from Moscow).

Perhaps one reason why I think of the parallel is a retrospective one based on what's happened since the USSR's demise. Some of the experiences of ethnic Russians in the former republics seem to have at least superficial parallels with past post-colonial situations.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

It may not be accurate to call the whole thing Russia, but I don't think it's weird. Last year, my dad (Hi Buster, Sr.!) referred to the state and the republic of Georgia as American Georgia and Russian Georgia.

To deal more substantively with your point, Lyndon, Soviet propaganda of the 1920s made a point about how the USSR incorporated distinct nationalities; in fact, the claim was that they solved the nationality problem. A few anticolonialists even trumpeted their achievements and told France and Britain that they could model their decolonization on the shining example of the Soviet Union. (If you are incredibly interested, you could look at George Padmore's *How Russia Transformed Her Empire*, written, by the way, well after he broke with the Comintern.)

More than that, I think that Soviet solidarity with anticolonial movements and activists in the interwar period when the League of Nations paid scant attention to imperialism might have led to an enlarged sense of the Soviet Union being an anticolonial space. Whether everyone in Central Asia and the Caucasus agreed--that's another question. I think Chris is right to point up the specificities of Russia's expansionist empire, but I also don't think that it precludes the inclusion of Russia and the Soviet Union as peculiar imperial models.

Anyway, I never said that this was a *good* anticolonialist map. (Aesthetically, I find it a little underdone, though I like a few of the little doodles that work their way into the shapes of various peninsulas, islands and seas.) I just thought my interpretation might explain some of the cartographer's choices. And get us thinking about the period, borders and understandings of different places and spaces.

Rootless's Perelman quote might be apropos, but it still won't stop me from speculating. I do some of my most imaginative interpretive work when it's totally baseless. You should ask me why I loved that Woody Harrelson movie "The Walker," or *Eskort dlia dam*, as I know it.

rootlesscosmo said...

A few anticolonialists even trumpeted their achievements and told France and Britain that they could model their decolonization on the shining example of the Soviet Union.

As late as the 1970's, a CPI theoretician--I'm sorry, I can't recall his name, and Google hasn't helped--published a book comparing India's management of the "nationalities question" unfavorably with the Soviet model.

McFry said...

if only i'd had this map in high school to put up on my wall... i'd probably be so much better off now!

kg said...

To make a daft point, while yes, making no distinction between "Russia" and "USSR" makes nicely the point that the Surrealists didn't really think the logic of anti-colonialism through thoroughly (Russians living in the North Caucausus is one thing, imposing their system of government and values quite another), it also might be explained by a globally pervasive lack of sensitivity/knowledge about the geography of other places. People substitute Holland for the Netherlands all the time, or England for Britain. Or New York for the US if you are an American in Russia and everyone assumes you must be living in New York :). I would try to think of better examples from other parts of the world, but am deplorably eurocentric.
Buster, why did you love "The Walker"?

Chrisius Maximus said...

Well I think, provisionally, that we don't want to efface the difference between "colonialism" (setting up colonies), "imperialism" (an extremely vague term I would be happy to junk), and simply a large, powerful country or people imposing itself on other countries or peoples -- something large, powerful countries tend to do, regardless of political or economic system.

Also, I would be interested in learning how much of Russian Imperial/Soviet "cultural imperialism" was simply a matter of practicality. If you have a large multiethnic space, you need a lingua franca and (hopefully) some kind of system of standardized education, which logically would be those of the dominant group, or else you end up with modern India and its unwieldy ethnolinguistic kaleidoscope where a person from one part of the country can't talk to somebody in another part unless they're both members of the small Anglophone elite, or Medieval Europe which was in an analogous situation with Latin instead of English. It wouldn't have made much sense to make Polish or Udmurt the lingua franca of the Russian Empire.

It is also my understanding that the various "anti-imperialist" nationalist independence movements in the 19th century in Europe (in Russia, Austrio-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) were really, to use old-fashioned terminology, bourgeois and/or aristocratic movements. What difference did it make to the average person in Poland in 1800 what language state documents were written in, given that he or she was illiterate anyway, or what the ethnicity of his or her lord was? I would imagine not very much.

lizzie b said...

1. Over at strange maps, a commenter named Erik left these two links to published interpretations of this maps:

The first one credits the map's makers with predicting the Sept. 11 attacks. How's that for some imaginative interpretative work?

Speaking of which, Buster, when you refer to your own baseless interpretations, do you mean, for instance, your ruination of all the best cuts from "Born in the U.S.A."?

Susana said...

As an Art History student, I must point out this is really a map of Primitivism. Alaska, Oceana, Mexico, Peru are enlarged because their "primitive" art was of great interest to the Surrealists.

However, the enlarged Russia gives the map a curious political slant. Andre Breton, the leader of the Surrealists, was a committed Marxist.

Though we know find fault in primitivism as patronizing and exoticizing, the Surrealist saw their endeavor as liberating.

Take this quote for instance:
"Surrealism is allied with peoples of colour, first of all because it has sided with them against all forms of imperialsim and white brigandage...and secondly because of the profound affinities between surrealism and the primitive though."

It is very interesting you made those observations coming to it with a socio-political background.

David said...

What a werid map and my TURE HOMELAND is very small!!!! WHY DO THIS TO AFRICA, WHYYYYYY??????!!!!!

Jouj said...

As someone said above, Breton was a committed Marxist, but more specifically a fan of Trotsky, who at the time of the drawing of the map was exiled from Russia and living in Mexico, which could explain the emphasis on it.

Buster said...


Welcome to my dormant blog! A couple of notes/corrections/questions. First, this map was drawn in 1929. I believe that Trotsky didn't arrive in Mexico until later on in the 1930s, after a stint of European exile. (Forgive me, but the peripatetic/pathetic life of an academic drifter has separated me from my library and I don't have the Isaac Deutscher bio handy.) Second, my memory was that Breton's attachment to Trotsky/Trotskyism also comes later on in the 1930s and that, as of 1929, he was a member of the French CP.