GEOGRAPHIES OF MARS: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet

By Dora, Veronica Della | The Geographical Review, July 2012 | Go to article overview

GEOGRAPHIES OF MARS: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet


Dora, Veronica Della, The Geographical Review


GEOGRAPHIES OF MARS: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet. By K. MARIA D. LANE. xiii and 266 pp.; maps, ills., bibliog., index. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 9780226470788.

The word "geography" embeds a double act of inscription. Geo-graphein means "describing" or, more literally, "writing, scratching the earth." By interpreting the earth, geographers inscribe its surface with stories based on preexisting knowledge and experience. By describing it, they produce textual and visual images that are in turn inscribed in the collective imagination. As a knowledge-making mode, geography nevertheless transcends the terrestrial realm. Geographies of Mars recounts the cultural history of how the red planet was inscribed and shaped by human vision and imagination between the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, in the age of high imperialism.

"Geographies," rather than "areography" (or "aresography," the delineation and study of Martian regions), is an appropriate term to describe the enterprise. As Maria Lane shows, in those imperialistic decades the surface of the red planet was constantly projected and inscribed with images of quasi-human Others and terrestrial landscapes akin to those encountered by the explorers of the time and consumed by their public. In this sense, Geographies of Mars is the story not of .a progressive discovery of "what Mars looks like" but of what different generations of astronomers and science popularizers expected, or simply wished, to see on it. Throughout Lane's account the surface of the red planet acts like a mirror of the earth, reflecting back shifting global geopolitical fears and desires as well as territorial and environmental concerns tied to the different cultural contexts in which the astronomers' gazes originated.

Lane traces the beginnings of scientific enthusiasm for "Martian geographies" back to 1878, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiapparelli identified numerous linear features on the surface of the planet. Originally interpreted as canals' straight lines, these features turned out to be nothing but optical illusions. Yet for decades they remained at the center of scientific speculation and were repeatedly invoked as proof of the existence of a technologically "superior race," able to cope with arid environment through a gigantic artificial irrigation system akin to those implemented in the U.S. West or in the British colonies. Why?

The history of inscribing Mars, we learn from this book, is above all a history of scientific legitimization. Emblematically, Lane explains, at the root of inhabited-Mars narratives "lay a series of detailed maps" (p. 23), traditionally deemed the objective scientific representations par excellence. It is thanks to their rhetoric of truth that Martian maps gave credibility and endurance to the idea of a red planet akin to the earth. But, as historians of cartography have been keen to point out for the past twenty years or so, no map is a transparent window on the world--or on other planets. It is therefore not surprising that late-nineteenth-century maps of Mars featured terrestrial namings linked to their makers' provenance; nor is it surprising that they employed popular projections such as Mercator's, thus conveying, on a different scale, the same imperialistic narratives as their terrestrial counterparts. What is surprising is the finale of the story: Ironically, Mars cartographies and theories were put in crisis by photography, a medium that was initially expected to corroborate, rather than challenge, cartographic authority.

Geographies of Mars, however, not only recounts the story of human visionary inscriptions on the planet's surface by means of optical devices and graphic representations; it also explores the complex terrestrial geographies through which such inscriptions were shaped and legitimized and, not least, their geographies of reception. …

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