Sunday, April 10, 2011


In the end of her intro to Atlas of Remote Islands Judith Schalansky says that “every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.” And yet open before us is a book of fifty maps, fifty islands. Almost all of these islands were historically (whether through discovery or domination) part of the era of massive colonial expansion (roughly 1500-1900), and even the ones who were named in later years seem to have been discovered as a result of the lingering ambitious ethos of those times, long after the ideas of conquest and discovery of remote places on the earth's surface have reached their utilitarian maximum.

Our class discussion on the Atlas at some point engaged with the question of whether Schalansky's work is colonialist. This seems to be an important question. In a post-colonial paradigm, colonialism is a force we're seemingly morally obliged to resist (in light of the destruction and violence of colonialism's history and our currently supposed revered values of freedom and justice), and we'd be morally tainted by awarding a colonialist work with the Essay Prize 2010.

So, is Atlas of Remote Islands a colonialist work? We can take Schalansky at her word, that is that “every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.” The “and” in this sentence is crucial. Had she said “every map is the result OR the exercise of colonial violence,” then colonialism could have been relegated to the past, and Schalansky's work morally exonerated. But the “and” is very much there, making this discussion complicated, messing things up. Schalansky did create 50 maps, or in her own words 50 acts of colonial violence.

I suppose we therefore need to understand what colonialism is, a topic which seems difficult to articulate in the short scope of this blog post. I will say that broadly speaking, to my mind, at the heart of colonialism lies a power dynamic which involves the domination of an outside over an inside. This domination could be manifested in a myriad of ways- physically, emotionally, intellectually. Knowledge too can be a colonial act, for when we know something we attain power over it.

During our class discussion Ander raised the question of whether every act of writing is an act of colonialism. After all, every act of writing (and I extend writing to include any form of artistic expression) can be seen as an act of mapping, as we use symbols to make meaning of the world, and as with a map we chart a terrain, be it geographical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or any other. Following Schalansky's claim, our writing is an act of colonial violence. In the specific context of the Essay Prize competition this would make it easier for Schalansky- since every essay nominated for the Essay Prize would then be considered an act of colonial violence, and she'd be no worse than anyone else. But not every act of writing is an act of colonialism, and I believe examining Atlas of Remote Islands can tell us why.

In her intro Schalansky also tells us how, as a result of her own personal history, she became distrustful of political world maps: “Maps tell us much more when they do not divide nature into nations; when they allow it to form the basis of comparison across all the borders made by man.” And indeed in her illustrations Schalansky creates a space which aspires to bring these islands together, rendering them more equal, rather than differentiating them: all the islands are blue and orange, they are all drawn to the same scale, and every island is the naval of the world. They differ in their shape, in the topographical features she chooses to highlight, their elevation markers, and the names they were given, but that is all.

In contrast with the visual equality of these illustrations, the text itself, the story attached to the island, is a space of relative inequality. Schalansky did have a space constraint for how much text she could fit on the page, but the stories she tells are enslaved to her own imagination. OK, I'll soften that claim a little- Schalansky was also limited by the scope of her research and by the island's own history; she did not set out to create works of utter fantasy, she had to rely (as far as we know) on factual historical accounts. But what she did with these stories, what she decided to take or discard, is an act of creative tyranny. The islands are a projection of her own desires and inclinations and imagination. So is Schalansky (an outsider) imposing her creative powers over the islands and their inhabitants? Is her work colonialist?

In order to answer that I think it is necessary to consider the following question: why islands? Why not a survey of fifty remote places? After all, some locations on the continents are more difficult to get to, more remote, than some of the islands Schalansky describes.

I believe she is drawn to islands because of their discreteness. She is deeply engaged with the idea of physical boundaries, and what boundary on the face of this earth is more concrete than the line between land and vast ocean? Perhaps for us humans, the only boundary more concrete is that which separates ourselves from the world and each other. OK, islands as metaphors for people is a little corny (or perhaps, very corny), but there is something interesting that Schalansky is doing with this idea in her book.

While every island in the atlas is discrete, at the top of each verso page we are also provided with three geographical markers of distance, which connect the island to other land masses. Two of those bodies are usually recognizable place names, while the third is another remote island in the atlas (followed by a page number). Why does Schalansky do this? If the islands are remote, why attempt to connect them to one another? It's possible this is an attempt to break the watery boundaries surrounding each island, to state how, while they are remote and discrete, they are also placed on the same surface, touched by the same oceanic waters (yes, in different oceans, but notice how Schalansky doesn't include any islands in the middle of lakes or inland seas).

However, this attempt to connect is ultimately a failure. Schalansky begins her book with Lonely Island in the northern Arctic Ocean. At the top of the verso page she displays the distance to Rudolf Island which is described on page 30 of the book. If we then flip to Rudolf Island on page 30 we are directed to Bear Island on page 28. Following this reading pattern (instead of reading the book chronologically), we go through all 50 islands, eventually finding ourselves back on page 26- on Lonely Island. Our attempt to bridge the distance between the distinct bodies ultimately only brings us back to ourselves, though through our journey we have perhaps learned about other bodies.

So how does this reading relate to colonialism? Schalansky subverts the atlas, and its historical colonial agenda, to make a statement about the human condition. Thinking of both islands and people, we can chart our distance from one another, we can catch glimpses of a discrete body's history, but we cannot control it. Ultimately we will return to our own body, our own lonely island.

This argument is not watertight, the subversion doesn't always work. Schalansky's treatment of Iwo Jima reads as sentimental, and seems to fall into a nationalist narrative without questioning it very much. Other islands are described in such a way that their exotic beauty or terror provide a pleasure too similar to that Western readers receive from othering travel narratives.

But all in all, I believe Schalansky was aware of her position in crafting these stories, of the danger in exploiting these foreign places. After all, Schalansky describes her object as “fifty islands I have never set foot on and never will.” A map (and by extension- any creative work) that contains within itself the acknowledgment that it will never lead to conquest is perhaps one that avoids becoming an act of colonial violence. Some essays do that.

For further discussion of this topic please check out this video.

*Shout out alert: Just wanted to acknowledge the often unacknowledged work of the translator, Christine Lo. Translation is difficult work.

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