Alistair Bonnett’s ‘Beyond the Map’ Asks, How Shall We Live in a Fragmenting World?

Geography, Bonnett claims in Beyond the Map, is becoming harder to read.

Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias
Alistair Bonnett
University of Chicago Press
Apr 2018

The ideas of “biophilia” and “topophilia” – love of nature and love of place, respectively – appear early in Alistair Bonnett‘s Beyond the Map: Unruly Enclaves, Ghostly Places, Emerging Lands and Our Search for New Utopias, and they signal the key question that seems to have inspired the author. The question is: How shall we live in a fragmenting world?

There are practical and philosophical dimensions to the matter. Climate change, loss of biodiversity, proliferation of plastics, for example, are well-documented (if not widely appreciated) ecological problems that mutilate both natural and built environments. Ambiguous borders and the splintering and insurgent identities that apply pressure on them create waves of conflict at local and global levels. Geography, Bonnett claims, is becoming harder to read, and in any case, the maps are breaking up at a faster rate. He gives these tangible environmental and geopolitics issues their due in Beyond the Map.

By trade Bonnett is a social geographer. He must, then, bring a particular kind of textured and philosophical approach to the book’s true subject: the individual who inhabits this fragmenting world, a social being with physical and emotional attachments to place, driven by various attitudes to freedom, change, and continuity. Bonnett makes space for all such factors, not equally and not always with total satisfaction. As a social critic, he also stages criticisms of prevailing assumptions cherished by both conservatives and progressives. Both ends of the ideological spectrum have visions of what “progress” looks like, and realizing both visions, we feel, has costs.

Beyond the Map is at its best when paused over such points of geographical discomfiture and it includes chapters written from many points of view on that theme. One variation that takes up the questions of who we are and how we live is a series of topics devoted to what anthropologist Marc Augé in 1995 called “non-places” – homogenized spaces of modern life where (in Augé’s words) “people are always, and never, at home”. These are highways, megastores, airports, railway stations, hotels, anonymised zones of circulation where identity, history, and personality are erased.

We have cities effectively without earth. Asphalt, skyways, tunnels, and criss-crossing motorways funnel us between ultra-dense upwardly-expanding commercial and and residential zones. Bonnett asks, frankly, “is it a good idea to lose that reference point, that link to the earth?” His answer is probably not. In the the Phantom Tunnel of Shinjuku Station where, according to urban legend, pedestrians are at risk of taking a wrong turn and disappearing forever, Bonnett notices “the horror of banal modernity”, a fear that “touches on something profoundly unsettling about our relationship with the big city”. The unfinished skywalks of Newcastle were conceived in the ’70s as a vision for a rebuilt modern city where the motorways would hum along on the ground and pedestrians would glide freely above them. But as Bonnett writes, “it’s not their design or planning that fascinates me, but how we live with them today; making our way through the debris of a forgotten vision of tomorrow”.

This is one of the best moments of the book. It works so well partly because of how effectively Bonnett evokes the ghostly weirdness of a half-finished and half-forgotten utopian project that otherwise probably appears ordinary, and partly because he digs into it conceptually. “Plans for total urban transformation were just as popular with left-wing and right-wing regimes,” he writes, “and post-war European welfare states subscribed to the same basic notion: that the future demanded eradication of the past.” Another related passage is worth quoting in its entirety: “Up here everything feels temporary. How long will these high lanes, that campus or indeed any of this, last? It’s barely worth storing memories for such places because none of them feels like it has any claim or a real presence on the earth.”

The thirst for novelty and for convenience and the flow of disposable goods and services unbounded by borders are not, however, enmeshed only with consumer capitalism. In brief asides Bonnett also wonders how identity politics and globalisation – now principally (though not exclusively) hobbies of the progressive left in Western nations – contributes to or diminishes our love of nature, love of place, and love of home.

A certain type of “new nomad”, for example, entrepreneurial globetrotters associated with Silicon Valley, invokes a powerful new utopia where we maybe unmoored by attachments to place and freely assume and discard identities. Such people are untethered and ultra-mobile, exponents of an “alluring dream that meshes global capitalism’s culture of footloose, ‘hire and fire’ flexibility with progressive values, like cultural oppenness and hostility to dull routine”. He observes how Christiania, a breakaway pseudo-anarchist statelet in the middle of Copenhagen that has been semi-independent since 1972, disingenously proclaims the rhetoric of ‘no borders, no nations’ but is effectively a gated community with strict rules of entry. Is there something selfish about true freedom? That in order for us to remain free, you are not free to join us?

His commentary on Brexit is even more illustrative. The case is often made that the world is getting smaller and ever more uprooted and mobile. But, he asks, “aren’t the local places, the ones that are truly ours, the ones that matter most in a disorientated world?”

To answer these question in a satisfactory way with the materials that Bonnett furnishes the reader requires a more trenchant historical and philosophical examination.The appearance of these themes are both the strength and weakness of Beyond the Map. The book covers a huge array of subjects in a breezy manner – contested borders both literally and figuratively, islands, languages, historical oddities, eccentric experiments – and Bonnett cannot possibly elaborate at length on all of them. But his commentary, sporadic thought it might be, is often insightful.

Further, he consistently brings his subject matter around to at least two key points. The first is that the parks, streets, hills, trails, views, and passages in which we live and become attached to are more than merely decorations, but are essential to our well-being, sense of self, and our sense of belonging in the world. The second is that when we lose them – or if they are taken away, or are compromised, or we give them up – it costs us something, and some ineffable way we lose a part of ourselves.

RATING 7 / 10