Books

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.
7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.