Review of Abysmal: A Critique of Cartographic Reason

Review of Abysmal: A Critique of Cartographic Reason

Book by Gunnar Olsson

Review by Russell S. Kirby, University of South Florida

Review of Abysmal: A Critique of Cartographic Reason

It is possible that Gunnar Olsson’s Abysmal: A Critique of Cartographic Reason is one of the most important contributions to the field of modern philosophy in recent years. If this is so, let us hope that the “Abysmal for Dummies” version or the Cliff Notes thumbnail summary appears soon, as most intellectuals who are merely “gifted” will never successfully read and comprehend this book from cover to cover. This unfortunate conclusion pains this reviewer greatly, as it is clear that Olsson provides significant insights into the human condition, into the ability of the human mind to think spatially and comprehend one’s surroundings within their geographical context, and into how this ability shapes human morality and aesthetics.

Olsson’s narrative focuses on the “abyss” between what goes on within the human mind and what goes on in the world. While his context is geographic, this subject will interest all students of philosophy. Olsson argues that all human reasoning is geographic in some sense, and hence, all reason is also cartographic since cartography can be thought of as the language of geography.

The organization of Abysmal is similar to Olsson’s earlier writings, including Birds in Egg/Eggs in Bird (1980) and Lines of Power/Limits of Language (1991). The major section headings are as follows: Confession, Prelude, Mappings, Instruments, Imaginations, Collation, Atlas, Requiem, and Memorials. That the book represents prodigious reading and research on Olsson’s part goes without saying; the notes section takes up 62 pages in an even smaller font than the body of the text, which is small enough in its own right. This volume links directly to modern philosophy, with direct reference to Kant, Wittgenstein, Whitehead, and other icons of this field of inquiry. However, while there are references to some major figures in the history of cartography, the bibliography contains no citations by key twentieth-century philosophers of geography (for example, Hartshorne, Sack, and Tuan to name a few).

Abysmal contains many insights and quotable passages, but casual readers will likely be unable to distill the text to its essence. Those who make the effort will find the journey worthwhile, but most of us will prefer to leave that task to others.

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