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What is with the German Romantic passion for Alpine landscapes, Schwabian hamlets, winding rivers, and winter journeys? Could there possibly be a relation between Hölderlin’s most sublime poetry and “agriculture, horticulture, or forestry” (188)? Furthermore, was it mere coincidence that G. W. F. Hegel’s Lessons on the Philosophy of History, which laid the geographical foundations of idealist philosophy, were conceived at the University of Berlin while, in an office next door, Carl Ritter was revolutionizing the discipline of geography by writing the Science of the Earth?
Covering a period that goes from Johann Gottfried von Herder’s philosophical anthropology of the 1790s, to Ritter’s study of the relation between earth and humankind conducted between 1817 and 1859, Chenxi Tang’s rich and informative book provides a convincing answer to all such questions: Romantic obsessions, botanic passions, and idealist syntheses seem to be all fruits of a new and “distinctively modern concept of geography” (3) which formed in Germany in the intellectually fecund “decades around 1800” (21). A new geographic imagination, in other words, was at the basis of a pre-Romantic and Romantic Weltenschaung — from philosophy to poetry, from the figurative arts to cartography, and from politics to ethnography.
In a language reminiscent of Kuhn’s paradigmatic revolutions and Foucault’s epistemic breaks, Tang’s use of “distinctively modern” means that the Romantics transformed geography—a science as old as Herodotus and Strabo—from an ancient, static, and descriptive “topical” science, into a new, dynamic, “cultural” one (46). In Tang’s own words, the Romantic understanding of place, space, and, by extension, geography, managed to overcome “the fundamental rift between the human and the earth, which ran through the geographic discourse of the previous centuries” (21). Whereas old geography advanced from a fundamental dualism of earth and human, object and subject, Nature and Reason, modern geography rejected the view of earth and human society as two realities or essences, separated in the manner of object and subject. Instead the earthly and the human came to be seen as parts of a single whole, each engaged in an unceasing process of mutual interaction and reciprocal determination. Old geography thus reduced its task to making an inventory and an objective description of places carried out from the point of view of subjects who were assumed to be external to, and independent from, the physical reality they would describe and catalogue according to reason; modern geography, by contrast, presented itself as cultural geography, and tried to imagine the reciprocal and dialectical relation of subject and object, human and earth, on each other. What is described here is the paradigmatic shift from philosophical dualism, up to Immanuel Kant, to monistic idealism; what Tang adds to the usual story, is the centrality of geographic method and discourse in this paradigmatic and epistemic shift that occurred “around 1800.”
In those years, Tang insists, were born not only modern science, but modern aesthetics as well — both built on a modern understanding of geography as the “conceptual matrix for understanding culture and society” (1), and both striving to “bring to light the ways in which terrestrial space, with its land and water, mountains and valleys, plants and animals, relates to the customs, religions, and forms of government” (49). The most compelling pages of The Geographic Imagination are devoted, accordingly, to the parallel evolution of geographic science on the one hand, and aesthetics on the other. From a traditional understanding of landscape (poetically exemplified by Albrecht von Haller’s “The Alps,” 1728) in which “[t]he viewer is reduced to a disembodied eye” (63), pre-Romantic texts like Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s “The Lake” (1775) re-conceive landscape as an “experience” consisting “in the subjective transformation of natural space into a symbolic structure” while remaining, dialectically, “formative of the subject” (82). Romanticism, finally, coheres around Hölderlin’s fully “modern” geographic understanding of the relation between poetry and landscape “as an elementary act of inhabiting the earth” (126).
While programmatically focused on the topics named in its subtitle—Geography, Literature, and Philosophy in German Romanticism--Tang’s book aims both at pushing the limits of interdisciplinarity beyond those fields, and at trespassing German national borders. Besides some pages devoted to figurative paintings or to the rise of ethnography, The Geographic Imagination of Modernity, taking its cue from Carl Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth, suggests that what was at stake in this re-conceptualization of geography was not simply German Romanticism, but nothing less than the formation, around 1800, of a novel sense of European modernity. If colonial imperialism and the rise of a sense of national belonging are two distinctive features of European modernity, Tang suggests that both are in fact dialectically related (no simple causality here) to the methodological procedures that were being developed, coevally, by modern geographers—such as “the asymmetrical division of the earth into Europe and the enormous space lying outside Europe, the ordering of the European soil into nation-states with well-defined territorial boundaries, and the vision of the whole world as a mosaic of spatially delimited ethnic cultures” (249).
The privilege given to Germany “around 1800” in this genealogy, not only of philosophy and aesthetics, but also of Europe and modernity, is of course debatable: although the idea has a long history (from Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne to Jürgen Habermas’ “core Europe”), Tang’s suggestion could risk enmeshment in some of the many battles customarily waged around such beginnings. In his polemical use of the locution “around 1800,” however, Tang is not so much engaged in trying to establish a primacy of Germany over—say—a Frankish Charlemagne or a Spanish conquista, but rather in re-evaluating (admittedly from an all-too-German perspective) the nature of the epistemological break that characterized the Sattelzeit between eighteenth and nineteenth century. If a historiographical commonplace, whose origin Tang dates to the work of Reinhart Koselleck from the 1970s (but which probably could be dated back to Friedrich Meinecke’s Die Entstehung des Historismus of 1936), has argued that “[t]he discovery of the historicity of both society and knowledge... is the defining feature of modernity” (2), Tang’s modernity is instead, as the title of this book peremptorily declares, a geographic imagination.
This is not to say that historicism should no longer play a role in our understanding of either Romanticism or (European) modernity. Taking his distance from “the so-called postmodernism of the past quarter century [which] has reclaimed geographic-spatial thinking as an antidote to the peremptory imperative of historicization” (5), Tang, in a rather more conciliatory way, finds in geography not an “antidote,” but rather a supplement, to historicism. “As a matter of fact, the discovery of historical time around 1800 was accompanied by the discovery of geographic space, and the historicization of society and knowledge went hand in hand with what can be called the geographicization thereof” (3). The friendly image of history and geography as two companions going hand in hand around the modernity of Europe cavalierly glides over many “postmodern” polemics—as is Tang’s ascetic attempt to refrain, “as far as possible, from tackling the thorny philosophical problems of space and its relation to time” (6). Accordingly, this book on the centrality of geography is in fact organized historically, as a succession of paradigmatic shifts in both geography and poetics: chronology is its structuring principle; its Foucauldian goal is to offer an “archeology” (3) of the emergence of geographic imagination; and even chronological coincidences (the serendipity of Zeitgeist) play a role here, such as Humboldt’s and Hölderlin’s development of a “similar” discourse despite the fact that “their paths seem never to have crossed” (197). The Geographic Imagination of Modernity, in sum, is as much a historicizing of this imagination, as it is the attempt to anchor it onto the geography of Germany.
Such geographical anchoring, however, may be the limit of this stimulating book, especially when measured against its ambition to explain European modernity. Apart from some marginal notations on Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, and on the pedagogy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Pestalozzi, Tang’s Geographic Imagination of Modernity remains an exclusively German affair: whatever happened, say, to Rousseau’s promenades, George Crabbe’s rural rides, or William Wordsworth’s Lake District? Were they not forms of geographic imagination? And what about Montesquieu’s geography of history, arguably central (along with the work of the Coppet group) to understanding German idealism, from Schlegel up to Hegel’s own “geographic foundation of history” (237)? What about, finally, some non-German scholarship that deals with similar issues to Tang’s own — Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Literary Absolute and M. H. Abrams’ Natural Supernaturalism come to mind?
At any rate, while it is a banality to say that other possible genealogies than the German one can be investigated, The Geographic Imagination remains a quite original contribution to the understanding of at least one national variation on the wider European theme of geographical imagination.
Roberto M. Dainotto is Professor of Romance Studies and of Literature at Duke University. His publications include Place in Literature: Regions, Cultures, Communities and Europe (in Theory), and he has edited Racconti Americani del ‘900. His new research project is a book on the debate on the "philosophy of praxis" from Labriola to Gramsci.