A singular world: the perils and possibilities of the bird’s eye view, in early and late modernity

Sandra Young (Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town, South Africa) next carried us to the roots of the global south wherein early modern maps imagined climactic zones that were also distinct racial and cultural divides. She explored how a “singular” globe and its imagined cosmography might create tensions against a sense of individual habitation.


Young image

The new cosmographies for describing and measuring the earth in early modernity went some way towards producing a world that could be seen in one glance, as it were, and grasped as a totality, though it involved some complex adjudications, just as it does today. To view the earth in this way was to adopt the eyes of the Creator. But the detachment wrought by these scopic technologies proved invidious, not least of all because they could maintain the fiction of uninhabited lands. The view from the heavens made possible a sense of remove in the sciences by which the earth became known. However, in the tentative new epistemologies of early modernity, we can see a salutary tension between the scientist’s detachment and the problem of habitation; that is, of dealing with a world that is inhabited. When assembled and examined as objects of inquiry or when approached from such a remove that they remain invisible, the earth’s inhabitants may lose their capacity to move and unsettle. But when their witness is relied upon as evidence of new ways of knowing the earth, the terrain shifts.

In order to explore these tensions in early modern knowledge practices, I examine two early texts which gave representational form to a newly “expanded” world, Martin Waldseemüller’s paired texts of 1507 – the little Cosmographia Introductio and the enormous 12-sheet wall map, famously the first to label the newly “discovered” continents “America” – for the insights they give us into the epistemologies that inform early modern cartography and the implications these have for the people of the “southern climes.”


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