Wednesday’s Book Review: “Reinterpreting Exploration”

Reinterpreting ExplorationReinterpreting Exploration: The West in the World. Edited by Dane Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Acknowledgments, figures, contributors, index. Vii – 236. ISBN: 978-0-19-975534-9. Hardcover. USD $89.10.

Dane Kennedy has assembled a fine collection of historiographical essays on various aspects of western discovery, exploration, and exploitation of other parts of the world. Focusing on the history of the history of these themes Reinterpreting Exploration offers a state of the art in understandings. This is not a book for the casual reader, the buff, or the aficionado. It is fundamentally constructed for historians seeking basic understanding of a major field.

Kennedy emphasizes in his introduction the central role of Western Civilization’s encounters with other peoples and lands as a means of understanding the nature of these peoples. Much of the historical study of this subject has celebrated both individual heroism and national glory; accordingly, this volume focuses on each essayist addresses exploration’s role in shaping a Western sense of exceptionalism, the place of this exceptionalism in the imperial ambitions of European and American powers, and the nature of the cultural engagement with other peoples that resulted.

The individual essays had application across broad arenas despite their relatively narrow subjects. For instance, there are essays on the shifting interpretations of interactions, exploration and enlightenment, exploration and it’s reporting in books and articles, and the legends of individual explorers and expeditions. There are also regional studies of exploration, relating to Imperial Russia, the Pacific Islands, East Africa, Central Asia, and Antarctica.

For those interested in spaceflight the most interesting essay will probably be the one by Michael F. Robinson who concentrates the relationship of exploration and scientific advancement. Robinson invokes Stephen Pyne’s characterization of the “third great age of discovery” as a twentieth century development in which humans began to explore beyond regions where they could survive without artificial life support; at the poles, under the sea, and in space. While Robinson takes issue with this characterization of recent exploration he allows that it is a useful entrée point for seeking to place the themes of discover, exploration, conquest, and exploitation present in these regions into broader intellectual construct that includes both science and empire.

The most interesting part of this book is that the theme of exploration, whether something that is largely a Western phenomenon or something that is universal to all humankind (and there is a debate raging on that issue), has been inextricably tied up on the process of mediation between knowledge seeking and empire-building. Exploration has also been constantly the linkage between representation and reality; themes from these relationships require incorporation into historical studies of space exploration in the making of the modern world.





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