Das Kosmoskop. Karten und ihre Benutzer in der Pflanzengeographie des 19. Jahrhunderts

Güttler, Nils
Göttingen 2014: Wallstein Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
545 S.
€ 64,90
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Philipp N. Lehmann, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Maps were important epistemic tools in plant geography, but not as early and not as self-evidently as one may think. This is one of the main messages of Nils Güttler’s noteworthy and richly illustrated book on the history of map usage in plant geography over the long nineteenth century. Güttler contends that it was only towards the end of this period that maps became a widely used “cosmoscope” – a term he defines as an epistemic instrument allowing a new perspective onto the world, “linked to a specific social structure of use” (p. 20).[1] The emphasis on usage follows David Edgerton’s call to pay more attention to the actual application and impact of technologies, rather than their date of invention or innovation.[2]

This approach engenders some surprising implications for the historiography of the field sciences in general. To some readers, “Das Kosmoskop” may appear plainly sacrilegious, as it removes Alexander von Humboldt from his pedestal as the all-powerful model and trendsetter for generations of scientists to come: Humboldt’s now famous visual practices, Güttler argues, did not have a deep impact on his successors in plant geography, who developed their own visual practices against the background of a rapidly growing cartographical industry in the late nineteenth century. This is certainly one of the study’s more polemic points, but Güttler is successful in backing it up with a wealth of evidence drawn from archival and published sources. In fact, half of the book about “maps and their users in plant geography” tells the history of how botanists did not – or only very tentatively – use maps in the first half of the nineteenth century. Once they did, however, the effect was remarkable. In the second half of the book, Güttler places the development of ecology into the context of the fast-changing visual practices of plant geography. Maps with an increasingly high resolution allowed practitioners to discern regional and local detail and invited questions about causal connections between different species, climates, and other environmental factors. From this perspective, Güttler contends, the emergence of ecology as a field of study does not appear to be marked by a “change,” but rather “an enlargement of the perspective” of plant geography (p. 330).

Over almost 400 pages and six chapters, Güttler supports his reevaluation of the significance of maps in plant geography by illustrating his introductory claims that epistemic and social functions of maps were difficult to separate, and that the methods and practices of plant geographers were closely tied to both disciplinary and socio-economic conditions. The book achieves this most successfully in the general discussion of publishing practices and cartographical developments in the second half of the nineteenth century (chapter 4) and in the detailed study of the German plant geographer Oscar Drude and his interactions with the Perthes publishing house in Gotha (chapter 5), which represents the archivally-based center of the book. In these two chapters, the importance of the material conditions of publication – and the contributions of a variety of different historical actors – to the development of maps as widespread epistemic tools in plant geography become most evident.

Güttler’s points about the importance of economic factors in the slow spread of maps are as convincing as they may be surprising. The relatively low dissemination rate of Humboldt’s visuals in the early nineteenth century is striking, opening up the avenue for larger questions about publishing and reading practices in the field sciences. For the second half of the nineteenth century, a more in-depth discussion of general economic trends in printing, marketing, and distribution would have further highlighted the rapidly changing structural conditions for publishing houses and the eventual creation of a conducive climate for a widespread use of visual materials, including maps.

Emphasizing the variety of perspectives from professional scientists, amateur contributors, publishers, cartographers, and map colorers involved in the production process, Güttler describes maps as “expression[s] of a collective perspective” (S. 18). Because of the vastly different approaches and techniques that these individuals and groups brought to the process of creating maps, a more accurate description of the end product may be “a collective expression of various perspectives.” This would emphasize the fact that the different actors contributing to the drawing of a map were often separated both by space and time from each other. This could lead to issues of coordination and communication that did not end when maps had become an accepted instrument among plant geographers. Even Güttler’s portrayal of the positive surprise that Drude expressed about the cartographical treatment of his work by the Perthes publishing house could be read as giving evidence of the staggered and complex work process and its occasionally unanticipated results. From this angle, the produced maps only appeared to be the product of a “collective perspective” while they actually brought together a variety of different viewpoints and approaches, which could lead to either positive or negative surprises.

Beyond the history of plant geography, “Das Kosmoskop” can also be read as an intervention in the debate on representations and constructions of global environments or, indeed, the global environment: the all-encompassing “zoomed-out” perspective of world maps eventually inspired a “zooming-in,” as Güttler argues. Even without the text, the maps from around the turn of the twentieth century in the appendix would make the same point: here, we find ever more thematically diverse world maps of the great atlas projects of the nineteenth century followed by detailed high-resolution maps of particular regions. This movement from global to local in plant geography is part of a messy story comprising highly complex dynamics of zooming in and out, which were happening in many, if not all, of the environmental field sciences at the time. To broaden the perspective even further, Güttler’s study would have benefited from a larger comparative dimension here, although this may ask too much of an already very detailed and wide-ranging study.

Most of the book adheres to what may loosely be called a case study method: half of the chapters follow particular individuals, from Augustin Pyramus de Condolle in the first chapter, to Alexander von Humboldt in the second, and Oscar Drude in the fifth. Even the remaining chapters follow the histories of particular individuals to explain more general trends and developments. This strategy has the advantage of providing structure and a narrative way into the dense material, but it sometimes tends to conflict with one of Güttler’s explicit goals of highlighting the complex and collective processes of map production and use, which cut across geographic, social, and educational lines. The “invisible” actors that the study sets out to bring to the center of the analysis – such as the women and girls who worked as map colorers – sometimes still remain difficult to discern.

It is also somewhat surprising that almost all of the “invisible” actors mentioned in the study are European, whereas plant geography was, as many of the included maps show, a global endeavor. This was true even in the times of high-resolution maps of European environments and even if – as Güttler argues provocatively – colonial gardens did not play the dominant role in the development of the “power of the cosmoscope” that has commonly been accorded to them (p. 372). Not least in light of the outspokenly global perspective of the Perthes publishing house, it would have been a worthwhile addition to trace where the non-European data for the drawing of world maps of plant geography came from, and how this information was received and discussed within the discipline.

More emphasis on the colonial dimension of the discipline could have also opened a way to more fully address the issue of maps not just as epistemic technologies, but also as technologies of social, cultural, and political power.[3] As it stands now, the issue appears suddenly at the end of the last chapter and then resurfaces briefly in the conclusion. Here, Güttler’s explanation of his choice to delimit the dimension of power almost exclusively to an intra-disciplinary perspective is not entirely convincing. While practitioners may not have actively thought about the possible implications of visual practices beyond their own discipline, the historian can and – I would argue – should examine these connections. Maps of colonial plants, for example, were still colonial maps and were integrated into a complex structure of environmental, socio-economic, and political power relations.

“Das Kosmoskop” is accompanied by ample footnotes, a bibliography, and eighty images, most of them beautifully reproduced color maps. For a book of this length and complexity, a more complete index with cross-references to terms and themes beyond individuals and publishing houses would have been appropriate. This could easily be remedied in an English version, which I believe is more than justified – not least because the book, elegantly argued and supported by rich source material, goes beyond the explicit, but maybe too modest, claims of its author: rather than merely relating the history of visual practices within plant geography, Güttler also addresses larger trends in cartography and reveals alternative routes of development in the visual representation of data that make the maps we use today appear more historically contingent than we may believe them to be.

[1] All translations are my own.
[2] David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old. Technology and Global History Since 1900, Oxford 2007.
[3] Among a large and growing body of literature on maps as instruments of power, see for instance: Felix Driver, Geography Militant. Cultures of Exploration and Empire, Oxford 2001; David Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition. Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise, Oxford 1993; see also selected articles anthologized in: George Henderson / Marvin Waterstone (eds.), Geographic Thought. A Praxis Perspective, New York 2009.

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