Terra Incognita

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“When we storm forward and climb out of the trenches, we see the empty, unknown land in front of us where death goes about its business […] it appears as if a new dimension has opened up to us. Then we suddenly see up close, […] what awaits us in the land of the dead: the enemy. That is an unforgettable moment.” – Ernst Jünger (Kittler, 132)

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The term terra incognita meaning “unknown land” in Latin, was coined as a concept during the Age of Exploration in the mid 15th century lasting through the 19th century. The naming in Latin for this concept was deliberate since, “The use of Latin as a universal language for knowledge was endorsed at the end of the Middle Ages, and so the term terra incognita perfectly captured both the spirit of the times and the character of unknown places” (Francaviglia 25). Latin becomes a signifier for knowledge and legitimation, revealing exploration as above all else the search for knowledge.

The exploration for terra incognita is a three-part process that begins with the map, which symbolically declares the points of the unknown, then there is the embarking and travel across the sea, culminating in the moment of visual contact and a claiming of the land through sight. Each part of the process is a moment of inscription: the map as rational inscription, the sea as irrational, and the gaze as legitimating. This process charts itself through increasing proximity to the physical land, the unknown becoming known, and thus the visual recognition as symbolic conquering of terra incognita.

Mapping the Unknown (Hic Sunt Dracones)

1482 reconstruction of Ptolemy's world map

The acquisition of knowledge and the need to know has been the main fuel for exploration. World maps during the Age of Exploration were in flux, mirroring the age itself, since there were still bodies of land to be discovered and rendered onto the map. The map as evidence of rationality and legibility also exhibited gaps of unknown spaces pointing to its own limitations and lack. Expeditions sought to fill in all of the missing spaces to complete and solidify the scientific reason proposed by the map and reassert its legitimacy. The gaps undermine the authority of maps and name it as something unstable. Maps were constantly being altered and rewritten, operating much like a palimpsest. These spaces of terra incognita were often marked as such, although there is also account of some displaying the phrase hic sunt dracones or “here be dragons,” emphasizing the fear and intrigue induced by the unknown as well as its presence as a threat to knowledge, rationality, and authority (Buisseret 295). The unknown, then, destabilizes the logic of the map as archive.

During the Age of Exploration, there was a rediscovery of ancient Greek maps, and Ptolemy’s world map completed in 391 A.D. served as a model for maps made in the 15th century. Although Ptolemy’s map was lost, writing and description of the map allowed scholars to make reconstructions, “The fact that the original was lost also enhanced its intrigue to an age searching for an elusive past” (Francaviglia, 26). States sponsored expeditions in pursuit of terra incognita where the discovery of the unknown emphasizes state power and knowledge. The ships on these explorations were therefore extensions of the state and also a metonymic reference to the state. The ships act as agents of rational state knowledge imposing order and unlocking the secrets of the unknown. Horn writes, "The space that intelligence explores is, by definition, opaque and inaccessible. The task of intelligence is thus to penetrate into the forbidden and protected space, cross borders, and investigate the enemy’s territory. This space is by definition an uncharted, secret-filled, necessarily dangerous zone" (Horn, 73). Terra incognita is an opaque space, the lux which becomes penetrated by the lumen of the explorers.

The Sea as Sublime and Erasure

Joseph Mallord William Turner's Snowstorm, 1842

Terra incognita is reached by first traversing the sea. The sea acts as a medium of transport and delivery as well as a space of inscription by the ship as a writing instrument. The sea is experienced as sublime in the Kantian sense, where one is overwhelmed by the infinity and power of nature. Kant writes, “But in what we are wont to call sublime in nature there is such an absence of anything leading to particular objective principles and corresponding forms of nature that it is rather in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided it gives signs of magnitude and power, that nature chiefly excites the ideas of the sublime” (Kant 70). Kant goes on to say "If we are to estimate nature as dynamically sublime, it must be represented as a source of fear" (Kant, 119). The sea was at once delivery and obstacle, it was unpredictable and threatening, and became another level of the unknown to be mastered by explorers. The sea as sublime magnifies the distance between the explorer and the terra incognita.

The sea insofar as it is the sublime is black boxed, allowing one to experience it only through its projected surface interface, therefore one can only stand at the threshold or edge of the sublime. One can not enter into the sublime because it would result in death or complete madness. The sublime is black boxed through and through. Entering into it wouldn’t unlock it as black box, rather it would continue to be lux, the impenetrable and opaque body of light which reappears in the sublime. The threshold of the sublime then is like an event horizon, the position of the self at the interface of one’s own potential obliteration by the immense and engulfing threat of nature.

The sea also denies writing and any attempt at inscription is therefore irrational and fleeting. It is an unstable writing surface acting as liquid erase, as each trace the ship leaves in the water vanishes in the moment it appears. Writing is swallowed and buried in the sea. The ship is not permitted to leave a trail or to mark on the water. In this sense it functions like a mystic-writing pad that strikes back where the writer cannot control the erasure of writing, but rather it is immediately subsumed into the unconscious and the act of writing becomes synonymous with the act of erasing. The voyage across the sea is also the erasure of that voyage. This experience of erasure precedes the writing of the unknown.

The Sovereign Gaze and the Spyglass


“Cartesian thought, for Ricoeur, ‘is contemporaneous with a vision of the world in which the whole of objectivity is spread out like a spectacle on which the cogito casts its sovereign gaze’” (Jonathan Crary, 48).

The visual encounter of terra incognita is a mediatic encounter which reflects the dynamic in Hegel’s pure Notion of recognition in that “one [is] being only recognized, the other only recognizing” (Hegel, 113). The explorer gazes upon the land, and the land receives the gaze, therefore the mediatic encounter denies equality and always supposes a dominance of one over the other. The male gaze of the explorer acts as a stylus writing onto the land, making vision synonymous with writing, and authoring the land as a blank page in that moment of recognition. The gaze as stylus not only writes onto the land, but also pierces and penetrates it. This moment of recognition is also an impasse. In the seeing of terra incognita, it is no longer unknown, and becomes transformed by being placed within the field of vision. Just as the ship symbolically acts as state power, so to the male gaze acts metonymically and indexically as the sovereign gaze of the state which renders legible the previously illegible.

The spyglass, like the telescope, is dioptric and all lens which allows the explorer to look at the land and bring it under the scrutiny of the gaze. It also frames the image of the land, placing a border around the targeted area that is being looked at, and excluding periphery. This visual targeting of land reflects the goal of the pursuit of knowledge to target any disruption or unknown. The target here is also the promise of it to become known. The spyglass is also a prosthetic and extension of the senses in order to enhance vision. As a prosthetic it extends and penetrates into the terra incognita. The spyglass can be seen in Walter Benjamin's concept of cameraman as surgeon, where the surgeon "diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient's body" just as the cameraman penetrates into the reality of its subject (Benjamin, 233). The spyglass also contracts the distance between the viewer and the viewed as it similarly penetrates into the space of land, cropping and reshaping it, dissecting and reforming it. The explorer’s gaze alone writes on the land, but the presence of the spyglass physically signifies the gaze operating as stylus. This tool of extension also bridges and connects the viewer to the land. The spyglass in this way, is a symbolic attempt to bring knowledge closer and to bring the unknown into the realm of the known. The spyglass therefore represents and manifests the goal of exploration, to go to the unknown, and to place the self within that threatening space. The spyglass is a defense against the threat as it serves as protection and armor for the viewer. The spyglass also represents science extending into and rationalizing the unknown.

Afterimage as Possession and Interface


A metaphoric afterimage is created in the moment of seeing terra incognita. The impression of this unforgettable moment creates an image that the explorer can take with him when he leaves. In the afterimage, the land as Other is remediated and re-presented. This idea is most clearly expressed in Lacan’s statement “No doubt, in the depths of my eye, the picture is painted” (Lacan, 96). This afterimage bceomes an objectified image of the land which remains under visual possession by the explorer. This also reveals that the land has the power to write back onto the explorer. The image becomes detached from the actual land, or the signified detached from its signifier, echoing Crary’s discussion of the afterimage as an “…optical experience that was produced by and within the subject (Crary 98).” The explorer is able to evoke this image and carry it as a possession. The eye becomes the archive which holds the image as a file. This is a similar effect to the mystic-writing pad. The image is written onto the eye and then subsumed into memory.

The explorer himself becomes a medium for carrying and transporting the afterimage of terra incognita, acting as Iris as opposed to Hermes, internalizing the message into his body. This internalization of the afterimage as message is also an internalization of the Other. The unknown is taken in by the explorer where it is consumed and transformed, then released and rewritten as something known. Upon returning to the home state, the afterimage is described as the photographic documentation of the land. This reveals the afterimage as parallax, as it is the slippage between the parallel lines of sight of the image and the recollection of the image, and results as the displaced product of the two. The afterimage also functions more significantly as an interface, mediating the experience with terra incognita. When the afterimage is carried back to the home state as a possession of the state, it is the only access the state has to the terra incognita. The afterimage becomes the basis for the changes made to maps and writing about the land. It therefore acts as document and legible proof which mediates the experience that people have to the land. The understanding of the terra incognita is mediated through the explorer’s afterimage. The rationality of the map is also filtered through the afterimage. The afterimage as interface also marks the return to the map, and the final point in the process of terra incognita which is the legitimizing of the land onto the map as a known space. This moment of writing is the death of the terra incognita.


Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

Buisseret, David. The Oxford companion to World Exploration, Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Boston: MIT Press, 1992.

Francaviglia, Richard V. Mapping and Imagination in the Great Basin: a Cartographic History. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Horn, Eva. "Knowing the Enemy: The Epistemology of Secret Intelligence." Boston: MIT Press Journal Grey Room, 2003

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1978.