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 cognita meaning “unknown land” in Latin, was created during the Age of Exploration in the mid 15th century lasting through the 19th century. Francaviglia writes, “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 search for terra incognita involves three stages of inscription:

  • the map as rational inscription
  • the sea as irrational and fleeting inscription
  • culminating with the gaze as relational and authoring inscription

Mapping the Unknown (Hic Sunt Dracones)

1482 reconstruction of Ptolemy's 2nd century 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. These unknown spaces were often marked with the phrase terra incognita, 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. 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 Ptolymey’s world map completed in 391 A.D. served as a model for maps made in the 15th century. Although Ptolymey’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).

State sponsored expeditions, acquiring knowledge as emphasizing state power

Ship becomes extension of state, state prosthetic

Metonymic relationship

ship also as crypt and sea becomes crypt carrier (coffin traveling along the water) - danger and death was a huge part of these explorations. ship doubles as home and crypt, doubles again as the state and state crypt

map used to be a palimpsest, written over, rewritten, making additions

The Sublime as Blackbox and Erasure

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“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 rther 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)

Mise en abyme?

The sea insofar as it is the sublime is blackboxed, 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 blackboxed through and through, entering it wouldn’t unlock it as blackbox, it would continue to be lux, the impenetrable and opaque body of light. 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 engulfing threat of nature.

The sea also denies writing. It is an unstable writing surface and acts as liquid erase, as each trace the ship leaves in the water vanishes in the moment it appears, it is swallowed and buried. 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.

Regime of Vision

The Sovereign Gaze


“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 moment of coming upon terra incognita and witnessing it is also a moment of engaging with the unknown as it becomes known. 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 impass. 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/indexically as the sovereign gaze of the state which renders legible the previously illegible.

Is this the land writing back on the gaze?

Afterimage as Possession and Parallax

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 Spyglass and the War Machine


telescope as dioptric

frames and borders the image, excludes periphery

land becomes a target (Kittler, photography and targeting)

Vision is enhanced via a prosthetic (spyglass/telescope)

cuts into the landscape, reforming and reorganizing the land (Walter Benjamin - surgeon/cameraman?) dissects and reshapes the subject


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

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.

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