Red Books and the Erasure of Geography

Red books shot

In the John Paul II Library at NUI Maynooth, all can now enjoy Hughie O’Donoghue’s artwork, Red Books. At Maynooth, we have also been treated to an elegant and informative lecture from the artist and I imagine that the talk will soon be online–I know it was filmed. As we get used to our new resident, I have been thinking about the sort of gifts Red Books brings to our community. In the first place, it creates a beautiful space at the heart of our new Library. As you enter the library you are drawn into this glowing lozenge beyond the first staircase. It is a warm heart to our building, and it circulates books as blood. Come closer and you will see twenty-seven panels, arranged in three rows of nine, looking like books, painted onto books, and featuring some of O’Donoghue’s heroes, or at least people he would commend to our imagination. The art-work also makes me smile, for a library, we might hope, is always full of read books.

There are, of course, many genuinely Red Books and recalling these associations is another gift rendered as a prompt from this work. When I was at school there was a brief period when the thoughts of the Chinese Communist leader, Chairman, Mao, circulated as Mao’s Little Red Book among bold students. To me, this subversive object looked rather like the St. Martin de Porres missal that for a time after my confirmation, I carried into and out of weekly mass.


Hughie O’Donoghue in front of Red Books, John Paul II Library, NUI Maynooth, 11 December 2013.
Photograph by Alan Monahan

Perhaps it is only people who do not use books who classify them by colour on their bookshelves, although there is something very pleasing about a row of books with a harmony of elegant spines. In his talk about Red Books, Hughie O’Donoghue said that for him the red of this work of art recalled a set of volumes from his father’s library, bound in red leather. As you can see from the picture above of Hughie O’Donoghue in front of Red Books, the red is close to an orange and it is arranged as vertical bands either side of the images of each of the 27 faces that are the focus of this row of panels, three high and nine wide. For me, this band of red either side of a paler panel recalls the design of the old Penguin books. Penguin books predominated among my early purchases. The only decent bookshop in Luton was called Paperback Parade and it had an image of a penguin on the sandwich board placed outside the shop. Inside the shop, Penguins were supplemented by Picadors, and between them they gathered translated texts that gave me a sense of a world of words, from which Luton received weak signals but of which Luton was not really a part. Even today, the parochialism of English is striking: whereas 50 percent of currently published translations are from English, only 6 percent are translations into English (

penguin_classics_persuasionBut even in Luton, I knew of one link between my world and this world of books, of other languages, of translations. In our public library there was a painting of George Bernard Shaw by Feliks Topolski (I believe the painting has since been stolen). My parents brought me to Ayot St. Lawrence, a village near Luton, where Shaw had once lived–a real writer from Luton, and with an Irish background, and with such a wild look about him. Most weekends I would climb up the stairs to the adult library in Luton Public Library, free to roam among its shelves while my Mum did the shopping. On the half-landing on the way up I would meet GBS and return his mischievous stare.

The links between books and worlds is raised in a very direct way by Red Books. The arrangement of the panels follows the alphabet and a further gift of our Red Books is perhaps that it makes us think about some of the links between classification and our access to knowledge, about libraries as a technology of the Age of the Book. And perhaps we are also prompted to think about the new relations between classification and access in our new Age of Digital Media. I doubt that the great library at Alexandria was the first place to use an alphabetical arrangement for books but it was a very important exemplar of the power of this arrangement. In Stephen Greenblatt’s magnificent Swerve: How the World Became Modern (W W Norton & Co., 2011; in John Paul II Library, 940.21 GRE) he describes the project of the Library at Alexandria– to collect in one place so much of extant knowledge that thinkers could venture new hypotheses, what Bruno Latour, in Science in Action (Harvard University Press, 1987) has called a ‘centre of calculation’ (Heike Jöns gives a helpful explanation of the concept in a chapter for The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, eds John Agnew and David Livingstone, Sage, 2011). The librarian at Alexandria responded to the cornucopia of works from Greek, Egyptian, and Roman societies with an alphabetical arrangement to help scholars find the works in which they were interested. The Library was a great success and became the focus of scientific progress in mathematics, geography, and other sciences: ‘Euclid developed his geometry at Alexandria; Archimides discovered pi and laid the foundation for calculus; Erataosthenes posited that the earth was round and calculated its circumference to within 1 percent; Galen revolutionized medicine’ (Swerve, 87). As Greenblatt tells the story, the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire terminated the polytheism that was at the heart of the cultural ferment of Alexandria and this scientific moment (together with its institutions) was lost, a tragedy also described in James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History (Mariner Books, 2001). But we still have the alphabet in our libraries, which is why in the arrangement of the Red Books, I can be found (in the photograph below) seated between Yuri Gagarin (Soviet cosmonaut) and Emiliano Zapata (Mexican revolutionary).

GK redbooks 2Photograph by Alan Monahan

In one of his lovely essays, ‘Unpacking my library,’ Walter Benjamin writes of the ‘mild boredom of order’ that shelving his books must impose upon them (you can find the essay in Benjamin’s collection, Illuminations, in John Paul II Library at MAIN 809 BEN). While there is something adventitious about the neighbours produced by the alphabet, it can be fun, and when you have a library of books you do remember who is next to whom, and there will always be the gift of reflection when you introduce, say, Mao between Malthus and Marx, or Hannah Arendt between Perry Anderson and Eric Auerbach. You can find gifts of your own among the Red Books but, for sake of Geopolitics, let’s start at the end, between Y and Z, between Yuri Gagarin and Emiliano Zapata. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to circle the earth in space. It was the second great Soviet triumph after they had in 1957 put Sputnik 1 as the first satellite in orbit around the earth. These technological successes puffed up the Soviet Union and they were understood by many as the natural consequence of the social progress that socialism had made beyond capitalism, even as evidence that the Soviet premier Nikita Krushchev had been right in 1956 when he had promised the USA that the USSR would ‘bury’ them. The alliance between technology and military force became the driving force of the Cold War leading the US president Dwight Eisenhower to warn in 1961 of the perversion of social priorities that could be produced by a military-industrial complex (the sad reflections of one of the central architects of this complex can be found as the film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, USA, dir. Errol Morris, in John Paul II Library, AV 973.92 MOR). Thereafter, the arms race between the USA and the USSR consumed vast resources depressing living standards and justifying in both states the elaboration of a Security State.


Zapata [on the right]. Screenshot from an excellent documentary about the modern Zapatista movement in Chiapas,

Emiliano Zapata was a revolutionary in Mexico. He grew up a peasant in the southern state of Morelos and in 1909 he was elected mayor of Anenecuilco, a small town where he tried to use the law against the large landowners who were stealing land from poor peasants. When the law failed he put together a posse of peasants and took back the land by force. In 1910, after a fraudulent election, Porfirio Díaz retained the presidency of Mexico. Díaz was favourable to foreign companies, giving them access to Mexican resources. He was also hostile towards meaningful land reform. His opponent in the election, Francisco Madero went into exile in the US from where he called for a revolution to bring down Díaz. Zapata joined with Pancho Villa and others to harry the federal forces and in 1911, Díaz himself went into exile and Madero returned as president. However, Madero was no more committed to land reform than had been Díaz and Zapata continued the revolution until his own death in 1919. His legacy is profound. His army admitted women as soldiers, even as officers. His defense of the land rights of the poor against large landowners and of Mexican natural resources against foreign corporations resonate today within the anti-globalisation movement and, indeed, when in 1994, a group of armed guerrillas from southern Mexico took up both these causes as the unrealized project of the Mexican revolution, they called themselves the Ejército Zapatistia de Liberación Nacional, the Zapatistas. In Manuel Castells’ Power of Identity (Blackwell, 1997. John Paul II Library, 303.4833 CAS, and as online text), there is a very interesting discussion of the Zapatistas and their use of the internet to globalise their struggle.

It is the accident of the alphabet that puts Yuri Gagarin alongside Emiliano Zapata but they represent in different ways, some of the unfulfilled promise of socialist, or Red, revolution. In the first place Zapata shows the preference for the poor that fired some many revolutionaries. He also represents a moment of resistance to the impoverishment produced by neo-colonial exploitation. He understood the need for Mexican people to use Mexican resources for their own benefit and the recent proposal to allow US oil companies access to Mexican oilfields seeks to undo this element of the Mexican revolutionary settlement. In the context of the Cold War, the United States was able to present as communist all such attempts to use national resources as national property. In this respect the Cold War was, as Odd Arne Westad argues in The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge University Press, 2007), a competition for control of the Third World. But the Soviet Union also failed the Third World, despite offering an alternative to US domination, and despite the inspiration of its technological triumphs (the industrialization that allowed the militarization that defeated Hitler, the Space Race), it too sought to shape Third World polities to fit its own geopolitical agenda and its own idiosyncratic reading of the laws of economic development. But the technological triumphs of the Soviet Union did, for a time at least, show that innovation and human aspiration did not respond only to the selfish lure of profit but that there really was an alternative way of setting public goals for a society. There still is.

Till Red books
Karen Till with Hughie O’Donoghue
Photograph by Alan Monahan

We are invited, perhaps, to think of the people on these panels as Reds, as progressive. In other words, the books of their lives would be of lives lived in hope of leaving the world a better, more beautiful, more interesting, more fair place. So, here we see Rosa Parks flanked by the artist and by Dr Karen Till whose teaching and research examines, among many other things, the legacy of Rosa Parks. Parks was the African-American woman who in refusing to leave her seat on the bus so that a white woman would not have to share the row with a person of colour, became the focus of a campaign to end segregation in the southern states of the USA. Fighting to end discrimination caused Rosa Parks and other civil rights activists to be smeared as Reds by those who understood themselves as benefiting from the status quo. And there may have been some justice in the charge, not that the civil rights movement was seeking to advance the cause of the Soviet Union at the expense of the United States but, rather, that in the struggle to give the broadest respect to the dignity of all individuals, one can’t ignore the indignity, even the injustice, of poverty in a world of plenty.

There is a clear attempt to be geographically generous in making these Red Books. Many places are implied by their one-time residents. And these people are all dead. They made their mark upon the world and that mark may still be evident or it may only be evident through the sort of commemoration possible in a book. A library is a place for books that trace, even summarise, lives. This is rather like the way that, in “The concept of the subject of the unconscious”, Juan-David Nasio explicates Jacques Lacan’s ideas about the relations between erasure and metaphor (originally published in French in 1992, there is an English translation by Boris Belay in Nasio’s Five lessons on the psychoanlytic theory of Jacques Lacan, State University of New York Press, 1998). A trace is erased and a signifier of that trace both substitutes for and acts as a condensation of that trace; a word, for example, might stand in for something no longer present in front of us. The example that Nasio gives takes us back to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. When Crusoe finds a footprint in the sand, a footprint unlike the shape of his own, then he has a trace of the person he will come to call Friday. Even though the sea will wash away the footprint, Crusoe still thinks of this spot as the place where he saw the print: ‘The trace left by Friday’s foot is erased; one can say that this trace, once erased, becomes significant. But let us be careful: it does not become significant because it is erased, but because I place a mark on the place where it was erased, or because I leave my own trace in the erasure’ (Nasio, 147). As lives move into books, the responsibility for cherishing and learning from the example of a life passes to those who use books.

But there is another set of erasures enacted by Red Books. Each of these panels has been produced by painting and working onto the open pages of copies of the 1930s Times Atlas of the World. An atlas is a work of reference, a centre of calculation perhaps, and certainly something one would expect to find and to use in a library. Painting atlases red reminds me that painting the map red was a metaphor for the conquests that added territory to the British Empire. In many British school atlases the Empire was painted red, or at least pink and, helped by the Mercator Projection and by placing nought degrees longitude through Greenwich and in the middle of the world map, an impression was given of the astonishing reach of the power of the tiny British island. In her autobiography (Auto Da Fay, London 2002), describing her childhood in New Zealand, Fay Weldon writes of her fascination with the world map: ‘How vast the globe was, and how proud I was to be British: why, a whole third of the nations were coloured red, which meant we governed it’ (p. 62). Red Books suggests I reflect upon the contrast between the progressive figures shown and the imperial memory of a map painted red.

In beginning with a set of beautiful works of geographical reference, Red Books pays a certain compliment to Geography, although it also suppresses this writing of the earth. It’s not quite the replacing of maps with chaps but Red Books is hiding one sort of geographical knowledge while inviting us to work at another. If the lives on the twenty-seven panels are exemplary in various ways, then, their geographical spread is a counter to ethnocentrism. As we look at the books of these lives, we may think about the maps upon which they have been staged. For some this reference to geography as a stage may recall the fictions of environmental determinism, but I started to think about the Red Maps that might complement these faces. When I look at Rosa Parks, I think of the geography of slavery, of maps of the US civil war, of maps showing where there were Jim Crow laws, and I also think of the Great Migration that brought so many African-Americans out of the racial indignity of the South into the class struggles of the industrial and urban North. When I reflect upon Emiliano Zapata, I think of multiple sites where people have struggled for land reform, of the Land War in late-nineteenth-century Ireland. I also think about the geographies of solidarity that have at times challenges the global grip of corporate capital and in protests against the thievery licensed by the World Trade Organisation still do. Yuri Gagarin suggests the map of a bipolar world where rival hegemons chew on the bones of the ex-colonies they recruit to their ‘side’. But I also think of the maps that might illustrate the socialist principle: From each according to their capacities, to each according to their needs. I think finally of the artist, who has fashioned for our library a work of jovial and cunning inspiration.

Gerry Kearns


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