The modern world is dominated by flat surfaces. We write, print and project on flat paper or flat screens, which we stare at all day. We inhabit spaces constructed from flat materials. We play sport on level fields. Engineered planar surfaces have become so pervasive and fundamental to behaviour and thought that we barely notice their existence. But flat landscapes are also often disparaged, viewed as featureless, empty and monotonous. Metaphorically, to ‘feel flat’ is to be bored, dull, lacking energy or inspiration.
So what is it about flatness that makes it so desirable and practical in everyday life, yet so unattractive in landscape and as an idea? How has the construction of flat surfaces contributed to a degradation of visual diversity? Flatness attacks these questions by looking first at the ways humans have perceived the natural world around them, from Flat Earth theories to abstract geometric concepts and the Flatness Problem in modern cosmology. It also traces the long historical trajectory of flatness as an engineering ideal, and the representation of the concept in art, music and literature.
Flatness is a truly original study, drawing together many strands of thought and practice, from the everyday to the most profound, as it builds a new way of understanding the platform on which the drama of modern life has been played out. Written with wit and wisdom, and splendidly illustrated throughout, the book will appeal to all who are interested in the topography of the modern world.
‘Flatness is the uneven, fascinating work of a true scholar enthusiast. Flatness: effervescent . . . Clearly the essential element of Flatness is the notion of variance. I can think of few books where the discussion ranges from abstract expressionism to flat earth theories, microtopography and hunting. Perhaps most remarkably, given the obvious potential in the subject matter for sky-high geyser-spouting nonsense, the book is almost entirely free of sub-philosophical cant and cultural studies jargon. Even at his most polemical, Higman manages to write with admirable clarity and precision . . . The book is therefore original and surprising but also reassuringly sane and straightforward . . . There may be few readers who are willing or able to follow Higman all the way as he strides confidently across the various fields of ontology, geomorphology, physiology, theology, the philosophy of science, and discussions both of the technique of profile measurement and the meaning of musical and pictorial flatness, but those who do will find the long journey across this vast territory worthwhile.’ – The Spectator
‘The most original and surprising book I’ve read this year. If you thought flatness equates with dull, you were wrong . . . Superbly researched, full of erudition, each chapter utterly surprising . . . A really important contribution for understanding how we have transformed our planet in our own image.’ – Michael Bravo, Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Cambridge
‘Once you’ve started on it, you won’t be able to put it down.’ – Tim Ingold, Chair in Social Anthropology, University of Aberdeen
B. W. Higman is Emeritus Professor of History, Australian National University, and Emeritus Professor, University of the West Indies. His many books include How Food Made History (2012) and A Concise History of the Caribbean (2011).