Is the name of the course that I am enrolled in and which starts tomorrow. It is the first structured class of my time as a PhD student. I’m taking it because I need a good grounding in geographical thought and because reading scores of ‘seminal’ and ‘founding’ articles about geography and then discussing them with others is what I need right now. The prospect of three hours discussion about changing definitions of geography, the relationship between geography and exploration and regions, revolutions, and the role of technology in geography might be daunting to some but I am really looking forward to it. Each class is based on readings and a little writing. That writing is termed a reaction paper. Here’s my first reaction paper:
“The public sphere is a space necessarily (not just contingently) articulated by power. And everyone who enters it must address power’s disposition of people and things, the dependence of some on the goodwill of others.” Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular : Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Palo Alto, CA, USA: Stanford University Press, 2003. p 184.
In reading the papers presented to us this week, many of the authors identify two clusters of difficulties within the discipline. The first concerns the formation of an identity for a subject with so many minute specialisms. Arising from ongoing difficulties about how numbers might not mix with text, this cluster of difficulties is about internal coherence. What is the geographical in projects about human migration in Thailand and projects about river basin flooding in Arizona? The interaction (and lack of it) between studies of human action and the environment; a concern with integration of the two, and; coming up with a syncretic discipline which is confident in its own ability to tell school children how exciting the world is. The formation of a syncretic discipline arises mainly from a tension between the differences found between places in the world on the one hand and their seeming similarity on the other. When someone proposes a study of the transhumance patterns present in northern Italy, she does not begin only by looking at this place. Other places have other particular patterns of transhumance. So, they are similar but different. Why is northern Italy different? And such how funding applications are begun. Tobler, amid the din of complex statistical models, invokes the first law of geography: “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” I think he might have his tongue in his cheek when he concludes that “From a pedagogic point of view the model presented here has the distinct advantage that its shortcomings are obvious.” I remain to be disabused of this thought. These lead to interesting questions of epistemology and of how specialist, partciular parts of geography should become before than can no longer be called geographic. There are even proposals for a return to the “‘new’ regional geography…rooted in an understanding of the need to study the specific characteristics of places and their integration into space (Johnston and Sidaway 2004, p. 237).”
The second cluster of difficulties is related to the engagement of geographers in public discourse. This is a problem of presentation of self to the stranger who has no knowledge of self. Or in other words, why don’t ‘they’ like ‘us’? There are accounts in these papers of vast quantities of information being produced and published in well read periodicals and newspapers but why oh why does no one else get excited like ‘we’ do? The Association of American Geographers promotes geography ceaselessly within the US and abroad. Some geographers sell thousands of copies of the book because it connects with the geopolitical reality of the day. Geographers – although not always identified as such – appear on mass media outlets every day. But why is geography not like history / economics / sociology / subject of your choice? The answer to these navel-gazing questions does not lie in the content of geography’s researches, the reach and generalisability of its findings or even in which of the US east coast universities it is not based. There are no answers to these questions. Geography’s relevance in the public sphere (if relevance is what is sought by those so self-consumed as to be concerned with this cluster of difficulties) is merely a question of how close it wants to be to power. In my current work reviewing the literature on religion in the public sphere, Talal Asad’s work is particularly interesting. It is interesting because he states that “the investment people have in particular arguments…relates to the kind of person one has become, and wants to continue to be. In other words, there is no public sphere of free speech at an instant” (184; italics in original). In the same way as religions have to adapt their ways to be allowed to enter particular forms of being public (non-judgemental, rational, immanent etc.), many of these authors wish the field of play to be cleared so that their own tin soldiers can be placed in the ‘correct position’. They’re like the child who chides his peers for not playing the game ‘right’. So, here’s Sharpe:
“We put ourselves in harm’s way when we forget that academic disciplines do not continue to exist because their practitioners believe in their validity. They survive because the societies of which they are a part believe in their utility” (p. 131).
And here is Murphy:
“The push toward the individual and the unique has yielded important intellectual dividends, but unless that push is balanced by a concern with larger-scale issues and more generalized explanatory frameworks, the opportunities for geographers to intervene in public debate will necessarily be limited” (p.5).
Note how these authors refer to the need to be balanced and for generalisation of frameworks for “utility”? These are near-unconscious appeals to properly address power. In our world, power is generated mostly through capital: almost everything is subsumed within its reach. How can I marketise these ideas? How can these products be monetised? How can geography be made more popular in ‘public’ debate? How can geography be sired for instrumental exploitation more like. GIScience is extensively used by the US military in combat operations and local authorities in Ireland to tear apart communities. Until there is a recognition by these and other authors that appearing in The Economist or the Wall Street Journal as geographers serves capital’s needs right now, and not the discpline’s (as if this too existed romantically in the past), graduate students in ten years time will still be reading articles like these.