Geography and ethics: placing life in the space of reasons

Following on from a recent post about the first of three progress reports on Geography and Ethics for Progress in Human Geography, the second of these is now published on-line here – it will be published in a print edition subsequently. This report considers the relevance to geography and cognate fields worried about ‘space’, which have tended recently to derive ‘ethics’ as a kind of excess from poststructuralized ontologies, of discussions amongst philosophers who don’t normally show up under the heading of ‘Continental Philosophy’, who have been busy debating issues of naturalism, intentionality, mindedness, embodiment, and normativity in interesting and challenging ways – thinkers like John McDowell, recently in debate with Hubert Dreyfus, Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, Stanley Cavell. This range of work focuses on the ordinary ways in which normativity inhabits and shapes our practices – so it overlaps in some interesting ways with the social theory projects of, for example, Andrew Sayer, Axel Honneth, and Luc Boltanski, and some others, floating around at the edges of geography debates, but again, not quite managing to become central to those debates – I’ll try to explain how and why in the final one of these reports, which I have to write later this year. And try to do so in about 3000 words. Here is the abstract for the second piece:

“Discussions of ethics in recent human geography have been strongly inflected by readings of so-called ‘Continental Philosophy’. The ascendancy of this style of theorizing is marked by a tendency to stake ethical claims on ontological assertions, which effectively close down serious consideration of the problem of normativity in social science. Recent work on practical reason emerging from so-called ‘Analytical’ philosophy presents a series of challenges to how geographers approach the relationships between space, ethics, and power. This work revolves around attempts to displace long-standing dualisms between naturalism and normativity, by blurring boundaries between forms of action and knowledge which belong to a ‘space of causality’ and those that are placed in a ‘space of reasons’. The relevance of this blurring to geography is illustrated by reference to recent debates about the relationships between rationality and habit in unreflective action. Ongoing developments in this tradition of philosophy provide resources for strengthening a nascent strand of work on the geographies of practical reason that is evident in work on ethnomethodology, behaviour change, and geographies of action.”

From BOGOFS to ‘No Tesco’ and beyond…

My colleague at the OU, Geoff Andrews, who knows a lot about food politics, tweets news about a Tesco opening today in Stokes Croft in Bristol. Big local news, in that part of the world. Stokes Croft is a veritable ‘zone in transition’, nestled between ‘Bohemian’ Montpelier, academic-laden Bishopston, and St Pauls, still proud to have been where the first urban riots started back in 1980. The area, quite small in fact, has been undergoing ‘regneration’ for a few years now. The proposal to open a Tesco in Stokes Croft sparked protests and heavy-handed police response last year. The opening of the store today makes me realise that there has been a rolling low-level politics of supermarkets in Bristol for a few years ago now – back in 2006, when we still lived there, a local campaign in Bishopston successfully stopped the opening of a big Sainsburys up the road from Stokes Croft – the campaign was called BOGOFS – Bishopston Opposing Glut of Supermarkets. Though successful, there are now two Sainsbury Locals in the same area – Bishopston being the hub of a whole host of alternative and/or independent retailers. There is also an ongoing struggle involving the local authority, planners, Bristol City and Sainburys over whether or not the football club can sell their ground for the development of a new supermarket and therefore afford to build a new stadium over the way – but that’s the other side of town from Stokes Croft. One of Banksy’s more famous local pieces, the Mild Mild West, is in Stokes Croft, and back in 2009 was itself ‘vandalised’ with blue paint – local convention had it that this was revenge by Bristol Rovers (blue) fans, from just up the road, for Bansky announcing he was a Bristol City (red) fan, City being from the other side of the river.
Ah, local politics and culture.
Over here in Swindon, we’re happy to have a Co-Op on every corner.

Injustice in democratic theory

I have a new paper in Geoforum, just published online, titled Situating injustice in the geographies of democracy. It will be included in a special issue on space, contestation and the political, coming out of a workshop held in Zurich back in 2009, organised and now edited by Dave Featherstone, Benedikt Korf, Joris Van Wezemael. I’m not sure exactly when the whole issue will go live. My paper argues that contestation is rather more important to critical theories of deliberative democracy, broadly defined, than is usually acknowledged, and that it is understood in this work in ways that promise a more modest approach to thinking about the geographies of democratic politics than one finds in approaches that adopt a priori conceptions of what counts as ‘political’. It is one of a series of things I have been writing for the last couple of years on the topic of ‘all affected interests’, exploring how this idea from political science and political theory might be re-interpreted as the basis for thinking about geography and democracy; it’s the first of these pieces to actually get out into the world.

Zellig Harris

Here’s an interesting discussion about Zellig Harris, one of the key figures of mid-C20th linguistics and source of one influential, highly technical account of the concept of ‘discourse’, focussing on the relationship between his lingustic research, his radical politics, and convergences and divergences between the work, and politics, of Harris and Chomsky.

Urban theory and archaeology

Michael E Smith provides a link in a comment to a paper of his, on the uses of urban theory in archaeological research on ancient cities – his argument is that this work serves as middle-range theory in contrast to grand theory of the sort developed by Latour, or Giddens, or Bourdieu. I like the idea that theories are always best when they are marked by a certain sort of empirical modesty – although it’s interesting that the sorts of social theory that Smith thinks of as ‘grand’ in his field would in geography these days appear to be much more ‘middling’ than the grandly philosophical styles associated with current work on spatial ontologies, affect, events, the post-political, and related themes.

Geography and ethics: justice unbound

The first of my three ‘progress reports’ on Geography and Ethics is now published in Progress in Human Geography. This first one is dubbed ‘justice unbound‘, and discusses recent literature on justice and injustice in and around geography and related fields – including Sen’s recent book, G.A. Cohen’s leftist riposte to Rawls, Nancy Fraser, and Iris Marion Young . It was written before recent books by Danny Dorling, Ed Soja, Susan Fainstein were published, but these otherwise different works sort of confirm the point I am trying to make in this piece – that it might be worthwhile to think through the idea that injustice is the medium of justice (the line is J.M. Berstein’s), without thinking that this absolves us completely from engaging with normative reflection on what these terms mean. It’s not meant as a warrant for assuming that we all just naturally know injustice when we see it.

Anyway, as I say, this is the first of three of these reports; the second is already done, the final one I’ll do later this year. I have ended up not quite writing about ‘geography and ethics’, not least cos most of what I know about ethics is part of that poststructuralist strain of thought that Jeff Popke had already reviewed rather thoroughly as the previous ‘incumbent’ of this role; partly because it might be more interesting to think about how normative practices are an ordinary aspect of how life hangs together, rather than thinking of ethics as an extra special ‘responsibility’ that requires a special effort to pull off; and partly because I said ‘yes’ when invited because I wanted to write about some overlaps between social theory, political theory, and moral philosophy that I find intriguing for no other reason that they don’t quite show up in geography-land despite being on the edges of conversations which take place there. I think their not showing up has something to do with the degree to which Theory in geography has drifted into such a resolutely ‘metaphysical’ register, in the sense of this term that someone reminded me this week Ian Hunter uses to describe the genealogy of contemporary Theory-land. But that’s another story.