Geography Books

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-10-15-28It’s sad, I know, but one of my favourite places is the Bookbarn, in Somerset on the road from Bristol to Wells. It is, as the name suggests, a big barn full of old books (my partner refuses to ever come along with me, because the smell of second-hand books repulses her just a little). The books here seem to consist mainly of discontinued library stock, from everywhere from the Cleveland County Library and the former Bath College of Higher Education (precursor to Bath Spa) to the Seeley Historical Library in Cambridge. If you were so inclined, you could acquire pretty much any book written about the Royal Family in the last 60 years here, or, alternatively, construct your own personal archive of every single Open University social science course from The Dimensions of Society (1975) onwards.

The Bookbarn even has a whole Geography section, which is more than you can say about most academic bookshops these days. It’s about 12 square feet of shelves, containing books mainly from the 1960s and 1970s, with a sprinkling from  1990s and more recently. I was there on Saturday, and I could have bought all of my old school textbooks for both O and A level, but thought better of it. You could, too, collect a number of ‘classics’ of modern academic Geography, including Harvey’s Explanation in Geography, Haggett’s Locational Analysis, pretty much anything you might want by Dudley Stamp, Wilbur Zelinsky’s A Prologue to Population Geography, different editions of Wooldridge and East’s The Spirit and Purpose of Geography, the original version of Sparks’ Geomorphology, or the first Progress in Geography edited collection from 1969.

These shelves offer a snapshot of how Geography was represented in public life in the UK somewhere between about 1970 and the mid-1980s, in so far as the books acquired by school and University libraries but also by local public libraries are an indication of that. Standing there, in front of them all, you get a strong sense of the 1970s having been a little bit of a golden age for Geography publishing in the UK, with a wide range of book length research monographs and edited collections reviewing and promoting geography as a science, and in particular human geography as a social science (an age when publishers such as Heinemann, Croom Helm, Arnold, and Hutchinson all had important geography lists it seems). Many of the books on these shelves are ones I can remember, at least from the covers if not necessarily from actually reading them, from when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s. They seemed a little dated even then, which might have been a design issue in some cases, but also had to do with the way in which the intellectual substance of many of the books you can find in the Bookbarn had, already by then, been framed as standing on one said of a divide between ‘radical’ and not-so-radical geography, which was overlain onto the mutually hostile methodological chauvinisms on both sides. I liked the radical stuff (the only book on the shelves at the Bookbarn which really counts as an influential one for my own intellectual formation is 1984’s Geography and Gender: An Introduction to Feminist Geography, by the IBG’s Women and Geography Study Group). Amazingly in hindsight, did an undergraduate degree in which one didn’t actually have to take any notice of ‘quantitative’ and statistical approaches at all if you didn’t want to (I don’t as a result share the antipathy towards those approaches often felt by people once forced to sit through what, way back when, were not very well taught classes promoting them; nor the sense of self-righteousness often attached to ‘qualitative’ approaches that is the flip-side of generation-shaping ‘Bad-Stats’ experiences). The books I have in mind (some of which I bought – they are dead cheap), are expressions of the “methodological ferment” that transformed Geography from the 1950s onwards, primarily through the adoption, development and refinement of statistical techniques and mathematical modelling to spatial patterns, processes and forms. You can trace the emergence of whole new sub-disciplines in the wake of this modernization in the books in the Bookbarn: of urban geography, for example, in Harold Carter’s The Study of Urban Geography, David Herbert’s Urban Geography: A Social Perspective, and Ron Johnston’s City and Society;  or of development geography, in Akin Mabogunje’s The Development Process: A Spatial Perspective or David Grigg’s The Harsh Lands; as well as the traces of approaches that sound suddenly contemporary again (e.g. The Political Geography of the Oceans). The books gathering dust on these shelves were, I guess, integral to the institutionalisation of geography-as-(social)science as higher education expanded during the 1970s, and are testament to what I can’t help thinking of as ‘IBG-Geography’, expressions of an assertive discipline framed in no small part by turning away from the associations of geography with merely descriptive accounts of far away places In his wonderful genealogy of modern social science in Britain, which is very geographical without saying much about Geography, Identities and Social Change in Britain, Mike Savage does identify human geography as exemplifying the adoption of social scientific expertise in what were traditionally conceived of and practised as humanities disciplines: “Foremost amongst these was human geography, which largely abandoned its focus on the culture and traditions of fixed regional spaces and forged close relationships with sociology and anthropology and self-identified as a social science.” It’s the books through which this process of self-identification was enacted that are all sitting in the Bookbarn. You can even find here evidence of that moment when it was possible to imagine human geography and physical geography having common intellectual grounds, and not only ones based in shared methodologies, but even in shared philosophical assumptions (I picked up a copy of Bob Bennett’s and Dick Chorley’s Environmental Systems: Philosophy, Analysis and Control, which is rather prescient in its presentation of the synthesizing promise of systems theory, now all the rage again in somewhat different, resilient, form).

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-17-19-58Driving home (composing this blog in my head), it occurred to me that this ‘sample’ of books captures the becoming-relevant of geography in this period. You can pick up a copy of David Smith’s Human Geography: A Welfare Approach (with its great front cover) alongside his more technical Patterns in Human Geography, both of which explicitly question the sorts of problems geographers sought to address and the values they sought to advance in addressing them. You can find traces of the divisions between different images of the vocation of geography (stresses and strains captured in the very title of Michael Chisholm’s Human Geography: Evolution or Revolution?). The recurring focus is on issues of spatial analysis, where this involves the delimitation of distinctively spatial processes and spatial forms, but none of these books are aridly methodological – there is plenty of social theory embedded in these books, just not perhaps the sort of (post-)Marxist thought that had become so central to defining the meaning of social theory by the time I was an undergraduate. For example, the OU’s co-published Fundamentals of Human Geography reader, from 1978, includes a piece by Claus Offe on advanced capitalism and the welfare state, a fact which in no small part captures something of the taken-for-granted background of quite a lot of the substance held on these shelves. Assertions of the importance of a newly robust social scientific human geography – such as Studies in Human Geography, a 1973 collection edited by Chisholm and Brian Rodgers and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council as it was then, with the intention to “focus attention on the substantive contribution of geographers to several fields of study” and aimed as much at ‘non-geographers’ as at ‘practising geographers’ (I’m still practising) – were articulated in a context in which it was still assumed that a relatively stable institutional field of ‘planning’ and ‘regional policy’ existed into which geographers could speak with authority and influence. By the time I was an undergraduate, this stability no longer existed, and I was inducted into geography in a context in which it was the dissolution of that stable field which generated all the most exciting intellectual energies (you can pick up a copy of Martin and Rowthorn’s The Geography of De-Industrialisation at the Bookbarn too, from 1986, a book which pretty much captures the moment, as do the slightly later  of OU edited course books on The Economy in Question and Politics in Transition, which are also there). By the time I was a graduate student, in the early 1990s, as those stable fields of ‘relevance’ further dwindled, the sorts of “critical human geography” that I settled into was rapidly reshaped around theoretically sophisticated forms of analysis which were really good at identifying the possibilities of political purchase for academic analysis in situations where it seemed, at first look, to have disappeared (a pattern of analysis which continues to frame an awful lot of work in human geography, probably including most of mine).

My excuse for spending my Saturday afternoon leafing through books I mainly didn’t read 30 years ago and mainly won’t be reading now (with some exceptions), if I need one, is that I do have a professional interest in the more or less recent profile of Geography. Amongst many other things, I’m meant to be editing a Companion on the history and philosophy of geography (a rather daunting task; I’m not doing it on my own), so I am telling myself that all this browsing really counted as research, of a sort at least. It’s interesting, for example, to notice just how many of the old books you can find at the Bookbarn were concerned not merely with applying quantitative methods to spatial problems, but rather are explicitly engaged with the challenge of theorising issues that are “peculiarly geographical”. Not thinking of the spatial as just a residual, or as an externality, or merely contextual, remains a compelling issue across social science, and it is one theme that might well connect what are often still presented as incompatible qualitative and the quantitative ‘paradigms’ in geography (does anyone still use that word?). It’s not, for sure, an issue over which strands of quantitative geography and traditions of spatial analysis hold a monopoly, but my afternoon in the company of all these old books reminded me that it is this theoretical issue that was at the core of the process of making human geography from the 1950s onwards, and it’s this theoretical issue that might well remain central to a distinctively geographical imagination of the challenges of ‘spatializing the social sciences’ (and humanities, I suppose).

Advertisements

Cultural Geography is Dead! Long Live Cultural Geography?

I’ve been pondering a new paper in Progress in Human Geography by my former OU colleague, Gillian Rose, which addresses the conceptual and methodological challenges presented to cultural geography by the emergence of digital modes of cultural practice. The paper is entitled ‘Rethinking the geographies of cultural “objects” through digital technologies: interface, network and friction’. Here is the abstract:

This paper addresses how geographers conceptualize cultural artifacts. Many geographical studies of cultural objects continue to depend heavily on an approach developed as part of the ‘new cultural geography’ in the 1980s. That approach examined the cultural politics of representations of place, space and landscape by undertaking close readings of specific cultural objects. Over three decades on, the cultural field (certainly in the Global North) has changed fundamentally, as digital technologies for the creation and dissemination of meaning have become extraordinarily pervasive and diverse. Yet geographical studies of cultural objects have thus far neglected to consider the conceptual and methodological implications of this shift. This paper argues that such studies must begin to map the complexities of digitally-mediated cultural production, circulation and interpretation. It will argue that, to do this, it is necessary to move away from the attentive gaze on stable cultural objects as formulated by some of the new cultural geography, and instead focus on mapping the dynamics of the production, circulation and modification of meaning at digital interfaces and across frictional networks.”

There is a lot going on in the paper, but two things strike me as important about it: first, it brings into view, that is, it explicitly names the distinctive object of analysis upon which a significant amount of so-called ‘new cultural geography’ depended; and then, secondly, it announces that this object of analysis and associated methodologies of ‘reading’ are more or less redundant. That’s not quite how Gillian puts it, admittedly, but it’s not far off. (It should probably be noted that not all forms of ‘reading’ necessarily presume the specific type of ‘object’ that Gillian defines in her paper – more on that below).

Now, I happen to think that to a large extent both ‘new cultural geography’ and ‘the cultural turn’ really refer to a series of missed opportunities. And it’s in light of this prejudice of mine that I have been provoked by Gillian’s paper.  Amongst other things, I have always wondered how this entire field has ever managed to be taken quite so seriously, indeed how it ever managed to take itself quite so seriously, while seeming to be constituted as if radio and television were never invented, or indeed as if The Beatles, Elvis, or The Supremes never happened (interesting work on these worlds had tended to be produced by economic geographers and others, not by cultural geographers). Cultural Geography has always seemed to me to be a bit un-Pop. This is partly, as my colleague Sam Kinsley has suggested, to do with an aversion to considering ‘vulgar’ cultural forms as worthy of attention; but as he further suggests, this has implications for how geographers think about what one might call the ‘ontology of media’.

My second frame for thinking about Gillian’s argument is a broader thought, another prejudice of mine if you will, about the ways in which human geography’s narratives of disciplinary ‘progress’ often tend to invest heavily in the idea that the best way of moving forward is by compounding a series of previously accumulated errors (see: ‘non-representational theory’).

So here, I want to pinpoint one or two aspects of Gillian’s argument about the challenge of digital technologies to cultural geography that might be framed slightly differently: partly these are matters to do with the constitutive elision of ‘the fact of television’, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell, although I would be inclined to extend this into a more encompassing notion of ‘the fact of pop’; and beyond this, to questions of how to avoid mis-attributing to one specific media form a set of relational features around which a broader project of differentiating cultural mediums might be pursued.

IMG_32821). The work of art before and after the age of digital reproduction

The focus of Gillian’s paper is with “the legacy of those new cultural geographers who were concerned to interpret cultural objects”. She is referring to what one might characterise as the self-consciously ‘arty’ end of the spectrum of approaches to cultural analysis in geography, not so much because of its focus on arty-artefacts per se, but because of a distinctively arty concept of the object of cultural analysis. As she puts it, the focus is on discerning the meanings of “stable cultural objects”, such as maps, buildings, films, novels, and photographs. The paper does not say so clearly, but this is a strand of work that has operated with a quite distinct set of understandings of “meaning” and “reading”, when compared, say to the type of ethnographic work on ordinary food cultures developed by Peter Jackson (which elaborates a clear sense of the notion that ‘meaning is use’), or the work developed by Don Mitchell excavating the hidden injuries of landscape, or indeed Gillian’s own work on the practices of domestic photography. I’ll leave it others to determine how extensive the particular strand of work targeted by Gillian in this piece is representative of the best of the whole field.

Gillian’s argument is that the assumptions about the stable objects of cultural geography have been unsettled by the rise of digital modes of cultural production and distribution. As she puts it, “since the creation of so many cultural objects – though certainly not all, and not everywhere – is digitally mediated now, the stable cultural object is currently the rare exception rather than the rule.” The related claim that “close reading of stable cultural objects is ill-equipped to engage with the defining characteristics of contemporary, digitally-mediated cultural activity” is true enough. But I do wonder why the kind of approach that Gillian focuses on in this discussion was ever considered adequate, 25 years ago and ever since? Or, to put it another way, why is it that it is the fact of digital technology that seems to be the occasion for presenting cultural geography (of one sort at least) with the challenge of grappling with the constitutive role of technologies of dispersal, iteration, recomposition and translation in cultural life? And further, what might be elided by making ‘the digital’ so central to this conceptual and methodological disruption?

In accounting for the predilection for analysing stable cultural objects, Gillian refers to Walter Benjamin’s account of ‘aura’. Her suggestion is that the canonical objects of cultural geography were ‘auratic’ objects: “the new cultural geography emerged at a historical moment when the vast majority of cultural objects could be traced back to an original: an original manuscript, a building, a reel of film, a map.” Gillian’s strong implication is that these forms are, indeed, auratic objects. Now, it seems more plausible that this may have been how cultural geography constructed its objects of analysis. Either way, in so far as it holds true, then it is actually quite extraordinary. Benjamin’s point, in so far as it is a simple one, was that the auratic understanding of cultural artefacts was lost to modernity, and that modern modes of cultural practice opened up wholly new forms of apprehending and experiencing meaning. The argument is an inherently spatial one, in so far as aura is a concept related to the here-and-now presence of a subject before an object as the scene for a certain sort of aesthetic experience. The loss of aura is, in turn, a kind of shattering or dislocation of aesthetic experience, but crucially, of course it is a ‘loss’ that is found to be always already inscribed within the movement of cultural life (I am paraphrasing here, and largely based on  half-forgotten readings of Samuel Weber’s rendition of Benjamin’s work on ‘mediauras‘ and on the centrality of the suffix ‘-abilites‘ to Benjamin’s style of conceptual analysis).

To be clear, Gillian’s presentation of how cultural geography addresses a stable cultural object certainly rings true to me. But in so far as it is accurate, we should be clear that this is the result of a motivated theoretical construction, it is not a result of the innate characteristics of cultural practice three decades ago. The significance of Benjamin’s accounts of aura, of ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, of translation, and other themes, all written in the 1920s and 1930s, has always been in providing prescient resources for understanding the spatially dispersed and temporally strung-out forms of culture that already defined his time (print, film, radio) as well as ones soon to come (television, video, digital). Which gives rise to the question of how in the world cultural geography ever got away with holding so strongly to what, from a strictly Benjaminian perspective, looks like a distinctively pre-modern concept of culture?

Gillian’s claim in the paper is that received methods of “close reading” of “cultural texts” need to be reconsidered, indeed supplanted, because of the changes wrought by the rise of digital technologies: “For in the three decades or so since the emergence of the new cultural geography, both cultural objects and the technologies and practices in which they are embedded have altered significantly. Over the past 30 years there have been profound changes in the processes and practices of cultural production, in the circulation and display of cultural objects, and in the processes of audiencing, participation and critique.” Taken in isolation, this reads as an uncontroversial claim. But remember, what Gillian is arguing here is that these new developments challenge a notion of ‘stable cultural objects’ understood as more or less ‘auratic’ forms, containing more or less determinate meanings. My point is that this notion of culture was already redundant way back in the 1980s, when we were all busy learning to love our video machines and wrecking the music industry by taping the Top40 from the radio and listening to mix-tapes on our Walkmans. Cultural meaning did not become dispersed across multiple sites, spread across multiple media platforms, ‘massified’, or split up and recombined across fragile networks only recently, in the last couple of decades. Nor did this start in the 20s or 30s, when Benjamin was writing (his point is that it has always been happening, that it a movement that lies at the source of any and all ‘originals’).

I am trying to make two related points. First, that digital technologies no doubt introduce all sorts of new dimensions into cultural life, but that whatever these might be, they are not best understood by reference to the idea of stable cultural objects that have held cultural geography in thrall. Secondly, the stability of cultural objects presumed by cultural geography, according to Gillian’s account, should not be mistaken as some sort of inherent ‘material’ feature of forms such as the novel, films, or photographs. If this is how cultural geography thought of its objects of analysis from the 1980s onwards, then this is something that needs to be accounted for on other grounds (as a specific response to a certain intuition of loss, perhaps?). Approaching paintings, or photos, or novels as stable cultural objects to be read for meaning is a particular achievement, one that depends on various procedures such as practices of exhibiting, or paratextual networks of reviewing and marketing. Take, for example, the way in which ‘Film’ has become a staple object of analysis not just in cultural geography, but in other fields such as Classics and Political Theory in the last three decades. Before that, the academic analysis of Film, and its most famous theoretical products such as Auteur Theory or Screen Theory, were largely the preserve of specialist film schools. Now, we can all do it. This generalisation of ‘Film’ as a potential stable object of academic analysis is dependent, of course, on the widespread dissemination of video technology from the 1980s onwards, that is, it is dependent on the widespread and cheap distribution of an archive of film history, and the possibility of recording films off the telly, and in turn the possibility for anyone to watch and re-watch, stop and pause and rewind, and to do so not only as ‘research’ but also as a teachable methodology.

This is just one example of how the stable cultural objects that cultural geography focussed on were made available by a series of distributed, networked, mobile technologies that stand as the conditions of possibility of that imputed autonomy and stability. (You could make a similar argument about the degree to which the emergence of a shareable canon of Theory upon which ‘the cultural turn’ depended, that could be learnt and mastered even in an odd discipline like Geography, was dependent on the photocopier). And I invoke this example because it indicates how the attributes that Gillian defines as peculiarly new ones, associated with digital technologies, are not just discernible in other modes of cultural practice, but more precisely, that the erasure of these modes of mediation from ‘new cultural geography’ might well be the condition for the particular framing of the challenge of digital technology as it is now felt in geography and articulated so clearly in Gillian’s paper.

IMG_32862). Acknowledging media

Gillian’s argument is that the artefacts of digital technologies are distinguished by three features, understood by reference to the magical signifier ‘materiality’: they are mutable, multimedial, and mass. I think the categories are really useful, but they clearly do not categorically distinguish digital artefacts from non-digital ones (they only appear to do so because of what we have established to be a bizarrely restrictive construction of the object of cultural-geographic analysis). I think there is a danger here of reserving for one particular mode of cultural practice, the digitally mediated, a set of features that actually should be better understood as relational terms of comparative analysis and judgement, as if they were attributes of a particular mode. The language of ‘materiality’ just reinforces this tendency, which is a kind of category error.

Lots of practices of meaning are mutable (you can forge other people’s handwriting, or fake photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald in the backyard (maybe)); lots of cultural forms are multi-medial (song is a theatrical form, an amplified form, a recorded form, only sometimes all at the same time; films have soundtracks); writing, as Raymond Williams memorably demonstrated, is a form inscribed in all sort of non-literary cultural forms, from public speaking to theatre to television and film (and digital technologies are significant not least, surely, for reviving and inventing a range of practices of literacy); and ‘mass’ culture, defined by what Gillian refers to as ‘the sheer amount of cultural production now’, but which really refers to a difficulty of containing and tracking where meaning flows that is not just about quantity, has been with us for quite some time, at least since the time of Caxton.

I suspect that the difference that digital technologies makes to these practices of translation, movement, and projection is better theorised in terms of the reconfiguration of parameters of speed, expertise, perhaps crucially, cost. Trying to pin down the distinctive features of digital technology by reference to the assumptions made about stable cultural objects, assumptions that we have seen depended on pretending that a whole history of modern media simply did not impinge on cultural-geographic analysis, threatens to misapprehend not so much what is new and different about digital technologies, but rather to misconstrue how to go about conceptualising what is new and different about any media practice. Going back to Benjamin, one thing we might think about is the idea that historically novel forms actually throw into new relief the characteristics of ‘old’ ones – they enable us to acknowledge features of the old ones previously unavailable to perception or sense. Related to this, we might pause and consider the degree to which thinking seriously about culture and media and technology really requires us to engage in some reflection on the nature of a particular sort of reasoning, namely analogical reasoning. ‘New’ media and the cultural forms they make possible are routinely made sense of through a process of selecting and enforcing authoritative analogies: this is the case in legal decision-making about new technologies; it is also evident in the very names given to innovative forms of cultural expression associated with new digital practices – forms such as e-mail, webpages, YouTube. These are not mere lazy affectations, they are small indices of the ways in which ‘new’ media forms emerge through process of learning that draw on formal and informal competencies to draw and act upon appropriate analogies.

Gillian’s analysis of these three features of digital technology culminates in a claim about the distinctive spatiality of digital culture, according to which the analytical challenge is to appreciate that “meaning is performed and materialized at specific sites; it is accessed, made to travel, searched for, modified, patched and laboured over in an uneven, variable and frictional network held together by diverse forms of work which do not always succeed in making meaning move.” This is a great description of how we might conceptualise the geography of meaning; only, it seems to me that it stands as a perfectly good description of modern print cultures, or of how broadcasting emerged as a cultural form in the 1920s, or indeed, a quite good paraphrase of what certain sorts of literary theorists once conceptualised as ‘textuality’. Again, my point is not to suggest that there is nothing new or distinctive or unsettling about digital media, just that the interesting question is to ask how these dimensions are configured by this mode of meaning-making, rather than supposing that they are emphatically characteristics of this mode alone.

There are important questions raised by Gillian’s paper about how one might approach the task of doing ‘media ontology’. I happen to think that thinking in terms of the ‘materialies’ of particular media or forms or technologies is likely to lead us astray, not least by encouraging the mis-atttribution of relational modalities or emergent ‘-abilities’ to singular forms or technologies. I prefer thinking about what Albert Hirschman liked to call ‘structural characteristics’ of practices, by which he meant the different combinations of spatial and temporal wiggle-room or latitude that shaped the pathways of different projects. I also like Cavell’s style of thinking through the ontology of film, as well as television, one which gets at what is distinctive about different mediums by asking, for example, what it is about a new medium that attracts disapproval. But more profoundly, Cavell thinks of the ontology of different mediums as what it is that they allow to be revealed or acknowledged about the human condition (and yes, this requires a certain sort of ‘reading’ of more or less canonical objects, but not of the sort which would be much approved of by cultural geographers I suspect (it would appear too naively characterological); besides, perhaps we should also allow that there is more than one way of ‘reading’ a ‘cultural text’, that Fredric Jameson’s style of addressing a film or novel as a totalising crystallisation of historical epochs is not quite the same as the reading by Robert Pippin of Westerns or Noir as allegories for certain recurrent political dilemmas, and further, that none of these examples looks much like anything undertaken in cultural geography).

Cavell’s discussion of ‘the fact of television‘ revolves around the idea that there might be something about TV that seems to resist acknowledgement, that it seems to be a medium distinguished by it being so taken-for-grantedly there and available (the occasion for Cavell’s discussion was the early 1980s ‘video revolution’). So the absence of TV from cultural geography is not necessarily a failure, it might be part of a broader phenomenon (one related, while I think about it, to the degree to which a great deal of critical academic discourse is shaped by an understanding of pressing political imperatives that derive from the world routinely disclosed to us as ‘News’). One of Cavell’s recurring concerns is with thinking of the distinctive qualities of different mediums in terms of genre. The problem of genre is for him the entry point for acknowledging the ontological qualities of film, or television, or painting. One of the qualities of film that passes over into television, he suggests, is the series; television, in turn, he suggests, is characterised not by particular objects, more by formats (like the sit-com). The point of recalling this sort of analysis is to indicate how the singular, stable objects of cultural analysis are made available to us from within these elusively structured modes of making meaning (and by the forms of forgetting that inhere within them too).

Anyway, all of this work about ‘genres’, ‘structural characteristics’, and ‘-abilities’ has one thing in common that might still meet with resistance from the paradigm of new cultural geography that Gillian’s paper addresses: none of it allows one to suppose that the best way of approaching cultural analysis is by supposing that cultural forms somehow shape or change subjectivities. The idea of subjectivity is the principle of totalization that continues to anchor cultural geography – from the presumption that culture is a medium for the construction or, worse, the production of subjectivity; to the ways in which this same idea remains the primary reference point for asserting the significance of stories about affectively imbued flows and encounters; and now, it seems, an interest in distinctive forms of digital or online subjectivity. It is this idea – that there is a thing called ‘subjectivity’ that it is the task of cultural analysis to comprehend in all its contingency and variety by attending to its modes of production – that is the most enduring feature of the paradigm of analysis that focusses on finding the meaning of stable cultural objects. And for as long as this anchor point remains in place, taken for granted even when disavowed, little progress will have been made in moving beyond the closures of the new cultural geography.

IMG_32843). The pressure for meaning

I have been assuming throughout my discussion here that Gillian is essentially correct in saying that the new cultural geography rose to prominence through the elevation of a distinctive method of reading for the meanings of stable cultural objects. I have suggested that this should be recognised as a motivated construction, rather than a more or less natural response to the ‘materialities’ of pre-digital media cultures. And I have tried to raise some questions about what we are to make of this closure of questions about the mediums of media cultures, a closure that I think might well continue to frame discussions of the challenge presented by digital technologies to established paradigms of geographical analysis. I have also suggested there is one thing that remains constant across Gillian’s discussion of the new cultural geography and its stable cultural objects, and the new forms associated with the interfaces, frictions and networks of digital cultures: the assumption that the main thing at stake is understanding something called ‘subjectivity’. What remains constant, across more constructivist approaches, self-righteously ‘non-representational’ approaches, and new work on digital culture, is the strong idea that cultural technologies do things to people, and that understanding what they do to people is the key concern that justifies ‘critical’ analysis.

The persistence of this problematic of subjectivity is indicated by Gillian’s refrain about the need to attend to how the “forms of contemporary subjectivity” are being changed by digital technologies. Once upon a time, the idea that subjectivity was constructed through culture depended on the assumption of stable spatial and temporal relations between a singular cultural object and a fixed viewer/reader. These days, the image that recurs is one of mobile bodies immersed within environments saturated with affectively configured meanings, moving from one screen to the next. In both cases, ‘the subject’ is assumed to be totally encompassed within the milieu of its own subjection. It’s the recurring image that once underwrote important arguments about ‘cultural politics’ and assertions of ‘resistance’, and which now underwrites misanthropic arguments about the ability of states to manipulate people’s feelings or about the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital.

In Gillian’s argument, there is an analytical slippage involved in counterposing the idealised model of a viewer/reader in front of a photo, film, or book to a nuanced description of the conditions through which digital technologies enable cultural forms to be produced and circulated. This is not comparing like with like, it should be admitted. I’ve already suggested that the conditions through which those stable cultural objects are made available for analysis are not quite so different from the conditions defined as distinctively ‘digital’. But one might perhaps be a little more charitable towards the analytical constructs of the new cultural geography. One thing that this mode of analysis does at least begin to approximate is the ordinary ways in which cultural forms are apprehended – as novels, as films, and so on. The concepts of ‘reading’ invoked in such work were highly stylised version of more ordinary modes of engaging with cultural forms, to be sure. But they do at least acknowledge that people engage with identifiable cultural forms, and not with technologies. Gillian’s characterisation of the distinctive features of digital culture seems to take for granted the adequacy of the previous formation of stable cultural objects in their own time, but in the wrong way. Reckoning only with the obvious limitations of that paradigm threatens to erase its virtues (an appreciation of the ordinary forms through which culture circulates): a complex, nuanced understanding of the modes of production and distribution of cultural forms is, after all, only ever interesting in relation to a concern with those ordinary formations – it is not a substitute for them, and it is certainly not the secret to understanding how power is exercised through mediated cultural artefacts.

It is best not to think of any type of understanding of the conditions of meaning as somehow throwing ‘critical’ light upon ordinary forms of engagement; as revealing constructions of subjectivity, the exercise of power, or the manipulations of affect. It is better to think of any such understanding as a resource for the better appreciation of what is at stake in those ordinary forms of apprehending cultural forms. Having outlined an account of the networks through which digital culture circulates, Gillian suggests in her conclusion that there is a need for “a richer analytical vocabulary for the power relations performed through this convergent network”. Perhaps what is really needed is a reassessment of the very idea that culture is a medium for exercising power at all; and a reassessment too of the idea which anchors this assumption about power, namely that it is at all respectable to think of people’s subjectivities as primarily formed in a subordinate relationship with their favoured cultural forms. In fundamental respects, the paradigm of cultural analysis that Gillian dissects in this paper might well get things the wrong way around, making a mistake that the diagnosis of digital cultures is only likely to compound for as long as it is not recognised: what William Kentridge calls the ‘pressure for meaning’ is not best thought of as an imperative imposed upon subjects by so many produced, circulated, distributed, dispersed cultural forms; it is, rather, something that we bring to those forms, more or less expertly, more or less successfully, and with more or less serious or hilarious consequences.

Changing Cities: how to think about urban politics

CollegeFreely available online at OpenLearn, a new open access teaching resource called Changing Cities, which provides a framework for thinking about the contemporary ‘urbanization of responsibility’:

“Urban processes are increasingly held to be responsible for causing a variety of problems – environmental destruction, social injustice, global financial instability. They are also identified as harbouring the potential to meet these challenges – through urban experiments in sustainably living, creative culture and alternative economies.   This unit explores how contemporary processes of urbanisation challenge how we think about political agency, providing a framework for the analysis of the causes, implications and responses to issues of common concern.”

equation-robin-wilson-newsThe Changing Cities unit is a taster of sorts from the Masters level course (D837 in OU-speak) of the same name – Changing Cities: urban transitions and decision-making. It was written by myself and Nigel Clark, and draws on material in the larger module authored also with Parvati Raghuram; the unit includes an audio discussion with Margo Huxley. The aim of the whole project was to find a way of making various traditions of ‘critical’ urban and spatial theory do more than provide easy ‘critical’ reflexes to contemporary issues – to make these ideas useable by turning them into machines for generating questions which can be investigated in different contexts:

“This unit explores the ways in which urbanisation processes help to generate issues of public concern. It elaborates a theoretical framework of critical spatial thinking that can be used to analyse the complex ‘agency’ of urban processes in generating, identifying and resolving the myriad issues associated with contemporary urbanisation. This framework draws on traditions of urban thought and spatial theory in disciplines such as geography and anthropology, development studies, planning, political science and sociology.”

The module also sought to make a virtue out of what is often thought of as a problem, namely the chronic problem of conceptualising the ‘object’ of urban analysis. Taking some inspiration from our former colleague Allan Cochrane, as well perhaps as from a stray thought or two in one of Foucault’s lectures on the theme of ‘the town’, it seeks to develop the idea of thinking of ‘the urban’ as the name given to various sorts of problems:

“The framework is intended to serve as an analytical device for investigating the key questions raised when presented with a pressing urban issue or a spatial problem. It is based on a threefold understanding of the problematisations to which definitions of the urban are a response:

  1. The urban represents a complex of issues, problems and objects which generate contention, gathering together myriad indirect consequences that are generated both locally and from afar.
  2. The urban is a field where the diversity and interconnectedness of effects operate as a seedbed for issue recognition. The recursiveness of urban life is also important in the formation of signs and symbols that can represent purposes and help anticipate consequences. These objects of recognition and intervention are also the medium out of which political subjectivities can be enhanced and people can learn to be affected.
  3. The urban remains the site of institutional architectures that might be useful in the development of further democratising impulses, either through challenge and alternative institutions or through further democratisation of institutions that already exist.”

So, if you have a spare 15 hours, take a look, and enjoy!

Social science and participation: open access teaching resources

dd206_1_unitimageMy penultimate contribution to OU teaching is now online, at the OU’s OpenLearn site – Social Science and Participation is the open-access unit drawn from The Uses of Social Science module that was launched last year (it’s open, and it’s online, but it’s not really a course as such, since the assessment elements are not included, and it may or may not turn out to massive – so, it’s not a MOOC, obviously, more like a MOO, or an OO?). The unit tells some stories about how social science investigates people’s participation in various activities; how people actually participate in social science; and how ideas about participation have been important for how social scientists have contributed to public debates about poverty, including a film on this topic.

This unit has some overlaps with another OpenLearn resource, curated by Nick Mahony and Hilde Stephanson, Participation Now – which seeks to trace all sorts of new forms of public action.

Let’s have a party…

IMG_0344Last week, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers (‘the IBG’, if you’re old and slow enough). This was my last formal act as an OUer. The paper was in one of two sessions on Geographies of the Political Party, organised by James Scott and Jane Wills. The two sessions were full of entertaining stuff, about patronage and corruption in New South Wales, Communist Party reinvention in the Czech Republic, versions of Max Weber, and much else besides.

Anyway, my paper was an attempt to think about some of the reasons why political parties don’t show up in ‘critical’ research on politics in geography, beyond a handful of stereotypes. In part, it was based on some reflections on how and why they have and haven’t shown up in some research projects I have been involved in, although that part is not very explicit. In the same spirit as my posting of my AAG paper earlier this year, I have added this paper to the Things to Read section, if anyone is interested to know what I spent at least some of the summer thinking about.

Introducing ‘Participation Now’ 1.0 – a new Open University web resource for those interested / involved in participatory experiments and public action initiatives

Creating Publics

Participation Now emerges out of several years’ research on publics, participation and engagement with research. It is a new web resource that aims to imagine, animate and support a public who are interested in and/or involved with the fast-changing field of public participation. Participation Now is also an experimental public engagement initiative, which is working to test-out, develop, evaluate and report back on experimental and participative ways of involving people in a field of research and practice.

“It will be hard to address the large number of problems we face the 21st Century without public participation in public life. However, pick up a newspaper or follow a debate on Twitter and you’ll get a sense that many of our established public organisations and forms of democratic participation are in crisis, and that our most familiar public forums and forms of belonging are being questioned. It’s in this context that we are seeing…

View original post 331 more words

Doing Public Things

DorsLast week I attended a workshop organised by CCIG’s publics research programme and the Creating Publics project (I was only able to attend one day of the three because of an outbreak of chicken-pox at home). The workshop was in part a moment in a collaborative project on Making Publics across time and space between some OU social science researchers and a humanities-based network based at McGill that has been behind the Making Publics project (MAP for short). There is a great set of CBC radio programmes that grew out of that project, covering a wide historical sweep of issues related to public formation.

The discussions at the workshop clarified for me the importance of thinking about the  grammar of conceptualizations of publicness. I have tried to write a little about this, in a paper submitted last month and a chapter that I have just got back for proof-reading, so it was on my mind already.

Everyone seems to agree that one should adopt a plural register when approaching public questions – that it is right and proper to talk about publics rather than the public. But I wonder whether it makes much difference if one pluralises the public, rather say than pluralising the public sphere or public space. Speaking of publics in the plural might not make much difference in so far as attention remains focussed on overly substantialised images of publics as more or less sociolgical group-like entities.

The default to thinking in terms of plural publics, thought of as a straightforward synonym for the conceptual issues raised by ideas such as the public sphere or public space, is associated with successive moves which emphasise the ‘constructed’ qualities of publics: publics are made, assembled, performed, or enacted, depending on one’s particular theoretical inclinations. All of these ideas tend to leave in place the strong impression that there is some sort of animating subject doing the making or assembling, and/or that the product of the assembling or enacting is also best thought of as some sort of collective subject. Something has been lost along the way: the sense of publicness as a subjectless process, to paraphrase old uncle Habermas. After all, ‘the public sphere’ might be a quite clunky translation of a concept that was not meant only to name an institutional form, but also, perhaps more importantly, to name a certain sort of action – acting publicly and acting in public understood as a distinctive  mode or medium of social organisation (see here and here for a neat summary of the continuing subtlety,  shall we say, of Habermas’ account of ‘the public sphere’ and the vicissitudes of its transition, indicating some of the reasons why fixating on publics might not be the advance it is sometimes assumed to be).

This is where the grammar of theories of publicness becomes important:

– If one talks in terms of making, enacting, or assembling publics, then the modalities of action are already presupposed (and the most important thing always seems to be the constructed qualities of publics, with slightly different inflections, as if publics were ever thought of as naturally occurring kinds). This type of formulation makes publicness the subject of a process that is not, strictly speaking, specifically public per se – I think perhaps only performativity has a genealogy that brings it up close to the distinctive problems of public action, in a way that assemblage, or enactment, for example do not quite share – these latter might be too comfortable in their assumptions about the sociality of collective action as distinct from its publicity.

– If, on the other hand, one talks of making things public – making science public, for example – then the emphasis is more squarely on publicness as a type of action. And this is where the fun starts – this action might be about sharing, or exposing, or making transparent or accountable or equally accessible….

My point, I suppose, is that one can either apply certain concepts of action derived from more or less proximate fields to understand the formation of publics; or, one can think a little more about the distinctively public qualities of certain types of action. I think the latter task is probably more difficult. The ‘politics’ of asserting that publics are performed, or enacted, or assembled tends to be relatively predictable and two-dimensional (since publics are made in contingent circumstances, they can be re-made, that sort of thing). The stake in theorising about distinctively public types of action is, I think, less satisfying: it requires thinking about power relations in more than two dimensions, in terms of the reconfiguration of plural public values – of openness, transparency, sharing, accessibility  and so on – rather than in terms of dualisms between public and private, universal and particular, natural or contingent, however ‘paradoxical’ those dualisms can be made to appear.

So my mid-year resolution is to try not to talk about publics at all, while trying to be more precise in usage when talking about public spheres, public spaces, and the types of action associated with processes and mediums of publicness.