On the Abolition of the Geography Department

I’ve been working on the ‘online pivot‘ a lot just recently, thinking about the challenges of adjusting teaching and learning provision for the forthcoming academic year, starting in September, in the context of an ongoing situation in which ‘face-to-face’ forms of education will continue to be constrained and subject to ongoing disruptions. Thinking about teaching and learning at a distance, which is what all this is about, is a particular challenge for academic fields like geography, which are so heavily invested in forms of embodied, experiential learning not only in the form of ‘wet’ or ‘muddy’ labs, but especially perhaps that diffuse range of activities bundled under the name ‘the field’. At the same time as all of this, I also find myself sitting in university level meetings in which issues of equality, diversity, racism, harassment, and hate crime in UK higher education are increasingly described by reference to the idea of ‘decolonialising’ universities and curricula. This vocabulary has quickly found its way into the vernacular of senior management and into institutional initiatives around these issues. It’s an interesting example of how theoretical ideas make their way into worldly contexts. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a connection between these two strands of current debate in and around higher education.

In Geography, there has been a series of recent interventions around the theme of decolonising the discipline (see for example, pieces by Pat Noxolo, Sarah Radcliffe, and Tariq Jazeel). In these debates, connections are often posited between the current profiles of academic staff and student bodies in university-level geography departments (very white); the substance of curricula and research agendas; and the ‘origins’ of academic geography in practices of exploration and scientific analysis closely associated with colonialism and imperialism (Don’t tell anyone, but before he was a proponent of eugenics, Francis Galton was publishing accounts of his travels in Africa in The Geographical Journal).

It’s not at all clear that Geography, as it is currently institutionalised in British higher education, does actually have its origins in nineteenth-century colonial exploration and imperial science, nor by what mechanism any such putative origin is still meant to be active today. It might be better to think of Geography as it exists now being formed through a series of quite deliberate breaks with traditions of gentlemanly science. That’s what the formation of the Institute of British Geographers was about. It’s what in no small part the ‘quantitative revolution’ was about too. That’s an old argument, it’s not mine. It’s also notable that the historiography of geography in North America has paid much more attention to the post-war contexts of contemporary Geography than is the case in the UK (after all, who cares about the rise and fall of town and country planning?).

I argued long ago that there is a dynamic whereby Geography’s grubby histories are occasionally rediscovered and re-animated in order to provide scope to engage, in different ways, with theoretical ideas drawn from other disciplines (most usually from the humanities). Invoking the history of a discipline is, of course, one of the obvious ways in which the coherence of such a thing as Geography – as a singular field that can be surveyed and evaluated – is discursively constructed. Debates about decoloniality are in part examples of that pattern, in which a coherent discipline called Geography comes into view as a necessary projection that is required for the articulation of a critical perspective of some sort. Geography has a kind of fantasy coherence, conjured into existence on those plenary occasions, in print and in person, when it is necessary to ponder ‘what is to be done (with Geography)’.

The idea of decoloniality is, of course, a highly theoretical one, part of series of distinctive intellectual traditions. There is a geography to ‘decolonial’ ideas, too. As suggested, there is also a heavy inflection towards intellectual imaginaries drawn from the humanities in discussions of decoloniality. These discussions in part overlap with, in part challenge, in part support a broader family of intellectual debates, including postcolonial theory, arguments about southern theory, theory from the south, southern epistemologies, and forms of post-development thinking.

The different strands of thought that make up the emergent canon of decolonial theory certainly deserve more attention, and, one hopes, also deserve the same sort of critical scrutiny one would expect any other academic paradigm to be subjected to. For example, one might explore the degree to which decolonial theory relies upon and reproduces strongly culturalist accounts of the exercise of ‘power’. One might explore the difficult question of how ideas that emerge in relation to particular historical-geographical variations of ‘colonialism’ (associated with particular experiences of slavery, violence, revolution, and independence, for example) translate to places with different colonial histories (places, for example, where concepts of indigeneity might resonate very differently, if at all, or where very precise meanings of ‘settler colonialism’ might not be easily applicable without a certain loss of geographical and historical sensitivity). This is a well rehearsed theme in this field, for example in considerations of the extent to which Edward Said’s influential account of orientalist discourse could be applied to histories of European encounters with ‘Africa‘. It’s an issue that has a certain self-reflexive quality to it, in so far as the question of how well ideas of decoloniality translate across contexts entrain deeper issues about the ‘colonial’ legacies of practices of comparativism and concepts of diffusion. One might also consider the degree to which the recent interest in decolonial ideas reiterates a style of inter-generational trumping that is central to conventions of critique in the humanities.

What perhaps distinguishes discussions of decoloniality from previous discussions of, for example, postcolonialism, is the more assertive claims concerning institutional transformation. In this respect, it’s worth considering the lesson of perhaps the most famous example of a systematic effort at decolonizing a university curriculum – the move led by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s. This was part of an explicit programme, the significance of which still resonates, to displace a Eurocentric canon and associated pedagogy, and to institutionalise African-centred literature and language programmes (as well as finding different exemplars for postcolonial African modernity, involving for example, reading lots of Japanese literature).

I wonder if this couldn’t be the model for Geography to follow. I say this because I suspect a large part of the problem with Geography, from a decolonising perspective, might be integral to the sense of vocation that might well be what most defines Geography as an academic discipline. To a considerable extent, Geography now exists institutionally in UK higher education as a clearing house for a disparate set of fields of research, some traditional ‘Geography’ fields (such as research into urban and regional issues), some re-framed fields (such as work on disease, or the re-badging of ‘physical geography’ in terms of Earth Systems Science or even Global Systems Science), and some novel fields (research on animal geographies or elemental geographies, for example). There’s nothing that really holds these fields together intellectually. While there might actually be some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields of Geography, the distinctive thing about twenty-first century ‘Geography’ is that there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis. Geography departments exist (sometimes really big ones) because of the saliency of the research undertaken therein to increasingly ‘challenge-led’ research agendas, and because they look like good models for that much vaunted value, ‘interdisciplinarity’. It’s easy enough to imagine quite a lot of what is currently collected under the label of Geography in British universities being distributed differently. In any given university, after all, one will likely find all the urbanists in Planning, or all the economic geographers in Business Schools, or soil scientists in free-standing research centres). None of this is a great problem, necessarily. It is not to say that geography has neither existence or future. Far from it. It does, however, raise the question of the type of existence and future Geography might have.

Geography does have a coherence at school level, as a popular subject for both GCSE and A Level study, but this coherence is not so much intellectual as it is related to a certain image of utilitarian value associated with Geography, not least as a subject that bridges the divide between school and university. Geography at schools has, no doubt, some intellectual substance to it – lots of sustainability, for example, and an implicit if not explicit sense of good (global) citizen-liness. It’s all too common for academic geographers to fall into clichés about the stereotypical Geography undergraduate student. But it is true that there is a specific sense of what Geography is good for, as a school subject and undergraduate degree, which sustains the relative strength of student recruitment to undergraduate Geography degrees in the UK. It’s that relative strength that in turn underwrites a great deal of the intellectual creativity of research undertaken in Geography departments in the UK (i.e. it’s because of a steady and predictable stream of undergraduates coming to university to do Geography degrees that the content of Geography degrees turns out to be such a surprise to those same students – all that Marxism, all that chemistry, all that politics, all those statistics).

The utilitarianism associated with Geography – the sheer weight of the idea that it’s a useful subject, beneficial to those who study it and, through them, to everyone else too – is deeply ingrained in the culture of the field at school and at university (and utilitarianism has impeccable colonialist credentials of course). And I am even inclined to hypothesise that it’s here that one would find the only significant line of continuity between geography’s ‘origins’ in Western colonial and imperial projects and Geography as a university discipline today. The continuity lies in a resilient image of what a geographical education is good for. It’s an image that is not necessarily formalised in print, but it is widely taken for granted, and very often explicitly celebrated. It is an image embedded in the centrality of the idea of ‘the field’ and of ‘fieldwork’ to geographical education at all levels; in a pervasive empiricism in even the most ‘theoretical’ looking areas of human geography research; in the willing embrace of the most instrumental aspects of the ‘impact agenda’; and in the overwhelming, inescapable concern with demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of geography – to policy, to public life, to advocacy, to activism. It’s in this related set of ideas of a Geographers’ vocation that links Geography at schools to Geography at university; it’s not necessarily reflected at all in the content of degree curricula (but it often is). It is reproduced through a set of embodied practices through which a certain sort of intellectual personae is cultivated.

In short, if there is a legacy that links Geography now, in British universities, to Geography as it emerged as an academic and school subject some 150 years ago, then it lies in the practices that reproduce the idea that knowing about other people and other places is a way of sloughing off one’s own prejudices, as well as those of one’s students, all for the benefit of those other people and those other places. In short, it is the idea of a geographical education as an edifying project, aimed at transforming the very sense of self of its subjects, that remains a constant, and which remains central to even the most radical looking strands of contemporary geography, from self-consciously activist geographies to advocacy around climate change. It’s that sense of edification that perhaps also accounts for the attraction to humanities-sourced styles of critical distinction (which are misleading in so far as they suggest that debates about pedagogy centred on a canon of texts are relevant to the varied pedagogies found in Geography departments. They’re not really). It’s an idea expressed most clearly in the recurring fascination with writing about ‘responsibility’, not as an object of analysis, but as the second-order genre through which a particular intellectual self-concept that underwrites the practices of a properly geographical personae is problematized as a work of self-cultivation. The ‘Geography and Responsibility’ genre is the primary way in which a plenary sense of Geography is now conjured into existence.

In so far as discussions about decolonizing Geography focus not just on the content of Geography teaching and research, but on the social profile of Geography student bodies and staffing, and in so far as those patterns might be strongly related to the utilitarian identity of Geography at schools and universities, and more broadly to the overwhelming emphasis on ‘relevance’ and ‘responsibility’ that shapes undergraduate recruitment as well as progression in the discipline after undergraduate level, then perhaps the most significant contribution that could be made to the project envisaged by proponents of decolonising the discipline would be, in the spirit of Ngũgĩ, to imagine the abolition of university Geography departments. In order, you understand, to see if it’s possible to re-imagine creative ways of redistributing all those things that currently fall under that label around different formations of intellectual personae. This is not, as far as I am aware, and despite the impeccably decolonial credentials of this proposal, something that has so far been entertained in debates about these issues.

And if that sounds facetious, well, I guess the only morally serious alternative would be to try to picture what a geographical education that abandoned the image of an edifying, responsible vocation could possibly look like.




Bite Size Marxism

“Ever since Luxemburg put into question the completion of real subsumption by suggesting it was nothing more than a heuristic device Marx employed to totalize capitalism, thinkers outside of Euro-America have, in one way or another, underscored a conception of the social that embodied an uneven mix of practices of prior modes of production alongside the newer innovations of capitalism”

Harry Harootunian, 2015, Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism.

Bite Size Theory: On the Postcolony

“By defining itself both as an accurate portrayal of Western modernity – that is, by starting from conventions that are purely local – and as universal grammar, social theory has condemned itself always to make generalizations from idioms of a provincialism that no longer requires demonstration since it proves extremely difficult to understand non-Western objects within its dominant paradigms.”

Achille Mbembe, 2001, On the Postcolony, University of California Press.

Postcolonial discontents

For anyone interested in the debate aroused by Vivek Chibber’s critique of postcolonial theory for being insufficiently Marxist-in-the-right-sort-of-way, which has included a robust response from Partha Chatterjee, Bruce Robbins has a review of Chibber’s book at n+1, and Chibber has a response to Robbins at Jacobin, to which Robbins has in turn his own response at n+1 again. Phew.

Chatterjee on Subaltern Studies and Capital

Andy Davies at Contentious Geographies has news of a piece by Partha Chatterjee entitled Subaltern Studies and Capital in Economic and Political Weekly, a response to Vivek Chibber’s book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital.

While on the subject of Chatterjee, here is a link to details (and the first chapter) of his newish book, The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power

Old haunts: is this what happened to postcolonial theory?

IMG_0365A couple of days ago, Dissent pointed to an almost real-time, developing ‘debate’ about the trajectories of postcolonial theory – in the form of the response to the publication of Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital. The book is largely a refutation/attack/hatchet-job/demolition job (depending on how you read it) on the work of the Subaltern Studies historians, who are taken as standing in for the whole field of ‘postcolonial theory’ (come in Aijaz Ahmad, all is forgiven….). If you don’t want to read the whole book (which can currently be surreptitiously downloaded if you stumble across it…), you can get a sampling of Chibber’s argument in an interview at Jacobin, titled How does the subaltern speak? (I wonder how many variations on that title there have been, and how many more we could all imagine in the future?).

There is already a debate emerging around Chibber’s book, not least encouraged by Verso’s own blog site – they have posted a response to a critical review by Chris Taylor, which Taylor has himself responded to in the update to his original piece.

Blog-twitter-sphere excitement about all this is circulating around a set-piece ‘debate’ between Chibber and one of his targets, Partha Chatterjee, in New York last month – via Andy Davies’s blog, I see that the video of this encounter is now up on YouTube



Literary Geographies at Society and Space

Society and Space has a new virtual issue available, on the theme of ‘Literary Geographies’ (also the name and focus of a newish blog) – ten oldish and newish papers available on open access, until November:

“These ten papers, ranging from the 1980s to the present decade showcase just some of the papers in this journal that have contributed to discussions of literary geographies. As well as being of considerable interest in their own right, we hope they inspire future explorations in this area.”

Amongst the papers, including pieces by my former or  current colleagues John Silk, Juliet Fall, and Parvati Raghurum, one of the papers, this one, is by me – on postcolonial theory, Spivak, Benita Parry, Coetzee, speech and silence and the work of representation, that sort of thing. It’s nice to be included. This might have been a citation classic by now if I’d not used that particular title, but never mind, I was warned (and it’s still a great song, and it still captures the essence of the paper’s argument).

Partha Chatterjee on ‘After subaltern studies’

Further to my earlier ramblings about postcolonial theory, here is an interesting piece by Partha Chatterjee on the legacies and contemporary relevance of the subaltern studies ‘tradition’ (you can find more on this topic at the Cultural Anthropology site) . Of particular interest is his argument is the claim that there are now ‘two aspects of mass politics in contemporary Indian democracy – one that involves a contest over sovereignty with the Indian state and the other that makes claims on governmental authorities over services and benefits’. The emergence of the latter aspect, he argues, which follows from the extensive ‘reach’ of apparatuses of governmentality into the everyday lives of even the most marginal populations, requires a ‘paradigm shift’ beyond the classic analysis of subaltern resistance. Chatterjee is an interesting example of someone able to make use of ‘governmentality’ ideas while also acknowledging the distinctive qualities of actually existing democratic politics.

Whatever happened to postcolonial theory?

Apparently, my doctoral thesis might soon be digitalized, and therefore made much more readily available to all and sundry [UPDATE: it’s here!]. I’m vain enough to accept the offer, and insecure enough to worry about what the enhanced accessibility might do for my reputation should anyone ever go off and download it. It is, or was, about postcolonial theory, amongst other things (occasionally, I remember that I got my current job on the basis of claims to be a postcolonial geographer). And it is, of course, oddly, my main professional credential, as both a researcher and a teacher.

I sometimes wonder what ever happened to postcolonial theory, which seemed very important once upon time – but has now become the basis for a fairly standard paradigm of geopolitical power, ‘imperialism’ with a smarter theory of culture attached. And I was reminded of this question by a recent, perhaps ongoing debate in the pages of New Literary History, on ‘the state of postcolonial studies’. Kicked off by a couple of contributions by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Robert Young, it has been continued through responses by the likes of Simon During and Benita Parry. It’s interesting that this debate revolves around topics such as climate change, and land, and settler colonialism – nothing ‘anaemic’ about those things. But the terms of the debate also acknowledge that ‘the postcolonial’ has lost some of its fizz in theory-land.

For a while now, I have been surprised and a little perplexed about the degree to which, certainly in geography, Edward Said’s model of colonial discourse in Orientalism has become the basic reference point for an understanding of the relevance of postcolonial theory. This odd resurgence seems to have taken place somewhere between the publication of Derek Gregory’s Geographical Imaginations and his The Colonial Present. I say that it’s odd because the re-centering of ‘Orientalism’ as the paradigm of power-inflected knowledge seems to have erased from view the debates that I remember being important twenty years ago, which were all about the inadequacy, conceptually and empirically, of the ‘projection’ model of ‘discourse’ that Said originally articulated in Orientalism, and of the associated claims about ‘power’ (Said’s own post-Orientalism work evidences the force of these criticisms in its move towards more pragmatic models of cultural representation).

You can still see the residue of these debates in the constant worry that ‘discourse’ must always be connected to ‘materiality’, or assertions that ‘representations’ have ‘performative’ effects. But these have become empty slogans that close-down the fundamental questions about the adequacy of concepts of representation, meaning, and subjectivity inherited from a canon of ‘French Theory’ (and they tend to authorise vague, unsubstantiated claims about the continuities between historical colonialisms and contemporary geopolitics). Above all, what these slogans do is protect the central idea tying together post-structuralist thought – the idea that ‘subjectivity’ is made and re-made through mediums of knowledge and representation, certainly; but more fundamentally, the very idea that social formations and political regimes are made to hang together by bringing off subject-effects, however these are conceptualised – ‘representationally’ or ‘affectively’.

The continued attachment to this model of power, and of the centrality of ‘the cultural’ to it, might have something to do with the way in which it underwrites models of research (it helps to make historical work, embedded in documentary analysis, as well as the analysis of lots of cultural practices, seem very important); but especially, perhaps, the degree to which it underwrites models of critical pedagogy.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a little recently is the idea that we should all be seeking ‘synergies’ between research and teaching – almost always, this means finding ways to plug in more or less specialised research findings into teaching programmes. As such, it betrays a horribly ‘academic’ model of what teaching is good for – a kind of dissemination of findings, a medium for inducting people into proper understanding. I have never heard anyone seriously argue that teaching should inform research, other perhaps than in terms of certain models of dialogue or collaboration (of course, postcolonial theory is one of the sources for the idea that ‘the classroom’ is a site of engaged scholarship; but higher education teaching doesn’t, of course, go on in ‘classrooms’, with all the associated baggage that term implies. HE students are grown ups, not well thought of as impressionable or naïve youngsters; most student learning goes on in the gaps and interstices and loops between ‘contact’ hours, not in the presence of the academic oracle).

A constant, and growing, worry I have is about the idea that the sorts of cutting-edge research that circulates in a great deal of ‘critical’ social science, certainly in human geography, but more broadly in any field touched by cultural theory, should be allowed anywhere near teaching programmes. Cutting-edge theory, and the sorts of empirical projects informed and confirmed by it, is all about unpicking, disrupting, and revealing – across different theoretical traditions, being ‘critical’ is primarily understood as an epistemological operation which combines exposure and correction. For as long as I have been an academic, twenty-five years plus now (aagh…), ‘theory’ in these fields has primarily focussed on the enabling us to tell stories about the construction of things – whether under the heading ‘constructionism’, or one or other of its variants – making, composing, enacting, performing, assembling, and so on. And there are a set of pedagogic assumptions built in to this range of theory, whether or not it is ever concerned with teaching per se. The critical edge, the political frisson, of successive paradigms of work rests on the idea that showing how things are made, showing that things are performed, showing that things are contingent, has a potentially transformative effect on people’s most deeply held beliefs, ways of thinking, or ways of feeling their way around the world.

The pedagogic pay-off of this type of research knowledge, then, revolves around the idea that the purpose of critical scholarship is to interrupt the understandings and interests that students, or other audiences, might already have, and which might have animated them to arrive at your door in the first place – and to replace them with improved understandings and thought. Thinking of teaching in terms of ‘subjectivity’ (really as a scene of dis-identification, of counter-interpellation, or even of de-subjectification), underwrites the idea that the primary purpose of teaching is to challenge common sense, interrupt taken for granted assumptions, and disrupt received ways of seeing.

Apart from presupposing an almost impossibly flexible model of ‘subjectivity’, there seems to me something almost self-defeating, certainly from the perspective of geographical education, in assuming that the primary function of research and teaching should be to basically de-legitimise the structures of curiosity that attract students in the first place.

Anyway, I think the re-centering of Orientalism and ‘Orientalism’ as the universal critical paradigm for postcolonial theory is one example of this broader formation of critical pedagogy, stretching across research and teaching. Amongst other things, this re-centering marginalises, again, a set of alternative ‘postcolonial’ intellectual traditions arising from different places – for example, I think here of the arguments of writers such as Robert Young or Christopher Miller that African colonialism and postcolonialism did not fit the model of ‘geographical imaginations’ inherited from Said. Nor, one might suppose, would the experience of the Americas. One thing that emerges from debates focussed on colonialism and anti-colonialism in these places is a much more ‘pragmatic’ model of colonial discourse, for example. If you don’t take Literature, or aesthetic fields more generally, as exemplars for the politics of knowledge, you end up with different models of the use of knowledge in the world. And, in turn, it might be possible to find different models of what critical pedagogy might involve – models which are less hampered by ‘postcolonial scruples’, and prepared to take the risk of positively affirming some old-fashioned geographical curiosity as the very condition of ‘learning from other regions’. I think this is one of the lessons, for example, of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which pivots around Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’, or the Comaroff’s more recent Theory from the South.