Monday 18 May 2020

Reviving the blog, with a fresh start

I started writing this blog nearly 12 years ago (how the hell did that happen, by the way?), just as I was starting my MSc in Bristol.  However, I really started to make use of it after I finished that degree and was, while working 7 days a week to pay off my loan, wondering what to do with my life. I don’t have that kind of energy these days, it seems. Indeed, this blog has fallen rather derelict in recent years. However, I did end up figuring out what I wanted to do.

It’s been just over a year since I defended my PhD thesis (this also seems to have flown by…). I stopped blogging for a few reasons, I think. First, I was doing a lot of writing on the thesis and other things. Second, I suffered with some chronic carpal tunnel issues that made using a keyboard almost impossible for about a year. That ended whatever good writing habits I’d developed. However, the time that I was writing my personal blog was probably also the peak of that medium. The successful blogs of a decade or so ago have been largely hoovered up into other platforms, and the less successful ones have mostly either run out of steam or been displaced by the micro-blogging of the social industry—in particular, Twitter.

Writing this thing was hugely valuable for me. It let me hone my voice, and got me used to putting my thoughts out in public. Mostly, this led to nothing. But sometimes it made some very nice connections that would never have happened otherwise. A few times, I pissed someone off, rightly or wrongly. I learned from that, too. The blog had a reasonable readership at one point. My posts usually got a few hundred views. Again, this was probably at the height of the medium.

However, this small amount of attention came later. What was initially most valuable was just in writing regularly, and putting these words in public. Even if no sort of feedback or interaction is forthcoming, this is a very different experience to keeping a diary or private notes. But, then, the more attention the posts got, the more I felt like they had to be, you know, good. This perhaps made me write less regularly. In any case, the process of blogging helped me figure out that academic writing was something I might be good at, and that it was a career I could pursue.

Well, Phase 1 complete, then. Phase 2 is looking pretty bloody bleak right now. The academic job market has gone from a Hunger Games-style farce to a survivalist hellscape in short order. Anyway, for pretty much that exact reason, I feel that the time is right to get back to blogging. I need to get back into good writing habits, I need to think in public again, I need to do this somewhere other than Twitter, and I might also need to figure out what to do with the rest of my life, if what I’ve been doing for the last decade of it doesn’t work out.

However, I also feel like I need a fresh start. So, Circling Squares will be continuing but migrating to a new home: This post, then, will be the last on the present site, which will remain where it is for posterity.

I remember weighing up Blogger and Wordpress when I originally set this up. There seemed to be little to choose between them at the time. However, since then, Wordpress has come to run about a quarter of the Internet, while Blogger no longer allows things like using a desktop client to write and post posts. Annoying. I now have a personal website (, advertising my wares. However, writing a blog under one’s own name seems a little pretentious. So, I’ll keep the Circling Squares moniker (which was only the first thing that popped into my head when I started writing 12 years ago but continues to sum up what this is supposed to be).

This fresh start should allow me to reset some metrics that I run in my head while writing: If 100 people read what I’m writing and it takes them one hour, that is 100 hours of human existence that my words have taken up. Can I justify that? I think of this particularly when I’m writing for journals, and even more with the book(s) that I’m planning. They have to be good. As good, at least, as I am capable of. This is a heavy calculation. It makes me take what I’m doing seriously but also slows me down. At the moment, it might even be keeping me from writing at all. So, now some time after the heyday of the medium, the blog might be the place to allow myself some lighter, but still calisthenic, indulgences.

Free to ramble. To scribble irregularly. Readers or no readers. Purpose or no purpose.

Friday 7 December 2018

Ten years in the academic bubble: some fieldnotes, and a few confessions

This time ten years ago, I was in the first semester of my master's degree in politics and sociology at the University of Bristol. After that, I spent six years doing various jobs (mostly research admin work) at the same institution. In 2015, I moved to Aberystwyth University to start my PhD.

So, in one way or another, whether at the fringes or somewhere closer to the centre, I've spent the past decade within the (lately much-maligned) academic bubble. Of course, previous to that, I spent three years studying as an undergraduate but I don't think that really counts. It was a completely different experience.

It was during my master's studies that I was first socialised into the academic habitus—the norms, mores, and general engrained common sense of the community. It was at this time that I made friendship and acquaintance with those who were starting their own PhD projects, as well as those already embarked upon their careers. It was also at this time that I first realised that these people were not, on the whole, significantly more intelligent than I was (something I had previously, perhaps semi-consciously, assumed to be the case).

Being the first in my immediate family to go to university, and growing up in a small, rural, provincial town, I had little to no prior exposure to such conditions of middle-class being. However, being white, male, and speaking with a more or less standard southern English accent, I think I was able to 'pass' fairly quickly.

One of the first things that I noticed in this 'habitus' (some time before I learned of the concept) was what I call The Academic Nod. In my experience, it occurs during the course of most half-way intellectual conversations. You may recognise it: In the process of sharing some fact or theory you've read or think is interesting, your conversation partner will nod in a serious, subtly mannered fashion.

The Academic Nod occupies a zone of inscrutability between 'oh, how interesting' and 'yes, I know that.'

I found this quite difficult to navigate for a time, until I'd learned how to do it too. It's confusing because it is an approving gesture and yet it is difficult to tell whether the person is saying 'yes, yes, I've heard this all before' or 'please, do go on.' Indeed, this ambiguity seems to be its purpose.

The Nod would seem to come from competitive knowledgeability. Academics are, of course, supposed to be highly knowledgeable, often on a very wide range of topics. Therefore, their bodily comportment generalises this appearance, and their dialogical habits are gradually adapted to it. This disposition is perhaps found in its purest form in the classroom, where intellectual authority is performed most obviously, but it is evident almost everywhere.

I have since become quite adept at such mannerisms and, thus, am often able to appear significantly more knowledgable than I actually am. Of course, one has to be careful in maintaining this epistemically in-between position. You don't want to fall into the trap of committing to knowing something that you don't, since you could well then be contradicted and hence look foolish. That's where Theory becomes important (being able to formulate convincing and digressive responses on the basis of sometimes minimal information).

This has all been going around in my head, on and off, for a decade. However, what's brought it to my fingertips, now, is the recently heightened obsession, in the press and elsewhere, with 'academic bias.'

For instance, only today, an open letter has been doing the rounds, denouncing the appointment of a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge who practices an updated version of the kind of race science often thought (naively, of course) to have been left behind in the nineteenth century. This denunciation has been met with the by the now-familiar gnashing of teeth from various apologists, many cloaking themselves behind half-baked notions of rationalism and intellectual freedom.

I don't intend to discuss this particular case here. However, it brings to my mind a number of issues.

There's no doubt that there is a left/liberal leaning to academia (more liberal than left), at least when compared with any other arm of civil society. This is well-documented. However, it is also, in my experience, rather over-estimated.

For starters, this leaning is heavily dependent upon discipline, career path, and funding stream. I write primarily of the social sciences and humanities, since these are the communities that I know. I've learned from those working in, for example, mechanical engineering (never mind business schools, etc.) that quite different political tendencies are evident there, where industry money is so abundant, and rather different psycho-social tendencies are generally rewarded.

It's not especially surprising that a career requiring many years of preparatory education, and that is considerably less well remunerated than occupations of similar social standing (though, of course, it is well-paid in general), tends to attract those for whom money is not necessarily the top priority. Nor is it surprising, then, that such persons tend not to be especially right-wing. However, we should also remember that not all academics teach or research. Indeed, the political dispositions of those who enter vastly better paid positions in bloated university administrations is wont to be quite different.

Moreover, I think it's important not to confuse theoretical and political positions. There are many academics in the social sciences and humanities who identify as, for instance, Marxist but whose concrete political convictions would seem to hew markedly more to the centre-ground (and beyond). Likewise for many other self-identified radical political-theoretical traditions.

Certainly, there are plenty of Marx scholars who wouldn't be caught on a picket line if their lives depended on it. Likewise, those scholars whose work brings them to engage in sustained, long-term community work, wherever that may be, are fairly unlikely to become jet-setting, high status professors. That's not how it works.

Some have argued that academics are, pretty much by definition, bought and paid for by the prevailing world order due to their structural socioeconomic position. I find that a little too all-consumingly deterministic. However, the problem is well-observed.

What is perhaps surprising for me, all things considered, is just how successfully certain leftist enclaves of academia have been able to hold onto whatever minimal hegemony they have, in spite of the onslaught from all sides by a neoliberal and conservative order that is incontestably dominant pretty much everywhere else.

For all the idle-minded commentators who bleat on about viewpoint diversity, where else has any such perspective been able to build any sort of foothold in the institutions of civil society? Certainly not in the oligarch-owned media. Certainly not in the constitutional and legal establishment of late-imperial Euro-American societies.

If certain 'viewpoints' stand out as over-privileged in some localised portions of academia, that perhaps says at least as much about what is taken to be unremarkable and conventional in almost every other position of social judgement.

So, to conclude, what I have really learned over the past ten years is that as naive, conflicted, complacent, suffocatingly bureaucratic, and frequently out of touch academia may be, it remains something worth fighting for. The almost infinite shades of pretence and dissimulated jealousy with which it is guarded only betrays the privileges that remain there, still.

Thursday 29 November 2018

'-ocene' neologisms—a list

For a few years now, I've been making a list of neologisms that riff on, satirise, or offer an alternative to the much-debated 'Anthropocene.' No methodology was involved other than 'see, copy, paste,' and I've not kept track of who said what (though the more unusual ones will be easy to google, if one so desires).

I previously posted a much shorter version of this list in my review of Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz's The Shock of the Anthropocene. However, it has since grown considerably:


The above were proffered by their various authors with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness. There are undoubtedly more out there, particularly as terms of mockery. Indeed, just one recent Twitter thread gives us:


Beyond this, many have played on the buzzword in question without using the '-ocene' suffix as such. For example:


Then, there are other qualifiers such as the 'good' Anthropocene, 'early' Anthropocene, and so on.

For what it's worth, I do agree with its many critics that 'Anthropocene' is a terrible word, and some of the above would have been a better choice. However, it seems that we are stuck with it (the academic propensity for entrepreneurial neologism notwithstanding).

Feel free to inform me of any that I missed.


Addendum, 07/12/2018:

Simon Lewis adds:

Another author asks "why we don’t find ourselves in a Chimpocene or a Papiocene but in the Anthropocene."

Friday 10 August 2018

#Citewomen: 1920s Edition; or, In lieu of a thesis update

I’ve been rather neglecting this blog over recent months (really, over the past few years). Being now deep into the later stages of thesis writing and rewriting, I can’t really put together a full update. However, in reworking my introduction over the past week, I came across a nice little anecdotal episode that I thought I would share.

As far as I know, the first monograph to construct a history of the concept of “milieu” was published in 1899 by Eugénie Dutoit (1867-1933). Die Theorie des Milieu was, in fact, her inaugural dissertation at the University of Bern (defended the previous year). Dutoit was, moreover, the first woman in Bern to study philosophy and obtain a Ph.D. She subsequently worked as a school teacher, journalist, and activist.

Founding and leading various educational and women’s rights organisations, she seems to have led an active public life in Bern and beyond. For one thing, in 1924, on behalf of the Fédération des unions nationales des amies de la jeune fille, she served as an Assessor to the League of Nations Advisory Committee on Traffic in Women and Children. This was standing in for one Mme. Studer-Steinhauslin who was absent through illness.

However, her dissertation seems to have remained her only published academic work.

In 1918, another Ph.D. dissertation was submitted to the University of Illinois by Armin Koller under the title The Theory of Environment: Part I: An Outline of the History of the Idea of Milieu, and its Present Status.

This topic, he noted in his preface, had been suggested to him in 1907 by Professor Martin Schütze (1866-1950). “As guide-posts were lacking,” Koller wrote, “at least I knew of none, I was bound to seek by accident and for a number of years.”

In 1922, Schütze himself noted in an essay that Dutoit's Die Theorie des Milieu was an “exhaustive and well-written dissertation.”  He also mentioned his former student Koller, into whose hands he had placed Dutoit’s work for the purposes of preliminary orientation and instruction. However, Schütze added:
“In the Preface, in which he gives an account of the development of his study, Mr. Koller fails to mention Miss Dutoit’s work, and gives a misleading description of the state of the problem confronting him. The subject, at the time that Mr. Koller was introduced to it, was not, as appears from his description, a primeval wilderness without paths and ‘guide posts,’ but an inviting district with its main lines of topography clearly traced and with the points of the compass plainly indicated.” 
This was among both the first and the last citations that Dutoit’s work would receive. Koller had cited Dutoit five times in his endnotes but nowhere in the body text. Indeed, it is only because a copy of her dissertation at the University of California was digitised that I came to notice it.

While both these old dissertations are useful for my purposes (reconstructing the conceptual histories of milieu, climate, and environment), Dutoit’s effort seems to me to have been rather more sophisticated in its analyses, while Koller’s was really just a glorified literature review.

And so, a century ago, those few women to break into the boys’ club of academic philosophy (even if they weren’t able to stay) were already being forgotten.

Saturday 21 April 2018

Thinking Through Planet Politics—25 April 2018, Tampere, Finland

I'm very much looking forward to travelling to Tampere in Finland next week for what should be a fascinating workshop on the subject of "planet politics."

For those of you who may not be familiar, Planet Politics: A Manifesto from the End of IR was published two years ago. This workshop continues the conversation that has resulted therefrom.

It is open to whoever may be interested, so if you happen to be in the area next week, just drop Hannes Peltonen an email!

(If the below is a bit fuzzy, click the image for higher resolution.)

My own contribution will involve a somewhat critical analysis of the debate thus far, particularly arguing that if planet politics as a 'thing' is to be more than just another re-branding effort for environmental politics then we need to give much more thought to reconceptualising the planetary as such.

Monday 2 April 2018

Tarde’s 'Fragment d’histoire future' and the modal coordination of history and fiction – Reflections on 'Imagining the History of the Future'

Last week, I had the great fortune of attending the Imagining the History of the Future conference, part of the Unsettling Scientific Stories project (based at the universities of York, Newcastle and Aberystwyth). It was a really fantastic three days that introduced me to some fascinating people and has left me with a lot to think about.

For my part, I presented a paper – an exerpt from my thesis – on 'Gabriel Tarde’s Fragment d’histoire future and the milieu-fantôme.' This title is slightly modified from what I originally proposed (and from what appears in the programme). However, the original abstract still gets the gist of it:
Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) was a magistrate, criminologist, sociologist and philosopher. Around the turn of the century, he engaged in a series of polemical exchanges with Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) concerning the remit and purpose of sociology. He also wrote a science fiction novel: Fragment d’histoire future (1896), published in English as Underground Man (1905) with a preface by H.G. Wells. The setting is apocalyptic: The sun has gone out and humanity – or rather a lone inventive pocket of it – has burrowed into the earth’s crust, chasing its enduring inner heat. All other life is extinguished. Written from the perspective of a future historian, Tarde uses this subterranean scenario to conduct a thought experiment that tests out his sociological theories concerning imitation, creativity and 'great men.' Although war and strife are suffered early on, this new civilisation comes to enjoy a golden age, free from the hardships of its surface-dwelling ancestors. Diseases are few; air is “the purest that man has ever breathed”; food is plentifully acquired from the frozen oceans above; the new troglodytes wear “coats of asbestos spangled with mica.” The Malthusian tendencies of population are the only serious problem, held in check by strict controls on marriage. Read in relation to Tarde’s other works, particularly Monadologie et sociologie (1893), Fragment d’histoire future provides an alternative means of approaching the development of the social sciences, their relation to race, class and gender, as well as the not so much ecological as sociological futurology of an eccentric but important fin de siècle thinker.
More precisely, I am interested this book for several reasons: First, in explaining the premises of the story, the narrator describes a "social milieu" entirely separated from the "natural milieu" that was destroyed with the cataclysm. It is this "purification," as he calls it, that constitutes Tarde's thought experiment; that is, he asks what would happen to social relations when all other conditions of life are removed.

Second, this sociological system – or, rather, ontology – involved an open criticism of Durkheim's rather more superorganismic conception. Whereas Tarde understood sociology along the lines of networks of creative imitations, Durkheim thought of society as a totality of collective representations impinging upon and transcending individual agents. Third, just two years later, this led Tarde to ridicule Durkheim et al.'s use of the concept of "milieu" as a kind of explanatory panacea for all phenomena. Durkheim's "milieu-fantôme," as Tarde called it, was therefore to be repudiated, although Tarde continued to use a somewhat different conception of milieu. 

Fourth, Tarde's book can be taken as a kind of witness to its situation – that is, to the time and place to which it accommodated itself. As well as the apocalyptic science-fiction premise, Tarde's technological anticipations give us a strong sense of the common sense of his time, as does his apparent endorsement (however eccentric) of a kind of artistic eugenics (where only the most creative are permitted to reproduce). Moreover, Tarde's development of a social ontology based on ideas of epidemic contagion (he was by no means the only to propound such an ontology but was unusual as regards the extent of his defence of it) creates interesting parallels not only with other sociologists and criminologists but also with post-Pasteurian transformations in bacteriology.

Tarde, then, links together a great many things. Indeed, a rather wide-ranging world can be reconstructed in terms of the networks and milieus that relate to his choices and dispositions – an elite, metropolitan world but nevertheless a significant one for my purposes.

The presentation was, I think, well-received and there were a number of great questions that tested my thinking and gave me ideas as to how to take this further. However, one question in particular, from Hanna-Riikka Roine, has stayed with me (I paraphrase): What was Tarde trying to do with this shift from legal and academic to fictional-speculative writing? What was the purpose or motivation of this segue of genres?

This is not something that I've looked into in detail yet; however, my immediate response was that Tarde was, at this time, involved in a polemical relationship with his intellectual competitors and wished to propagate his ideas to a wider audience. I am quite sure that this is the case; however, it is also a rather unsatisfactory answer and I hope to develop a better one.

The conference closed with a roundtable where participants were invited to submit questions ahead of time. I asked:

In the discussion itself, in response to a comment by Sarah Dillon on the subject of evidence in relation to historiography, I expanded on these questions a little. In my thesis work I've found a comment from Michael Oakeshott's 1933 book Experience and its Modes to be particularly useful – specifically, that a historian is someone who is obliged to interpret the past in terms of the evidence of that past. In other words, an historian qua historian bears an obligation to evidence.

This leads to a criterion of distinction (or a differentia as Oakeshott calls it in more formal philosophical terms) that differentiates historical from other modes of experience. A fictionist qua fictionist may or may not incorporate historical fact into her text; however, a fiction qua fiction cannot be faulted for its choices in this regard. Rather, the obligations incumbent upon a fiction are to the immersive or transformative effects it may have on its audience – a quite different condition of relevance.

(My thinking on this point is related to both Étienne Souriau and, more recently, Bruno Latour who have described fiction as a 'mode of existence,' as well as to Isabelle Stengers' philosophy of science; however, I will leave their particular propositions for another day.)

To cut a long histoire short, it is in relation to this distinction between history and fiction that my thinking as regards historiography (and, indeed, my practice thereof) is being developed. However, while history and fiction are therefore understood as fundamentally distinct in modal or categorical terms, they are also practically and technically highly interrelated. In the abstract, they share a great many textual and rhetorical techniques and, in the concrete, it may be difficult in certain liminal cases to tell them apart.

So, the basic point that I was (and am) trying to make is that historians, even if they do not write fiction, already venture onto at least some of the same terrain. Likewise, fictionists often have more interesting things to say about the writing of history (or just writing in general) than do professional historiographers (I think this is no coincidence). And so what is needed, I believe, is a more precise understanding of the modal differentiae that both distinguish these practices and, at the same time, allow them to be intellectually and, perhaps, politically coordinated.

I am making this argument here in perhaps more cohesive terms than I managed 'off the cuff.' Indeed, articulating these ideas was quite a challenge, given the diversity of the audience. During the three days, I talked to at least one non-academic sci-fi author, a curator, and academics from half a dozen recognised disciplines and many more subfields and disciplinary interstices.

In response to my mini-monologue, Maxine Gee (a screenwriter and PhD candidate at York) made the completely fair point that many academics are already authors of fiction (sci-fi and otherwise). Amanda Rees added that writing fiction is not at all easy. Mat Paskins commented that while the exploration of the intricate overlaps between history and fiction is all well and good, historians must recognise a fundamental moral obligation to relating the past as it happened, both for the sake of the victims of historical events (such as, to take only the most obvious and oft-cited example, victims of the Holocaust) and also for present-day survivors (such as those gay men for whom the very possibility of a collective future was, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, very much in doubt). Then, towards the end of the session, Kanta Dihal commented that there are many more voices producing (science-)fiction than are usually taken notice of in academic discourse – a lack of diversity being something for which this conference itself could, indeed, be faulted. And, so, rather than writing more fiction, perhaps academics should instead undertake to read more widely.

I would not substantively disagree with any of the above remarks (as I have remembered and reconstructed them). Indeed, they really expand on, in different ways, what I was trying to articulate.

However, I would just add that I think there remain unexplored possibilities at the modal and practical meeting point of fiction and history that I want to explore further. I do not mean to suggest that academics (as a homogenous group) can or should all start writing fiction. Some already do; many would not want to; most would not be much good at it. Nevertheless, I think it is notable that the likes of Tarde's Fragment can still, today, be understood as being a rather eccentric and exceptional expressive and discursive choice.

Writing fiction well is indeed a formidable task, as is any other kind of artistic creation. However, while counterfactuals are a common enough pedagogical (and, to a lesser extent, historiographical) tool, the active coordination of historical and fictional modes of experience (or of existence) remains at the margins. This is not, moreover, to deny the vibrancy of the margins; however, it is to call attention to what may be lost by accepting marginalisation as a given.

As to why the practices of historical and fictional writing are thus, for the most part, estranged, the reasons are fairly obvious: In more or less all of the social sciences (where I am located) and perhaps most of the humanities, scholarship is institutionally rewarded in a manner not only strictly demarcated from the artistic but is, to some extent, defined in opposition to it. This arrangement is tied to political expectations as to what constitutes useful knowledge and how funding regimes, accordingly, are to be distributed. For most academics, writing fiction could only be a pastime; it could not be a serious part of that for which they are employed.

None of this is either surprising or insightful but it remains, I think, relevant.

My thesis asks: What is the history of the concept of environment? I am interested in how this expression, along with its precursors such as milieu and climate, came to be a part of the everyday conceptual landscape. However, I am also interested in answering a second question: What does this history mean for the problems of the present?

Fictions, such as that of Tarde, are a crucial resource for reconstructing this history – that is, for answering the first question. However, could they not also be a starting point for approaching the second?

To be sure, I would not like to align myself with Tarde in any substantive sense. And yet at least some of his problems remain problems that concern us today. Thus, I take his work as presenting a problem of inheritance: What worlds will we make from the always conflicted and often deeply corrupted traces and evidences that we have, with great degrees of preservational prejudice, inherited?

My paper and this post only tease out the outer fringes of this question. However, this conference has given me many more routes to now explore.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

The situation of reclamation – a review of: "Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science" by Isabelle Stengers

A review that I wrote of Isabelle Stengers' recently translated Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science has just gone up at the Society & Space open site. Very nice it looks, too.

The great thing about the S&S platform is that it allows for more extensive engagements with the works in question than is allowed by the usual print journal book review. Accordingly, I do not just summarise Stengers' text but try to clarify its major claims and then extend them in new directions.

I begin from a prominent, if rather poor, review that the book received in the Times Higher Education in December. I then try to explicate the most crucial proposals that Stengers makes and conclude by suggesting what a 'slow' geography might look like, thinking about possible connections with 'accelerationism,' the works of the late Ursula Le Guin and, then, the Situationist International.

In short, this is probably Stengers' most condensed and accessible account of her philosophy of science to date, as well as being an important addition to her thought in its own right. I would recommend it.

Sunday 11 February 2018

The history and philosophy of geography: A meta-report (of sorts)

About a week ago, I undertook a mini research project: to read all the ‘Progress Reports’ for the subfield of ‘History and Philosophy of Geography’ (hereafter H&PG) published in Progress in Human Geography from 1984 (the first one) to the present. For those not familiar with this journal, since 1977 it has commissioned reviews (mostly annually) of a whole number of fields, forming an impressive record of the development of the discipline, in terms of its texts, its debates and its gatekeepers.

I undertook this with a hypothesis: that the historical side would predominate, with the philosophical, when taken into consideration, largely disconnected from the other half of the equation. In other words, ‘history’ would come first; ‘philosophy’ would be a distant second; and the ‘and’ would hardly feature at all.

Though with some important and informative exceptions, I found my hypothesis to be mostly correct.

The reports by year and author are as follows (see here for links):

1984: James Glick.
1985: James Glick.
1986: James Glick.
1987: James Glick.
1988: James Glick.
1990: James Glick.
1990: Neil Smith.
1992: Neil Smith.
1994: Felix Driver.
1995: Felix Driver.
1996: Felix Driver.
1997: Mark Bassin.
1999: Mark Bassin.
2000: Mark Bassin.
2002: James Ryan.
2003: James Ryan.
2004: James Ryan.
2005: Charles Withers.
2006: Charles Withers.
2007: Charles Withers.
2008: Trevor Barnes.
2009: Trevor Barnes.
2010: Trevor Barnes.
2012: Richard Powell.
2014: Richard Powell.
2015: Richard Powell.
2017: Innes Keighren.
2018: Innes Keighren.

The most obvious thing about the above may be the, shall we say, biographical homogeneity of the authors. In fairness, issues of institutional gender hierarchies are not absent from the reports. For example, in the most recent edition, Innes Keighren reports on an exercise at the 2016 RGS-IBG conference where a copy of Scottish Geography: A Historiography (2014) was covered with Post-it notes, highlighting the absence of women from its pages. Nevertheless, after 28 reports over 34 years by 9 authors – clearly this is something that the editors and the H&PG community need to address.

My expectations as regards the relative status of history and philosophy were reassured from the very first sentence of the first report: “There are manifold signs that the history of geography has come of age as an independent subdiscipline.” This same edition then, 9 pages later, concluded: “I have not spoken directly of the philosophy of geography in this article, but the stance of Capel and others in regarding it as reflecting more upon professional strategies than upon cognitive issues is interesting. The development of this position I leave for a future review.”

Sure enough, the report for 1985 spoke of: “Methodological hyperconsciousness” and “the recent boom in statements concerning the role of theory in geography.” However, this was ‘philosophy’ in a fairly thin sense. It concerned scientific epistemology as well the demands made by the likes of Anne Buttimer to be aware of one’s philosophical presuppositions and, then, environmental determinism as a matter of ideology. Glick’s remaining four reports covered many areas – from biography to the meeting of geography and sociology to the relation of geography and imperialism – but little was to be found of what I would expect (I may be wrong) a contemporary human geographer to find ‘philosophical.’

Neil Smith’s first report was titled “history and theory” rather than “history and philosophy” and it featured a section on recent spatial-theoretical contributions from the likes of Ed Soja and David Harvey. In conclusion, he remarked: “The history of geography is deadly serious.” In his second and final report (now titled “history and philosophy”), Smith brought a more overtly political edge to the series than had been prevalent previously, concentrating on the role of GIS in relation to warfare as well as gender imbalances within the discipline and, finally, some concerns about postmodern disregard for “material reality.”

Felix Driver’s tenure (consisting of a now-standard three-report duration) begins: “Authors write history, and philosophy, but rarely under conditions of their own choosing.” The sub-clause structure here is telling. However, further on, this report reflects on the influx of “social theory” to the philosophy of geography, provoked by both the “postmodern challenge” and the “environmental challenge,” producing a “serious philosophical debate in the discipline.” Driver’s second report, likewise, gives philosophy if not quite equal billing then at least a fair hearing, covering the boom in both the “postmodern” and critiques thereof.

However, his final report, in 1996, delivers the first major disconfirmation of my hypothesis, beginning, as it does, by reflecting on approaches to the writing of history and, thus, “the relationship between the ‘history’ and ‘philosophy’ of geography.” Regarding historicism, anti-historicism as well as concepts of context and critique, Driver thus openly raises the ‘and.’

Mark Bassin’s three reports are perhaps most distinguished by their incorporation of literatures beyond the Anglophone world, particularly from Russia. Once again, imperialism, Nazi geography and environmental determinism are mainstays and, besides a brief aside on ‘context,’ again the historical side is broadly prioritised. James Ryan’s 2002 report begins by noting the often “painfully obscure and élitist” current of poststructuralism then firmly established in fashion, as well as actor-network theory and an increased attention to issues of culture. In conclusion, it notes Robert Mayhew’s articulation of Michael Oakeshott’s philosophy of history as an historiographical model for the history of geography. His next pair of reports continue similarly. Charles Withers’ texts, in turn, mentioned issues of critique and context but were, otherwise, as strictly historical as any of his predecessors.

Trevor Barnes, however, went rather the other way, beginning his first report with a declaration:
“[…] philosophies and ideas are embodied in the histories of the humans who make them, including their finitude. Such histories include inter alia places, institutions, lives and personalities, and the circulation of ideas. That is why this series is ‘the history and philosophy of geography’. It is not just history, not just philosophy, but both/and.”
The next edition noted the rise and rise of “non-representational theory.” Then, in 2010, Barnes gave a strong account of the various (largely ‘Continental’) thinkers by then well known to human geographers, before remarking that a recent special issue of Environment and Planning A on dialectics offered: “The prospect is new ways to write geography and philosophy, and possibly new ways to write the history and philosophy of geography too.” What’s more, another special issue, this time in Geoforum, had brought attention to American pragmatism, while Environment and Planning D were seeing revivalist discussions of the nineteenth-century criminologist, sociologist and philosopher Gabriel Tarde.

Richard Powell begins his first report with a lament at the “culture of celebrity” that has geographers focus only on their most celebrated forebears, and concludes: “[…] we still search for a philosophy to link our research and pedagogical practices with the worlds we study. And, after [Tim] Ingold [who made a similar argument with regard to anthropology], let us call this new philosophy of ours geography.” His 2014 report noted the recently increasing interest in the geographical thought of philosophers, particularly that of Immanuel Kant.

In 2015, he notes, as one of four current trends, the “revivification of histories of geographical concepts” and continues on to a discussion of the criticisms made by John Agnew on “histories of single words.” Powell argues that, contra Agnew, “[r]ecent work in history of geography has not taken on the history of single concepts in any comprehensive fashion” and, moreover, that, after Stuart Elden’s work on territory, “[m]uch more still remains to be done on other concepts” such as geo-, anthropos, environment, earth or landscape. However, he concluded that historians of geography must not “retreat back into antiquarianism” or fixate on “on the impressively detailed philology of a few spatial concepts.” “Rather,” he adds with a flourish “it is time to deliver on the promise of the (historical) geography of geographical and environmental thought.”

Finally, Innes Keighren’s two reports to date, though they introduce ideas such as “slow scholarship,” hew largely to the historical side once again, the second concluding: “Our task, simply put, is to keep adding our Post-it notes – to continue to remind ourselves of the good and the bad in who we are and in what we do, to see in our past both cause for regret and reason for hope.”

Thus ends the series, thus far. This is, of course, a brief and inadequate account of about a couple of hundred rather dense pages. This meta-review therefore, inevitably, says at least as much about my interests in the series as about the series itself. I should add, further, that I am in no way criticising the choices made in the above. My interest, rather, is to try to understand my own place in (or rather way into) the field.

Nevertheless, if my reading is not entirely arbitrary (and I think that it’s not), some general conclusions avail themselves: It has indeed largely been a series in the history of geography. In the 1980s, ‘philosophy’ implied either methodological considerations or social theory, probably Marxist; in the 1990s, the interest (whether sympathetic or otherwise) was mostly in ‘postmodernisms’ of one kind of another; this continued into the 2000s but with an ever greater preference for actor-network and non-representational theories. Finally, there have been some significant moments that directly counterpose my hypothesis and openly, even programmatically, reflect upon the relation between history and philosophy. However, I think that my expectations were generally confirmed.

But what does that actually mean? Well, it is simple enough to understand that many people write about the history of geography but few write about the philosophy of geography as such, except perhaps historically. Geographers practice all manners of philosophy in relation to specific issues or ideas but not often in relation to geography per se. Large parts of what the reports documented as the philosophy of geography (in the sense of philosophy practiced within geography) would generally be considered (including by the authors themselves) to belong to other fields, particularly cultural geography. Indeed, when the reports do expand beyond their conventionally historical subject matter, they have a tendency to become rather like surveys of human geography in general.

And what does that matter? Well, my purpose in this mini-project is entirely self-interested. In agreement with Barnes’ claim that history and philosophy must be taken as “both/and,” I am interested in thinking at this intersection. Indeed, this has become a central question within the larger and more important project that I should be working on right now (my thesis).

On one level it is a fairly straightforward (if somewhat large) project: a history of the concepts milieu and environment through the course of the long nineteenth-century. However, I am convinced that one cannot adequately address this history without recognising that environmental concepts have themselves played a part in producing the very historiographical approaches through which a history of environmental concepts can be attempted. In other words, the empirical history, to some extent, presupposes its own concepts.

Moreover, from the beginning I have been wanting to address this topic both historically and philosophically at the same time. I’ve thought a lot, then, about what kind of relationship this entails – how to take seriously the demands of each without eroding the specificities of either. I’ll have to save my thoughts on that front for another day. However, this is part of what I'll be writing about in the next few weeks and months.

There are a few complications that I should add in singling out H&PG from the other fields reviewed in Progress. The series on the ‘History of Geography’ began with the first issue in 1977. Indeed, the journal was already ‘Rethinking historical geography’ in 1983 and a standalone article on ‘Historical Geography: Theory and Progress’ was published in 1984. Reports on ‘Methodology and Philosophy’ were published in 1979 and 1982, while the indecisively titled “Cultural/humanistic geography” ran from 1981 to 1988 and ‘Cultural geography’ remains with us today.

Were I to make this a more serious analytical exercise, it would be interesting to compare these parallel but substantially overlapping fields. I don't think that I'll be doing that systematically; however, it'd be useful to further think my way into this field. Indeed, I am reassured that there is a niche somewhere in the middle there, where I was hoping one to be.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Enough of ‘new’ diplomacies: reclaiming the diplomatic pluriverse

I’m a little late to this particular party; however, in the middle of last year, a very interesting debate broke out between the blogs of Shaun Riordan, Katharina Hone and others on the subject of ‘new’ diplomacies. Does the proliferation of new ‘kinds’ of (or prefixes for) diplomacy serve an intellectual, analytical purpose or is it just another case of academics hankering after scholarly turf?

As Katharina writes:
“Indeed, those practices we describe as diplomacy are expanding. We are seeing discussions on digital diplomacy, climate diplomacy, health diplomacy, business diplomacy, education diplomacy, and sport diplomacy to name a few. Should we, as scholars and practitioners of diplomacy, be concerned? The worry seems all too real. If everything is diplomacy, then nothing is. An ever-expanding concept eventually becomes meaningless. Does this charge apply to these new diplomacies?”
To be sure, from ‘-isms,’ ‘turns’ and (lately) ‘-cenes’ to ‘x diplomacies,’ the urge to name and rename is a strong one. I myself have named this urge ‘entrepreneurial neologism’ (which is, of course, an example of itself).

But, as regards diplomacy, is this just another semantic snowball fight masquerading as thought or does it serve a purpose? Well, to be honest, I think this is a case of a badly formulated question. We have the starting point all wrong.

If what we are really talking about is the conditions under which different kinds of practice can be legitimately counted as ‘diplomacy’ then we are dealing not at all with an idle academic question but, rather, with an intensely – indeed, existentially – political one.

As Sam Okoth Opondo and others have argued, through the course of what is known, euphemistically, as ‘the expansion of international society’ (i.e. European colonialism), the non-white and non-Western were precluded from being agents of diplomacy until such time as they “were converted into something recognizable, yet inferior to the European standard” [1]. Modes of inter-collective negotiation and conflict resolution that did not conform to the received standard not only could not be accepted as legitimate but could scarcely be accepted as existing. By definition, diplomacy was an institution of the civilised; therefore…

If there is a gap – nay, a gaping abyss – in the research of diplomacy today, it does not concern the role of sports or businesspeople (although these are legitimate and necessary courses of study [2]). Rather, it concerns the historical marginalisation and suppression of forms of diplomatic practice undertaken by and between collectives not recognised as legitimate (i.e. state) actors by colonial and imperial powers.

Practices like the ‘wampum diplomacy’ of the Iroquois have received some coverage in anthropological and, to a lesser extent, diplomatic literatures [3]. However, such studies are few and far between. Within the academy at least, the decolonisation of diplomacy has barely begun.

So, in short: Questioning the varieties of diplomacy is not just an idle intellectual debate. It is a matter of sovereignty and existential recognition. In other words, we are talking about matters of diplomatic ontology – what kinds of beings can be recognised as legitimate parties to diplomatic engagement?

This is an historical matter; however, it is also utterly contemporary. When representatives of the First Nations existing within the territory of Canada meet with state representatives, is this an ‘internal’ negotiation between the government and an interest group like any other? Or, is it a meeting between occupying and occupied polities?

It seems to me that this is the point from which to begin questioning diplomatic plurality, rather than from formalistic schemas or issues of professional propriety. That said, starting from this point does not preclude any of the questions that Shaun, Katharina and others have been asking. It simply makes clear what is at stake.

In anthropology and elsewhere, it has become popular to contrast the ‘universe’ with the ‘pluriverse’ – the latter term recognising that there are indefinitely many more ways of existing in the world, indeed of conceiving and making worlds, than has been admitted by the imperial proclivities of modernist Eurocentrism [4].

The problem with the ‘new’ diplomacies debate is twofold. First, it implies that issues of diplomatic variety are somehow recent, rather than the state-centric understanding of diplomacy itself being historically produced [5]. Second, and as a consequence, this debate thinks too small – fiddling while Rome burns the world.

We must accept nothing less than the reclamation of the diplomatic pluriverse.

[1] Opondo, Sam Okoth. "Decolonizing diplomacy: reflections on African estrangement and exclusion." In Sustainable Diplomacies (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2010): p.110.
[2] E.g. Marsden, Magnus. Trading worlds: Afghan merchants across modern frontiers (Hurst and Company, 2016).
[3] E.g. Andersen, Morten Skumsrud, and Iver B. Neumann. "Practices as models: A methodology with an illustration concerning wampum diplomacy." Millennium 40, no. 3 (2012): pp.457-481. See also: Neumann, Iver B. "Euro-centric diplomacy: Challenging but manageable." European Journal of International Relations 18, no. 2 (2012): 299-321.
[4] Blaser, Mario. "Ontological Conflicts and the Stories of Peoples in Spite of Europe: Toward a Conversation on Political Ontology." Current Anthropology 54, no. 5 (2013): pp.547-568.
[5] Although see the comment and response by Barbara and Katharina. See also: McConnell, Fiona, Terri Moreau, and Jason Dittmer. "Mimicking state diplomacy: The legitimizing strategies of unofficial diplomacies." Geoforum 43, no. 4 (2012): 804-814. Cornago, Noé. Plural diplomacies: Normative predicaments and functional imperatives (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013).

Sunday 10 December 2017

Environment, ontology and PhD rites of passage

The PhD programme is a remarkably unstandardised institution. It varies wildly in its duration and parameters between countries, universities and disciplines. In the UK, scholarships are usually for 3 years and submissions are expected within 4 (when studying full-time). In many places, there is an 'upgrade' process where the candidate moves from the initial MPhil registration to the full PhD once they can demonstrate that they have what it takes to meet the full standards.

At my institution (Aberystwyth University, International Politics), we have no 'upgrade' as such (although there are endless 'monitoring' forms to be filled in each semester). As a less formalised but nevertheless highly invested rite of passage, we have instead what we call the 'IPRS' (the International Politics Research Seminar). This is a weekly event usually hosting guest speakers from outside the university; however, around this time of year, PhD candidates in their third years present their work to the department.

And so, this past Thursday was my turn.

I basically attempted to present the entirety of my (as yet only partially written) thesis, section by section.

This was building on my other (shorter) presentations of previous years.

I won't try to summarise the argument here (not least because it is a work in progress). However, it starts with Isaac Newton's use of the word 'medium' and the association of this with the idea of a cosmic aether or fluid underpinning physical forces of various kinds.

The 'medium' then becomes the French 'milieu' – a key term in both eighteenth and nineteenth century science (though for very different reasons). However, before getting to the English 'environment,' the thesis also takes a long look at the concept of climate as found, for example, in the works of Alexander von Humboldt.

Well-known in certain scientific circles from the 1860s, the English 'environment' had been popularised, at least among literary and technocratic elites, by the start of the twentieth century.

The objective of the thesis is, then, to discern and distinguish the complex (and often forgotten) nuances of these many layers in their specificity, thus more precisely informing (and perhaps troubling) contemporary articulations and interpretations.

What I'm still figuring out is how this history speaks to what I called (in the second slide, above) 'the problems of the present.' Environment circa 1910 is not, of course, precisely the same concept as that which we know from the 1960s onwards. It is not invested with the same moral force, nor does it entail the same conception of human agency.

However, it is, I think, precisely in the reversal of the distribution of agencies found with this concept at this time – 'environment' circa 1870 being something that subordinates and, circa 1970, something that is subordinated – that is really the key thing.

This, ultimately, is what I am trying to develop in terms of 'historical ontology' – an understanding of how terrestrial relations of possibility are conceptually articulated and, moreover, how conceptions that seem rather diverse when taken in terms of 'domains' or 'fields' can be made to speak to one another (or, rather, to speak to one another again).

I'm going to rework variations on this presentation over the coming months – in Oxford in February, New Orleans in March and probably several more times through the coming year (intending to submit the thesis by the summer).

A work in progress, then, though, I hope, an interesting one even at this stage.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

“The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A couple of months ago, I presented a paper at the EISA conference in Barcelona titled “The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas. A somewhat revised version has just been published at the wonderful The Disorder of Things.
‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority. 
Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.
The article basically constitutes my attempt to think through how such a question must be approached with regard to my current research. It is, then, looking a little bit beyond my thesis project, although it certainly feeds back into and problematises various aspects of what I'm currently writing.

It also puts me a little way outside my comfort zone, which makes me apprehensive but, nevertheless, I am glad to have written it.

Particular thanks to Kerem Nisancioglu for his able editorship.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

AAG 2018: The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics

To date, I've never been to any of the big North American academic conferences (in fact, to date, I've never been to the Americas). However, I'll be breaking that three-decade streak in April by attending the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

The abstract that I've submitted is essentially a summary of my PhD thesis, which, by that time, should be somewhere nearing completion. I'm looking forward to presenting it:
The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics
By around 1910, 'environment' (and its cognates) had become a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation. How did this come to be the case? How was this expression shifted and translated through different registers, regimes, disciplines and languages? In other words, how did we come to live in an 'environmental' world – and what difference does it make that (or if) we do? These are questions that are fundamental to the identity and origins of disciplinary geography; however, they also go well beyond it. This paper gives a short history of the emergence of 'environment' up to its initial moment of expansion and popularisation at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Beginning from the physics of Isaac Newton, it runs through the biology of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the sociology of Auguste Comte, Harriet Martineau, Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde and Herbert Spencer, the novels of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola and Thomas Carlyle, the climatology and cosmography of Alexander von Humboldt, the ecology of Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, and the euthenics of Ellen Swallow Richards to the geopolitics of Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder and Ellen Churchill Semple. Of course, 'environment' circa 1910 is not yet the concept of care and conservation found from the 1960s onwards. However, by following these early moments of creation and propagation, this history facilitates a more complex understanding of twentieth- and twenty-first-century environmental thought and problems. Fundamental to the history of geography, then, but also to its present. Is environment an adequate concept for the problems of the Anthropocene? What is the relationship of environment to the Earth system? Is there future in environment – and, if so, how is it to be made?

Review of "Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken"

In 1967, Clarence Glacken published Traces on the Rhodian Shore – an encyclopaedic masterpiece in the history of geographical ideas describing, as per the book’s subtitle, Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Despite writing many more pages prior to his death in 1989 at the age of 80, most of these, tragically, were lost, destroyed or simply unpublished – until now.
My review of "Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken" has just come out at the journal Local Environment. This link apparently gives subscription-free access to the first fifty clicks (the standard link is here; if anyone can't access it and wishes to, feel free to get in touch).

It's a fairly short and sweet affair. I basically summarise the text and discuss its circumstances, weaknesses and (not inconsiderable) strengths. The one conceptual point I draw out of it in particular is from p.183, where Glacken writes:
Environmental determinism in fact has been so strong that only with the greatest difficulty have systematic studies of man’s role in changing the physical environment been made.
This connection between environmental determinism in the sense of that which imposes upon and moulds the environed and environment in the post-1960s sense of something to be concerned for is, for me, crucial.

Borrowing a phrase from Bruno Latour, I call it an example of the redistribution of agencies – something that I am trying to further develop in my thesis work.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Regarding 'post-truth': causality, complacency and complicity

There's an interesting set of essays recently uploaded at Discover Society on the so-called 'post-truth' phenomenon, including a piece by Greg Hollin, which mentions debates within Science and Technology Studies on this topic, starting with Bruno Latour's well-known 2004 essay.
It always struck me, and I know many others, that one of the most striking aspects of Bruno Latour’s famous article, ‘Why has critique run out of stream’ (2004) was a peculiar sort of self-aggrandizement. It is not entirely clear to my mind whether Latour thought that Science and Technology Studies (STS) caused inaction over global warming or 9/11 conspiracy theories, but the use of phrases like ‘our weapons’ (p.230) and ‘our critical arsenal’ (p.230) certainly seem to permit such a reading. 
He goes on to mention recent commentaries by Sergio Sismondo, Harry Collins and others.

A little while ago, I wrote a short piece on the same topic (Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics) that also drew on Latour's 2004 essay. To reiterate a little more briefly what I wrote then, I think we have to distinguish causality, complacency and complicity.

Did academics (STS scholars or otherwise) cause this new wave of propaganda and ‘post-truth’ (as in it wouldn’t have happened without their works)? Of course not, that’s ridiculous and shouldn’t be given a second thought. Have many academics been massively complacent as regards the relation of their own work to basic standards and practices of truthfulness as a public good (for want of a better phrase) that cannot be taken for granted? Yes, of this I have no doubt. Does this make such academics complicit in these events? Possibly. I think there’s a case to be made there. Most certainly, it changes the priorities for our thinking (and teaching) in a way that few seem prepared to recognise, much less confront.

I took Latour’s 2004 article to be pointing out the complacency, not the causality, although I agree that he’s not very clear on that point. It's more of a provocation than a diagnosis as such.

And so, if there is complicity arising not out of causality but rather complacency, what does that mean? I think it means, first of all, that there is no use attempting to attribute blame, as some have done. Certainly, this latest episode has been seized on by various unreconstructed, so-called 'rationalist' buffoons and bullies as evidence of the need to purge the academy of the epistemologically unclean. Excuse me while I stifle a rhetorical yawn. Such self-important exhortations are a lot of hot air that we can do without.

However, if there is such a state of complicity then this also means that there is a serious obligation to think about how we can do better – and at quite a fundamental level. Such a situation brings into question not only epistemology but also wide-ranging issues of politics and pedagogy. It challenges and changes far more than these debates, so far, have been willing to admit.

With all due respect to them, and as valuable as their contributions may continue to be, I therefore doubt whether this is a question best answered by the likes of Bruno Latour and Harry Collins. It is a question that thinkers of my generation (post-grad or 'early career') need to take on, without any guide ropes or sherpas.

It is, after all, the world that we have inherited.

Monday 4 September 2017

Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Summaries and reflections

As per previous posts, last week I attended the RGS-IBG annual conference and organised a session at on Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought.’ It was a great session and I’m very grateful to everyone who came along, particularly to the three excellent panellists, David Livingstone, Georgina Endfield and Innes Keighren.

I posted my introductory comments on here previously. However, perhaps the best introduction to Glacken might be found in this interview with Allan Pred from 1980, uploaded by the late Anne Buttimer.

It shows Glacken as a soft-spoken and thoughtful man, as befits his reputation according to everyone who knew him.

Despite scribbling away at top speed, I by no means recorded all the points made during the very interesting presentations and ensuing discussion. However, I thought it might be interesting to collate some of the major ideas and issues encountered.

Undoubtedly the most immediately striking thing about Glacken’s book is its sheer size and density. Not only is it over 700 pages long, it packs an extraordinary quantity of information onto every page. All three panellists confessed to, in one way or another, reading the book more as an encyclopaedia or point of reference than something that could be gainfully absorbed as a whole.

Such a book, it was agreed, is rarely written these days. Indeed, as David pointed out, the anthropologist Jacob Gruber’s review of the book from 1968 already noted that “the scholarly tradition within which such a book can be written is disappearing.” It is perhaps not true that Very Large Books are no longer produced in this kind of area – take, for example, Maria Rosa Antognazza’s intellectual biography of Leibniz, James Turner’s history of philology, or Geoffrey Parker’s account of climate and crisis in the seventeenth century (to name but three). Nevertheless, the conditions under which Glacken’s tome was produced – taking a decade to research and write, for the most part without tenure – are certainly difficult to reconcile with our ‘output’-oriented present.

The status of Traces within geography is also an interesting point to consider. Few undergraduate programmes include the history of geography in much more than a rudimentary manner. Innes made use of his bibliographical skills to tell us that there are around 50 copies of the book at 38 UK academic libraries – not many considering its apparently canonical status. It is often cited by geographers as a classic text but just how often is it seriously made use of? This also might not be such a new issue. While Traces was widely reviewed in the years following its publication, it was neglected by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers until Yi-Fu Tuan’s review in 1977.

There are various aspects of the book that might be faulted by specialists. For example, while possessing considerable linguistic skills, Glacken’s use of translations, particularly of ancient texts, sometimes led to errors of interpretation. However, I think it was generally agreed that such criticisms, while of course legitimate, are also a little bit beside the point.

Traces provides a profound resource for those wishing to engage with the history of geographical (and not only geographical) ideas. As Georgina put it, the book takes us “into the realm of the environmental imagination.” Of course, we cannot in any way straightforwardly take, say, Plato to speak for his time and place. However familiar such sources may seem, there are always problems of anachronism and partiality. Nevertheless, as Glacken himself put it (p.503), “their questions suggest our questions.”

As I mentioned in my introduction, the style of historiography that Traces embodies has been out of fashion for around as long as the book has been with us. When Quentin Skinner wrote his famous essay Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas between 1966 and 1967, he apparently had trouble getting it published (it appeared in print in 1969). One of the pillars of orthodoxy against which he took aim was precisely the longitudinal style of Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, which (I would argue) Glacken was very much working within.

Today, it is the epistemological tradition of Foucault and the contextualist tradition of Skinner that are rather more conventional. We are generally concerned with radical ruptures rather than with recurrence and repetition – indeed, the very notion of continuity tends to be dismissed as conservative.

But this itself might be taken as somewhat outdated thinking. Given all the earnest pronouncements concerning ‘the Anthropocene’ in recent years, are we not by now accustomed to the idea that our notions of temporality are being scrambled?

The opposition of the longue durée to histoire événementielle, in the terms of the Annales School, presupposed that structures of ‘nature’ changed at only a glacially incremental pace compared to the ever-fluctuating realm of human activity and consciousness. Now that we understand the ground beneath our feet (and the air around our heads) to be far from stable, durable or enduring, are we not also brought to question the ‘revolutionary’ quality of our ideas? If one is moving rather faster, do we not find the other to be moving rather slower than we would like? Issues of inheritance and recurrence therefore become important once again.

Much more was said than this and there remains much more to be said on these issues. However, just a few more things should be added by way of conclusion (now speaking only for myself).

Books such as these are rarely written – and rarely read – today. The political economy of academia (and, of course, not only academia), if it does not exactly prohibit, certainly dissuades the sort of creative ambition found in this text. It promotes ambitions of rather sadder and more self-regarding sorts.

This book was, as its subtitle openly declared, a history of ‘Western Thought.’ There are various ways in which this partitioning might be challenged today. First, it does not do enough to account for the ways in which Euro-Americans absorbed, acquired and (often violently) appropriated knowledge (and not only knowledge) from around the world. It tells us a lot about the ‘what’ and not a lot about the ‘how.’ Moreover, while Traces never passes judgement on any tradition and never assumes the superiority of its own, nor does it do much to unsettle such hierarchies. It is quite comfortable being where it is and doing what it does (in a way that makes me, personally, quite uncomfortable).

However, these are, I think, by and large forgivable limitations for a book that undoubtedly pushed those limitations it did challenge to quite a remarkable degree. Nevertheless, it does bring to my mind a question.

As I noted in my previous post, the conference theme of ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges’ has been criticised for placing rather ephemerally conceived ‘knowledges’ ahead of “structures, institutions and praxis” that pertain to the continuation of colonial processes of exploitation and exclusion. It is not enough, therefore, to speak only in terms of knowledges in order to address what decolonisation properly entails.

The question that is brought to my mind concerns to what extent there is cause for solidarity, and indeed sympathy, to be found here.

If a book such as Traces stands as an artefact of conditions that few can, today, expect to inhabit, this suggests to me that the very ambition, the very ‘will to connect’ diverse ideas and knowledges over space and time, is being asphyxiated by those conditions that we do find to prevail. The relentless drive to instrumentality and short-termism is of a kind with that which marginalises and demeans those whose traditions are not those of ‘Western Thought.’

I hasten to add that I am in no way suggesting that the struggles of decolonisation should be equated with those of white academic historians – most certainly not. The relative degrees of exploitation and exclusion are in no way equivalent. And yet they are not altogether unconnected.

If we wish to write books such as these today – whatever the shortcomings of the genre to date – such a creative adventure presupposes freedoms that few, if any, of us may enjoy.

This is a thin gruel as regards nourishing the political dynamics of the history of geography – dynamics that I, for one, found rather lacking in the conference last week. However, I conclude with this thought because the thing that I really expected to take away from this session was a conviction that the ‘Western’ history of ideas had to be broken down at its borders and reconstituted. I still, more or less, think that to be the case.

However, it seems to me that this cannot really occur in the absence of a more widespread recognition that the continuation of a tradition of ambitious historiography cannot be taken for granted. If there is no question of historians after the fashion of Glacken being in ‘the same boat’ as those scholars who seek to create scope for the needs and experiences of peoples beyond, beside and in spite of ‘the West’ then these projects are, at least, subject to many of the same storm systems.

I do not know what conclusion to draw from that conclusion. However, it has given me food for thought in the coming weeks and months.

Saturday 2 September 2017

A temple to colonialism: talking (or not talking) decolonisation at the RGS

Sitting in the Ondaatje Lecture Theatre at the Royal Geographical Society in London, let your eyes gaze upwards from the stage to the corners of the room and you will see the names of famous explorers written in large gold letters around the wood-panelled walls. Wandering through the building, everywhere are slowly fading portraits of presumably very important men. Upstairs, one also finds giant antique globes over which an observer can pore, holding the whole world before them.

The RGS was, and remains, a veritable temple to colonialism.

An interesting venue, therefore, for this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference with the theme of ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges’ – a venue, you might think, that would itself serve to provoke thought regarding the roots of geography and its political present. However, as it turns out, such connections were kept, for the most part, rather quiet.

It should be added that, of course, a conference theme of this kind is in no way binding upon its participants. This is the major professional conference of the UK academic calendar for human geographers. Last year, the theme was ‘Nexus thinking,’ the year before that, ‘the Anthropocene.’ Often, it is enough to just get one of the theme’s keywords into your session title. Indeed, the session that I arranged was conceived some time before I knew what the conference theme was.

However, the lack of engagement with this year’s theme across most of the conference was, to me, quite remarkable.

The theme had been the subject of some discussion before the event. A few weeks ago, James Esson, Patricia Noxolo, Richard Baxter, Patricia Daley and Margaret Byron published a short intervention in the journal Area titled ‘The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?’ By way of introduction, they write:
According to the Chair’s abstract for the conference, the event will form part of an agenda to
query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalize and discount places, people and knowledges across the world.
In this paper, we aim to explain why this pursuit of critical consciousness via a decolonial approach could do more harm than good, in a discipline that may not be ready to, or even capable of, responding to the challenge of decolonisation.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing as they articulate the issues far better than I am able to and, having spent the past few days at this conference, I think they were spot on.

I should also add that on Tuesday, just before the start of the conference, the Race, Culture and Equality Working Group (including authors of the above) organised an event nearby on ‘Decolonising Teaching and Research in Geography.’ Unfortunately, I only made it there for the last couple of hours in the afternoon. However, this all informed my thinking over the rest of the week.

There was, in the programme and in the general conversation, a certain amount of outright chauvinistic hostility to the very notion of decolonisation – albeit with little apparent understanding of what this term actually involves. On the other hand, there was also a much larger amount of extremely incisive and insightful work presented from scholars from various fields and various parts of the world on issues of race and coloniality.

However, my abiding impression of the relation of the theme to the conference as a whole (of course formed by my own choices regarding the sessions that I attended – largely historical geography and political ecology) was an overwhelming indifference and obliviousness. Numerous papers picked up on the general topic of colonialism as regards subject matter but very few addressed the connections that might be found between these apparently distant worlds (temporally or spatially) and the traditions and institutions within which attendees were themselves living and working.

Now, I hasten to add that I do not mean to detract in any way from the integrity and creativity of the many, often junior, researchers showcasing their wares. I was consistently impressed, and often a little intimidated, with the breadth, depth and variety of their work.

However, I have no doubt that the very format of an academic conference discourages diversity of every kind. When you have 12 minutes to summarise often extremely complex courses of research, to make them accessible to a general audience, and to do so while, quite often, stood in front of the very people who hold your current and future career in their hands – none of this is conducive to anything except homogeneity and risk averseness.

In my own faltering, fumbling way I attempted to prompt and provoke as best I could with regards to the neglect of decolonisation even where it was immediately and directly relevant to the subject matter at hand. However, I was also frustrated at my own inability to do so effectively or even cogently – clearly this is something that I myself need to work on.

This was my fourth RGS-IBG conference. However, I still come to it somewhat from the outside – not being, or not being yet, a geographer in any formal sense. It continues to surprise me just how much politics in geography can be treated as a specialism. Political geography is something that one ‘does’ and if that is not your thing then politics becomes, seemingly, something of an optional extra. There is, of course, a general kind of undisclosed liberal-academic consensus underlying codes of conduct and comportment but, to my mind, also a rather more pervasive conservatism that betrays profound complacency as regards the relation of human geography to colonialisms past and present.

As one gentleman (whose name I unfortunately do not know) at the Q&A of the opening plenary session, in the aforementioned Ondaatje Theatre, pointed out most eloquently, we were sat there in London talking about colonisation as if it were some distant phenomenon, while people whose lives are the direct products of British colonial history were outside preparing our drinks.

That opening plenary in many ways summed up the whole conference, for me at least. It brought together several Indigenous scholars from North American First Nations, each of whom presented extraordinary papers. This was exactly the kind of thing that made me glad that I attended. Nevertheless, it also highlighted the complete inadequacy of approaching decolonisation only in terms of ‘knowledges.’ Anyone can ‘know’ what has been made transferrable. And what has been made transferrable can therefore be assimilated without any alteration of the principles of bodily exclusion that continue to striate academia (as elsewhere).

As Esson et al. put it:
We argue that the current emphasis on decolonising geographical knowledges rather than structures, institutions and praxis, and the disingenuous phrase ‘opening geography out to the world’ (as if geographers, and indeed the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), had never been involved in the exploration, colonisation and continuing exploitation of the world and its resources) dilutes decolonisation and decoloniality’s transformative potential, while concealing oppressive structures in the discipline and recentring non-Indigenous, white and otherwise privileged groups in the global architecture of knowledge production.
I’m not sure that the conference was, ultimately, harmful to this agenda (although I am in no position to make an informed judgement on that score). Nevertheless, it most certainly highlighted the very long way that geography has to go even to really recognise decolonisation as an issue that concerns it on anything but the most superficial level of an intellectual trend or specialist research agenda.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

"Forget ‘the environment’"—problems of geosemantics and ecopoetics

George Monbiot has a typically provocative new article on The Guardian today:
If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.
His point is that the words we use have a great deal of power in terms of carving up the world and affecting how we react to things. See 'migrant' versus 'immigrant' or, as per Monbiot, 'climate change' versus 'climate breakdown.'

It is a highly relevant dispatch for me, as my PhD thesis basically investigates how we all came to be so convinced that we live in an 'environment.' In other words, how did this term come to be part of our spatial, political, poetic and worldly common sense?

Well, strictly speaking, my thesis covers the emergence of 'environment' and its cognates, in particular the French 'milieu,' up to the start of the twentieth-century. (A thesis is unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, a finite thing.)

'The environment' came to be during the 1960s. I am not yet, therefore, able to give a detailed account of how that happened. However, the broad strokes are simple enough.

In a book called The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth in 1970, the ornithologist, conservationist and co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Edward Max Nicholson wrote that a "revolution in human affairs" was then taking place. The "obvious descriptive label" for this, he continued, "once so infrequent and now becoming so universal [is] 'environmental'" (p.5).

Until around that time, 'environment' was a rather dry, technical term. The word itself was coined a few times, probably independently. However, the person who made it catch on was Herbert Spencer, the social evolutionist and purveyor of the phrase "survival of the fittest."

In short, it was through evolutionary theory that 'environment' became an item of intellectual common sense. Darwin in fact didn't use the term until late in his career and was quite sceptical about it for a number of reasons. However, by the 1920s, the word was everywhere in its scientific (or seeming-to-be-scientific) sense.

It is unsurprising, then, that 'the environment,' while perhaps exciting to those preparing to be 'masters of the Earth' in the 1970s, has proved to be quite the ecopoetic sedative in the long term.

While, of course, there is much more to the world than words, Monbiot's call for creativity is therefore welcome:
Rather than arrogating naming rights to themselves, professional ecologists should recruit poets and cognitive linguists and amateur nature lovers to help them find the words for what they cherish. […]
If we called protected areas “places of natural wonder”, we would not only speak to people’s love of nature, but also establish an aspiration that conveys what they ought to be. Let’s stop using the word environment, and use terms such as “living planet” and “natural world” instead, as they allow us to form a picture of what we are describing.
I'm not convinced that 'natural world' is any less anodyne and affectless than 'environment,' although, off the top of my head, I have no bright ideas as regards alternatives.

However, one point that might be interesting comes from something I've just been researching in the past few weeks: the origins of the Italian and Spanish ambiente (the equivalent of environment in those languages – in Portuguese, it's meio ambiente).

One of the earliest uses of the adjective 'ambient' outside of Latin is found in the 1587 poem El Monserrate, by the Spanish poet Cristóbal de Virués:
Gozo divino, celestial aviso,
Lleno de sacra luz, claro desvelo,
Influye el rico clima eternamente
Del fértil y alto monte al ayre ambiente.
Translated (very literally) as:
Divine joy, heavenly warning,
Full of sacred light, clear sleeplessness,
Influence the rich climate eternally
From the fertile and high mountain to the ambient air. 
The development of 'ambient' and 'ambience,' it seems, is a largely poetic history. For example, in John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667):
How first began this Heav’n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adorn’d
Innumerable, and this which yields or fills
All Space, the ambient Air wide interfus’d
Embracing round this florid Earth, […]
Quite by contrast, the French 'milieu' that became the English 'environment' came originally as a translation of Isaac Newton's use of the word 'Medium,' then adopted in mechanistic nineteenth century biology before being taken up, in turn, by the rather nasty biosociology of Spencer.

So, long story short, the ambient has always had poetic qualities that the 'medium' and the 'environment' have not.

However, perhaps our problem is not just our combinations of words or their translations but the very worldviews or cosmologies that these vocabularies have been created to express?

As Keavy Martin writes in her book Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, the Inuktitut word sila most commonly "refers to the environment, such as in the phrases silami qanuippa? (how’s the weather) or silaup asijjipallianinga (climate change)" but also "refers to wisdom, or cleverness, as in silatujuq (he/she/it is intelligent, sensible, or wise)."

Obviously, 'environment' is the go-to phrase for rendering anything like this into English. However, without her explanation, almost everything would be lost in translation.

And so, what kind of connection might we find here? What more might we need to do in order to transform the vocabularies with which we express – and not only express, feel – the worlds around us?

I have no great suggestions but we must stop complacently mouthing the same old stale slogans of yesteryear – of that I have no doubt.