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.