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).