Professor Zapp discovers Cultural Geography!!!

In a recent entry on his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish (allegedly the model for Professor Zapp in David Lodge’s comic novels of academe) announces the discovery of cultural geography with the snazzy new label – Geohumanities ( Fish has recently stumbled across an exciting new collection with the title Geohumanities – an exciting collection twinned with a simultaneous release called Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds (both 2011, Routledge). Both are the result of a deliberate strategy by the Association of American Geographers to think about the humanities in geography and vice versa. They are wonderful books.  Fish’s entry is titled “The Triumph of the Humanities” and the gist of its argument is that if such an arcane descriptive discipline like geography can embrace the humanities then the humanities must have triumphed. Disciplines like geography were apparently resistant to the humanities for much of their history but are now fully convinced. Geohumanities is, according to Fish

the elaboration, by methods derived from the humanities, of “the stratified record upon which we set our feet” (the title of another essay and a quote from Thomas Mann). It is the realization, in a style of analysis, of the “spatial turn,” a “critical shift that divested geography of its largely passive role as history’s ‘stage’ and brought to the fore intersections between the humanities and the earth sciences” (Peta Mitchell in “GeoHumanities”).

It is hard to know how to read such an entry. Geography has always been part of the humanities (Eratosphenes, Strabo etc.). Cultural Geography in the form it appears in Geohumanities is relatively new but not that new – we have been doing this kind of thing for at least forty years. I doubt the book is “officially” announcing a field of study that has several journals, research groups, global reach and a central role in the wider discipline of geography as Fish’s article suggests. So I am tempted to say “about time” and treat this with mild grumpiness. On the other hand it is good to get recognition and for things like this to appear with NYT approval. Maybe I should invite him to write an article for cultural geographies (soon to be 20 years old).

Great Books by Geographers and Others

I recently read an interesting list of books on Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies blog. It was a kind of greatest hits list in which he “was thinking today about books by geographers, written in the last thirty years or so, that would stand as real testaments to what the discipline is about or what it can do.”


I thought I would give it a go too without repeating any of his.

David Matless Landscape and Englishness (Reaktion, 1998)

Don Mitchell The Lie of the Land (Minnesota, 1996)

Gillian Rose Feminism and Geography (Polity, 1993)

Yi-Fu Tuan Space and Place (Minnesota, 1997)

Denis Cosgrove Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Croom Helm, 1984)

David Harvey Spaces of Hope (California, 2000)

William Cronon Nature’s Metropolis (Norton, 1991)

Sarah Whatmore Hybrid Geographies (Sage, 2002)

Edward Soja Postmodern Geographies (Verso, 1988)

David Sibley Geographies of Exclusion (Routledge, 1995)

And then I thought of the academic monographs that I go back to again and again that have most influenced my own writing.

David Sibley Geographies of Exclusion (Routledge, 1995)

Yi-Fu Tuan Space and Place (Minnesota, 1997)

Ian Hacking Historical Ontology (Harvard, 2002)

Iris Marion Young Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, 1990)

Manuel DeLanda A New Philosophy of Society (Continuum, 2006)

Pierre Bourdieu The Logic of Practice (Stanford, 1990)

Michel de Certeau Outline of a Theory of Practice (California, 1984)

Mary Douglas Purity and Danger (Preager, 1966)

Erving Goffman the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Edinburgh, 1956)

Raymond Williams The Country and the City (Hogarth, 1985)

Michel Foucault History of Sexuality (Penguin, 1984)

Not sure what that tells you and I am sure I have missed some.


Elites are cosmopolitan, people are local?

“the rich have mobility and the poor have locality…the rich are global and the poor are local”(Terry Eagleton, After Theory 2003, p22)

elites are cosmopolitan, people are local” (Manuel Castells, the Network Society, 2000, p. 446)

These two (remarkably similar) quotes make some sense when you first encounter them. Castells is arguing that some people are able to travel more or less at will (along with capital and information) and that the poor resist this world of flows through embedding themselves in place. That place is all they have. The poor can practice what David Harvey calls “militant particularism”.

But on another level this insistence bothers me. I presume Eagleton and Castells are well travelled. Even if they only travel as much as I do – they are well travelled. They inhabit the skin of the cosmopolitan elite in some sense. I do this too. When I do it I encounter (for instance) taxi drivers from Ethiopia and Somalia (the last three times I have travelled to the US I have been taken to Heathrow by a Somalian and picked up in the US by someone from Ethiopia). When I am in my hotel room I cannot help but notice that the people cleaning the room for me are invariable eastern European or/and from South East Asia. They appear to speak multiple languages and have relatives in London. The poor/people seem to be pretty mobile and far more cosmopolitan than us – the kinetic elite. The English speaking academics and business people who flit around the world rarely speak the number of languages spoken by their supposedly immobile and non-cosmopolitan underlings who drive them places and clean their rooms. They may do more miles but in many ways they travel less. It is the different ways in which they move that need to be attended to.

Desire Lines/Geography/Poetry

I have been writing a series of poems called “Desire Lines”. A Desire Line (or Desire Path) is the name given to the makes made upon the landscape by people (or animals) as they make their way from A to B. Often then mark short cuts unplanned by planners. They are a material symbol of the sycretic desires of moving animals.

It has recently come to my attention that the metaphor of desire lines has been used to describe the inter-disciplinary impulse that allows scholars brought up in one field to venture into another. The following is a passage from Marjorie Garber’s wonderful book Academic Instincts (Garber, 2001, 53-54)

There’s a nice term that architectural planners use to describe the footpaths worn in the turf from one building or paved pathway to another…. The planners call them “desire lines”. Often, when they are well worn, these ‘lines’ in the grass will themselves be paved over, transforming them from renegade or “scofflaw” passages into new, officially sanctioned routes. In this fashion members of the public, the users of buildings and structures, reconstitute the space that links and separates institutions and authorized channels. “Desire lines” are a feature of many public walking spaces, but they are especially noticeable on collage campuses.It is interesting to recall that the medieval divisions of knowledge, the trivium and quadrivium, take their names from the Latin terms for the place where three, and then four, roads meet.

Garber’s point in this essay is to explore what she calls “discipline envy” – and the possibility of reimagining the boundaries of disciplines in order to return to a moment like that depicted in Raphael’s The School of Athens in which geographers engage with philosophers, mathematicians with poets and painters with architects – a “transcendent, multitemporal, interdisciplinary moment in which everything in intellectual life is in the process of being discussed, negotiated, and remade – and where the artist is present to watch and to participate” (p95)

The School of Athens (Raphael)

I am not sure if I am suffering from “discipline envy” –geography is fine by me – but I am embarking on a journey – a desire line – that connects geography to creative writing. I am not sure enough people have walked this to actually leave a trace – but I am not the first.

Some time around 1947 the poet Charles Olson met the geographer Carl Sauer. They both became icons of their respective practices. It is a meeting that seems odd. Carl Sauer, to most contemporary geographers, is the epitome of anti-modern, anti-theoretical geography – a kind of geography that is happy to simply walk, look and map. Charles Olson, on the other hand, is the theoretical poet par excellence. His work sought to break up syntax and metre to such an extent that some have called his work post-modern. No one ever called Sauer that! They, are in other words, mirror images of each other. And yet Olson allegedly instructed all his Black Mountain poetry colleagues to read Sauer from start to finish.

Olson has been curiously absent from hours and days of discussion of poetry in the Faber Academy, in Banff for a week, in discussions with my supervisor, Jo Shapcott. This is not everyone’s experience. In The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions, Michael Donaghy reflects on his exposure of Olson at the University of Chicago. He describes being demoralized as he was force fed the Black Mountain poets while attending seminars with Derrida and de Man. “Charles Olson, that virtuoso of the typewriter, said that verse in rhyme, meter and stanzas was ‘verse which print bred”, says Donaghy, in one interview before continuing, “Olson was a fool.” Elsewhere he referred to the Black Mountain poets as a “case for deprogramming” and calls Olson “ a cult leader with all of Pound’s crankiness and none of his talent.”  I once brought up Olson’s name over a drink with the poet Hugo Williams only to see a flicker of loathing pass over Hugo’s face only to be matched by the mention of the British version of Olson, Jeremy Prynne.

In short, Olson is for academics and those who are interested in the world of “theory” – more or less precisely the same people who turned away from Sauer’s descriptive form of cultural geography in the late 1980s.

Strange desire lines indeed.