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257-
History and philosophy of geography:
real wars, theory wars
Neil Smith
Department of Geography, Rutgers University,
New
Brunswick, NJ 08903,
USA
I
GIS uber Alles
The
war against Iraq in 1990-91 was the first full-scale GIS war. It put geography on the
public agenda in a quite palpable if impalatable way as it claimed an estimated 200 000
Iraqi lives (Bamaby, 1991 ) . The Defense Mapping Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Research Laboratory provided the ’digitized map data for the
Desert Shield operating area’; a California company supplied the ’ruggedized DOS-based’
software called Map, Operator, Maintenance Station (MOMS); the pilots slotted the
resulting portable GIS (Geographic Information Systems) packages into cockpit computers, and the ’turkey-shoot’, as a USA general called it, was on (Schulman, 1991). ’Geosmart’ bombs were not only programmed to seek and destroy real-life targets but to
photograph them as they did so. On the ground, tank commanders picked their way
through the desert using smart, 3-D simulations of the terrain ahead. And the global
citizens of CNN (Cable News Network) were treated to map-rich battle simulations
throughout the perverse extravaganza thanks to GIS software and techniques similar to
those guiding missiles and artillery. ’Certainly, applying advanced GIS and related
technologies to the conflict in the Persian Gulf substantially increased the mission’s
effectiveness and contributed to the safety of military personnel’, enthused one GISer
(Schulman, 1991: 28-29). Thus did GIS and related technologies contribute to the killing
fields of the Iraqi desert.
The development of sophisticated computerized cartographic technology has, in the last
year, definitively altered the way in which modem warfare is fought and staged and the way
it is consumed by a global public transformed into video voyeurs. By comparison,
academic advocacy of GIS seems deliriously detached. In a recent editorial Openshaw
complains that GIS is misunderstood and underloved. ’GIS matters,’ he thunders,
’because it can encapsulate (some might say imprison) the core of geography!’ (Openshaw,
1991: 622). Geography suffers a crisis of fragmentation and only GIS can put it all back
together again; only GIS can offer ’an emerging all-embracing implicit framework capable
of integrating and linking all levels of past, present, and possible future geographies’
(p. 628). Its ’application-independent tool-kits’ transform the discipline: ’Suddenly,
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258
geography looks like a huge integrated GIS on which various nondata layers of interpretative [sic.] subjectivity have been built’ (pp. 624; 627). He is astounded at the
implications of all this. ’A geographer of the impending new order may well be able to
analyse river networks on Mars on Monday, study cancer in Bristol on Tuesday, map the
underclass of London on Wednesday, analyse groundwater flow in the Amazon basin on
Thursday, and end the week by modelling retail shoppers in Los Angeles on Friday. What
of it? Indeed, this is only the beginning’ (p. 624). With increasing geographic information,
he enthuses, ’the utility of soft and so-called intensive and squelchy-soft qualitative
research paradigms could fade into insignificance’ (p. 622). Openshaw’s grandiose exuberance for a ’new geographic order’ is buttressed by a platitudinous morality: ’Is there not a
moral duty’, he asks, ’to help society and the world to unlock and understand the key
patterns and relationships that may exist encrypted in these data bases for individual
countries, for planet earth, and later on for other planets and other universes?’ (p. 625).
Such extravagant ambition for GIS, on and off the battlefield, should at least help to
provoke a debate that has been bubbling under the surface since the mid-1980s. The
Messianic disciplinary hopes often attached to GIS denote a ’technocratic turn’ according
to Taylor (1990), a retreat from ideas to facts, and a ’return of the very worst sort of
positivism, a most naive empiricism’. The late J. B. Harley (1989: 2), in a widely read
deconstruction of cartography, addressed a similar point: ’As they embrace computerassisted methods and Geographical Information Systems, the scientistic rhetoric of map
makers is becoming more strident’. Associated claims for a ’new geography’, Taylor
argues, are inimical to the field insofar as they feign an intellectual neutrality in the
interpretation of data. Such a geography would be defined by its ’application-independent’
techniques rather than by any substantive concern with specific aspects of space, nature
and landscape.
There is surely no question but that GIS provides a battery of sophisticated computer
techniques of wide and variable utility. The problem, rather, lies in the outlandish
disciplinary ambitions, the radical exclusion of other perspectives, and the dangerous and
self-defeating renunciation of an intellectual (as opposed to technical) agenda that too
often accompany the programatic advocacy of GIS. As Taylor (1990) suggests, most
GISers have ’by-passed the 1970s critiques’ of positivism, simply ignoring any broader
questions of social and political context. Openshaw and the Iraq war notwithstanding, the
GIS hoopla has cooled even as GIS techniques have become less exotic, and the time is
ripe for a critical and contextual history of GIS beyond existing internalist treatments
(Chrisman, 1988; Coppock, 1988; Tomlinson, 1988; but see Anderson, 1969).
That the text and context of GIS is heavily underwritten by a military agenda is no
secret, of course, but such connections - too often made in the abstract - became brutally
evident on our television screens in early 1991. A considerable percentage of students who
learn GIS in USA classrooms graduate to military and related jobs; the Defense Mapping
Agency with 9000 employees is the single largest employer of USA geography graduates.
Despite the fact that many of the techniques, their applications, and the resulting maps are
classified by governments around the world, there is a curious lack of reflection on this
military-geographic connection. Where such a connection does emerge, the mode is
usually pedagogic rather than reflective. In a recent Australian textbook on ’defence
applications’ of GIS - a text incidentally that should cure even the most ardent devotees of
self-flagellation concerning the irrelevance of geography - Ball and Babbage make the
point very directly: ’A GIS offers a unique and invaluable solution to the demand for
geographical information, both physical and human, generated by the new focus of
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259
Australian defence planning (Ball and Babbage, 1989: 1). The book carries a preface from
the Minister of State for Defence, Kim Beazley, who argues that a ’comprehensive
geographic information system is vital to the development of a national defence capability’
(Ball and Babbage, 1989: xxix).
Technology does not cause war, of course, but the traditional liberal argument that
techniques are separate and separable from their uses, is equally simplistic. On the one
hand, integration with the military is often deliberately fostered: ’The benefits [of GIS] will
not, however, flow automatically into the Defence organization. The corporate development of Defence GIS is deserving of early high-level attention’ (Ball and Babbage, 1989: 7,
242). On the other hand, even among more liberal advocates, embarrassed into silence by
the integration of GIS with military agendas, there is a clear sense of the larger social and
moral imperative of GIS. According to Worrall (1990: 1), ’the success of GIS’ will depend
on ’the extent to which the array of techniques and technology are practically applied’ and
’their successfulness in making social decision-making processes better, stronger and more
accessible.... GIS is a tool of considerable promise and potential to public policymaking’. It is hardly credible, then, that the rest of this survey of ’developments and
applications’ fails even to mention military uses of GIS (see also Goodchild, 1991).
GIS elevates to a new height the military constructions of geography, and this needs to
be opened up for critical and historical investigation. Denis Wood makes this point with
rare
pithiness:
computer graphics are in the service above all else of the military, and secondarily automobile manufacturing where
CAD/CAM systems play important roles in the destruction and marginalization of millions of jobs.... That is,
computer graphics mainly promote death, either directly, through the support of weapons systems, or indirectly,
through the use and production of cars (in the United States cars kill more people between the ages of 1 and 37 than
most other causes combined) (Wood, 1989: 118-19).
In this light, and especially given the brutal GIS war against Iraq,
moral duty to help society’ seems perversely disingenuous.
IIl
Openshaw’s appeal to ’a
Geography, war, history
An old saw has it that war is good for geography. Or as Yves Lacoste (1976) put it some
years ago: ’La geographie, ga sert, d’abord, a faire la guerre’, a title that might be translated
not at all literally as ’Geography, thy name is war’. The connection is longstanding (US
Naval Institute, 1958; O’Sullivan and Miller, 1983; Pepper and Jenkins, 1985), but was
publicly exposed with the recent war. ’Wars, cold or hot’, observes Raskin (1991: 514),
’change the political maps of the world’ and ’blow away the ideologies that created and
were created by those maps’. In this latest war for a ’new (American) world order’, even
George Bush was given to geographic pronouncements, albeit in the negative. In his
address to the US Congress on March 6, 1991, Bush began with the following declaration:
’We’ve learned in the modem age, geography cannot guarantee security and security does
not come from military power alone’. It is no accident that this ’beyond-geography’ theme
recalls the political realism of the late 1940s and 1950s when the first new world order was
meant to begin. Bush’s new world order represents a second try at 1945 - the effort at a
new American century as Bush has put it - this time without Soviet opposition. In the
recent tomes of media commentary on the new world order it has been entirely missed that
German refugee geographers from Nazism were the crucial conduit for translating Hitler’s
’neue Welt Ordnung’ into English-language usage. Specifically, Hans Weigert concluded
his popular (1942) book Generals and geographers - devoted to explaining German
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260
geopolitics to an American audience - with a precold war plea that the second world war
allies develop their own geopolitical vision for the postwar world: ’The people of North
America now have a last chance to learn in time the lessons of a humanized geopolitics.
These lessons will direct us to a structure of a new world order in which the social,
economic, and political systems of the East [Russia and China] and the North [led by
Britain] will harmonize with our own institutions’ (Weigert, 1942: 258, emphasis added).
George Bush’s circumspection about the uses of geography did not go unchallenged
however. The conservative New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal admonished Bush
to have done with such ’inane simplifications’ and to recognize the errors in American
ambivalence toward geography. Such ambivalence, he argued, may have to do with the
country’s own geographic position, its isolation from Europe, and the fact that no foreign
wars have been fought on its soil since 1812. After this promising start, Rosenthal mooted
a geographic determinist apology for Israeli strategy in southwest Asia (the middle east, in
Eurocentric parlance). Blythely disenfranchising the entire Jordanian citizenry with a short
clickety-clack of his keyboard, Rosenthal argued that Jordan already was a Palestinian state
and that Palestinians should go back there. Israeli leaders and especially ’Israeli commanders’, he said, learned from the war ’the importance of a strategy based on geographic
room’ (Rosenthal, 1991: A31). The horrifying parallels to Nazi claims apparently escaped
Rosenthal entirely, but the advocacy of an Israeli Lebensraum and forced transportation to
the east surely evoked shivers among Palestinians, and should have inspired disgust from
concentration camp survivors.
The military uses of geographic knowledge are as old as war itself, of course, and
integrally related to state-building and imperial pursuit. Good critical and contextual
works on the history of ’ancient’ geography are rare, and so the recent book by Sorbonne
historian Claude Nicolet, Space, geography and politics in the early Roman Empire (11999 ), .
was eagerly awaited. In a somewhat polemical intervention in antiquarian debates over the
origin and evolution of the Roman Empire, Nicolet seeks to redress the historicist
assumptions and the erasure of geography that have dominated classics research. In
sometimes excruciating detail, he traces the dialectic of Roman conquest, the extension of
Roman geographical knowledge, and the mapping of the known world. He focuses on two
spatial ’texts’: first, the Res gestae compiled by Caesar Augustus (first Roman Emperor),
published posthumously in AD 14, and including a comprehensive summary of geographical conquests and the results of military surveys; and secondly, Agrippa’s detailed
map of the known world which was posted several years earlier near the Forum. Just at the
time when the Empire was being consolidated under Augustus, argues Nicolet, geography
comes to play an unprecedented influence over history. He is comfortable with the idea
that cartography and the representation of space are highly political enterprises, and yet
the textual deconstruction is in other ways very traditional. He sees the accretion of
geographical knowledge in pre-Kuhnian progressivist terms and is keen to celebrate
Augustus and Agrippa as alternative geographic heroes.
Nicolet’s book delivers only a sliver of the promise suggested by its title. For all but the
most ardent classicists, thirsty for textual disquamation of the early Roman Emp:ire, a
much better introduction to the military importance of ancient geographical ideas and
practices can be found in Dvomik’s Origins of intelligence services, a not so recent book
dedicated to General William Donovan, founder of the OSS (the US Organization of
Strategic Services - precursor to the CIA). Dvomik’s is a broad perspective, stretching
from the Assyrians, Hittites and Egyptians, through the Greeks and Romans, to the
Byzantine and Muslim worlds (Dvomik, 1974). For its unobtrusive assumption of
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261
in military history, it is a fascinating read, informative, accessible,
and useful in the classroom.
Overlapping historically with Dvomik is Pryor’s (1988) consideration of geography,
technology and war in the establishment of the Mediterranean world between the seventh
and sixteenth centuries. Influenced by the Annales School, and especially by Braudel,
Pryor argues that the struggles between Christendom, Islam and Byzantium were fought
on, around, and about the sea, involving a crucial nexus of geography, technology and war.
’In the last analysis’, he says, ’geography, technology and the forms of war had highly
influential effects on the general evolution of Mediterranean history’ (Pryor, 1988: 199).
Christendom won, of course, and with it capitalism, and the rest, we might say, is
geography. From the hearth of Europe - as we are now well aware with the pending 1992
quincentennial - an unprecedented drove of explorations, expeditions and discoveries was
unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, and the emergence of modem geography, divided
into national schools, was intricately bound up with such adventures. There was a mixed
tone to this work. In the ’scientific’ construction of global space, empire and the
geographical elsewhere, Europeans scrambled both to learn from and to surpass the
recorded knowledge of the Greeks and Romans as well as later Arab thinkers (Sezgin,
1987; Wamtz, 1989). In France, such exponents included Jean-Baptiste-Bourguignon
d’Anville who reconstructed a Mimoire sur l’Egypte ancienne et moderne based, not on field
experience but on maps, travel descriptions, cadastral records and other documents
available from the libraries of Paris (Godlewska, 1989). Entwined with these ’scientific’
constructions were direct descriptions associated with the Napoleonic and later expeditions to Egypt and Algeria, in which ’geography’ would ’assist the state in determining the
nature and usefulness of conquered races’ and places (Godlewska, 1989: 205; see also
Godlewska, 1988; 1991; Taylor, 1989). The resulting amalgam of ideology and technology offered by geographical writers of the day is increasingly subject to intense scrutiny by
contemporary critics in a variety of disciplines, much of it taking off from Said’s (19978)
classic Orientalism.
The practice of geography has not only contributed to the conduct of war and imperial
expansion but is influenced by it. The first International Geographical Congress was
scheduled for Brussels in 1870 but had to be delayed until the following year because of
the Franco-Prussian war. In the first half of the twentieth century, the history of the
International Geographical Union was dogged by two world wars and the in-again, outagain status of German geography (R6ssler, 1990a). At the most recent 1988 IGU
Congress in Sydney, it was reported that some highly ’sensitive’ maps of the remote,
Himalayan borderlands between China and India, reluctantly brought to the Congress and
displayed by the Chinese delegation, were stolen.
Regarding geography and war in Germany, meanwhile, the continuing excavation of the
Nazi years continues to uncover new layers of geographic involvement. In her Wissenschaft
und Lebensraum, R6ssler ( 1990b) gives the fullest account yet available of the way in which
a battery of geographers contributed to Nazi planning for Germanization of the eastern
borderlands. In a discussion of the institutions, ideologies and individuals involved,
Rbssler shows that after 1933 many geographers were able to apply existing research
interests to the practical problems of establishing a Lebensraum for the German Reich.
Their work involved planning as well as research, although the loss of the war prevented
the implementation of these plans and at the Nuremberg trials, for that reason, it was
decided not to proceed with prosecutions (see also R6sler, 1989). Nonetheless, as Ros~;ler
and her co-worker Gerhard Sandner emphasize, the involvement of geographers should
geography imbricated
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262
be dismissed as an aberration. The discipline itself underwent a significant transforma.tion. Sandner (1990) traces the emergence of anti-semitism in German geography prior to
1933, and Fischer and Sandner (1991) analyse the way in which the geography seminar aft
Hamburg was transformed under the influence of Siegfried Passarge, an avowed and active
Nazi.
Joining geography and history these days can be a perilous pursuit, as the naive:,
politically motivated proclamations of Bush and Rosenthal illustrate. The reassertion of
geography in historical analysis has brought increasingly public hints, generally from
outside the field, of a new geographic determinism. The prominent economist Thomas
Sowell of the Hoover Institution, for example, in a televised talk in December 1990 to the
right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, explained European dominance
vis-a-vis Africa as the result of geography: although half the size of Africa, Europe has a
longer coastline, nowhere in Europe is more than 500 miles from the sea, and Europe
unlike Africa had excellent navigable waterways. The popular appeal of such simplistic and
not
anti-intellectual determinism is usually expressed to the detriment of oppressed peoples.
The left is not immune from this determinism, which is in many ways the reverse side of
historicism, so ubiquitous in the English-speaking world. As Nicolet’s (1991) stud.y
reminds us, however, French historical and social writing has often involved a more
frequent integration of spatial concepts. It was Lucien Febvre, founder with Marc Bloch of
the Annales School, who admonished, ’Historians, be geographers’. And it was Fernand
Braudel, who dominated the second generation (1945-68) of Annalistes, who took this
advice seriously enough to write what he called ’geo-history’. A recent history of the
Annales School summarizes some of the obvious links between Vidal de la Blache, Febvre
and Braudel, but also suggests Friedrich Ratzel’s influence on Braudel. In melding Vidal’s
possibilist, place-rooted regionalism with a more structural conception of historical
change, Braudel spawns a geographical determinism, according to Burke (1990: 36-40;
see also Archer 1990). Burke’s is a very straightforward and not especially probing account
of the Annales School, but the indictment of geographical determinism is reasonable as far
as it goes (see also Kinser, 1981). A more nuanced disentanglement of Braudel’s
determinism from his appropriate recentring of geography remains to be done.
IIIl
Modern
geography: science of space, science of nature
Traditional histories of science often fasten on a particular figure - Copernicus or Galileo,
Newton or Bacon - as symbolizing the inauguration of modem scientific thought, but the
Dutch historian of science Reijer Hooykaas has countered that we should more aptly see
Prince Henry the Navigator as prompting the scientific revolution (Hooykaas, 1979).
Drawing on the work of Hooykaas and other contemporary historians of science, David
Livingstone, who has devoted considerable effort to clarifying the social and intellectual
origins of modem geography, argues that ’geographical progress has been seen, of late, as a
significant ingredient in the emergence of modem science’ (Livingstone, 1990: 364). On
the fulcrum between empirical observation and more traditional, authoritarian cosmol~ogies, driven by exploration and discovery on the one side and by the conceptual demands
of natural theology on the other, geography in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries
sat at the splinter point where science separated itself from philosophy. Livingstone
explores the resulting tangle of religious, magical, scientific and practical themes that
dominated geography on the cusp of modem scientific thought.
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Corroborative testimony comes from Wamtz’s (1989) posthumously published study of
Varenius. Among scholars now claimed as geographers, the German scholar Bernhard
Varenius’s (1622-50), with his Geographia generalis, is widely credited with initiating the
study of modem geography. Wamtz (1989) emphasizes Varenius’s intellectual context and
evolution; he practised geography as ’a branch of mixed [applied] mathematics’ (Warntz,
1989: 172), and his book went through successive editions including several edited by
Isaac Newton. Wamtz’s originality lies in revealing Geographia generalis as a sharply
contested text (in mathematics and philosophy) between Cartesian and Newtonian visions of
the world. The division of natural and social sciences from mathematics and philosophy
was only stirring, of course, and so it was a stipulation of the Lucasian Professorship of
Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Cambridge University in the seventeenth century
that lectures in geography be presented. Sufficiently indistinct and novel was geography as
a separate field of study that in the 1650s, following his death, Varenius was known in the
Netherlands, where the Geographia generalis was first published, as ’THE Geographer’
(Warntz, 1980: 174).
The separation of geography from cosmology and astronomy, philosophy and mathematics was a historical process, and Kant, like Varenius is treated as a watershed figure.
His broadly Newtonian conception of space, if not his geographical writing, is subject to
continual philosophical commentary (e.g., Waschkies, 1987), and in geographical circles
there has been a revival of interest in Kant. Published responses to the reflective discussion
of Hartshorne’s work, 50 years after the publication of The nature of geography (Entrikin
and Brunn, 1989), vary considerably: Gould (1991) affirms the unacknowledged neoKantian subtext of Hartshomian and related geographies while asking in frustration why
so much effort was expended on The nature, a ’text that is virtually meaningless to most of
today’s geographers’; Livingstone ( 1991 ) takes a more elliptical perspective, affirming the
need for contextual histories of geography but questioning whether geography even has ’a
nature’; in response Entrikin ( 1991 ) reaffirms the validity of assessing Hartshorne’s work,
and with it ’the potential richness of the Kantian and the neo-Kantian tradition for
geography’ (p. 338).
Whereas absolutist Newtonian conceptions of space have been under increasing attack
geography since the late 1960s, GIS, whether or not contaminated by ’nondata layers of
interpretative subjectivity’ (Openshaw, 1991: 627), reinstates a mordant Newtonianism of
space. By contrast, the legal field seems to be on the verge of discovering the idea of postNewtonian relational space. In a pathbreaking article, Laurence Tribe (1989) argues that
legal conceptions of space - indeed the eighteenth century spatiality of the USA
Constitution itself - are thoroughly Newtonian. Legal doctrine is largely blind to the idea
that social and juridical space is socially produced and that, further, the very process of
judicial observation alters the social space it would adjudicate. There is a ’social geometry
of law’, Tribe insists, and it is a curved space in which neither individuals, private property
nor the state should be seen as discrete ’billiard balls’ on a given social table, but rather as
themselves progenitors of space.
The ’curvature’ of geographical space is now so readily accepted as not to seem odd at
all. Generalizing from earlier work suggesting the transformation of space-time relations
consonent with contemporary restructurings of capitalist social and economic relations,
Harvey (1990) explores the reflexive and contested character of conceptions of space and
time, and calls for a historical geography of these concepts. Kirby (1989) delineates a
’political space’ that is equally curved, while the supposed centrality of space in
postmodernism suggests an extradisciplinary acknowledgement of the curvature of social
in
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264
space. Becker (1990) imports postmodernism into the rigid confines of German geography. Henri Lefebvre (1991) truly was the pioneer in much of this work. But the shift
from absolute to relative and relational conceptions of space is a highly uneven process: the
redoubt of GIS aside, an ambivalent confusion of absolute and relative conceptions of
space also informed the push for locality studies. A similar conceptual struggle is played
out in the debate between Meyrowitz (1985; 1989) and Kirby (1988; 1989; 1990). Where
Meyrowitz argues the destruction of territoriality at the hands of modem communications
technology, Kirby sees the resilience of localities and champions a defence and reassertion
of regional identity. That both processes may be going on concurrently seems very likely,
but it leaves us with the conceptual dilemma of how to articulate this. Marston’s (1990)
and Herod’s (1991) discussions of the social ’production of scale’ may intimate some
answers.
Insofar as geography has traditionally seen itself as a science of nature as well as of space,
physical geography has come to dominate the discussion of nature, human geography
relinquishing significantly the interrogation of nature in favour of space (FitzSimmons,
1989). Histories of physical geography are not so common and critical and contextual
histories even less so, which is perhaps surprising given the political uses of much physical
geographical knowledge (but see Bork, 1989). Nowhere has this been more true than in
North America. John Wesley Powell and Grove Karl Gilbert are widely seen as originators
of USA geomorphology, and as much as they were concerned with exploring a new
science, they both did their most prominent and sustained work in the employ of various
government surveys between the 1860s and 1880s. Sack’s (1991) recent discussion of
Gilbert focuses, quite reasonably, on breaking down the sharp dichotomy that is often
drawn between the empirical, pragmatic, process-oriented Gilbert and the theoretical,
form-oriented Davis, and only hints at the connection between an emerging physical
geography and a national agenda for the American west in the late nineteenth century. The
story remains to be told of the way in which physical geography provided an environmental
technology and ideology for building a nation.
This connection between physical geography and national interests in state building
surfaces in strange ways. In the 1880s there emerged a quite torrid debate between
Canadian and USA geologists over the nu ming and interpretation of the ’Huronian
system’. The Huronian system of rocks lit s beneath the Cambrian surfaces of the
Canadian Shield but above the Laurentian, al j exists not just in Canada but in parts of the
northern USA. ’V’ iitiam Eagan (1989) recon tructs the geological debate, which involved
the fledgeling Canadian Survey and US Geological Survey as well as local geological
traditions in the USA. At odds was whether the ’Huronian System’ was indeed a separate
formation worthy of its own name; the Canadians argued that it was a discrete system
while the USA geologists largely but not entirely opposed this. In the ensuing debate, not
only questions of scientific reputations, but national ownership of mineral rights, and
questions of national identity were at stake.
The public battle that emerged in 1991 in response to the Smithsonian Institution’s
refreshingly revisionist interpretation of the nineteenth century frontier, The west as
America, suggests the extent to which mythologies of nature embody national and political
ambitions. Critiquing the conventional wisdom of the glorious frontier, the Smithsonian
exhibit revealed the ’unsavory or equivocal or simply mundane’ aspects of the conquest of
the west, reinterpreting the frontier experience in less heroic and arguably more realistic
terms (Truettner, 1991). Certainly the brutality to nature and humanity was acknowledged, if often in a hectoring tone. The exhibit was quickly pilloried by the Repub~lican
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265
Senator Stevens from Alaska, who threatened to cut off funding to the Smithsonian a:nd
promised close Congressional scrutiny to ensure the patriotic correctness of future
exhibits. Daniel Boorstien, previously the Librarian of Congress and in 1953 an informant
to the House Un-American Activities Committee, attacked the exhibit as ’a perverse,
historically inaccurate, destructive exhibit’. A quick symbol in the witchhunt over ’political
correctness’, the exhibit became cause célèbre for the right, and its scheduled appearances in
Denver and St. Louis were cancelled. The Powell expedition of 1871 figured significantly
in the exhibit.
Much as geography played a pivotal role in the scientific revolutions that initiated
modernism, assumed conceptions of nature - social and nonsocial - play a definitive part
in the political construction of modernism. ’Nature’ is simultaneously held separate from
society yet operates also as a template for social subjects, social change and social
structure. Critiques of modem science therefore involve radically restructured treatments
of nature, most explicitly a recognition of the social ’production of nature’ (Smith, 1990),
or the ’reinvention of nature’ as Haraway suggests (1991; see also 1989) or, as in
Torgovnick (1990: 193), a critique of primitivism. Whether the reinvention of nature leads
to an essentially ‘postmodern idea of wilderness’ suitable for the ’age of ecology’
(Oelschlaeger, 1991), or to a recontextualization that takes more seriously the trenchant
social materialism of modem science, as Haraway does, remains to be seen.
IV
Gender wars?
Less than a decade ago emergent feminist writing focused on attempts to develop theory,
concerned that feminist theory might be a misnomer (Hartsock, 1983). Today by contrast,
feminist theory is increasingly pivotal across a swath of social discourse and debates; in
cultural studies and literary criticism, arguably, it now defines more of the innovative
frontier research than competing approaches. This is not to say that various crusty
orthodoxies have given up; quite the opposite, especially given the reactionary indictment
of a ’political correctness’ supposedly dominating academia (Robbins, 1991). Nor has
intellectual eminence been greeted with institutional permanence, and geography is no
different from other sciences in this regard (Kass-Simon and Fames, 1990). Whereas in
1970, 6.3% of AAG members in academic positions were female, that figure rose to only
8.4% in 1988. Nor has the pyramidal structure of women’s involvement been altered
significantly: the percentage of women tapers down as one climbs the ranks. Whereas 27%
of PhD graduates in the USA were women in 1988, only 3.1 % of full professors - a metre
18 - were women. Sociology, by contrast, is 20% female, but although 9% of full
professors are women, women are even more heavily clumped in the untenured positions
than in geography (Lee, 1990). In different national contexts, the figures are in all
likelihood even more skewed. Even more alarming is the apparent lack of influence of (or
credit accorded to) those women who have secured an academic position. In his discussion
of ’master weavers of influence’, Bodman ( 1991 ) finds only three women among the 117
’centurion’ geographers who were cited more than a hundred times between 1984 and
1988. The gendered language would seem apt. Whatever the inevitable limitations of this
kind of study (see Thomthwaite, 1961 for a brawling satire), the documentation of
extreme gender inequalities alone was worth the work, even if Bodman mentions it only in
passing.
The history of women
in
geography is hardly
a
bustling pursuit (but
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see
McManis,
266
the pace has picked up with the publication of a series of books focusing on
travellers and explorers in the nineteenth century (Birkett, 1989; Tinling, 1989;
Middleton, 1982). This has led Mona Domosh (1991) to propose a ’feminist historiography of geography’ that connects these historical accounts and experiences to contempor;ary
feminism and social theory. Closely related are explorations of gender and postcolonialism
(Lazreg, 1988; Mohanty, 1989; Rao, 1991) and introspections concerning race and
gender (Sanders, 1990; Cohen, 1990; Mitchell and Smith, 1990). Similar questions have
been raised from a somewhat different point of view as Mary Louise Pratt (1986)
investigates more traditional geographic and exploration texts to expose the class, race and
gender assumptions involved in constructing colonial geographies. Meanwhile Janice
Monk (1989) has initiated a long-term archival investigation of the history of women. in
American geography.
New ideas and approaches usually have to struggle their way into the academic
mainstream, all the more so when they embody explicitly oppositional politics express:ing
larger social movements. In geography the recognition of feminist work over the last
decade has been inordinately slow and partial, leading to intensified frustration. This has
been expressed in particularly visceral fashion not so much against the liberal and
conservative mainstream, from whom perhaps feminists expect little, but against Marxism
especially among responses to Harvey’s The condition of postmodernity and, to a lesser
extent, Soja’s Postmodern geographies, both widely read and discussed outside as well as
inside geography. These authors have been justly criticized for not taking feminist work
seriously (Deutsche, 1991; Massey, 1991; Rose, 1991) and, in Harvey’s case, for
systematically misconstruing the work of feminist artists. Beyond sexism, however, these
responses also allege a more thorough-going recidivism: ’foundationalism’, ‘universalis:m’,
’materialism’, ’idealism’, ’determinism’, ’economism’, ’totalism’, ’stucturalism’, > ‘heterosexism’, ’modernism’, ’objectivism’, ’realism’, ’essentialism’, and ’voyeurism’ all comingle
and intertwine with sexism, especially in Harvey’s text, we are told.
The drift of Massey’s argument is toward a feminized, more integrative sociospatial
discourse, a project already taken on board by numerous feminists: Bondi (1990a; 199C’b),
Katz ( 1991 ), McDowell ( 1991 ), Marston (1990), Pratt and Hanson (1988), Rose (1990),
to suggest only a few. For Deutsche ( 1991 ), on the other hand, something else is at sta.ke.
Intertwined with the feminist critique, but distinguishable from it, is a considerable
departure from the social materialist assumptions that have guided most of the rapproc.hement between spatial and social discourses in the last two decades. ’[T]he real question’,
Deutsche insists, is this: ’what is being protected by resistance to feminist inquiry?’ The
implied answer is given visually and verbally: using a Barbara Kruger graphic, she suggest
that ’You molest from afar’ (Deutsche, 1991: 9), and she writes that ’violence is enacted by
authors who speak and pretend that reality speaks for itself’ (p. 12). For Deutsche and
other critics it is a question of ’the politics of representation’ (p. 21) which, she argues,
requires a focus on ’discursive practices’ and the requirement that authors and art:ists
’reflect critically and openly on their own activities in meaning production’ (p. 22).
While neither innocent nor excusable, neither is the avoidance of feminism necessa:rily
the malevolent psychosocial contrivance that Deutsche implies. To argue such would be to
risk replacing one supposed foundationalism with another, and indeed there are sugg;estions of this in Deutsche’s argument. Harvey, she says, ’repeatedly represents difference as
sameness’, ignoring ’feminism’s difference from other social analyses, its internal differences, and its theories of difference’ (Deutsche, 1991: 7). But how then is ’significant
difference’ to be identified and who is to do it? (Pratt, 1991). In fact, throughout her
critique, Deutsche herself claims a self-unexamined authorial authority rooted in feminism
1990), but
women
-
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267
arbitrate the distinctions between difference and sameness. But these distinctions are
socially contested on a wider terrain. More generally, Deutche’s rejection of Harvey is itself
so total, the critique such a seamless whole, that it brooks no ambiguity in Harvey’s own
work. Harvey’s text - decisive in places but quite vague in others - she conveys as a
universally brittle logic.
Like the texts it critiques, Deutsche’s argument is also not innocent. The importance of
’the politics of representation’ is now widely accepted, but Deutsche’s own representation
of this politics deliberately effects a pragmatic disciplinary move that centres art histoiy
and literary criticism in the discussion of society. Social science has hitherto been granted
’automatic privileges ... in the study of society’, Deutsche asserts (1991: 21), and she
seeks to transfer this supposed privilege to aesthetic discourse and textual deconstruction.
Secondly, and related, Deutsche displays a deep ambivalence about any connectedness to
material reality. ’Reality and representation mutually imply each other’, she concedes, but
only after a significant ontological redefinition: ’what is called reality - social meaning,
relations, values, identities - is constituted in a complex of representations’ (p. 21). Access
to ’reality’ outside representations is effectively cut off and with it the ability to discuss
social experience except as representation. Reality is swallowed whole by representation:
postmodernism is entertained as ’a kind of social change itself’ (p. 13), while ’the built
environment’ is now ’recognized, as other cultural objects have been, as representations’
to
(p. 18).
All knowledge is representation, postmodernism has taught us, but Deutsche takes us
significantly beyond this claim that there is ’no reality without representation’ toward the
idealist position that all we can study are representations as representations - ’no reality,
only representation’. The connection between representation and the represented is
erased, representation is increasingly unhinged from social experience. Hence the deliverate confusion in Deutsche of the ’violence’ perpetrated by theoretical omission in an
academic text and the physical cum psychic violence of warfare, international or familial.
Deutsche seems aware of where this analysis points, asserting that her position does not
imply ’that no reality exists or that it is unknowable’, and she asserts defensively at several
points that hers is a ’materialist’ analysis. ’Nor’, she insists, does it involve a ’desertion of
the field of politics’ (Deutsche, 1991: 21; 28). But these caveats highlight and contradi.ct
her own discursive practice which recentres a startlingly Kantian epistemological dilemma
insofar as access to social experience and the means to knowability are never explained. It
is significant, then, that Harvey’s central arguments - the interconnectedness of cultural
and political change, and his placement of postmodernism as less an alternative to
modernism than the reassertion of a lost modernist assumption - are not directly engaged
by Deutsche or, perhaps more disappointingly, by Massey whose previous work has so
influenced political economic theories of local and regional change. It remains a collective
responsibility to consider these ideas seriously too.
One can accept a feminist critique of Harvey without subscribing to the idealist critique.
Arguing that much postmodernist feminism retains a firm foot in modernism, Sandra
Harding (1990: 100) proposes that ’[Feminist inquiry can aim to produce less partial and
perverse representations without having to assert the absolute, complete, universal or
eternal adequacy of these representations’. Feminist ’epistemologies’ should be practised
as ’justificatory strategies’ (Harding, 1990: 100) which continually negotiate the need for
situated knowledges, continual self-reflection, and the direction of research. Harding’s
advocacy of ’principled ambiguity’ is especially useful, not so much as a means of
introducing some kind of political or epistemological relativism, but for interrogating the
overlapping and intertwining of identities, different levels of indeterminacy of boundaries,
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268
enhancing the connectedness of political struggles. In this vein, the most incisive
argument, I think, remains Hartsock’s. Rather than exclude Marx, Hartsock (1987) argues
explicitly that the privilege Marx accorded to the working class, by dint of its social
position, was real enough, but that other social groups possess comparable if different
privilege. Exploitation and oppression do accord a certain privileged access to social
reality. This is not necessarily an essentialist argument; the ’essentialist move’, according
to Donna Haraway (1991: 158) comes with the elevation of this ’privilege’ and social
access to the level of ontology and, one might add, the refusal of negotiation between
’privileges’ or the refusal to see privileged positions as intermeshed (Graham, 1990).
The coalition of interests between feminism and postmodernism is pushed toward its
textual limits by Pred (1990) but is under increasing scrutiny (Hartsock, 1987; 1989;
1991; Harding, 1990; Hekman, 1990). Bondi (1990a) expresses a cautious optimism that
postmodemism opens up spatial discourses for specifically feminist analysis, but also issues
a salient warning: ‘Postmodernism may recognise the masculine bias of Western intellectual traditions, but it is accompanied by a preoccupation with gender symbolism at
the expense of &dquo;flesh and blood&dquo; women and men’ (see also McDowell, 1991; Pratt,
1991). Bondi argues instead for a more coherent focus on the ’social construction of
gender’, a call answered in part by Jackson’s (1991) analysis of the construction of
masculinity. Graham’s (1990) critique of essentialism also tries to incorporate feminist and
postmodemist perspectives with Marxism. Insofar as questions of class are erased in much
of the discussion around postmodernism and feminism - the ’white heterosexual western
male’, undefined by class, is the new universal target - Bondi’s (1990b) and McDowell’s
( 1991 ) explicit arguments about reintegrating a class perspective are vital.
One of the most thoughtful engagements between feminism, postmodernism and
Marxism comes from Iris Young (1990) who combines two rather unfashionable
endeavours into something quite novel. She insists on retaining a reworked analysis of
domination, oppression and exploitation as the basis of her ’politics of difference’, and
grafts into it a more explicitly normative theory of social justice and political action. A
broader revival of interest in the professional ethics of research and geographical
representation is also afoot (Curry, 1991; Harley, 1990; Kirby, 1991).
and for
V
Conclusion
As Bondi (1990a: 162) has argued, ’what postmodernism appears to do is to elide rather
than deconstruct a dichotomy between ideas and materiality’. GIS practises a virtual image
of this elision insofar as representations substitute for reality (Harley, 1989), facilitating
the denial of military violence. From the perspective of a GIS technocrat, who praises GIS
technologies for their ’battlefield successes’ and for removing ’a lot of combat anxiety’,
there were ’statistically’ fewer (American) casualties in the war than would be ’expected
among that same age group travelling by automobile on US highways’ (Schulman, 1991:
25). But it is Jean Baudrillard, the French postmodernist, who best expresses and, whether
intentional or otherwise, exposes the complicity of technology and postmodern style in the
disappearance of the war. Deconstructing the media representation of the ’war’, Baudrillard (1991) concludes that La guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu (the Gulf war didn’t
happen).
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269
’
Ac know ledgements
I am grateful to Sandra Luque, Cindi Katz, Don Mitchell and Fritz Nelson who all
contributed suggestions and ideas to this essay.
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