Mayhew on historical geography

Just catching up with one of my favorite journals, Progress in Human Geography. Robert Mayhew, a geographer at Bristol, has a progress report on historical geography in the June issue. He  claims that historical geography today is suffused with Foucault’s influence.

I want to divide recent work in historical geography into three sets of interrelated inquiries, suggesting that each takes forward a nexus of ideas with Foucauldian roots. I want in a further section to suggest that even attempts to look for different ways of doing historical geography – what we might call non-Foucauldian heterotopias – prove to be surprisingly entangled in the web of his ideas, before concluding with some acknowledgement of the limitations of the classification I have developed.

The three sets are: governmentality-discipline; space-knowledge; discourse-identity.

The most explicitly geographical of these is self-evidently the second one, but the most interesting to me is his take-up of maps and mapping under the rubric of governmentality. These are linked in with boundaries and boundary commissions, and also with the process of the state making its territory “legible.”

This is just a review, so no great arguments are advanced, but it is a data point in a question I’ve been thinking about lately for my own progress reports (my last one is due), that is, the relationship of critical cartography/GIS to geography “twenty years on.” If Brian Harley’s 1989 article “Deconstructing the map” is the best known article marking the formal start of critical cartography (cited over 100 times from Cartographica) , then how effective has the latter been? To what extent for example is it integrated into geography as a whole? Mayhew’s piece indicates that historical geography has taken up some of the themes that might be thought of as belonging to critical cartography (where critique is an identification and opposition to power relations, among other things).

On the other hand, let’s recall the discussion at the start of Society Must be Defended, where Foucault talks about the value of critique from the margins, the insurrection of subjugated knowledges, as he puts it. Is there value for critical cartography in remaining uncoopted, doing its own thing as it were, on the outside? More exactly Foucault highlights the great power that can be achieved by scholarly critique taking up these subjugated knowledges.

Ladelle McWhorter’s new book Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America also discusses this point very usefully (pp. 53-5). (McWhorter wrote one of the best ever books on Foucault, Bodies and Pleasures, 1999.)

There is a danger, isn’t there, that when a discourse gets taken up, it gets taken in and diluted. So when it’s recognized by geographers as a whole that the governmentality of the map is a necessary analytic, there is also a possibility that it can be “co-opted by the master discourses it tend[s] to undermine” as McWhorter puts it in her discussion. The corollary here is that this merging of discourses establishes a grand narrative with its own disciplinary norms.

So in a sense resisting being taken up and working doggedly from across a range of very disparate and loose problematics can have distinct advantages and that may be where critical cartography finds itself today. This comes at the cost perhaps of smallness, potential obscurity, and loss of influence.


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