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.


Lectures on critique and Foucault

A blog has been tracing the genealogy of critique in the form of written out lectures. The most recent two have reached the Frankfurt School and Foucault’s engagement with it.

Here’s the first lecture that starts to deal with Foucault.

On truthiness

Who said this:

I was recently reading the works of contemporary scholars such as Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida who argue that there is no such thing as objective truth and that all knowledge, all values, all morality, and all ideas of right and wrong, good or bad, are merely the products of an ongoing “community narrative” and social dialogue within a “global village.” They say that truth is a construct not a precept. It is a conversation not a conclusion. Truth is really not true you know. It’s all relative. It’s all a matter of opinion.

I want to ask you a question: Do you really believe this and are you willing to live with the consequences of such ideas?

If you said the president of a university with nearly 1,000 students, you’d be right. It was Dr. Everett Piper, President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

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New semester

The new semester is well under way here. Classes are going well so far, especially a new seminar I’m doing on geographical research methods. Why is it that most books on research methods in geography are written by Brits? There’s hardly any over here.

My other class needs to brush up their history a little bit. In discussing the First World War, no one could name the president at the time. (Someone suggested Coolidge however).

After the fold (and a nice picture from the new Google Sky showing the nebula in Orion), some links to various student discussions of Foucault’s work. These posts show people forming their opinions and reactions to Foucault in a kind of snap-shot, a work in progress.


Update. One of the Google blogs has made a nice video of Google Sky, released earlier this week.

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The blogosphere and the MSM

One of the stories of the summer, for me anyway, has been the conflict between the blogosphere and the mainstream media (MSM). I wrote about this earlier, if a bit obliquely, with the central question of whether you can be partisan but not polemical.

There are many people around who advocate bi-partisanship, cooperation and lack of polemics. Certainly the preference for what might be called “problematizations not polemics” in the work of Foucault has often intrigued people. But I remain to be convinced that there is no role for hard advocacy that sets itself in opposition to some privileged mode of thought. What, if you need justification from Foucault, he called “counter-conducts.”

The example sine quo non of this is the blogosphere, or people-powered commentary and discussion. This rose to a peak last weekend with the YearlyKos convention in Chicago which was attacked before during and after (eg., by Bill O’Reilly) as being both a kind of dangerous hard-left group and a marginalized, ineffective bunch of nerds. In fact, it is neither, but rather a gathering together of advocates of progressive issues and Democratic party supporters (all the major Dem presidential candidates showed up and were interviewed).

There is a tradition in the blogosphere of opposition to the MSM, and in fact historically, that is one of the reasons for its rise: that the media was conservative, or mainstream at best, and did not properly report or do journalism on Democratic party candidates in the 2004 elections (which was when it really came to prominence, but starting with which was founded to counter-act the attacks on Clinton when he was president).

Today some of the most ardent opponents of the MSM are still in the progressive blogosphere: people such as Glenn Greenwald at Salon, and Eric Boehlert (author of Lapdogs, How the Press Rolled over for Bush).

Greenwald is a constitutional lawyer and got his start following the 2005 NYT revelation of the Bush administration warrantless wiretaps, but has been increasingly attacking political reporting in the MSM for being pro-Bush and displaying a lack of investigative initiative. But Greenwald is not above harshly criticizing the Dems, as for instance this weekend when they agreed to pass Bush’s revisions of the wiretapping law, FISA.

Greenwald’s favorite snark is that beltway media pundits think of themselves as Serious and others , such as dirty bloggers, as irrelevant. This is not an arbitrary insult, for it gets at the idea that there is a core of experts who are the only ones Serious and well-connected enough to pronounce on politics. This is where the clash with the bloggers comes in, for they are (in the eyes of the MSM):

1. Unqualified (no j-school)
2. Partisan

It is this second point they often harp on and which interests me here. Is being partisan automatically dismissible from the ranks of Serious political reporting and opinion?

Here’s Jay Carney, a leading writer at Time’s own blog, making that case:

What I meant about having a responsibility not to be labeled left or right is that our responsibility is to the truth — that we should write what we see, not what we want to see or wish to be true, and that, if we do so, attempts to label us as partisan will fail.

So for Carney, by being non-partisan, one can be truthful, and that partisanship excludes you from the truth. You can avoid being called partisan (the latter strategy has not really been borne out however. I would guess that both the left and the right believe large segments of the media are not in sympathy with their beliefs.) He goes on:

If we’re doing our jobs as political reporters, attempts to label us as left or right will fail because our stories will be grounded in solid reporting.

This just strikes me as ridiculous. It means that no story can be left or right or politically tinged, that everything finds its way in the middle. He’s talking about “our stories” plural being neither left nor right, but somehow equally balanced. Isn’t that rather like the “equal time” claim of creationists? Isn’t it rather like saying that all views are equally pertinent? What kind of relativism is that?

Here’s Jay Rosen, the respected journo prof at NYU:

It’s our responsibility not to be labeled left or right is a case of a political journalist blurting out a deep truth about his profession. Carney and Tumulty really do define their responsibility this way: to avoid what would get them labeled, especially by peers but also other onlookers— and of course potential critics. When you actually feel a responsibility like that it not only makes you timid; but you look for opportunities to demonstrate that you are independent, not “in the tank,” non-aligned, the professional skeptic. You are constantly proving your political innocence, which is a rhetorical—not an informational or truthtelling—task.

But in actual fact it’s worse than that, because in general, all voices are not heard equally. Here’s a forceful expression of why bloggers and MS should not play nice:

Because I believe American traditional media to be complicit in an illegal and immoral war and occupation of Iraq. They are unable and unwilling to expose the shredding of our Constitutional rights but quite concerned about Paris Hilton’s incarceration. They are entirely unbothered about their own absurd appearances at Correspondents Dinners rapping with Karl Rove, to my mind the architect of an American Presidency chock full of the worst American war criminals ever.

You can find many similar opinions, fuelled of course by the fact that Serious journalists in DC are all on record as saying let’s go to war with Iraq in videos and in print, to which net-savvy progressive bloggers can gleefully link time and time again (Atrios, to cite just one minor example, even invented a new term, the Friedman Unit or FU, to snark at Friedman in the NYT who is forever saying let’s give it just 6 more months every 6 months).

At YearlyKos, Greenwald and Carney were on a panel together and Greenwald lost no time in attacking the MSM. Mother Jones magazine liveblogged it as:

Take home point from Greenwald: Journalists think bloggers want them to become partisan. Actually, bloggers just want journalists to be adversarial and skeptical.

Thus we move profitably away from partisanship as blind partisanship, to the press having more of a politics of critique. I would say that that is a great summary and insight into precisely the main desire of bloggers regarding the MSM.

I’m not sure if or how this might advance our thinking on this, but I know that a politics of critique sounds better than both a wishy-washy bi-partisanship that is usually a cover for partisanship, and ideologically driven partisanship that is closed to debate.

As Foucault might have said:

[My approach] is “antistratgic”: be respectful when singularity rises up, and intransigent when power infringes on the universal.”

Blogging Foucault

This person has a deliberate strategy of blogging Foucault. She uses a blog to think through and understand Foucault, in this case, his essay “A Preface to Transgression.”

The blog therefore as a critical tool for thought.