I was just at the 10th Annual Critical Geographies Mini-Conference, which was held in Portland and hosted by the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning and the Department of Geography at Portland State University. The organizers did a fantastic job, and there was lots of great conversation.
I did, however, have an overall worry about the state of critical geography, one that for me seems to be located in the term ‘critical’. There was a lot of talk about what it means to be critical, and everyone seemed to agree that being critical is a good thing. I wonder. There was consensus that it is important to be critical of received wisdom, and particularly when that wisdom assumes oppressive or exploitative relations. And I agree. But, still, for fairly long stretches of the conference, it seemed that the only key we were able to sing in was the key of destruction, negation, cancellation, resistance, opposition. We aimed all of this at the structures we were against. Against colonialism, against capitalism, against racism, etc. And more than once in the room, there was a palpable sense that we were taking a kind of dark pleasure in our will to destroy. While we were of course appalled that gentrification was displacing poor people, or colonialism was being reinscribed in urban space, we were also, it seemed to me, pretty pleased with ourselves for having such excellent moral perception, for being ‘critical’ enough to see all the evil at work in the world.
I worry that we have become inordinately attached to singing in this key, that we have become unable to do anything other than cancel what we oppose. We may be fast becoming unable to feel anything other than the dark pleasure of outrage, disapproval, and resentment. I worry that we are filling ourselves with bile, and we are growing, perversely, to like the feeling of it.
I am increasingly convinced that “critical geography” needs a wholly new approach. To be sure, there is a place for critique, for naming and opposing what is wrong in the world. But there is also a role—and I would insist we should see this role as larger and more important—for creation, for production, for joy, for delight, for innovation, for exploration. For wonder. I don’t think we do any of those very well. We rarely turn our attention to discovering those practices that enrich us as a community or as a species (care, solidarity, democracy, mutual aid, commoning, etc.), learning them, narrating them, and helping them grow.
During the conference, feeling the feeling that was usually in the room, I got to the point of thinking that maybe we need to let go of “critical” geography—as a practice, as an attitude toward the world, as an emotional habit—and instead begin to develop something like joyful (or delightful) geography. Maybe we need to start ignoring what diminishes us (rather than obsessively analyzing its every nuance), and start paying much more attention to what nurtures us.
For me, for example, this would mean ignoring the State and paying attention to emerging practices of democracy. For others, of course, the specifics would be different. But I fear that if we don’t start thinking and feeling differently, our bile will overcome us, and we will be useless for the project of creating a better world.