For Joyful Geography

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.

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8 thoughts on “For Joyful Geography

  1. There was indeed a refrain of righteous indignation throughout the conference. At first I found it ironic for a crowd that was almost exclusively white and Anglo-European — sitting there “on stolen land,” as Felipe Ferreira reminded everyone — to be spending so much energy denouncing colonialism and its legacies. But now I realize that it was just a religious meeting, and this was a ritual of self-flagellation. That tradition goes way back. And of course, those rituals are very important for the penitents and their expression of piety — but it’s hard to see what good they are for the rest of society. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking such matters as gentrification, recolonization, etc., very seriously, even with taking them personally, and having real emotional reactions to one’s analytic discoveries. I don’t think anyone of us was there thinking this was a purely intellectual exercise. (The poetry from Sarah de Leeuw and Tim Cresswell reminded us how important aesthetics and emotions are to any “world writing” worthy of the name.) But when your thumotic needle is stuck on “Rage,” there’s a problem.
    Nick Blomley spoke with vague wistfulness about Simon Fraser U in the 1970s, when there was supposedly a genuine delight among those doing critical theory (avant la lettre), a productive and magnetic verve that drew people in. (Too much critical theory today is characterized by a maze of invisible electric fences that will shock you if you use a term carelessly, dare to use quantitative methods, etc.) Someone should do a history of that era to discover what it was that kept spirits high. My guess is that they weren’t spending as much time decrying the state. “Decry” is teary at heart, after all. Maybe what we really need to practice saying is, as you say, “Ignore the state.” Ignore the state. Ignore it, and it will go away?

    • Good point about decrying the State (which, at the conference, I said we should do). I thought I was saying it to be provocative, but then it felt really good to say, so I made a meal of it. But of course that experience (feeling good about decrying) is at odds with what I say above. I agree that ‘ignore the State’ is better, or ‘get to the point where the State does not even occur to us.’ It will go away, I think, if our activity renders it obsolete.

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  3. This is very honest and sincere. I would echo the worry about becoming overly attached to anti-X markers and the resentment resulting from it. Try scaling this up to the household or community and you can guess what kind of affects will be spread out through it.

    I sitting here wondering: how much can we learn about geography enraging the states and their interests and territories? I’m sure this question comes up in your discussions, seminars, etc. but one can maintain an anti-state stance while using the mapping of its interests to predict and comprehend future sites of emergence before the state gets their.

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  5. Thanks for this post. It is refreshing and motivating. One of this text that one reads thinking “that’s exactly how I feel…”.
    The issue I have with being critical is that critique, as I experience it in academia is scarily disempowering. And I mean “really existing academic critique” (REAC*), not the idealised philosophical definition some might pursue (though I suspect there is a relationship between both… the dangers of transcendence maybe?). I have experienced three processes through which this REAC is disempowering.
    1) REAC extracts the one who is criticising from the very situation s/he is denouncing. The critique is not engaged anymore, but acts as an external observer. This results in the disconnection between Critique as a theoretical endeavour from the critical capacity of people that Luc Boltanski discussed in his essay On Critique.
    2) REAC transforms cries of rage into harmless quasi-entomological** descriptions of the conditions and constraints in which they were shouted. Leaving aside what these cries meant for the one who shouted them… and could mean for others.
    3) Conclusions of REAC too often depict those who have tried to stand up as dopes unaware of real structural constraints that nullify their struggles or efforts. Ironically ending up
    I can relate to the unease you feel when confronted to “that dark pleasure of outrage, disapproval and resentment.” What I find perverted about critique, is that it grows on – and hence in some way desperately needs – the failure of everything it seeks to achieve. I see the “negativity” of critique much more in there than in the supposedly “non-constructive” nature of outrage, destruction, opposition or resistance. Those stances can be very productive when they unleash processes of connection between people, produce new transformative statements, in short put things into movement. They are not contradictory with solidarity, care, democracy or commoning. On the contrary, they depend on these later positive practices. At least, that’s how I experience it when taking part in demonstrations, sit-ins or other forms of mobilization. There, critique is always an affirmative act. Not one of self-assertion, like an ego stepping on a scene. It communicates, strength, enthusiasm, support and… joy.
    Why is it that so often after engaging in/with REAC, by reading critical journal articles, messages on forums, by discussing with colleagues or attending a (geography) conference I feel empty, weak, sad and powerless? Am I the only one feeling like that? What do these feelings indicate about our collective ability as academics to actually contribute to change? Should we turn to engineering or philosophy, if want to be “useful” academics?
    To not finish on these gloomy reminiscences and limit myself to another critique of critique, I just want to shout out a big YES to your call for joyful geographies. For me that implies:
    Responding to your blogpost and voicing how necessary such a call is!
    Reflecting on your call to ignore the State (or whatever is supposed to capture our work). I am not sure what you understand by ignoring. Pretending or acting like it does not exist? Not using it as a category in your work? Refusing to engage with any form of State authority? Not taking for granted that the State has a structural reality? Or not being paralysed by the possibility of a capture of whatever you will do, write, tell, feel by the State? I am asking because honestly I do not see yet how I could do without the State in my research.
    Daring to be more positive when reporting about people engaging with or against authorities in order to improve their lives or resist injustices. Even – or especially – when the outcomes of those interaction implied compromises or did not turn out as expected. Not judging them in terms of success or failure. But trying to see in what respect they might have felt empowered. At what points have they felt they approached their goals. When did they feel that what they were aiming to was slipping away. And not staying stuck on that last point claiming that it was bound to fail anyway. Oh?!? that’s actually how we might learn something…

    * Let’s signify a little… it’s amusing that this acronym sounds like “réac’“ the French shortened word for reactionary.
    **Ok, poor metaphor, entomology is actually fun ☺

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