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.


Zadie Smith on Joy


Always worth reading, of course, but here she is getting at something I have been trying to understand.  She calls it joy, which for her is a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.”  I have been calling it “delight” (after Nietzsche).  D&G like jouissance, Hardt and Negri prefer joy as well…. Whatever term we use, it is a feeling, a sentiment, that comes when we do something hard but rewarding.  Not the easy and cheap gratification of ‘pleasure,’ but the down-deep feeling of being awake and alive and in the world.  It is not, as she says, purely a good feeling.  It is mixed with anxiety, fear, and worry.  But it is longer-lasting, slower-burning.  A nutritious meal rather than a piece of candy.

It is the feeling we get, I argue, when we are getting democracy right.  Not the euphoria of Mubarak stepping down or the anguish of the NYPD clearing Zuccotti, but the steady, slow, radiating feeling of being an adult, of coming together with others to take our lives into our own hands.  Joy to the world.

Foucault and Writing

A recent post at Progressive Geographies offers this quote from Foucault about writing:

Does there exist a pleasure in writing? I don’t know. One thing is certain, that there is, I think, a very strong obligation to write. I don’t really know where this obligation to write comes from… You are made aware of it in a number of different ways. For example, by the fact that you feel extremely anxious and tense when you haven’t done your daily page of writing. In writing this page you give yourself and your existence a kind of absolution. This absolution is indispensable for the happiness of the day… How is it that that this gesture which is so vain, so fictitious, so narcissistic, so turned in on itself and which consists of sitting down every morning at one’s desk and scrawling over a certain number of blank pages can have this effect of benediction on the rest of the day?

You write so that the life you have around you, and outside, far from the sheet of paper, this life which is not much fun, but annoying and full of worries, exposed to others, can melt into the little rectangle before you and of which you are the master. But this absorption of swarming life into the immobile swarming of letters never happens.

Michel Foucault, (1969) ‘Interview with Claude Bonnefoy’, Unpublished typescript, IMEC B14, pp. 29-30; also available as Michel Foucault à Claude Bonnefoy – Entretien Interprété par Éric Ruf et Pierre Lamandé, Paris: Gallimard.

For me the quote started out quite hopeful, the part about there being a pleasure in writing.  I thought, “yeah, yeah, tell me about the pleasure in writing!”  But he quickly casts doubt on that, and moves into saying its an obligation, and we only know that because if we don’t write then we feel bad. And then we learn it is an obligation to do something vain, fictitious, narcissistic, and turned in on itself.  And then he takes a Nietzschean turn and says we write in order to be in control over (or even dominate) the world around us.  But of course that falls apart because the Apollonian attempt to make sense of the world can’t ever fully mask the Dionysian fact that it lacks meaning, that the world just is.  At the end, it seems to me, we are left with no good reason to write.  Foucault at his most brooding.  He gets accused of brooding all the time, and maybe he does, but there is so much hope in his work as well, even if there is only a glint of it here.

That first sentence proposes that there is pleasure in writing.  It seems there has to be if we are going to do it regularly.  Not a negative pleasure of not-feeling-bad.  But a positive pleasure, a joy, a delight, a voluptas.  The delight in language, in its rhythm and music.  The delight in thinking through an idea, spending time with it, turning it over and savoring it from all sides.  The delight in opening out to the world, in articulating oneself in order to connect up with others, to pass one’s excitement about an idea on to someone else.

I think if we want to write, to do it well and frequently, it is not so much about scheduling it properly (although that helps!).  It is more about becoming aware of the delight in writing, learning when it comes and what it feels like, and deciding that is the reason we do it.