Tuesday, 13 September 2005

A Placeless Geography

Strangely, much geography seeks autonomy. From what? The earth, the human, temporality, spatiality itself? Sometimes, it’s a combination of all these aspects. Like analytic philosophy, which strives to annihilate the origins of ideas so they can be logically and linguistically ‘unpacked’ (a phrase which I remember had a peculiar resonance at Birkbeck) in a placeless environment, so geography suffers from a tendency to strip places of their roots. Fears concerning the ‘dehumanization’ of philosophy (example: logical positivism contra existentialism) are also manifest in the scientific homogenization of geographical place.

Humanistic geography is one response against this homogenization. In the struggle between the physicality of place and the experience of that place, the subject reclaims the centre and so becomes responsible for determining the outcome. In a recent book called Geography and the Art of Life, Edmunds Bunkse speaks of himself as a “geographical witness”. A curious statement. On the one hand, it suffers from certain inconsistencies Agamben mentioned; on the other hand, it belies a positive polemic against the autonomy of geography. Against the background of destruction – Bunkse’s own history – would an account of past spaces which did not place the subject in the centre render that account impartial or incomplete? As a witness, science and positivism falls from certainty by leaving space intact.

Humanism conspires to counter the ‘coldness’ of positivism. This is evident in both geography and philosophy. Somehow, this metaphorical dialectical between the warmth of the human centre and the cold objectivity which situates itself outside the human is unconvincing. Untangling the primitive archetypes implicit in humanity (archetypes which Bachelard – the humanistic geographer – depended on) might prove impossible through phenomenology alone. Yet, this does not entail the superiority of the archetype despite its appeal to intuition.

In-between subject and object, in-between inside and outside. Positivism alone reduces place to site: a set of geometrical divisions. In itself, attachment isn’t negated by this suppression of place. In fact, the aesthetic predilection for site is justifiably celebrated (e.g. Gregor Schneider, Andreas Gursky, & Thomas Demand). Against this propensity towards site, which some deem a threat to the ‘power of place’, humanism might answer the calls of coldness, but a suppression of homogeneity through an enforcement of particularization does not entail (nor necessitate) the formers disappearance. Further, if a humanistic account of place entail that place can only be understood through the fabric of human meaning, then the meaning which is attached to place will be largely arbitrary. There is nothing which contains place; and containment, after Aristotle, is that which separates place from site. In-between space and place, a centreless perspective is needed which can mediate between the warm abundance of subjectivity and the cold empty space which is receptive to that subjectivity.

Tuesday, 6 September 2005

Prognosis Negative

“We may surmise that the idea is a leftover from times when important matters were run from a single centre, a king or a jealous god, supporting and giving authority to a single world view. And we may further surmise that Reason and Rationality are powers of a similar kind and are surrounded by the same aura as were gods, kings, tyrants and their merciless laws. The content has evaporated; the aura remains and makes the powers survive.

The absence of content is a tremendous advantage; it enables special groups to call themselves ‘rationalists’, to claim that widely recognised success were the work of Reason and to use the strength thus gained to suppress developments contrary to their interests. Needless to say, most of these claims are spurious.”

(Paul Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason,p.11)