The RGS-IBG annual conference was in London this year, at the beginning of September. A three-day event, with sessions starting at 09:00 and running through right into the evening, combined with a daily commute, meant I was exhausted by the time it came to a close. I attended a variety of different sessions, met up with a number of familiar faces and was lucky enough to make some new acquaintances. I also tried to make the most of being in London, and was able to visit the Science Museum, an interesting but half-finished exhibition at the V&A and an event over at Tate Britain.
Where to start though? Looking back at my scribble of notes, what I propose to do here is make some very brief comments on what caught my attention during the conference, and include all the calls for papers of those sessions (as they the online programme is only due to reamin online until the end of September). Having recently re-read Latour’s (2005) Reassembling the social, I thought it might be interesting to go along to a session on actor-networks. However, as the discussant Peter Jackson noted, there was a noticeable theoretical eclecticism! Unfortunately, it didn’t feel like this was very productive. The next session I attended was the launch of Peter Adey’s new book, Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects. Adey opened and closed the session, first introducing aspects of the book and then responding to those who had read his book. These included Ben Anderson and Tim Cresswell, among others, who were full of praise for the book. Anderson was interested in the relational configurations in the book, the on-going composition of relations, and had some questions on method. Firstly, he noted that the book is organised around events rather than specific types of connections, resulting in surprising juxtapositions. How then, he asked, to learn to attend to resonances between events that are drawn out? Secondly, how is Adey theorising the process of change and the irruption of the new from within this relational account? Cresswell had fewer questions but remarked that the mundane is much harder to account for, and to write. He also noted that the book was an example of geography that is happy to be theoretical. I took a break after lunch, and then sat at the back of the room for a session on anarchist geographies. It was all rather tame though. The closest I came to being surprised was when I nearly fell off my chair; it had only three legs. I did a little writing in my notebook, then listened closely as Hilary Ramsden talked about her research on clown activism. I liked her comments on temporary wrong-footings, and the play on misunderstanding and mistake. Indeed, her paper was quite simply disarming.
The session on theorising the sea was interesting, in particular the paper that considered the surfed wave as a relational place, both unstable and provisional. There was an uncomfortable silence after another paper in the same session though, and I was trying to work out if it was because it didn’t offer much in the way of questions, or if it was because the presenters were Israeli. Perhaps both. I couldn’t find anything in the programme that was very appealing for the next session, and so I wandered over to the V&A. There they had an exhibition, called Architects Build Small Spaces, which had finished earlier on in the week. I asked about it and found that parts of the exhibition were still on-site and could be visited. These structures were explorations of notions of refuge and retreat and although I wasn’t convinced that small spaces “can push the boundaries and possibilities of creative practice”, I did rather like the ‘Ark’ project, a beautiful bookcase-tower-archive. I spent the first part of the afternoon at a session that I had expected would be about affect and emotion but turned out to be more about well-being. David Conradson’s consideration of therapeutic practices for affective modulation was fascinating, and I found some of the terms he used very thought-provoking: relational ecologies, orchestration of feeling and affective field. His paper was on the techniques for summoning stillness and how places of retreat operate. I found there to be an interesting overlap between this paper, the exhibition I had just been to, and my participation at the Luminous Green (LG) gathering. Louisa Cadman’s presentation on the art of living well attended to the idea of staying with the present, of staying with the problem. Hers was more a story than an argument and there was a noticeable unease with the audience as to how to engage with it. As for myself, I found myself listening to experiences that were unsettlingly similar to those from LG. Instead of a mint-leaf, she spoke of a raisin. But the same tenets of non-judgement, of awareness, of presencing even, were all there. I was surprised then, to find that some of what I had liked so much about LG was perhaps not as specific to that event as I had first thought. The last session was all about surfaces. Rachel Colls spoke of bodily, and in particular placental, surfaces, which was remarkable. Drawing on Luce Irigaray, the placenta was a device for re-thinking the ways we live together, of new forms of relating. Alan Latham’s paper on jogging as a way of thinking with, and about, surfaces was an exercise in thoughtful self-experimentation, and Hilary, mentioned earlier, told a story of walking in Detroit. There was lots going on, following a finger-walking introduction (which had to be seen to be believed!): Hilary reading, a friend walking her fingers over a projector, and a slideshow of pictures and quotes that seemed to have little to do with what was being read. The person doing the walking of fingers, Libby Straughan, was up next with a talk on taxidermy. There was a visceral video of her practising taxidermy which was hard to watch but nonetheless fascinating. I was more concerned by the seemingly conflictual citations of psychoanalysts and those who are rather less interested in that sort if thing. A certain ontological dissonance perhaps? The last paper maintained the high level of the session, with a lyrical tale of the Aberfan mining disaster, a scrutiny of the surface.
The sonic methods session had some technical difficulties but this did not prevent the papers from going ahead. Many of the participants had also attended the ‘Experimenting with Geography’ workshop earlier on in the year but here I was able to hear more about their work. Jonathan Prior’s soundwalks were very interesting, especially the ways in which he encouraged a holding of attention through détournement. His soundwalks are available to download from his blog. The next two sessions attended, both before and after lunch, were on geography and the future. Nick Bingham presented a story of a food inspection of a Chinese restaurant, highlighting the ways the future can be folded into the present. Ben Anderson and Pete Adey had a paper on governing emergencies, and discussed the interval of peril. An emergency, they argued, is only over when the potential to surprise had been exhausted. Sam Kinsley talked about futurity in the making, and explored the notion of communities of practice. He contended that ubicomp (ubiquitous computing) remains anticipatory, always looking to a proximate future. Gail Davies gave a very interesting talk about experimental temporalities (and temporalities of the experiment). I agreed with her argument that experimental practices enact more than one future . Derek McCormack chose to surprise, engaging with the futures of inflation (financial rather than balloon). I had a giggle when he talked about practising thrift (!) but I was intrigued by his thoughts on the pre-disciplining of the imagination. Leila Dawney invoked a particular set of philosophers (Stengers, Simondon, Nancy, Spinoza) to discuss on-going presencing or becoming. She was especially interested in the imaginative capacities of the body, arguing that imaginative constructions of the future highlight some of the relations in the present. The final paper came from Jamie Lorimer, who spoke of enginnering new ecologies and cosmopolitics, of learning to live with others. Interestingly he also touched upon diagrams, which could anticipate and summon forth futures. I decided to leave on a high, those sessions proving very stimulating, and made my way over to Tate Britain for the ‘The Real Thing‘:
Urbanomic present an evening event at Tate Britain with contemporary sound, video and sculptural work, and other interventions exploring the emerging philosophical paradigm of Speculative Realism and its impact on contemporary art practice.
Although fairly ambivalent about Specualtive Realism, I did follow the recent discussions on its merits on the Crit-Geog mailing list. Moreover, I was interested in how artists might explicitly explore this sort of philosophy and in particular, the question of engaging with realities that exist before, after and outside of human experience. There was a lot to see and to listen to and unfortunately I didn’t manage much in the end. But I did stumble across Mike Nelson’s (2000) The Coral Reef, which had nothing to do with the event, but has really stayed with me since. I’ve included a video below, before the list of CFPs, but I would recommend you visit the installation rather than watch this!
Can we have political Actor-Networks?
Charlotte Chambers & Katherine Smith
Over the past twenty years, theoretical contributions employing the term actor-network theory (or ANT for short) have enjoyed huge popularity within the social sciences, and particularly human geography, to the extent that some of the original contributors to this body of work have expressed concern at its translation into a specific, almost concrete, academic space (e.g. Law, 1999). Attempts to reclaim the term as something less fixed and more problematic have been made (e.g. Latour, 2005; Law & Hassard, 1999). It is contended, however, that because actor-network theorists tend to have their sights firmly fixed on micro-level analysis, none of the various interpretations (or translations) of ANT have, so far, dealt adequately with the agency of political context in mediating interactions of actors and networks.
This session incorporates a range of papers which employ or engage with elements of ANT, each of which illustrates or questions the centrality of political context and address the question of whether it is possible for ‘actor-network theories’ to engage with politics beyond the micro level. Drawing on topics as diverse as environmental justice, health inequalities, financial services corruption and Tuscan wine production, this session will provide a provocative discussion about one of the most widely applied theoretical lenses in contemporary human geography. The first paper, by the session organizers, will outline some of the key difficulties and debates on this topic. The second will respond to this directly by arguing ANT is already a viable approach for critical, politically engaged analysis. The final two papers will each present examples of politically critical, empirical geographical work in which ANT is employed, providing further insights into the possibilities and difficulties in using ANT in politically sensitive research. The broader aim of the session is to promote a better understanding of how ANT might be usefully developed and applied within the social sciences to better understand situations that are as complex and politically sensitive as the post-crisis global economy and environment upon which this conference is focused.
RGS-IBG/Wiley-Blackwell Book Series panel. Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects: author meets interlocuters panel
Anarchist geographies: Place, identity and participatory approaches
Adam Barker, Jenny Pickerill & Gavin Brown
Anarchist theory has had much to say about the importance of place, especially in critiques of how territory is claimed by power – whether the state or corporate interests – but also in proposing different ways of relating to land. Such theory needs to be engaged with by geographers not only in enhancing our understanding of place and identity, but in supporting social justice activism which seeks to challenge these power relations. Ecologically-based concepts such as bioregionalism and examinations of place-based autonomy have brought diverse groups together in discussions of how land is related to and used to sustain non-hierarchical more participatory social forms. However, anarchist theory has not included much commentary on how place relates to political, social, and cultural identities. This session seeks to engage with the various ways – contested, overlapping, and often incomplete – that place informs identities, both for anarchist individuals and communities, and for groups that anarchists may find themselves working with (or against). As anarchists in practice seek to work within localized networks of activists in the anti-globalization movement, or in partnership with Indigenous peoples and communities, anarchists must consider the full range of implications for the development of senses of self and ‘other’, production of cultural and social meaning, and formation of political identities tied to place. Such an approach also asks geographers to develop a more participatory approach in understanding how place is understood and the construction of place and identities through the processes of activism.
This session seeks to consider (but should not be limited by) the following questions:
- How are variations within anarchistic identities tied to locality and place-specific struggles?
-What are the implications for international solidarity, geographically-dispersed affinity, and other networking concepts that must account for place-based identities?
- Do ties to localized identities strengthen or weaken opposition to globalizing power?
- Can experiences on, in, and with, specific places be used to help form particular anarchistic identities?
- What challenges are posed by identities such as those of some Indigenous communities which are place-based but also claim particular and inaccessible relations to places?
- What do the ethics that inform participatory approaches add to understandings of anarchist geographies?
Theorising the Sea
Jon Anderson & Kimberley Peters
The oceans and seas cover approximately two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, not to mention the watery worlds which lie below, forming the largest percentage of our planet. Rachel Carson wrote of the sea, “it lies all about us” (1950, 216), yet it has strangely failed (until recently) to gain much attention in social and cultural geography. The sea is a space often invisible, forgotten (Lambert et al, 2006), marginalised, ‘out there’ (Steinberg, 1999) mystical and strange (Westerdahl, 2005). Yet paradoxically, it has been, and remains, fundamental to the making of the world as we know it (Lavery, 2005, Rediker, 2007). As a “scholarly turn towards the ocean” currently develops (Connery, 2006), this session seeks to consider how we might theorise the sea – this strange, liquid, undulating space which is often credited as being entirely different from the land (see Jackson, 2005, Langewiesche, 2004, Steinberg, 1999). In particular, this session will endeavour to theorise oceanic, maritime and sea spaces not only in terms of interconnections and networks, but also as spaces of power, society, imagination, emotion, materiality, mobility and enchantment. This session invites papers concerned with (but not limited to) the following themes:
- The tensions, contradictions, relationships between the land and sea
- The sea as a ‘place’
- Materiality and sea
- The sea as space of emotion
- Ocean and seas spaces as magical, mystical and enchanted
- Society and the sea
- The fluid, undulating, mobile nature of the sea
Geographies of (dis)ability, (ill) health, emotion and affect
Louise Holt, Jennifer Lea & Hannah MacPherson
This session aims to explicitly connect work on the geographies of (dis)ability, ill health and wellbeing with research on emotion and /or affect. Over recent years, the interest that human geographers have shown in the emotional and (broadly conceived) affective realms has increased substantially, making an impact in most areas of the discipline. From the emotional responses that shape and arise from embodied relationships with particular spatial settings, to the ‘logics’ of affect that shape configurations of economic, social and cultural life, the emotional and affective realms are increasingly being called upon as legitimate ways of knowing the world.
It was critical geographies of disability and chronic illness (e.g. Dyck 1999, Moss 1999, Chouinard 1999) that proved one of the most willing to ‘admit emotions into [the] production of geographical knowledges’ (Davidson et al 2005, 4). Despite that starting point there has been limited sustained dialogue. As such, this session calls for papers that explicitly take this dialogue forward by investigating aspects of the multidimensional and varied relationships that exist between (dis)ability, health and wellbeing and emotion/affect.
What are surfaces?
Isla Forsyth, James Robinson, Hayden Lorimer & Peter Merriman
Geographers have held a long-standing concern with describing and understanding the Earth’s surface and the social and environmental interactions which it enables or constrains, some employing creative methods to produce myriad explanations of surface pattern, processes and peopling (Harrison et al. 2004). However, critical reflections on different understandings of ‘the surface’ have been relatively neglected in contemporary geographical study, with emphasis being placed on geographical concepts such as ‘place’ or ‘landscape’.
Commonly, and metaphysically, we come to know the world, and figure our place in it, as surface-dwellers, moving over ground, across bodies of water or occasionally taking to the air to see patterns of life and habitats from on-high (Cosgrove 2001; Ingold 2008). Meanwhile, much of the commonplace, metaphoric language of the surface is deeply pejorative: beauty is said to be skin-deep or someone is warned they are skating on thin-ice. If surfaces are objects of attraction, they are also subject to our suspicion and distrust.
This session asks what a serious consideration of the superficial might allow, hinging on the question ‘What are surfaces?’ We welcome proposals for papers which have a theoretical and/or empirical focus which critically address different social, cultural, historical and physical engagements with surfaces: human and nonhuman; topographical, topological and technological; imagined, visualized and inhabited; material and metaphoric; reproduced, modelled and designed.
Sonic methods in human geography
Michael Gallagher & Jonathan Prior
This session brings together researchers who are actively using sound to explore geographical issues, providing a platform for methodological development to complement the growing interest in the geographies of sound and music (e.g. Anderson et al, 2005; Cameron and Rogalsky, 2006; Wood et al, 2007). Papers will cover topics such as:
- Sonic research methods: soundwalking; deep listening; multi-sensory ethnography; acoustic mapping; sound design and architecture; acoustic ecology; field recording; sound art and experimentalism.
- The interface between academic research and creative practice in the sonic arts.
- Cartographies of sound and other forms of representing sound.
- Experimentation with different forms of sonic dissemination: blogs, podcasts, performances, radio broadcasts, etc.
Geography and the Future
Ben Anderson & Peter Adey
How are futures governed, enacted, invoked and known? And how might geographers respond – analytically, methodologically, and politically – to the making of geographies through the future? Addressing these questions requires that we explicitly conceptualise the relation between space-time and futurity. However, with some exceptions, including work on figuring futures (Kitchen & Kneale 2002; Pinder 2005), experiencing futures (Kraftl 2007) and practices such as planning, Social and Cultural Geography has rarely explicitly engaged with the category of the future (compare with the amount of work on the past, memory and haunting). This is not to say that the future is absent from geographical work. On the contrary, recent research on climate change, trans-species epidemics, terror, obesity, financial crises and other risks, threats and hazards has shown how acting in advance of the future is an integral, if taken-for-granted, part of specific substantive geographies (e.g. Adey 2009; Anderson 2010a, b; Amoore 2009; de Goede & Randalls 2009; Evans 2009; French & Kneale 2009; Hannah 2009). Carbon is traded, birds are culled, bodies are measured and banks are saved on the basis of what has not and may never happen; the future. We also find hints of the complicated interrelations between past, present and future across a wide range of work within Social and Cultural Geography. A simple list of just some ‘future geographies’ gives us a sense of the sheer variety of ways in which futures may be related to and made present. Futures are: traded in futures markets, promised in contracts, created by birth, commodified by finance capital, secured against, invested in by savers animated by a Calvinist work ethic, divined by fortune tellers, promised in the context of new technologies, coaxed into being by theorists of diverse economies, projected by certain utopians, deterred by nation states, regularised through clock time, prophesised by evangelicals, and destroyed in war, to name only some relations to the future (see Adam & Groves 2007; Anderson 2010a).
The sessions consist of a series of papers that think the relation between geographies/geography and the future by describing how futures are theorised, known, governed and enacted in relation to the following themes:
- Theorising the future and spatiality/temporality (the future as not-yet, a mystery, virtual, difference, outside, becoming, event).
- Figuring the future (‘the future’ understood as catastrophe, crisis, disaster and or in terms of progress, providence, or promise)
- Enacting futures. (How are futures embodied, experienced, told, narrated, imagined, performed, wished, planned, (day)dreamed, symbolized, and sensed? And how are future made present through specific affects, materialities, and epistemic objects).
- Governing the future (different anticipatory logics such as risk, insurance, preemption, precaution, preparedness or anticipatory techniques such as scenarios, exercises or risk modelling).