Beyond the speed of thought

Mapping the Subject
November 10, 1995

In their introduction, the editors offer a charming reflection, to the effect that cultural geographers long toiled away on their modest academic allotment, unassuming and unsung, but then awoke one day to find themselves ("to their astonishment") the flavour of the month. Suddenly all manner of trendy postmodernists and deconstructionists were talking "space" - discussing "sites", "fields" and the "politics of position", analysing "alterity" and the "other". Academic fashion had decreed that geography was where it all was. And this has been a phenomenon further enhanced by the new vogue for "writing the body". The archaic Cartesian cogito was free-floating; but once one started to "think the body", spacial questions inevitably became pressing: back and front, head and foot, inside and outside the skin envelope, with all the class, race and gender hierarchies these implied.

Sceptics brought up on O-level tundra and town plans may ponder whether this is truly "geography", but the vitality of the editors' opening remarks and the quality of many of the essays will convince most readers of the salience of questions of space and place within the structuring of our understanding of subjectivity ("the ecological self"); and at their best the 15 or so geographers contributing to this volume offer stimulating disciplinary insights, even if to some it may seem prime facie odd that what geographers nowadays find themselves researching are the politics of cock-piercing (David Bell and Gill Valentine - "is it a political act in itself?", they ask); the early history of the pill (Julie Cream); "Schizoanalysis and Deconstruction" (Marcus Doel); or "Psychology, Postmodernity and the Popular" (Valerie Walkerdine).

As these titles suggest, while proposing a fairly coherent agenda ("geographies of the subject") the book contains something for everyone. Of the essays of a traditional stamp written in old-fashioned Queen's English I particularly enjoyed David Matless's "The art of right living". This exploration of the "radical conservatism" of the open-air cult in interwar Britain (hiking, youth hostels, etc) directs attention to the movement's often verbatim endorsement of the Nazi philosophy of "strength through joy" - "a good rock climber cannot be a C3 man", judged Baden-Powell - coupled with an idiosyncratically English commitment to an antilitter crusade. In "Ethnic entrepreneurs and street rebels: looking inside the city", Michael Keith examines the interaction of urban space, ethnic identity and city politics in the East End of London against the background of Docklands redevelopment. Paradoxically, one of the most mainline "geographical" pieces is by a non-geographer, the historian Carlyn Steedman, who writes with sensitivity about the polar dreams and fantasies of children, and their fascination with maps, in the Victorian era.

Meanwhile, devotees of new academic speak will find much that will appeal to them too. For instance, in his aforementioned contribution on subject/body relations, Marcus Doel tells the reader that "molar identities are not there from the start, like an array of plenitudes or plenipotentiaries which could be selectively actualised within particular contexts, or which could become embroiled in a series of labyrinthine complications, contaminations or confusions. To the contrary, they are appended like so many dendritic prostheses to the swarming mass of fluid multiplicities", and so forth. To my mind, too many of the essays here collected suffer from verbal and conceptual hyperactivity, adopted seemingly in the attempt to travel beyond the speed of thought. It is in this respect amusing to be told (in Paul Rodway's "Exploring the subject in hyper-reality", an absorbing examination of Baudrillard) that "the articulation of self and other in Disney theme-parks is strangely old-fashioned". Maybe Disney's marketing men know a thing or two that has been forgotten in today's academic cyberspace.

And in straining to make significant statements about space, contributors do not always avoid a tendency to labour the obvious. Discussing "the boundaries of childhood", David Sibley surveys Melanie Klein and Julia Kristeva and comes up with the hardly shattering insight that "having one's own space is important in developing autonomy". Similarly at one point the editors note that "there is a sense that certain people are simply not allowed to be who they want to be, everywhere and always. This constitutes a limit on subjectivity, where subjects are subjected to social norms, regulations, prohibitions and expectations", as if this truism were worthy of remark.

The disposition of some of these essays to heat up with jargon and balloon up beyond the clouds is sanctioned by the editors' survey essay, "Mapping the subject" and their concluding "Spacing and the subject", both of which are spotted with hermetic shop-talk. But these two articles will also prove genuinely valuable to non-geographers through their spirited analyses of modern thinkers who have illuminated spatial issues, including Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze and Pierre Bourdieu (with the notion of habitus), Homi Bhabha and Edward Said, with their concepts of "colonial discourses" as a place for subject peoples. Overall, Mapping the Subject exemplifies one of the paradoxes of today's academic writing, with its blend of bold challenges, self-indulgent babble and interdisciplinary exploration.

Roy Porter is professor in the social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute.

Mapping the Subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation

Editor - Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift
ISBN - 0 415 10225 1 and 10226 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
Pages - 414

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