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GE02312 1 THEORY, SPACE & SOCIETY Student Number: 600007658 Critically evaluate the significance contemporary critical and

activist geographies

The aim of this essay is to explore contemporary critical and activist geographies and to evaluate the significance of them. This essay will first explore the emergence of critical geographies from their birth in radical geography. Secondly, it will discuss the rise of Leftist geographies and critical geographies place in the academy. Thirdly, it will explore the critiques of its growth and discuss its relevance both within the academy and outside. Finally, it will explore activist geographies, their space in the academy and their contemporary relevance.

Before this essay can explore the ideas surrounding critical geographies it is a necessity to be able to understand the meaning of the word critical and what it means to be critical. Whilst it is thought that all scholarship entails critical thinking (Blomley 2006:1), this is not we are referring to in this instance. Instead, to be critical in research is to challenge what is considered natural and scrutinize them, and endeavor to change them. Critical geographical enquiry satisfies this embraces Marxs call not only to interpret the world, but to change it (Gregory et al., 2009:123). For one to be able to comprehend what critical geographies are, it is important to understand its origins, which lay rooted in Leftist radical geographies. Radical geography emerged out of the politically sterile and people-less quantitative geography of the 1970s and a desire to enact fundamental changes to the organisation and structures of society (Peet 1977 in Fuller & Kitchin 2004:1). The launch of radical geography was as much a response to changes in society as it was a criticism of prevailing assumptions in academic geography, and radical geographers instead sought to place questions of geography within social and political contexts (Gibbons 2001:4). Radical geographies initial foundations focused primarily on Marxist perspectives and by the late 1970s had come to govern radical approaches to geography. This notion of pivoting on class-based concerns became less and less palatable and led to development of new critical geographies, including those of feminist and postcolonial geographies. Castree (2000) describes how critical geography has overtaken radical geography as the privileged descriptor of Left geographical enquiry (Castree, 2000:956). Whilst, this illustrates that merely the signifier has been swapped, we must also understand how the signified Leftist discourse has evolved. From these foundations in Marxist theory, over the last thirty years the geographical Left is today probably more vibrant and varied than ever before (Castree, 2000:2). However, whilst

the evolution is evident, its definition is rarely nailed down (Blomley 2006:90). Castree (2000:956) describes critical geography as a homologous umbrella term for that plethora of antiracist, disabled, feminist, green, Marxist, postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial, and queer geographies. Critical geography has flourished over the past thirty years and as Blomley (2007) states that critical geography has made it and become entrenched within the academy. Whilst before critical geography felt itself to be unusual and beleaguered, it has now become hard to avoid (Byles, 2001 in Blomley, 2006:87). Scholars have embraced the Left from many realms of geography, it has been said by Hubbard that critical geography is committed to expose the socio-spatial processes that (re)produce inequalities between people and places (Hubbard et al., 2002:62 in Blomley, 2006:91). Examples of this work can be seen in critical geographers work on areas such as poverty, consumption and uneven development. These areas have global importance and prove critical geography can provide exciting, analytically incisive and politically engaged scholarship Blomley (2006:89). Its relevance is arguably reflected in the academic developments in the form of the Inaugural International Conference of Critical Geographers (IICCG) in Vancouver in August 1997 (Castree, 2000: 956), giving critical geographies institutional weight and legitimation. Following this there has been the establishment of further conferences, organizations, and scholarly journals (and already established journals such as Antipode). This reveals a continued interest and concern for critical perspectives in geography (Gibbons 2001:2). Moreover, its significance can be seen in the multitude of universities running modules in critical geographies, as well as Exeter running a post-graduate degree course entitled Critical Human Geographies. These developments have led to the argument, that by the turn of the twenty- first century, a comprehensive professionalisation and academicisation of leftist geography was complete (Castree, 2000: 956). This essay has demonstrated the growth of critical geographies, and how they are currently enjoying unprecedented institutional acceptance (Gibbons 2001:2). However, there are some critiques of this growth, the academy, and the academicisation of critical geography that this essay will now explore. To understand this theory further we must first examine how the foundations of the academy are affecting the kind of scholarship academics of the Left can produce. Primarily, the way in which the university system has become heavily focused on a product/customer service to students due to the neoliberal regime has affected academics ability to challenge and be critical. Professors are under pressure to produce research that wins grants, and this has caused once radical researchers to now crave the symbols of bourgeois prestige (the Chairs, prizes, grants), and tailor their radicalism in order to secure a

GE02312 3 THEORY, SPACE & SOCIETY successful career (Blomley 2007:1. Whilst the prominence of critical geographers within the academy has made the plight of change more visible, it can be contended that weaker and safer critical geography is the price being paid for this institutional acceptability (Gibbons 2001:9). This has lead to a comprised, cocktail left, leading to diluted ideas, over analysis and a neglect of Marxs clarion call to not only interpret the world, but also to change it (Fay, 1987: 4 in Blomley 2006: 88). This idea will be explored later on when discussing activism and the academy. Furthermore, many scholars share Clokes frustration with our apparent inability to retain a critical political edge in human geography (Cloke, 2002: 588 in Blomley, 2007:54). This demonstrates the paradoxical nature of whether one can be truly critical within the academy and may endorse the theory that critical geographies have become a victim of its own successes. As the prefix of critical has become seemingly more popular, one of emerging concerns is, if everything can be called critical, then it becomes nothing (UribeOrtega 1998:266 in Gibbons 2001:8). Even the term critical has been questioned among geographers, with some academics trying to avoid the label of critical due to what such a label now entails (Gibbons 2001:9). Additionally, it could be argued that it has become too easy to be radical and in some cases almost to follow a paint by numbers formula Blomley 2006:88. The greatest danger observed by Blomley was that this approach was often concluded by a pious appeal to alternatives, without specifying these in detail. Indeed, this is an instance of how critical geography must strive to rise against the affects of institutionalisation and continue to be radical and fight for change. Also, as critical scholarship has become normalised and institutionalised, has it lost its political edge (Hague, 2001; Waterstone, 2002 in Blomley 2006:88). This could be partially put down to its broadness; it could be said that critical geography has become too focused on identity-politics rather than basic Marxist critiques of capitalism. Amin & Thrift (2005) believe however that this Marxist position cannot be maintained as a necessarily privileged location any longer (Amin & Thrift, 2005:221). However, this notion seems slightly untrue when we consider the contemporary issues in society surrounding the global financial crisis. Critical geography can also be seen to have lost its political edge due to its bifurcation of the Left. Castree (2000:958) notes that the expansion of the academic Left has grown inversely to the non-academic Left, which have been triumphed by the neoliberal regime, leaving, Leftist thinking in business, politics, or the public spheres... so battered and bruised that it is but a pale shadow of its former self. This illustrates whether critical scholarship even has a place outside the academy. In addition to this, Neil Smith (2005) highlighted the struggles of being critical under a neoliberal regime that leads to radical ideas getting mulched back into the mainstream. Ideas such as diversity and multiculturalism have been reduced to merely fodder for politicians speeches, and emptied of all radical potential. For critical geographical theory

and praxis to remain significant it is therefore their task to struggle against the power of capitalisms ideological combine-harvester which flattens all before it (Smith, 2005:891). For critical geography to be significant it has been stated that it is necessary to understand that the research process itself is loaded with power relations between both the researcher and researched (Fuller & Kitchin, 2004 ). Therefore it can be said that critical and activist geographers should be reflexive in their work. This reflection on critical praxis was examined first by feminists in the 1980s and 1990s, and they sought to challenge particularly the patriarchal relations, to create an academic praxis that is emancipatory and empowering for the participants in the research (Fuller & Kitchin, 2004). Why it is significant for us to question ones position when operating in a critical manner? Blomley (2007:287) advocates that one needs to pay more attention to the academic self and that the Left should stop trying so hard to mask ones situated knowledge to appear as autonomous, independent academic selves. Amin and Thrift (2005) support this idea and argue that in order to be critical we must show constant and unremitting critical reflexivity to our own practices. This embraces the essence of the critical enquiry, challenging the natural and they go on to remark that to claim to have the one and only answer is to become part of the problem. Furthering this concept of a privileged vantage point, it is possible to examine the way in which critical geography situated nature of the knowledge it produces on a more global scale. Blomley (2007) challenges the hegemony of Anglophonic Academy and the exclusions that this produces. Vaiou says even the most reflexive and well- intentioned radical Anglophonic scholars are, in a way, privileged by such power geometries constructed through language, institutional settings and spaces of communication and academic exchange (Vaiou, 2004:529 quoted in Blomley, 2007:290). Amin & Thrift (2005) argue that efforts to move away from Euro-ethnocentrism have been painful but we one result has been clear: no longer acceptable to think the world from the West and its underlying Whiteness. This essay has explored the growth of the critical geography, and has gone some way to critique its journey, its strengths and its faults. I am now going to evaluate activist geographies, and examine their space within the academy, and their contemporary relevance in society. Activist geographies were born out of radical geographies in the 1960s and Marxist geographers desire to help solve social problems) (add dictionary reference). Early radical geographers called for the establishment of a peoples geography, in which research was focused on politically charged questions and engaged with people they studied. This differs from critical geography, and Fuller and Kitchin (2004:5) have termed this type of engagement critical praxis. Critical geography has been argued to be divorced from such a role, with academics work neglecting their private activism for a multitude of reasons. It

GE02312 5 THEORY, SPACE & SOCIETY can be noted that there is a fear amongst some academics that activist studies arguably work to diminish the role and power of the academy. This was reasoned by Bourdieu, that many academics strive to maintain the pedagogical authority of education. Secondly, as previously discussed in this essay, the pressures of the neoliberal regime on universities have sought to breed safe research (Boudieu, 1988 cited in Fuller and Kitchin, 2004:7). Furthermore, critical geography has largely been confined to traditional forms of scholarship and publication (Blomley, 2008: 287), and has become disengaged, highlighting that critical geography is failing to make the impact outside the academy that its forefathers desired. On the other hand it must be noted that this not true in all cases, and that in a reaction to this perceived retreat into the ivory tower from the mid 1990s other geographers have begun to explore more activist led research (Fuller and Kitchin, 2004:12). One important consideration is why should geographers involve themselves in activism. Firstly, if look at geographers involvement outside the academy via engagements with policy and policy makers, with geographers seen to be the best equipped intellectually to interpret social goals in terms of planning outcomes (Blowers 1974 quoted in 36 in Fuller & Kitchin, 2004:2). This idea can also be applied to activism. A geographers broad scope of knowledge and academic strength should empower them to be involved outside the academy; moreover they are obliged to because of this. It is also significant to note that the Left has worked hard to achieve institutional acceptance and in spite of the downfalls discussed, it should make us of this position. (Mitchell 2004:26) says, to not take advantage of my position of security to orient my research towards progressive, radical transformation would be a bloody waste. Whilst this essay has demonstrated the pressures for activism beyond the academy, internal activism previously has been neglected. Surely academics should take heed of this and examine the university as a valid site for activism. This has been heralded by Castrees call for activism within the higher education system (Castree, 2000: 960 quoted in Blomley 2008:288) that geographers typically feel the need to reach out from. Castree justifies this thought by stating that to make a difference outside the academy they need to more fully acknowledge (and remake) the institutional settings from which they come. In relation to activism in the academy, Mitchell 2004 has re-exposed the usefulness of said activism He describes the effectiveness of radical scholarship, with the example of Marx, whose greatest impact came from spending hours in libraries, and writing challenging works, with the aim to instruct and agitate, and not just to give voice to the oppressed people of the world (Mitchell 2004: 24). This exemplifies not only what critical geography can do at its best, but also how activism is more than just leaving the walls of the academy. Mitchell

concludes that sometimes the best way to make a difference outside the academy is by committing to good, radical research within in the academy.

Activism outside the academy is an area that in recent years has been criticized largely due to its decoupling the real world Castree (2000). However this statement, whilst it may have been true a decade ago, is not so potent now as are experiencing a very exciting time in activist geographies. Over the last few months, we have seen the uprising of the Occupy movement, an international protest directed against economic and social inequality. This a prime site for critical geographers to engage with the world outside the academy, and participate alongside people, rather than simply studying them. This engagement can be witnessed by David Harveys involvement in the movement. In his address to the protestors, he declares that it is people on the streets, on the squares that really matter in the end because thats the only political force weve got (Harvey 2011). This illustrates critical geographers need to leave the ivory tower of the academy, and engage alongside. Certainly it has been the case that the academy has been one of the few places where the Left has survived with relative freedom (Castree, 2000:959). Consequently, critical geographers work has arguably never had more significance. Furthermore, Neil Smith at the 18th Annual Critical Geography conference described the Occupy movement as not new uprising activism, but as accumulation of fragmented movements over the last few years, but notes that I do think it is important to see 2011 as this crucial moment where things change, and whats changed in particular in the broadest sense, is precisely the future again seems open. This exemplifies the significance in activism today and also critical praxis can be produced outside the university. Moreover this brings in the question of who is an activist, and illustrates the argument that public activists should be fully recognised as critical geographers as Chatterton described (Chatterton, 2004 cited in Blomley 2008). Having discussed some of the key debates and concepts in critical and activist geographies, and explored both positives and negatives for their acceptance, I will now conclude. This essay has explored the growth of critical geographies, which has led to institutional acceptance that is visible in the plethora of universities teaching about them, as well as conferences and journals. However, I have also illustrated how critical geographies have lost their way slightly, focusing too much on analysis of identity politics and not enough on action for change. Furthermore, the significance of Left-wing politics and ideas has been oppressed by the dominance of neoliberal ideas. However, whilst the past has been far from perfect, critical and activist geographies could be approaching a new wave of significance, in what Smith sees as a society more open for change. Geographers must cease this opportunity to

GE02312 7 THEORY, SPACE & SOCIETY engage outside the academy, and fulfill Marxs ambition for change. References Amin, A. and Thrift, N. (2005) Whats left? Just the future. Antipode 37:220238 Castree, N. (2000) Professionalisation, activism, and the university: whither `critical geography'? , Environment and Planning A 32: 955-970 Blomley. N. (2006) Uncritical critical geography? , Progress in Human Geography 30(1): 8794 Blomley. N. (2007) Critical geography: anger and hope , Progress in Human Geography 31(1): 52-65 Blomley. N. (2008) The Spaces of Critical Geography , Progress in Human Geography 32(2): 285-293 Fuller, K., and Kitchin, R. (2004) Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Academic Geography Beyond the Academy? in Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Making a Difference Beyond the Academy, Praxis, Vernon and Victoria. 1-20 Gibbons, W. (2001) Critical of What?': Past and Current Issues in Critical Human Geography, History of Intellectual Culture, 1(1): 1-16 Gregory, D., Johnston, R., Pratt, G. and Watts, M.J. (2005) The Dictionary of Human Geography, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester

David Harvey at Occupy London (2011), Youtube video, viewed 10th Decemeber 2011, <>
Mitchell. D. (2004) Radical Scholarship: A Polemic on Making a Difference outside the Academy in Radical Theory/Critical Praxis: Making a Difference Beyond the Academy, Praxis, Vernon and Victoria. 21-31 Smith, N. (2005) Whats Left? Neo-Critical Geography, Or, The Flat Pluralist World of Business Class, Antipode 37:887-99

Neil Smith at the 18th Annual Critical Geography Conference - on "Occupy Wall Street" (2011), Youtube video, 10th Decemeber 2011 <>