Maps and Chaps

••• The New Geography Reaches Critical Mass

Let's hope the underdogs have some fight left. Because the last five years have seen a veritable counterrevolution sweep the discipline, with critics such as Ross Clark complaining that whereas history was supposed to be about chaps and geography about maps, now geography was about chaps, too: "It is about homeless chaps, hard-up chaps, and downtrodden chaps of all kinds," he wrote several years ago, adding that the field had devolved into "a general depository for Marxist academics who don't quite fit in any other university department." Then, three years ago, the discipline weathered a "thinly veiled palace coup" at geography's two major journals in a move some saw as a victory for hardcore positivism. "Having been blown away by Marxists, feminists, and radical poststructuralists, the more conservative part of the discipline is regrouping," Smith says.

And there are the Ivy League closures, which many geographers attributed to aging, dysfunctional faculties that were perhaps better off collecting their pensions. To geographers like Yi-Fu Tuan, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the damage has been done. "The loss of status in the last half-century is vividly measured by the decline of geography in the Ivy League universities," he says. "Many of the most talented young students have tended not to move into geography, because we've lost anchorage at these prestigious institutions." Others argue that if geography wants a bigger piece of academic turf, it will have to sell itself a little harder. "We have two great faults in geography," says George Demko, a Dartmouth professor emeritus. "First, we teach it so poorly at the bottom levels that nobody finds it important. And second, most of our prominent people don't write books about things that matter. The best historians have written great books and made history a very important part of everyone's life. We have not done that for geography."

Attacking that problem are people such as David Knight at the University of Guelph in Canada, who is writing a book about the geography of music. Knight, a geographer who also plays the timpani, is studying works such as Richard Strauss's "Alpine" symphony, which famously evokes a trudge up a mountain and an astonishing storm at its peak, and Dmitri Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony, which describes in sonic terms the relentless advance of German troops and the city's 900-day siege. "I suggest physical geographers should sit down and listen to some of these works," Knight says. "Composers are absolutely brilliant in the way they capture physical processes."

Illustration by Charlene Potts

It'll take more than a few timpani blasts to finish off the foes of cultural and critical geography, though. "No doubt there's a backlash," says Stuart Aitken of San Diego State University, "and there's a retrenchment of science." Yet Aitken, who is the sole critical geographer among almost two dozen colleagues, has also grown to appreciate the upside of working from the margins. "Sometimes I feel quite lonely," he says, but adds that sparring with his detractors keeps everyone on their toes: "It's a creative tension, and I wouldn't want to see it go away."

CUNY's Neil Smith is familiar with the feeling. "I can be a booster of geography, but I'm also one of its sternest critics," he says. Such constant self-scrutiny is a tribute to the fact that geography's fertile ground is genuinely interdisciplinary, and wide enough for everyone. Says Smith, "It's been one of the most exciting places to be, precisely because nobody can draw a boundary around you."

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