As a young lad in Gillingham, England, the critical geographer David Harvey often tried to run away from home. His conscience always got the best of him, though. “So I decided to run away in my imagination,” he reminisced last year, and took to roaming the perforated vistas of his stamp collection, where countries were safely imprinted with the British monarch. Growing older, Harvey dreamed of sailing on the naval destroyers he toured with his father, a Chatham shipyard foreman. He limned maps of the empire and, as teenage wanderlust set in, cycled the Kent countryside.
If empire only knew what it had wrought. A world away and a lifetime later, Harvey is one of our keenest combatants for social justice in globalizing urban spaces. And though he’ll always have “a couple of toes firmly stuck” in the Gillingham mud, the once peripatetic youth has now planted his other foot at an auspicious address for the study of space and place.
That would be 365 Fifth Avenue, where Harvey took up residence in the anthropology program at the City University of New York’s graduate center last semester, joining a geographical think tank in the making. The center recently stole two of geography’s marquee names—Harvey, who decamped from his longtime post at Johns Hopkins, and Neil Smith, lured from Rutgers last year to be professor of anthropology and geography. Toss in this year’s $890,000 Ford Foundation grant to CUNY’s Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, and you’ve got what Chancellor Matthew Goldstein tags “the premier destination for the anthropological study of global urban issues.”
Not that the graduate center has a geography program. Among New York City institutions, in fact, only Hunter College boasts a full-fledged, autonomous geography department. There is no doctoral program in geography in New York City. Making matters worse, a spate of departmental shutdowns since the 1950s has left Dartmouth the only Ivy League school with a geography department still standing. It is a discipline, some say, with an inferiority complex.
“Geography has a low profile in the U.S.,” says Cindi Katz, who teaches in the graduate center’s environmental psychology program and has helped mastermind the transformation of the blocky former B. Altman building on 34th Street to something like critical geography’s Hagia Sophia. “We all like to think that’s changing.”
And so it is. But rote recitation of the trade routes of Turkistan this is not. “Geography was a service discipline,” Harvey says. “It served the military and it served the state. But in the ’60s and ’70s some of us started to take a line that was anti-capitalist, anti-state, and anti-military. We opened up a space for what you might call a critical intellectual geography.
“It’s got more of an intellectual kudos now,” he adds. “It’s taken a long time.”
Indeed, a growing number of scholars drawing on geography’s radical past—the anarchist Kropotkin was a geographer, and so was the French Communard Élisée Reclus—have given the discipline not just prestige but an academic blood transfusion. Wielding a trenchant cultural politics and looking at space through a neo-Marxist lens, they’re taking geography on a turn toward “critical intellectual citizenship.” Last February, for example, the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers drew 4700 people to midtown Manhattan to hear jam-packed talks from the likes of Marxist scholar Marshall Berman and attend sessions on such avant-hip topics as “Landscapes of Murder” and “Sonic Geographies: The Cultural Politics of Sound.” It was the 97-year-old association’s largest meeting ever.
So how did geography get back on the map? “For much of the 20th century, it was possible to think that the geography of the world was relatively fixed,” Neil Smith explains. “But if you think of the world as a giant jigsaw puzzle, the puzzle was thrown into the air in the ’60s, and now the pieces are starting to come down. Only the pieces that are coming down are no longer the pieces that went up.” As battles over globalization and environmental policy became headline news, geographers moderated a volatile debate over space and place. “Cultural geography in the 1990s, to understate the case, exploded,” according to Don Mitchell, a geographer at Syracuse University. And don’t discount the underdog appeal. “We like being something that constantly has to be rediscovered,” Mitchell adds. The hand feeding that canine, however, is still largely connected to the military-industrial complex, as the feverish growth in recent years of geographical information systems (GIS) has turned map-based data-crunching into a growth industry. “GIS is the tail that wagged the geographer’s dog,” Mitchell says. “A lot of people see that as the salvation of geography.”
Including students who may want a paycheck when they emerge debt-laden from grad school. “If you have a degree in GIS, you’ll get a job immediately,” says Richard Peet, a geographer at Clark University. “We lose a lot of good people to that.” Not one to be daunted by such matters, Peet is currently working with 10 students on a book about the WTO, World Bank, and IMF—they call them the “unholy trinity”—and says that despite the brain drain, geography’s radical camp is drawing students like never before. “Thirty years ago they never would even think about geography,” Peet says. “Now it’s almost a natural place for them.”
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.”
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.”