What does geography do for us?

By David Crouch
University of Derby

What does geography do for us? A generation or two ago, it told us where, how big and when this or that site could be found. It taught us the distance between here and there. Space was distance between. Thee bitty things, fragments of facts and little understanding had some curious heritage: expeditions for exploitation, defence but equally attack. In the years before and during the second world war the excitement was focused on the ‘best’ sic use of resources for building the Nazis’ brave new world: cost efficiencies like this war vital in locating gas chambers and so on. Fellow traveller Christaller had been a major influence at the time, and in the decades that followed, became a core text, eagerly grasped by the seventies’ work on location analysis. In all of this ‘heritage’ there was little sign of human beings, only their resources. Of course, efficiency became a shared value across divergent cultures and politics during the second world war in particular, and in its aftermath, crucial times to make the best of vanishing energies and resources, that could then be put humanely to better use, yet still often more in statistical terms, increasingly the only approach to human dimensions; human life, lived experience all but deleted from human geography, yet life happens here and there, whatever happens.

The fuller human character engaged in human geography has stuttered to find space in the decades that have followed. The wrong turn of the postmodern-ism battered and trivialised human life into the frame of nonsense; the park at the corner of the road understood by its weakness of its message. Different ways of acknowledging the human – and increasingly more recently – the other-than, or as-well-as human character of our shared lives and livings that we affect and can be affected by in our living. What is space – simply distance between things, people, freight and so on, mere Euclidean space, inert or empty in itself? But how does that space ‘feel’? In what ways is space shaped by our values, memories, our pasts and desire; our own movements amongst a panoply of interacting senses messages? Even more so, how is space beyond objectivity; can we feel space; might space exist without us? These concerns are wholly practical; they make our lives and inform the way things are done; policy and practice.

For me, space is not a given; it does not wait to be burnished into place by us, individually or collectively, or in ways shared with other-than human life. Space, in ways that Deleuze and Guattari pressed, is flexible, occurs in flows, cannot be captured in and of itself. It is not distance between, that is distance; it does not by fermentation or distilling bear a potentiality to become place. Place exists in an abstraction; the idea of Heimat or home, a secure belonging, or, as the tourism industry harbours, place is an attraction, in German again, die sehenswurdigkeiten – things reduced to a gaze, a snapshot, a moment, a glimpse, ‘the sights worth seeing’; a sales pitch. The better question to ask is what do we make of space, or how does space ‘occur’, echoing the way in which the anthropologist Tim Ingold posed creativity, not bestowed upon us, not a given; something evolving?

Another anthropologist who listens more than imposes, investigates what happens and how, Kathleen Stewart, in her 2007 book Ordinary Affects : ‘Things flash up – little worlds, bad impulses, events alive with some kind of charge…’ the emphasis is on ordinary, an adjectival notion unfamiliar italicised. The recently late geographer Doreen Massey articulated a similarly open minded emergence of space in her writing For Space: the coming together of the previously unrelated, a constellation of processes rather than a thing… open and internally multiple… not intrinsically coherent.’ Perhaps more than anyone else, Stewart expressed the swirl of events, of life, of our relationalities in the world [and across time]. She encounters and engages numerous affectivities of varied register that populate that swirl and contribute to who we are and how we feel.

We want to know how memories are evoked elsewhere; we discover reminders of somewhere in where we are at this moment, as W.G.Sebald reflected in his book Austerlitz. We bestow colour, character, significance on here or there. Of course, structuralists would have said this was all down to Bourdieu’s question of class cultures. Contexts and other-labelling flicker and join the batch of affectivities in which participate; in which we live. By surprise, all of this comes down to leisure studying: questioning space questions our lived, affective relationships with ‘it. Yet perhaps space occurs through us, at least as much as through any other fashioned or even fashionable conduit. My chapter published this year on geography and anarchy could just as well be entitled with the words ‘leisure and….’. The idea is that we are much more participatory in space, geography, things we do, making carrot cakes, knitting, fishing, playing (leisure), yes and all those fancy things that a few here and there enjoy during a craze but more find exciting to write about.

In times such as the present, as everyday leisure sites are shaped and [re]located according to profitability, withdrawn from public participation to become objects of profit from consumers, just as the object money is denied through misshapen, ill-ethicised values of worth, investigating choices, practices, attunements, resistance and resilience of leisures are more urgent than ever. The more we engage in this way, and not merely in the split psychologies of this or that emotion, is it this or that; it is in and of the human – but in the relationality of the wider world. Movement, love and care, detachment, forms of mobility or being still, interrupted lives and so much more. Understanding space as complex, changeable and reflective of ourselves, as collectively occurring too, attunes our thinking and action more to – and from – what, how and where in living human beings are. An auto-ethnography, reflecting on our ways into leisure, refusals, changing choices; our companions and who is not there; memories that hover and may suddenly be right in front of us; the site if its/their occurrence.

Thus geography emerges with other disciplines working to unwrap and unravel the nuances and shifts in what makes leisure important, where its potential lies and where and how its lack makes it increasingly missed.

This is an edited and adapted extract from my chapter, Space, Living, Atmospheres, Affectivities in M. Nieuwenhuis and Crouch D. eds. The Question of Space: Interrogating the Spatial Turn between disciplines Rowman and Littlefield October 2017.


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