Geography’s subject

Conceptualisations of a ‘subject’ or subjectivity form part of a theoretical tradition variously theorising who, what and where the ‘human’ is in geography. I don’t want to poorly approximate excellent intellectual histories of human geography (in particular Kevin Cox’s Making Human Geography and Derek Gregory‘s Geographical Imaginations are worth regularly revisiting) but I think it’s nevertheless probably important to remind ourselves of the kinds of geographical imagination with which we continue to make meaning in geography.

Waymarks in the theoretical landscape of geographical tradition might include theories of action, human agency, identity, reflexivity, structure and sovereignty. The latter two on that list might be the most influential in geographical work that took alternative paths to the ‘quantitative revolution’ of the post-WWII period. Political agency and power, considered from all sorts of angles, whether geopolitical or bodily intimate, have formed a longstanding interest for those considering ‘subjecivity’. To pick two key influences for the kind of (Anglophone and basically British) geography I’ve ‘grown up’ in, we can look at the influence of Marx and then literary theory (maybe as assorted flavours of structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism etc).

Geographers influenced by Marxian traditions of thought have been perhaps more concerned with the kinds of people who can act or speak in society–who has power, and how. ‘New’ cultural geographers moved towards acknowledging a greater diversity in identities and an attempt to account for a wider gamut of experiences, extending beyond the perceived limits of the ‘human’. The erstwhile reference: The Dictionary of Human Geography contained ‘human agency’ and ‘sovereignty’ entries from the first edition (1981) while an entry for ‘human subjectivity’ did not arrive until the third (1994).

Conceptualisations of ‘the subject’ and subjectivity can be broadly seen to follow the twists and ‘turns’ in geographical thought (don’t take my word for it, look at the entry in the Dictionary of Human Geography). Whereas the figure of the human ‘subject’ of much of mid-20th century geographies carried implications of universalism (homo economicus, or ‘nodes’ in spatial modeling), several theoretical ‘turns’ turned that figure into a problem to be investigated. Perhaps from humanistic geographies onwards, geographers have attempted to wrangle and tease out the contradictions of an all-too-easy to accept ‘simple being’ (Tuan, Space & Place: p. 203). So, for (what Gregory, in Geographical Imaginations calls) ‘post-Marxist’ geographical research the sole subject-positioning of ‘class’ elides too much, such as varying (more or less political) differences in identities, e.g: gender, race and sexuality. There is, of course, lots of work tracing out nuanced arguments for a differentiated and decentred subject, which I cannot hope to do justice to in a blogpost, but maybe we can tease out some of the significant conceptual points of reference.

An attention to the identities and subject positions of those who are not male, not heterosexual, non-white, non-Western and not of the global North is important to subject and subjectivity theorisations. This sort of work mostly occurs in the kinds of geographies collected under sub-disciplinary categories like cultural, development, feminist, political, social (and a long list of) geographies. Postcolonial accounts of subaltern subject-positionings and subjectivities powerfully evoke the processes of Othering and Orientalism, especially drawing upon literary theory (such as work by Homi Bhabha, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak). Feminist geographers highlighted the masculinity of that ‘simple’ figure of ‘the subject’ and the importance of attending to gender and sex (in particular we might look to Gillian Rose‘s Feminism and Geography and the Women and Geography Study Group of the IBG’s 1984 Geography and Gender [1]). This attention to the forms of difference that may influence subject formation and subject-positioning, especially race and sexuality, has grown into something like a normative element of ‘critical’ geographical thought. Of course, this is not without controversy and contestation. Look at, for example, the negotiations around what it means to hold an RGS-IBG annual conference themed on decolonisation – check out the virtual issue of Transactions for some excellent interventions. Taking this further, some geographers variously inspired by wider movements in social theory seek to ‘decentre’ the (human) subject in favour of approaches that address the complex variety and ‘excessive’ nature of experiences that are not delimited by the individual human.

I’m inclined to identify two further themes in contemporary theorisations of a ‘subject’ and subjectivities in geography, which are considered more or less ‘cultural’: (1) theorising pre- and trans- subjective relations; and (2) attempts to account for more-than-human subjectivities.

First, theories of affect as ‘different models of causality and determination; different models of social relations and agency; [without] different normative understandings of political power’ (as my colleague Clive Barnett says in ‘Political affects in public space‘) attempt to both decentre but also render ontological a figure of ‘the subject’ (for more critical reflections on this sort of thing I recommend exploring Clive’s work). Non-representational or more-than-representational geographies seek to decentre ‘the subject’ by appealing to pre-subjective experiences, focussing on ‘affects’ (just do a search for ‘affect’ in geographical journals and you can see the influence of this way of thinking). ‘Affects‘ are processes that exceed any individual (they are ‘trans-subjective’) and structure possibilities for individual thought and experience, which constitute subject-formations and positionings (this is sometimes considered ‘ontogenetic’, as my colleague John Wylie has argued).

Second, geographers extend analysis to more than ‘human’ experience. Through the infleunce of Science and Technology Studies we have ‘hybrid’ geographies (following Sarah Whatmore) that trouble clear ‘subject’/’object’, and ‘human’/’non-human’, distinctions address distributed forms of agency, such that agency emerges from networks of relations between different ‘actants’, rather than ‘subjects’ (drawing out the influences, and the geographical mash-up, of Actor-Network Theory and sort-of-Deleuzian assemblage theory). A focus on these sorts of more-than-human geographies has for some time been non-human animals as ‘provocateurs’ (See my colleague Henry Buller‘s Progress Reports [1, 2, 3]). The ‘non-human’ is extended beyond the animal to broader forms of life–including plants, bacteria and other non-human living (and dead) matter (for example see the fantastic work of my colleagues in the Exeter Geography Nature Materiality & Biopolitics research group)–and further to the inorganic ‘non-human’ (I guess in terms of the new materialisms currently in fashion, such as Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter). Finally, perhaps the most influential trope in contemporary geographical accounts of subjectivity and subject-positions (that I end up reading) renders processes creating a ‘subject’ as, at least in part, coercive and involuntary (more or less following Foucault’s theories of ‘governmentality‘ and ‘subjectification’). This is often elucidated through processes of corporate and state surveillance, many with digital technologies at their heart.

What seems to become clear (to me anyway!) from my ham-fisted listing and attempting to make sense of what on earth geographical understandings of subjectivity might be is the significant turn to ‘ontology’ in a lot of contemporary work. I don’t know whether this is due to styles of research, pressures to write influential (4* etc etc.) journal articles, lack of time for fieldwork and cogitative reflection… but it sort of seems to me that we’re either led by theory, so assuming subjectivity is the right concept and attempting to validate the fairly prescriptive understanding of subjectivity we have in our theory toolkits, or we’re applying a theoretical jelly mold to our data to find ‘affects’, ‘subjectification’ and so on, when maybe, just maybe, there are other things to say about the kinds of experience, the kinds of agency or action, or ways we understand ourselves and one another.

The abstract figure of ‘the subject’ may be the metaphysical, catchall entity attributed with the ability to act, in contradistinction to static ‘objects’. This kind of ‘subject’ is a vessel for the identities, personhood and experiences of different and diverse individuals. It’s funny then to think that one of many concerns expressed about the growth of (big) data-driven ‘personalisation’ and surveillance is it propagates monolithic data-based ‘subjectivities’, we are calculated as our digital shadows and so forth… In this sense, the ‘ontological’ entity of ‘subject’ appears to supplant the multiple, perhaps messy, forms of subjective experience. Then both of these can perhaps displace or elide wider discussions about action or agency (which is an important element of discussions of pragmatism in/and geography).

For clarification purposes, I’ve begun to think about three particular ways of interrogating how geographers approach whatever ‘subjectivity’ is: (1) a conceptual figure: ‘the subject’; (2) particular kinds of role and responsibility as: ‘subject positions’; and (3) kinds of experience as: ‘subjectivities’. Of course, we probably shouldn’t think about these as static categories; in a variety of geographical research they are all considered ongoing processes (as various flavours of geographical theory from Massey to Thrift will attest). So, I suppose we might equally render the above list as what get’s called: (1) ‘subjectification’; (2) ‘subject positioning’; and (3) ‘subjectivities’.

I could witter on, but I’m running out of steam. I want to (albeit clumsily) tie this back to the recent ‘turn’ to (whatever might be meant by) ‘the digital’ though, cos it’s sort of what’s expected of me and cos it may be vaguely interesting. It’s funny to think that the entity (figure, identity, person etc.) these concepts ground is still, inspite of hybrid geographies and STS influences (mostly), ‘human’. Even within science-fiction tales of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), as Katherine Hayles highlights, ‘the subject’ is mostly a human figure – the entity that may act to orchestrate the world (there is, of course, lots to unpack concerning what ‘human’ might mean and whether any technology, however autonomous, can be considered properly non-human).

So, all this might boil down to this supposition: within ‘digital geographies’ debates ‘the subject’, especially the data-based ‘subject’, may be usefully thought about as a figure or device of critique rather than an actually existing thing, while ‘subjectivities’, and how we describe their qualities, remain part of a more plural, maybe more intersectional, explanatory vocabulary.

Notes.

1. I can’t find much online about the original, 1984, Gender and Geography book (maybe needs a presence?) but the Gender & Feminist Geography Research Group (what WGSG became) published Gender and Geography Reconsidered, as a CD(!), which is available on the research group’s website.

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