Does critical geography need a shock to thought? On Purcell’s ‘joyful geography’

Over on his blog Path to the Possible Mark Purcell has written a thoughtful and interesting piece diagnosing a slip into a kind of cynicism, or perhaps a rut in ‘critical’ thinking in geography, that the predominant disposition of criticality in ‘critical geography’ is of being against– :  “against colonialism, against capitalism, against racism, etc.”.

Purcell argues that a negative consensus of what constitutes ‘criticality’ has developed that has created an orthodoxy of negation:

“I worry that we have become inordinately attached to singing in this key, that we have become unable to do anything other than cancel what we oppose.”

Indeed, this echoes a criticism of the over-coding of the various readings of what one might mean by ‘neo-liberalism’ by James Ferguson in Antipode that, as Clive Barnett summarises: “identifies a standard style of critique as denunciation of exploitation, inequality and oppression” but that can also be rather limited.

In this way we might understand such an orthodoxy of a perpetuation of an adaption to the contemporary milieu, in the form of a negation of its conditions (such as, for example, labelling everything ‘neoliberalism’) rather than an adoption and then rethinking the practices/processes of the conditions that produce it [I’m riffing on Stiegler’s distinction between adaption (as a tendency towards dis-individuation) and adoption (as a tendency towards co-individuation)]. This ‘orthodoxy of negation’ (as I have chosen to call it) can be characterised as a kind of entropy, a slip from proactive thought into what might be a kind of un-thinking or ‘unreason’  and ‘stupidity’ (as Stiegler has it in States of Shock). Stupidity is a necessary tendency for all of us insofar as it is the precondition for knowledge, but we need a shock to thought in order to reinvigorate our capacities for knowledge. Of course, we are overburdened by shocks (as Naomi Klein outlines in The Shock Doctrine) that appear to arrive with increasing frequency. Rather than submit to simply adapting to the onslaught of ever-more-frequent shocks, following Stiegler’s analysis, we need to engender a therapeutic form of ‘shock’ to our thinking that doesn’t simply confirm a status quo of the orthodoxy of negation.

Reading this together with the argument presented by James Ferguson, who argues:

“what if politics is really not about expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want? … Denunciatory analyses often treat government as the simple expression of power or domination–the implication apparently being that it is politically objectionable that people should be governed at all. But any realistic sort of progressive politics that would seek a serious answer to the question “what do we want?” will have to involve an exploration of the contemporary possibilities for developing genuinely progressive arts of government.”

Thus the habitual ruts of critique that Ferguson calls the “antis” (anti-globalisation, anti-neo-liberalism, anti-privatisation, etc.) in which any exercise of power is considered in some way dubious are, perhaps analogous to the forms of ‘stupidity’ (of entropy) that Stiegler argues against. I am not offering a simple and pejorative sweeping dismissal of any of those so-called “anti–” positions, neither am I making a glib appeal to Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that a more affirmative attitude might be necessary and that we all need to be aware of our own ‘stupidity’ (otherwise there’s simply no hope for individuation!).

I welcome a call for ‘joyfulness’ in research and in ‘critique’, a more affirmative attitude towards the exercise of power in the face of the orthodoxy of negation and all of this reminded me of Clive’s excellent reading of James Ferguson’s paper, upon which some of this post has been based. So, for me (and for what its worth) I guess I would advocate a kind of practical joyfulness – one that aspires to the same precepts of communing, of mutual aid, of solidarity that Purcell discusses in his blogpost and begins from the everydayness of doing geography (as an academic, as a teacher, as an activist and so on).

I’ve hardly slept due to a poorly child but I do think it’s worth reading all of these things I’ve linked here together to formulate a way of moving forward… just my grain de sel”Ž 🙂

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