Hard on the heels of my post about the Human Geography Summit (below), comes news of Joel Wainwright‘s Geopiracy: Oaxaca, militant empiricism and geographical thought (forthcoming from Palgrave Pivot in October):
Why have geographers remained so quiet about the resurgence of military funding for geographical research? Joel Wainwright argues that the underlying problem stems from our epistemic commitment to empiricism. Much as some would like to deny it, many geographers are executing their own ‘expeditions’ in the spirit of Isaiah Bowman, the early twentieth-century geographer who shaped the discipline’s empiricist epistemology while helping the US to build its empire (and from whom the Expeditions take their name). Geopiracy delivers a critique of the ‘Bowman expeditions’ – a project through which geographers, with funding from the US Army, are mapping the ‘human terrain’ of foreign lands. Since the beginning of the controversy surrounding the Bowman expeditions, the discipline of geography has been rocked by debates concerning research methods, the military, and the effects of geospatial technologies on everyday life. Although the ‘Oaxaca controversy’ has fomented intense discussions, the questions it raises are far from resolved. Geopiracy offers a postcolonial critique of human geography today – one that draws on contemporary social theory to raise unsettling questions about the nature of geography’s disciplinary formation.
If you don’t know the background, Neil Smith‘s American Empire (2003) offers a searching examination of Bowman – ‘Roosevelt’s Geographer’ – and Zoltan Grossman provides a series of really helpful links to the contemporary controversy surrounding the Bowman Expeditions/México Indígena project here. There’s also an online documentary, ‘The Demarest Factor: US military mapping of indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico’, here.
Most of us are probably familiar with the lively debate in Anthropology about the cultural turn in counterinsurgency and, in particular, the enlistment of anthropologists in the US Army’s Human Terrain Teams and the like. If you’re not, then check out the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. But anthropologists aren’t the only scholars who should be concerned about the weaponization of culture and the growth of the Military-Academic-Industry-Media complex (MAIM for short). As Joe Brian put it in an editorial in Political Geography, ‘Geographers can ill-afford to sit this debate out, lest the discipline become a means of waging war by other means.’
True enough – but, as the Human Geography Summit reveals, the train left the station long ago. In any case, geographical knowledge is not enclosed by the discipline of Geography. Our primary concern should not be disciplinary purity – not Joel’s or Joe’s intention, I know – but the development and dissemination of insurgent geographies that not only expose but also replace violent formations like those documented in Geopiracy.