A call to arms

LACOSTE La géographie ça sert d'abord à faire la guerreI expect most readers will be familiar with the debate in anthropology over its contemporary militarization:  the incorporation and appropriation of anthropologists and anthropological knowledge in the service of military power, most notably through ‘Human Terrain Teams’.

But it’s a much wider debate that isn’t limited by the military’s ‘cultural turn’ and what I once called ‘the rush to the intimate’ (see DOWNLOADS tab), and recent ‘Human Geography Summits‘ have repeatedly drawn attention to the strategic and tactical significance of geo-spatial intelligence and geographical modelling in apprehending (and appropriating) that ‘human terrain’ (for the 2013 meeting see here).

And now, over at Antipode, there is a must-read open-access column by Joel Wainwright:  ‘“A remarkable disconnect”: On violence, military research, and the AAG’ .  As you’ll see, it’s about much more than the wretched Bowman Expeditions to Central America, important as they are and indispensable as Joel’s critique in Geopiracy has been (see also my brief commentary on different ‘expeditions’ here).

The first part of Joel’s argument, ‘Misunderstanding militarized’, is available at the Public Political Ecology Lab here.

‘It sounds like a whisper’

BUNGE Fitzgerald 1st edn

BUNGE Fitzgerald 2nd ednRemember Bill Bunge‘s Fitzgerald: geography of a revolution (1971)?   Trevor Barnes and Nick Heynen celebrated its republication in 2011 by the University of Georgia Press:

‘Forty years after its publication, Fitzgerald remains fresh, energetic, compelling, and relevant. One of Bunge’s purposes in Fitzgerald was to do human geography differently. He pushed the discipline in a new direction, helping to transform it into something else. If we see Fitzgerald differently now compared to when it was written it is because the discipline in which we gave become socialised has significantly altered. Fitzgerald helped to change it. We all contain, perhaps more than we would like to think, perhaps more than we would like to know, a little bit of Bunge, a little bit of Fitzgerald.’

You can find the full set of commentaries in Progress in human geography 35 (5) (2011).  What distinguished Fitzgerald, apart from its driving, passionate narrative, was a series of remarkable, original and imaginative maps of the Detroit neighbourhood where Bunge made his home.  These were not decorations – many of them were deeply troubling – but an indispensable means of driving the argument home.

Now Denis Wood has followed in Bunge’s footsteps – readers will surely know The power of maps (which he wrote and later re-thought with John Fels) – using maps to tell a series of exquisitely layered stories about Boylan Heights in Raleigh, North Carolina in Everything sings: maps for a narrative atlas (2013).  His publisher Siglio explains:

Iconoclastic geographer Denis Wood has created an atlas unlike any other. He surveys his small, century-old neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina by first paring away the inessential “map crap” (scale, orientation, street grids), then by locating the revelatory in the unmapped and unmappable: radio waves permeating the air, the paperboy’s route in space and time, the light cast by street lamps, Halloween pumpkins on porches. His joyful subversion of the traditional notions of mapmaking forge new ways of seeing not only this particular place, but also the very nature of place itself.

DENIS WOOD Everything Sings

In a long and lively interview about the book, re-published today on Guernica, Denis argues:

Maps are just nude pictures of reality, so they don’t look like arguments. They look like “Oh my god, that’s the real world.” That’s one of the places where they get their kick-ass authority.

If you’re having trouble explaining the politics of ‘deconstructing the map’, then this may be a good place to start.  And do click on the thumbnails above the interview for a selection of 20 images from the expanded edition of Everything sings.  More on Denis’s work and access to his writing (and much more besides) at his website here.

WAINWRIGHT GeopiracyOf course other, markedly ugly narratives can be inscribed on the world through maps.  Fitzgerald was a collaborative project, and it drew on the work of the Detroit Geographical Expedition.  But there have been other, decidedly invasive ‘geographical expeditions’ – like the American Geographical Society’s Bowman Expedition (Zoltan Grossman provides a rich series of sources here, and Joel Wainwright‘s Geopiracy: Oaxaca, militant empiricism and geographical thought (2012) is indispensable).  So it’s good to know that Denis is currently completing another book (with Joe Bryan), Weaponizing Maps: bringing the conquest home, which is an incisive analysis of military mapping of indigenous populations in Canada, Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua and the imbrications of cartographic Reason with contemporary counterinsurgency.

I expect both Bill Bunge and Tracy Chapman would agree there’s a revolution needed there too.


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.