The intoxications of geography

Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker discusses the revival of what he calls ‘geographical history’.  He starts with the prospect of a ‘history of spaces’ moving us beyond the intimacies of the sort of ‘place history’ displayed in Le Roy Ladurie‘s mesmerizing Montaillou, but then shoots over the cliff and into the waiting arms of Robert Kaplan.  Is there no escape from the man? And yet it turns out that Gopnik’s not as enthralled as he first appears:

Important as geography might be, the idea of geography’s importance seems still more important. Though geography is offered as a sobering up after the intoxications of end-of-history ideology, it soon reveals itself as another brandy bottle, with intoxications of its own. See, the Chinese are making a pincer move there, and—look!—the Indians are once again seeking to dominate the Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient. Kaplan luxuriates in phrases of this kind: “Some years back I was in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, from whose vantage point Tehran and Mashad over the border in Iranian Khorasan have always loomed.” It’s the same language that you find in John Buchan novels of the Great War era; the Chinese are on their way here, Russia is probing the hinterland, the Germans conspire with the Balts. “I have reports from agents everywhere—peddlers in Samarkand and bullion dealers in Cologne” is the way Buchan might put it.

And then we’re off, following a ‘cartographic turn’ into a ‘space history’ – not exactly the spatial history lovingly demonstrated in Paul Carter‘s wonderful Road to Botany Bay, but still – before hurtling into Timothy Snyder‘s chronicle of the calculated murder of 14 million people in the borderlands between Berlin and Moscow from 1944 to 1945, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

And yet, ultimately Gopnik votes for intimacy over distance – in a smooth rebuke to Kaplan, he insists that ‘conversation shapes us more than mountains and monsoons can’: you can almost hear the third, this time affirmative “M”, Montaillou, suspended in the silence – and so returns his ‘history of space’ to the history of place:

‘[T]he argument for the primacy of geography is always an argument about trains. It’s always about technology, and the question of whether new machines make modern times different from all other times. Modern productivity is technology applied, and technology is, among other things, a repudiation of geography: it’s a way of insisting that the limits of the planet are not the limits of our lives. A train, or a telegraph, or a jet or a rocket ship, not to mention the Internet, collapses space and terrain. Flying machines get us over very high mountains. Borders disappear to bombers…’

It’s a wonderfully vivid image, but technology doesn’t ‘collapse’ space, still less ‘repudiate’ geography: these processes of time-space compression have their own geographies and produce their own frictions of distance. As I’ve noted before, contrary to Thomas Friedman‘s nostrums, the world isn’t flat – even for the US military.  What interests me most, though, is precisely the historical curve of the entanglement of distance with intimacy, particularly in times of war and especially in the bloodlands/borderlands – the leitmotif of my ‘Deadly embrace’ project…