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The Emergence of Radical/Critical Geography within North America


Peake, Linda and Eric Sheppard. "The Emergence of Radical/Critical Geography within North America." ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies. 13.2 (2014): 1–23. link

p.1: In this paper we aim to provide a historical account of the evolution of Anglophone radical/critical geography in North America. Our account is structured chronologically. First, we examine the spectral presence of radical / critical geography in North America prior to the mid-sixties. Second, we narrate the emergence of both radical and critical geography between 1964 / 1969 until the mid-1980s, when key decisions were taken that moved radical / critical geography into the mainstream of the discipline. Third, we examine events since the mid-1980s, as radical geography merged into critical geography, becoming in the process something of a canon in mainstream Anglophone human geography. We conclude that while radical / critical geography has succeeded in its aim of advancing critical geographic theory, it has been less successful in its aim of increasing access to the means of knowledge production to become a peoples’ geography that is grounded in a desire for working towards social change. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.2: In particular, we interrogate the conventional wisdom, today, that radical geography emerged out of Clark University with the publication of Antipode in 1969, and was primarily Marxist. This is the case, but there also was much more. Fourth, as geographers we must be alert to the geography of knowledge production. In interrogating conventional wisdom, therefore, we begin to disinter both the theoretical/ideological variegation, characterizing the field from its beginnings but unevenly though time, as well as outlining the complex spatialities connecting the US with Anglo-Canada and beyond. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.4: Of course, what is striking about this list is its exclusivity. Neither women nor people of colour feature in accounts of this period of North American radical academic geography, yet the seeds of their participation were also sown during this time and they were to figure increasingly in developing both radical and critical geography, although this has been more the case for the former than the latter. Their absence in these reflections speaks strongly to the ways in which the production of knowledge reflected the social demographics and political preoccupations of the overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class North American academy of that time. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.5: Antipode: A Journal of Radical Geography was initiated at Clark in 1969, at the end of David Stea’s graduate seminar (Mathewson and Stea 2003). It was a student-led initiative: “a reaction against the Vietnam War, racism and pollution… The key to Antipode’s origin is the term ‘radical.’ We were groping for root causes of the problems, contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies with which we had grown up…. The ‘specter that stalks Europe’ that Marx made famous didn’t come first to mind because of who we (mostly white and male and middle class) young Americans were” (Wisner 2006). -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.5: Antipode’s emergence was the relational effect of multiple conditions of possibility, but it created visibility, and a place, for radical geography by dint of being a concrete and recognized academic object (a journal), drawing others into the orbit of Clark University where it was physically located. The early issues were eclectic, reflecting those who were aware of it and bound together by a shared no—-rejection of the US societal status quo—-and diverse yeses. Articles were included on imperialism, poverty, ghettoes and African Americans, geography’s whiteness, women, American Indian geography, the environment and nature, remote sensing, migration, and a map projection. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.7: The first meeting of the USG was held in Toronto on May 26-28 1974 (Akatiff, 2011), in parallel with the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) meeting and ‘under the roof’ of the Toronto Geographical Expedition. Eliot-Hurst provided vans enabling a group of Simon Fraser students to travel across the country to attend.

The mandate of the USG was:

The purpose of our Union is to work for the radical restructuring of our societies in accord with the principles of social justice. As geographers and people, we will contribute to this process in two complementary

  1. Organizing and working for radical change in our communities
  2. Developing geographic theory to contribute to revolutionary struggle. (Akatiff 1974b: 1)

-- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.9: Over time, academic articles became increasingly prominent, with a persistent diversity of theoretical and substantive approaches (including those of anarchist, gay and feminist geography). By 1981, the USG had 180 North American members, and midwest, east coast, west coast and Ontario and Quebec local collectives. The USG Newsletter had become a third radical geography journal, alongside Antipode and Transition. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.9: During the 1970s, forces of conservatism within the discipline and the academy posed continual barriers to the presence of a revolutionary radical geography in North America. Akatiff and Bunge were denied tenure, and in other cases the USG helped catalyze campaigns when others faced a similar threat (e.g., Dick Walker at Berkeley). Eliot-Hurst was replaced at Simon Fraser University, and the new chair set about dismantling radical geography. Horvath left, and when Eric interviewed at SFU in March 1976, the new regime plainly did not know how to react to a quantitative geographer enthusiastically supported by students because of his radical leanings. In 1977, on the Peace Bridge at Fort Erie, Canadian customs seized copies of Antipode from the possession of Dick Peet and Phil O’Keefe, on the grounds that they were not ‘really geography’ (USG Newsletter, 3#2, 1978-9: 5). By the late 1970s, however, radical geography was less preoccupied with breaking away from than breaking into the institutional structures of the discipline. This catalyzed extensive debate within the USG about whether to retain its independence—reinforced by declining subscriptions from an ever-expanding membership. There were also discussions about whether to formalize the relationship between the USG and Antipode. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.10: Nineteen eighty-six marked not only the commercialization of Antipode but also the demise of Transition; it was the turning point when radical geography in Anglophone North America became reframed as ‘critical’. As radical geography entered into the mainstream it merged with a nascent but, we argue, already existing critical geography. The late-1960s to mid-1970s saw a flourishing of different voices in Antipode, Transition, and the USG newsletters; socialist, feminist, anti-racist, anarchist and environmentalist approaches to studying social problems and advocating social change were all evident. This reflected the multivalent, intersecting protest and social movements unleashed by a 1960s politics of radicalism, anti-racism, sexual liberation and emancipation, in which various protagonists were involved in multiple ways, and the complex linkages between these and academic trajectories -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.12: During the early 1970s radical geographers’ interest in poverty had been inflected with concerns of race as much as those of class. Bill Bunge’s DGEI had been formed (in 1968) in conjunction with African American community leaders to highlight the racism and poverty under which daily urban life was lived by African Americans. He and other radical geographers were publishing in Antipode on the conditions of life in urban ghettoes in the United States and in the developing world (Blaut 1974, Bunge 1971, 1976, Elgie 1974, Harvey 1972, Smith 1974), as were a few African American scholars (Donaldson 1971, Darden 1975). 17 7 By the mid 1970s, however, Marxist concerns largely turned away from race and racism, an unfortunate turn of events that led somewhat to studies in the global urban north reducing their understanding to an effect of class, and in the global south to their elision with underdevelopment and imperialism. Race and racism, theoretical objects of study so central to the inception of radical geography, disappeared from the agenda. Interestingly, they were just starting to appear in a new trajectory being carved out by North American humanistic geographers interested in the everyday lives of racialized communities (Ley 1974), an approach that was eventually to lead to the new cultural geography. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.14: While the progress of radical geography through the late 1960s and 1970s into the mid 1980s was an assertive one, that of critical geography was less assured, more hesitant. And while radical and critical voices were growing they had yet to gain widespread acceptance from the mainstream, which was still a decade or so away. Nonetheless, it was evident that this intensely political period in geography was providing a new intellectual leadership. Many of its earliest practitioners were progressing through the academic ranks, to become not only full professors but also internationally renowned scholars, developing new fields of study, occupying prestigious chairs and becoming presidents of geographical associations, editors of journals, and medal winners. It was in this period, in 1983, for example, that the critical geography journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space was launched, to become extremely popular with a wide range of scholars. Unquestionably, this groundwork set the stage for a remarkable increase in the number of younger scholars who from the 1990s onwards were to identify as being on the ‘Left’. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.14: The early 1980s had been a period of internal critique for radical geographers to maintain a commitment to revolutionary ideals or to join in the mainstream and accept a more fluid conception of praxis. For feminist geographers and geographers of sexuality studies it was a period of consolidation, for anti-racist geographers one of retrenchment. In short, it was a mercurial time for radical / critical geography, only to become increasingly turbulent as postmodernism and poststructuralism started to make their impact felt on the discipline in the mid to late 1980s. The widespread adoption of these philosophical approaches across the social sciences and humanities (and beyond) has been identified in geography as the so-called critical / cultural turn. It was to lead to a convergence of interests in the recognition that race, gender and sexuality, as class, were social and cultural constructions, charged through with power lines, social meanings and identities, meritorious of their own theoretical framings and united through a shared relational epistemology (Peake 2009). -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.15: A 1987 survey of geography departments in North America also found just over 5% (n=73) of academic geographers were people of colour (African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians) (Shrestha and Davis 1988), and a more recent survey of black geographers in the United States put the figure of practitioners at just over 60 (Darden and Terra 2003). Although women have made increasing forays into the discipline, people of colour still find geography institutionally racist, a space that has not only proven difficult to enter but also one that a number who found a way in have subsequently decided to leave. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.16: Critical geography was unquestionably flourishing, but for many it was also losing sight of its alternative nature and political purpose, and thereby its viability. The neoliberalization of the North American academy (and beyond) haunted radical / critical geography throughout the 1990s, replacing engagement and activism with professionalization and catalyzing what Castree (2000) dubbed academicisation, i.e., a reluctance to engage in activism as it endangered progress up the academic ladder. In response, new radical / critical spaces began to emerge beyond the academic mainstream. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.16: Most recently, the 2000s saw the launch of two new journals. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies began in 2002. The journal’s purpose, like that of Antipode, is to provide a “…forum for the publication of critical and radical work about space in the social sciences…. Analyses that are critical and radical are understood to be part of the praxis of social and political change aimed at challenging, dismantling, and transforming prevalent relations, systems, and structures of capitalist exploitation, oppression, imperialism, neoliberalism, national aggression, and environmental destruction.” -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.17: These examples of ongoing experiments in critical and radical academic geographic publishing speak to the ongoing struggles to carve out space for radical / critical geography in the contemporary increasingly neo-liberalised academic world. -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014

p.18: The seemingly inexorable march forward of journals and organisations in the 21st century would appear to indicate that radical / critical geography in the US and Canada is alive and well; it has succeeded in its aim of advancing critical geographic theory. As we argue, it is now canonical in mainstream Anglophone human geography. But has radical / critical geography succeeded in its aim of increasing access to the means of knowledge production, through both pedagogy and research, to become a peoples’ geography that is grounded in a desire to work towards change through praxis? -- Highlighted aug 29, 2014