Interview with Joseph Masco by Sonia Grant

Joseph Masco is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexicowinner of the J. I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research, the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science, and the Robert K. Merton Prize from the American Sociology Association. His current work examines the evolution of the national security state in the United States, with a particular focus on the interplay between affect, technology, and threat perception within a national public sphere.

Sonia Grant is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on the environment and environmental regulations, and the rise of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the US, and her article “Securing tar sands circulation: risk, affect, and anticipating the Line 9 reversal” appears in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(6).  Sonia can be reached at soniagrant[at]

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 9.09.41 AMSonia Grant: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your new book, The Theater of Operations: National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2014). I’d like to start by getting a sense of what brought you to this project, and what kinds of continuities you see between it and your first book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (2006). Both books engage with Cold War national security culture, technoscience, and secrecy, among other key themes. How did The Theater of Operations, as a project, develop for you? Did it feel like an obvious ‘next step’ from your work on the Manhattan Project?

Joseph Masco: While I was concluding fieldwork on The Nuclear Borderlands, the September 2001 attacks occurred and provoked a massive U.S. military buildup while renewing national fears of a nuclear catastrophe. White House officials were quick to declare a “new normal” of counterterrorism, marked explicitly as a radical break from Cold War notions of security. This rejection of deterrence, combined with an amplification of existential threats, were central themes in what became a pretty shocking militarization of American society. The War on Terror – as a political project — was a systematic attempt to create amnesia about the 20th century security state (and its prior actions in Iraq and Afghanistan) while at the same time using the familiar Cold War notion of nuclear danger to foment an existential crisis, one enabling quite radical actions around the world.

Some of the first conversations I had in Los Alamos in the early 1990s concerned the future of the laboratory, and of the U.S. nuclear weapons program more broadly, in light of the demise of the Soviet Union. At that time, U.S. weapons scientists were already talking about nuclear terrorism, the threat of radical forms of Islam, and, above all, were positing the arrival of a violent global adversary that could not be deterred. So, in a sense, the counter-terror state project was articulated to me almost a decade before the 9/11 attacks.

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Sacred Space Unbound – A Virtual Theme Issue

Society and Space review editor Veronica Della Dora has compiled a virtual theme issue on sacred space. Read the remainder of her introduction to the issue, as well as links to its contents (which are currently available open access), at the link below. 


Photo: Orlando Woods

All religious belief implicates space; all religious practice makes geography. In the broader sense, the term ‘sacred’ indicates something ‘different’, ‘set apart’, ‘other’, as well as something to which is ascribed special meaning. Yet, where do the boundaries of the sacred lie? Is sacred space an ontological given, or is it a social construction? Is it a portion of territory, or is it the product of a set of practices? Is it something we walk on, or is it something we perform? Is it permanent or ephemeral? Is it private or public?

Over the past decades, geographers and other scholars from across the humanities and the social sciences have approached sacred space in different ways: as a well-defined space set in opposition to ‘the secular’; as a contested domain continuously articulated and rearticulated through performance; as a repository of powerful symbols and meanings; as a dynamic assemblage of materials, sounds, and human emotions. This virtual theme issue presents a small selection of articles published in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and Environment and Planning A which have developed some interesting approaches to sacred space and which reflect some broader epistemological shifts occurred over the past twenty years. While the concept of the sacred has been often extended to non-religious spaces and rituals, especially in the context of memorialization and national identity making, for the purposes of this issue we will limit our selection to spaces associated to religion.

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Change and continuity, again

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 11.35.31 PMStuart Elden became Editor of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space with the first issue of its 25th volume. Now, 8 and ½ years later, he is stepping down.

In his first editorial as Editor, titled Change and Continuity, Stuart set out three key aspects of his vision for the journal. First, he declared that Society and Space, “by the very nature of the questions it addresses is an inherently interdisciplinary journal”, and set his sights on expanding its reach across disciplinary boundaries. Second, he highlighted the journal’s aim “to be international in its focus, and to publish work coming from across the world”, alongside his wish to bring non-English debates to the journal’s readers through both submissions and translations. Third, he announced changes in submissions processing at EPD, changes that saw a decentralized editorial structure replaced with one in which Editor and Co-Editors vetted each submission collectively.

Stuart’s tireless efforts to cultivate the journal’s theoretical depth and quality have yielded dividends in each of these three areas: the interdisciplinary and international network of authors, reviewers, and contributors that Society and Space relies upon has certainly grown; he has especially brought in scholars working on continental theory and philosophy in a range of sites, and has facilitated the publication of numerous translations in the journal’s pages; and, the collective mode of working that he instituted at the beginning of his tenure with the journal worked so effectively that, in 2013, we moved from a structure of one lead Editor and several Co-Editors to a flat structure of several Editors who share all administrative and intellectual responsibilities equally.

Stuart’s efforts also extend well beyond the print journal. Most notably, he began this Open Site in 2011, and its growing audience year-on-year is a testament to his vision of the benefits and contributions of an open-access journal companion site. Further, he has remained keenly intent on fostering the work of junior scholars and graduate students behind the scenes.

We will sorely miss the collaborative spirit and energy that Stuart brought to the journal, and we thank him for his mentorship, friendship and collegiality. He has accepted our invitation to remain on the Society and Space masthead as an honorary editor, so our gratitude for his work and dedication will surely continue to grow. The journal will inevitably change as we bring on new team members in months to come. But, as Stuart noted when he started in 2007, we will likewise continue to try “to do what the journal does so well – publish challenging, well-written and theoretically innovative contributions to ongoing debates, as well as sparking fresh ideas and mapping new directions.”

Deborah Cowen, Natalie Oswin, Mary Thomas

Interview with Arnold L. Farr by Margath Walker – On critical theory, liberation and Herbert Marcuse

Margath Walker’s article “Borders, one-dimensionality, and illusion in the war on drugs” appears in issue 1 of volume 33 of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. In it, she interrogates the war and drugs across North and South America by deploying Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse’s concept of one-dimensionality. As a supplement to the article, the following conversation with Arnold L. Farr, a philosopher who has looked to Marcuse to examine issues of race and justice in the United States, explores some of the important theoretical contributions of Marcuse. Walker’s article is now open access for one month.

Margath Walker: I would like to begin with a conversation about Marcuse and the ways in which you have been instrumental in bringing him to the forefront of theoretical discussions both in your own work and through the International Marcuse Society. Why should critical theorists be interested in Herbert Marcuse?

Arnold Farr: So, who is he? Well, of course he is a member of the famous Frankfort School for Social Research that was formed in Germany in the 1920s, all of whom were exiled to the US when Hitler came to power. Their lives were in danger. Walter Benjamin lost his life en route. The others came to the US. After the war, most of them returned although I believe Erich Fromm stayed in Mexico. Marcuse and Leo Lowenthal stayed in the US. They are famous for fusing Marx and Freudian psychoanalysis. They were concerned with the following question: why does it seem to be the case that the people who benefit most from a Marxist revolution and social change are most likely to resist it? It was Freud that helped them understand the way in which capitalism and other forms of economic and social systems can shape one’s psyche so one accepts oppression. In addition, Marcuse was a scholar of Hegel in terms of what we call dialectical thinking. One of his most important essays-“ A Note on Dialectics”- published in the 1960 edition of his second book on Hegel, Reason and Revolution, explains what dialectical thinking is for him. To think dialectically is to look at one’s society at any given moment and see in tandem the development of forces for liberation whereby the possibility of liberation is already there, and the forces for further oppression. And so society is never this static thing that simply has the present structure. There is something always contained within itself which provides possibilities for it being otherwise.

MW: What is compelling to you as a philosopher about Herbert Marcuse?

AF: Well, one of the things that drew me into philosophy was the freedom to think, I felt liberated just reading philosophical texts and learning how to think and to think critically. And I’ve always been concerned with issues of justice and, of course being African American from the South there’s the race issue. I have always been attracted to the kind of philosophy that helps me think about day to day problems and issues. Being one who is concerned with oppression and social justice, the Frankfurt School seems to give me the theoretical lenses for grappling with those issues more than almost any other philosophy that I know of. And Marcuse is particularly interesting because of his very profound critique, a critique that goes so deep that sometimes it sounds pessimistic but it’s not because even as he explains the social mechanisms that are in place to prevent any kind of social change and liberation at the same time he’s quite aware of developing possibilities for liberation. So, he’ll write a book like One-Dimensional Man where he’s describing our society as one-dimensional and there are all these mechanisms for what he’ll call putting subjectivity or thought under erasure. Whereas he’ll then write a book like An Essay on Liberation focused on the mechanisms in our society that are mechanisms for liberation.

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Linnet Taylor – Towards a contextual and inclusive data studies: a response to Dalton and Thatcher

Linnet Taylor, University of Amsterdam, offers the following commentary as a response to Craig Dalton and Jim Thatcher’s piece on this site, “What does a critical data studies look like, and why do we care? Seven points for a critical approach to ‘big data.”


The social sciences are engaged in a trans-disciplinary debate on the meaning and use of new forms of digital data. One of the most important repercussions from Dalton and Thatcher’s call (2014) for a critical data studies has been an awareness that researchers need to continually sensitise themselves to the contextualities of data’s production and use (Kitchin 2014, Graham and Shelton 2013, Nissenbaum 2010). This short essay responds to this ongoing debate, laying out the case for such an awareness and asking how we might better operationalise it in data studies. If researchers working with the new data sources – and geographers in particular – can learn to think across contexts in a more inclusive way, it may take us further toward realising big data’s promise as a tool for social scientific research.

Like Dalton and Thatcher, I use the terminology of ‘big data’ as central to the process of imagining a more contextually aware data studies, since it is precisely because of ‘bigness’ that context tends to disappear. ‘Big’ can easily become a synonym for ‘universal’ in ways that can be both unreflexive and insidious. For instance, a focus on the analytical challenges of large and complex datsets tends to crowd out a more inclusive perspective in favour of a focus on the most active online population – the US – because it provides the greatest breadth of data. ‘Big’ is powerful, it is epistemologically deterministic (Cherlet 2013), and it suggests a truthiness that gets in the way of reflexivity.

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Uneven trading: Gieseking on Harris

514Q9dxdL3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Jen Jack Gieseking reviews Tina Harris’ monograph Geographical Diversions: Tibetan Trade, Global Transactions (University of Georgia Press, 2013). Geographical Diversions is a well written ethnographic contribution to the study of mobilities, fixities, and trade, with a focus on trade routes in Nepal, Tibet (or Tibetan Autonomous Region, i.e. TAR), India, and China. In her first monograph, anthropologist and geographer Tina Harris traces the “properties, spatial origins, and trajectories of commodities” that serve to fix some geographies while rendering others mobile and free. Moving between ethnographic thick descriptions of traders’ precarious stop and start movements over dangerous and shifting routes, dull-yet-revitalized British colonial diaries, local and international newspaper clippings and archival records, and interviews with traders, the book is a dialogue between geocultural and geopolitical economies of those living and trading across national, regional, and local scales. Continue reading here.

Spatial Humanities: Promise and Peril

Spatial Humanities9780253011862_medGwilym Eades offers a double review of The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, edited by David Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor Harris (2010) and  Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History, edited by Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes (2014). Both volumes came out with Indiana University Press.

The transformation of GIS into GIScience was a de-reifying move in a succession of moves that have gradually brought geospatial tools and technologies into realms of scholarly reputability. It is now no longer a knee-jerk reaction to assume that the use of GIS as part of scientific, cultural, political, or economic inquiry must be part of a positivistic conspiracy to colonise (and ultimately degrade or destroy) geographic inquiry once and for all.  I will argue, through a review of two recent books from the University of Indiana Press (The Spatial Humanities and Toward Spatial Humanities), that, nonetheless, reaction (though now less knee-jerk) is still real, and that because of this reaction, reification of geospatial technologies often occurs through reduction of technologies and practices to sets of tools.  I will argue, further, that it is only through focus on geospatial practices (Wittgenstein, 2009; Hanna and Harrison, 2004) that continued de-reification of GIS, and subsequent productive uptake in sub-disciplines within geography or related disciplines, can occur. Continue reading Gwilym’s review here.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865): Anarchism and Geography- Federico Ferretti

The following essay is a supplement to Federico Ferretti’s “Anarchism, geohistory, and the Annales: rethinking Elisée Reclus’s influence on Lucien Febvre” that appears in issue 2 of the 2015 volume of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.  The paper will be open access until 1st June 2015.

In a recently-published paper,[1] I present Pierre-Joseph Proudhon as one of the common references linking the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus (1830-1905) and the French historian Lucien Febvre (1878-1957), who was a great Proudhon’s admirer and also collaborator of an important Proudhon’s scholar like Georges Gurvitch (1894-1965).[2]

In the last years, several researchers have progressively rediscovered the historical and epistemological links between Geography and Anarchism, addressing historical figures of anarchist geographers like Reclus and Peter Kropotkin (1841-1921):[3] thus, the aim of this text is to call the attention of English-speaking academic world to another historical figure of the French-speaking anarchist movement and to stimulate new research on these topics.

Proudhon is considered as one of the founders of anarchism, as he was the first person to ever declare himself an anarchist.[4] As I stated in the paper on Febvre and Reclus, Proudhon was a very important figure for the formation of left-libertarian and radical tendencies, influencing authors and political movements all along the 20th century,[5] including the French movement of Syndicalisme Révolutionnaire, very close to Anarchism, which especially interested Febvre.[6]

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Review of Jerusalem Unbound

9780231161961Oren Shlomo reviews Michael Dumper’s book Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History and the Future of the Holy City (Columbia University Press, 2014).

The violent events of the summer of 2014 in Jerusalem were a tangible reminder of the explosive tension that characterizes inter-group relations in the contested city. Those events brought to life the lines between Israeli and Palestinian urban spaces, especially in the northern parts of the city, and highlighted them as rigid internal boundaries between the two communities. Michael Dumper’s book, written prior to those events, offers an outstanding and wide analytical overview of Jerusalem’s inner and external borders. Continue reading Oren’s review here.

A wet world: rethinking place, territory and time – Kimberley Peters and Philip Steinberg

The following photo essay is a supplement to Philip Steinberg and Kimberley Peters’ ‘Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking’, that appears in issue 2 of the 2015 volume of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Here, Steinberg and Peters interweave extracts from the paper with autoethnographic reflections on the seas in their lives. The paper will be open access until May 27, 2015.

Plate 4KP


How does our perspective change when we think not only from the sea, but with the sea?

Over the past two decades, the sea has slowly crept into human geography. Together with colleagues in the emergent field of critical ocean geography, we have been making the argument, time and again, that geography has historically been a land-locked and terra-centric project. Geography is ‘earth-writing’, and earthliness has been taken very literally in shaping the spaces in which geographical study has taken place.

As we have been arguing, new geographical knowledge can be unearthed when thinking from the sea, and an increasing number of scholars are joining in this project. Studies from the sea are becoming more commonplace as we appreciate that ‘our world is an ocean world’ (Langewieche, 2001, 1). Subjects, objects, knowledges, and forces – seafarers, migrants, offshore protesters, fishermen (and women), naval officers, fish, ships, fossil fuels, consumer goods, laws, currents, and infrastructures have all featured in the numerous publications that now pay attention to life at sea.

This project is still ongoing.

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