Dear, Michael et al. 2011. Geohumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place, reviewed by Rob Sullivan

Dear, Michael, Jim Ketchum, Sarah Luria, and Doug Richardson, Editors.  GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place, Routledge, New York, 2011, 344 pages, $51.95 paper, ISBN 9780415589802

Opening up and perusing GeoHumanities: art, history, text at the edge of place is a bit like opening up a wonder book of old, its pages revealing things never seen, heard, or even imagined: digital montages of desert drone images (in Ursula Biemann’s “Counter-geographies in the Sahara”), aerial perspectives vis-à-vis their relationship to the Iraq War’s “ambiguous spaces” (in Caren Kaplan’s “The space of ambiguity: Sophie Ristelhueber’s aerial perspective”), GIS remappings of the cartography of W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro (in Amy Hiller’s “Teaching race and history with historical GIS: lessons from mapping the Du Bois Philadelphia Negro”), computerized excavations of the religious sites of fifteenth-century China (in Peter K. Bol’s “What do humanists want? What do humanists need? What might humanists get?”), cartographic poems of Manhattan Island and the Oregon coastline (in Howard Horowitz’s “Wordmaps”), and “landscapes of spectacle” theorized through the Hollywood Western (in Stuart C. Aiken and Deborah P. Dixon’s “Avarice and tenderness in cinematic landscapes of the American West”). Beautifully published by Routledge, with a copyright shared by the individual contributors and the Association of American Geographers, and edited under the combined stewardship of Michael Dear, Jim Ketchum, Sarah Luria, and Doulas Richardson, one wants the wondrous feeling of excitement incited by the initial perusal of the book to endure through the entire reading of GeoHumanities.  However, at least for this reader, there are a few flaws to this collection that do not allow for quite that level of felicity.  Still, GeoHumanities is a terrific introduction to a segment of interdisciplinary studies which seems to be on the verge of explosion.

One of the flaws of this collection has to do with the historiography of the relationship between geography and the humanities, the other with what seems to be a case of self-promotion on the part of one of the editors.  On the historic side of things, it is with a gnawing sense of foreboding and a growing sense of trepidation to discover that the word “new” is used eight times in the book’s two-page introduction, along with the phrases “novel approach,” “radical break,” “emerging zone of practice,” “emerging forms of the geohumanities,” “emerging geohumanities,” and, finally, “a project that is just beginning.” Though the label of geohumanities may be relatively new, this is a project with a long and illustrious lineage.  Denis Cosgrove spent more than forty years of his life working precisely this vein prior to his death in 2008.  What of articles such as the aptly titled “Geography and Literature” by Douglas C.D. Pocock (1988, page 88) in which he reports that a session of the 1972 meeting of the International Geographical Union was devoted to the “use of the regional novel in teaching regional geography”?  Whatever academic cachet comes from being on the front lines of the cutting edge, it is certainly not worth either denying or ignoring the heritage of a body of work one is claiming to have found undiscovered, newly emerging, and fresh for the taking.

The more important point to be made here is that by downplaying the scope and scale of their legacy, geohumanists are selling their “new” discipline short by thousands of years of work performed by an array of practitioners in a wide variety of civilizations. Geography and the humanities have been aligned at least since Homer used the Aegean as the “ground” on which to place his tale.  The vast majority of haiku poems are miniatures of geo-humanistic splendor, combining words and nature in swift strokes of genius.  What are mappaemundi but a unification of geography, theology, and art?  And what are national anthems but geography and the humanities working in conjunction with nationalistic chauvinism for the construction of an imagined community?  True, GeoHumanities does not completely neglect a past that it could easily recruit into its ambit: Sarah Luria’s “Thoreau’s Geopoetics” is a nice tracing out of the geo-humanistic implications of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River, and Du Bois’s work on Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward is examined in the afore-mentioned essay by Amy Hiller.  But Cosgrove is mentioned only fleetingly, his contributions to this field only heralded in a footnote, and it is not until page 226 that a tribute is paid to “the early writings of Carl Sauer and his focus on cultural landscapes, history, and archeology.”  Now, it may be true that linking a geographer as unfashionable as Sauer to the provenance of geo-humanities may disturb the “emerging” quality of this enterprise as well as destroy its bohemian quotient (to reference Richard Florida’s urban indexing “system”), but shouldn’t accuracy and precision trump novelty and hipness in a scholarly publication brought forth under the aegis of the AAG?

The other misstep in GeoHumanities is the dominance of Michael Dear’s work at the beginning of the book, as three of his pieces constitute the first three selections of GeoHumanities.  Dear’s frequent referencing of Southern California and Tijuana skews the entire book right off the bat, as if GeoHumanities will be yet another book valorizing the centrality of LA and the “Southland.”  Also, Dear’s positioning of the visual as the central perceptual sense by which the geohumanities will operate strikes me as myopic (pun intended): what about the aural, as song and place are intertwined to the point that one stands in for the other: e.g. “New York, New York” for New York, New York.

All that aside, is too late to insist that GeoHumanities: art, history, text at the edge of place is an important book?  There are many high points in this collection, not least of which is the splendid reproductions of photographs, paintings, animation, and video stills, and GIS images.  Of course, as in most collections, GeoHumanities has its lows, too, its zeniths and nadirs: the whimsicality of a cartography of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as renamed by community members (in kanarinka’s “The City Formerly Known as Cambridge: A useless map by the Institute for Infinitely Small Things”), and the sobriety of Peta Mitchell’s “‘The stratified record upon which we set our feet’: The spatial turn and the multilayering of history, geography, and geology” provide some of the most salient high points, while the “necessity” of the inclusion of the following sentence in the twenty-ninth essay of a book containing thirty essays leaves one scratching an editorial itch: “GISscience provides an intellectual framework for formalizing place-based concepts in such a way that they can be digitized and stored in the computer,” while the contention by Edward L. Ayers in his “Mapping Time” that the South and the North of the Civil War-era were “places so alike in every way but one – one had slavery, and one did not” leaves one scratching and itching at a geographical and historical boil, wondering why it doesn’t burst through its own morphological distortion.

Still, the positive side of the ledger surely outweighs the negative here. One can’t help but be stunned by the range of work being done in the nexus connecting the humanities to geography.  As a reference tool for collating such information, GeoHumanities: art, history, text at the edge of place certainly succeeds, assembling between covers source material and web-links to send off the curious reader for months of profitable digging through the archives.  And the question of just what the GeoHumanities should consist of,  the plumbing of its possible depths, the outlines of its possible discourse, are again and again handled with an intelligence and an earnestness that betokens much outstanding work in the future.  One hopes this enterprise bears much fruit: may a thousand academies of the GeoHumanities blossom and thrive!

Rob Sullivan, Department of Geography, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095 USA


Pocock D C D, 1988, “Geography and literature” Progress in Human Geography 12 87-102

One Response to Dear, Michael et al. 2011. Geohumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place, reviewed by Rob Sullivan

  1. Pingback: Three Spatial/Geo Humanities books… | urbanculturalstudies

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