Off the map

By John Morgan

Geographers often claim that ‘Places matter’. This sounds obvious enough, but what that actually means is less clear. In the 1970s geographers began to write about the rise of ‘placelessness’, and this concern that places were losing their distinctiveness heightened in the 1990s with the intensification of globalizing processes. Suddenly there was talk of ‘non-places’, ‘clone towns’ and ‘the geography of nowhere’ It is this that animates Alistair Bonnett’s new book Off the Map. He describes the feeling created from his journey from Epping (where he grew up) on the Central Line or on London’s Orbital road:

“I often felt as though I was travelling from nowhere to nowhere. Moving through landscapes that once meant an awful lot, but have been reduced to spaces of transit where everything is temporary and everyone is just passing through gave me a sense of unease and a hunger for places that matter”.

The book consists of 47 short essays about particular places – from ‘Traffic Islands’ to islands that were marked on maps but never actually existed, from the new desert created after the shrinking of the Aral Sea to cities which have changed their names and identities through political revolution. The effect is strange. Bonnett’s point is that to be human is to want to be involved in meaningful acts of place-making, but this is not an easy process. The forces that create placelessness are ever more powerful, and indeed many of the places Bonnett ‘visited’ via Google Earth! But even that is a serious point, since geographical imaginations are being shaped by a variety of media and everyday activities.

Off the Map, with its subtitle: ‘Lost spaces, invisible cities, forgotten islands, feral places (and what they tell us about the world)’ makes for an interesting read for geographers. It is the product of a fertile geographical imagination. Bonnett is a Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University (UK) and has, since the early 1990s produced a series of books and articles that offer an idiosyncratic take on how ideas shape the world. I first encountered Bonnett at a teachers’ conference on Anti-racist education in Luton in the mid-1990s. I remember it well because Bonnett spoke about his research on whiteness as an ethnicity. The idea that whiteness could be the basis for an ethnic identity caused some puzzlement. This was before the growing interest among geographers about the geographies of whiteness. After that, I kept an eye out for his work, and next encountered it through a little known journal called ‘Transgressions: a journal of urban exploration’ which was a forerunner of the psychogeographical literature that became so fashionable in the late 1990s and 2000s. This involved seeing and experiencing places in non-standard ways, such as exploring one city using a map of another one!

His next book was The idea of the West, and drew upon the notion of the ‘myth of continents’. That is, the regions such as continents that we assume are geographical entities are best seen as geopolitical constructions. Bonnett explored the changing defintions, represresentations and political constructions of the ‘west’. Next was his book What is Geography? Published in 2008 and which was his attempt to write a popular geographical text. It is an interesting book for teachers to read, not least because it sets out to argue that geography should be seen as a product of modernity, and that there exist both academic and popular geographical imaginations. In many ways, the institutions associated with geography are codifications of the popular geographical imagination. Bonnett makes it clear that no-one ‘owns’ geography, and at one point argues that attempts by geographers to claim ‘space’ as their own is a little bit rich. Who is to say that academic geographers, closeted in their Ivory Tower and drawn from a wealthy (thus narrow) social milieu, can claim to know places any better than ‘ordinary’ people. Left in the Past: radicalism and the politics of nostalgia, is a study of the way in which a yearning for the ‘world we have lost’ informs the political imaginations of even the most radical individuals who seek to sweep away the past and change the world – the ‘patricians of forgetting’. Interestingly, it is places and landscapes that produce this nostalgia, as in the work of ‘psychogeographers’ such as Ian Sinclair and his wanderings around the forgotten spaces of London. It is this sense of loss of place that is the springboard for Bonnett’s latest book, which seems to bring together a number of the threads in Bonnett’s recent work. It’s written for a popular audience, and makes the point that we all have an investment in places and landscapes. In addition, it recognises the nostalgia that the contemporary world can induce in us all.

This post was originally published on David Lambert & John Morgan’s Impolite Geographies blog.

Photograph used under creative commons license from here

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