Archive for the ‘Total Geography’ Category

When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.


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Despite the best efforts of curriculum builders in schools and universities Geography may soon cease to exist. Like a firework, some disciplines burst into existence, burn brightly, explode into a thousand tiny sparkles and then disappear. This may be no bad thing: there is a school of thought that knowledge should not be broken up into disciplines and that it is only natural for a discipline to have a lifespan of usefulness and then die off. Following up the research I was doing recently into the Oceanic Turn of the 18th Century I was drawn into looking at work on “predisciplinarity”, or how ideas were organised before there were actual academic disciplines. From there I got into the idea that there might be such a thing as postdisciplinarity: a stage when disciplines stop being useful and cease to exist.  Geography as a named and labelled academic discipline isn’t actually that old, although people have been doing things that we would now call Geography more or less forever. The way that Geography can interact with so many other disciplines makes it a strong candidate for breaking up into little fragments, and I even have some colleagues who treat it as nothing but a bunch of fragments now. Of course they are wrong. There is a core, a heart to Geography that makes it much more than the sum of its component parts. Even though Geography overlaps with, and uses information from, a wide range of other disciplines, you can’t take a Historian, a Meteorologist, a Sociologist and a Geologist, shove them together in a building and call them a Geography Department! The heart, the Geography, the Geographers would be missing.  It is important for Geography students to learn (and for Geography staff to remember) what that heart is. Geography may be heading in the direction of the postdisciplinary, but it would be a little premature to think it was already there. Certainly Geography is the sort of discipline that can turn down that path very easily, but I don’t think it is time yet. Geography still needs some actual Geographers. If you are teaching Geography, or if you claim to be a Geographer, just make sure you know what Geography is and that you can tell the difference between what it reaches out to and what is at its core.

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When I explain my approach to Geography I keep finding myself returning to a small set of quotations and examples that illustrate where I am coming from.

T.S.Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

from “Little Gidding”

I often say that this is the whole point of studying Geography. We explore, we learn about places, we discover new things about the world, we have experiences. And then we apply all of that experience to our own viewpoint, to what we see out of our own window. And by seeing our own place in the light of all these other things that we have discovered and explored, we can see it clearly, and know it properly, for the first time. How we understand the places with which we are familiar changes as we explore new places with which we can compare them.

But what does that exploration and discovery involve?

Marcel Proust wrote:

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes; in seeing the universe through the eyes of another, one hundred others – in seeing the hundred universes that each of them sees.

from “In Search of Lost Time”

The aim of Geography is to see more, and one way to see more is to see through different people’s eyes, to take on board their experiences, their attitudes, their viewpoints. Our aim as Geographers is to be able to see in the landscape the things that a variety of other different types of people see, and to absorb their perspectives into our own. Then, recalling Eliot, we can come back from all that exploring and better know our own place, and ourselves.

Rudyard Kipling wrote:

…what should they know of England who only England know?

from “The English Flag”

If we know only one thing, have only one opinion, see from only one point of view, how can we judge that? In class with my students I use a simple analogy to explain this point. I hold up my whiteboard marker pen: “Look at this fat pen. But how do I know to call it a fat pen if this is the only pen I’ve seen?” I take a regular biro from my pocket. “Ah, yes, that one was a fat pen.” Only when I have something to compare with can I make my evaluation. If I know only one thing, I can know nothing about it. What can I know of this pen, if this pen is the only pen I know?

So we can’t judge something without context; without comparison. We can’t evaluate our own view of the world without placing it in the context of other views. I can’t really know my own “place” until, with Eliot, I have explored others and returned. And, with Proust, my journey of discovery is an exploration not only of places, but of other points of view.

As a Geographer, then, as I set out to explore and discover (or, as we say nowadays, to “engage with”) the world around me, what is it exactly that I need to do? How do I do Total Geography? I’ll consider that in future “Total Geography” posts.

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Over the last few months I have been putting together some ideas about something that I have been calling, in my own mind, “Total Geography”.  It is an approach to Geography that I have been working on for a long time and I think it’s about time for it to start showing its face in public a little, if only informally,  before I throw it into the deep end of formal publication in a little while.

More than probably any other subject Geography is characterised, in fact nowadays it is actually defined, by its split personality. One of the first ideas with which 1st-year geography undergraduates have to grapple is the notion of Geography as a “plural and contested discipline”. Some students don’t even engage with “Geography” at all but slip at the start of their degrees into either a “Physical Geography” or a “Human Geography” route. These specialisms, and the sub-specialisms within them, are very important. I have spent decades describing myself as a Physical Geographer, a geomorphologist and a glaciologist. But for me it is beginning to seem, after nearly 40 years of consciously defining myself as a Geographer of one sort or another, that I am losing something important if I look at the world through a small fragment of the lens, rather than using the whole of the glass.  One of the strengths of the discipline is that it can take a wide view of the big picture, as well as focusing down on the little details when they become important. Increasingly I feel that it is the contextualising wide view that defines the spirit of Geography.

And so, over the last few years, I have started to look for ways of rediscovering this wide view. Geography is about engaging with the world around me; exploring details to understand aspects of the whole. But my training has led me slowly into deep lines of specialist exploration: trained me to drill into my view of the world like a microscope. I know an awful lot about a few grains of sand and a few ice crystals. There’s more to Geography than that. We need to remember to keep looking up and looking around. Essentially, what I have therefore been playing with, both in my own geographical practice (let’s not call it research) and in the work I have been doing with students (and let’s not call that teaching), is a way of seeing more when I look at the world. A way of taking a wider point of view as well as appreciating those important details.

“Total Geography” sounds a little grand, but it has stuck in my head so it is the term I will continue to use. I’ll elaborate upon it in future posts tagged with that label, and I will try to collate the posts on my website at http://www.petergknight.com/totalgeography

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