Back to Boston: the AAGs, 2017

I haven’t lived in the US since 2004 (I spent 7 yrs there in total, leaving before a vital Green Card never came), but every few years I attend the American Association of Geographers annual meetings. The reasons are several – I was educated in the US for 3 yrs and taught there too for 4 yrs; the event is fun and often inspiring; and quite often I can combine it with other things. This year might be the last time I attend for a while, so it has been useful to take stock. Boston was the first place I landed in 1987, before moving onto Worcester, Massachusetts for grad school. This year, the AAGs were in Boston.

This year, the academic workforce and scholarly people more generally have a lot on their plate. There is the US divided by insane politics (Trump bombed Syria just as I was in a conference panel) and many political and economic woes in the UK, where I live most of the the year. There are two major issues. Firstly, for scientists and non-scientists alike, what is the point of our work if the whole search for truth that we are engaged in, is now imperiled by a quotidian distrust of experts in general,  environmentalists in particular, and notions of scientific truth? I organised a session in this in March in the UK on this new form of post-truth populism. Current US policy is designed by assertion rather than truths  – buoyed up by the right wing press, social media snippets and soundbytes, and by Presidential executive orders and decrees that form policy  along the lines of good/evil, right/wrong, American/non-American rather than balanced and tolerant appraisal in the democratic spirit. The media, and the public, have risen to embrace populist politics, unfortunately. If the President’s office is dismantling climate mitigation measures and withdrawing funding and the EPA’s budget, hiring extreme right wingers to judicial and civil service posts, trying to seal off Mexico from the US, and barring entry to some foreigners based on ascribed identity, clearly geographers and their ilk are not winning the debate. At all. And Federal funding for research that the government doesn’t approve of, will diminish, too.

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AAG Boston 2017 – Geographers March for Science

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AAG Boston 2017 – protest material on absent geographers, etc.

The conference held several sessions to debate these issues. There were some on the implications of the Trump presidency, although I missed them. There was also support for scientists’ protest actions  (photo) and  the remnants of a protest held in Copley Sq were also posted up and added-to in the building, to support banned colleagues  (photo). The AAG is in a  tight spot, since several conference participants were denied entry to the US on grounds of their nationality, and issuing a statement of supporting principles was not quite enough to halt a solidarity boycott of the event, for this reason. Many people from Canada, for example, refused to attend (including in my own sessions).

The gist among the argument among Americans I talked to or listened to, was that it was better to fight the current regime and its backers from within; find new audiences and coalitions, and if necessary wait things out til the end of the 4 year term. They have gone beyond embarrassment about politics, to anger. This has not yet happened in the UK with Brexit, which is in some respects more permanently xenophobic and destructive, although unlikely to result in any war or widespread destitution [Cynical election just called for June 8 2017…] But the multiple paradigms of knowledge visible in previous AAG meetings did not seem perturbed in many conference sessions – few people addressed head-on that their findings on climate or land use change, for example, lay counter to current government thinking and should be challenging it. But one session with Rebecca Lave, Noel Castree, Stuart Lane and  others – senior enough to say what they like – did address the point, and more.  I don’t go to many science-heavy sessions, so I would be interested to hear from others that did. (I think organizing 3 sessions and speaking in others was probably a bit too much for me to fully appreciate what was going on elsewhere).

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Noam Chomsky

Secondly, there was an small, sometimes imperceptible shift in the discourse of geographical and associated  work, now that the political landscape has changed. Remember that in a previous Boston AAG meeting in 1971, Dick Peet at Clark (who in fact taught me in 1988) and other radical geographers accused the discipline as a whole, and economic geographers like Brian Berry in particular,  of anodyne support for the existing corporate order, with their use of vacuous quantitative techniques that measured economic change without any commitment to understanding why it happened, or to principles of social justice. This was part of a relatively new radical geography movement in those years, that today is well ensconced in the profession and frequently guiding it. It examines the spatial elements of exploitation and injustice, and more. Among conference participants I sensed much more identification with elements of the radical perspective than its opponents  (but I  don’t go to excruciating sessions looking at optimising shopping centre and hotel location etc., that still hark back to the 1970s-I once did that stuff for a job in my 20s). Sessions dealing with justice and principles were well attended. I guess we are all searching for answers.  Over a thousand listened to Noam Chomsky (photo). Chomsky likes geography – in retirement, one thing he does is teaches a class at the University of Arizona with Marv Waterstone, a former colleague at UofA. Chomsky’s account of social injustice included his own persecution and segregation in 1930s Philadelphia, when Jewish identity was attacked, and so it was not just happening in Europe back then (he is 88!). He did remind us that such things are becoming more visible in the current political climate.  We are not yet out of the woods of intolerance – much to say there, an he said we are not yet seeing the emergence of the ‘Asian Century’ either, given US corporate dominance and its subcontracting of manufacturing in Asian countries, notably China, which has not yet replaced it. (I think I heard him say, “unfortunately” – a video will be posted).

Geographers in my own session about alternatives to mainstream, corporate publishing seemed ready for change – make our work far more available, control any financial  surplus we have from academic journals we manage (Dick Peet’s point, just after confessing the biggest mistake of his career was selling Antipode in the 1980s) and avoid bankrupting our university libraries that have to buy that same knowledge that many of us produce in the first place (as journals subscriptions). To some extent, publishing inequities are a microcosm of wider debates besetting university scholars – can we maintain academic freedom? Can we teach and research what we see fit? In this case, can we publish where we want so that we reach the right audiences, even as the industry suffers buyout after buyout, and concentrates in 5 main companies with large profits?  It was pent-up frustration in the room – we have to publish, but our work is sold for a fortune. A manifesto on this issue looks like it is in preparation as a result of the session.  In the book hall, I spent half an hour or so with several company reps from Wiley, T&F and MDPI. This was interesting, with some reps. even questioning the financial bind that publishers are in. And the ‘publications problem’ is all on top of  policymakers not listening to what we say right now….

A session on  ’50 years of radical geography at Clark’ was of particular interest to me, since I went there thirty years ago as a student. While Clark was a centre of radical thought long before I got there, it was good to hear what past geographers actually did there and elsewhere in that radical movement, and what they thought and wrote from the 60s onwards – in neighborhood solidarity movements, publishing, teaching and and other areas. They actually won – the academic disciplined changed by a few notches, they contributed to the Civil Rights movement (in Chicago and Detroit in particular), and gender equality improved somewhat on campuses too, although that was slower. As ukulele-playing  Phil O’Keefe said (no kidding-Geordie worker’s songs!), quoting somebody I have forgotten, we all need to “look up and see where the enemy is”  to survive as active and even as radical geographers. (I am never regarded as a proper radical geographer- wrong PhD supervisors perhaps, too interdisciplinary, don’t read or cite the literary canons at length…)

I sometimes wonder what happened to the esprit of the 1960s-70s radicals today  – but then I attended some of the sessions on Degrowth as a philosophy and a movement. There it is.  The degrowth exponents definitely touch on some of the radical legacy, in new ways and mostly from their bases in Europe –  through anti-capitalist behaviors and anarchist organizing and livelihoods. The sessions were particularly well attended and lasted all day. Another challenge to Trumpian capitalism and American entrepreneurial values.  (see special issue we just published on degrowth in JPE).

If there were hopeful signs of passion and engagement with the issues faced in contemporary America and beyond, through protest and a few fighting words, then they are occurring in a context where the ability to teach and research the discipline in a university or a college is definitely no better than it was before I started. Colleagues seem resigned to decades of temporary employment (a particular feature  in the US, with its odd, binary tenure/non-tenure system and few staff unions, but present in all the countries I have worked). I realized my own situation is luxurious by comparison. And, things have definitely changed since I first looked for a teaching job in 1993.

Up at Clark University in Worcester, it seemed like old times – after arriving on a much faster train to a nicer station, I went with friend Jude Fernando to a workshop on decolonization run by Amber Murrey, with Prof. Pat Daley from Oxford attending and several African scholars, notably writer Prof. Patrice Nganang.  This made for a loud happy bilingual dinner afterwards at Jude’s, who continues to tread a trailblazing path in his teaching and scholarship, now revisiting what anthropologist Edmund Leach got up to in Sri Lanka decades ago, as a way to gauge long term histories of social change, class,  and water management.  Dianne Rocheleau had a retirement party – her activities over the years, locally in Worcester and further afield in the DR and Mexico, have always been inspiring. Too inspiring – earlier at the AAG I had trouble getting through some brief closing remarks in a session organised in her honour, as did others in the room. At Clark I wisely said nothing. She is leaving the US to live in Chiapas.

In conclusion, these big AAG meetings are ambiguous. They are inspiring, and opportunities to validate what we get up to the rest of the year. New ideas and projects always spin off from them. Protests – something of a theme –  have obviously continued since the 1971 AAG, since there are still very many targets for them.  …..Now, in 2017, the sense of anger, of  ‘not in my name’, is real. But there was also sad reminders this year that academic professions are changing for the worse, jobs are scarce, and our influence on the political economy of western nations is probably dropping. This may seem like unnecessary moaning  to non-academics, but it might provide geographers at least with enough reason to keep fighting.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Back to Boston: the AAGs, 2017

  1. Thanks Simon! Insightful as always.

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