The disciplinary H/heritage of G/geography

The discipline of Geography has a very chequered history, linked to imperial endeavour and global exploitation. Some scholars have refered to Geography as the handmaid of empire, while much popular contemporary commentary on Neoliberal globalisation processes sometimes seem to be related simplistically as some sort of ‘inevitable’ consequence of Geographical ‘laws’. We need to examine the Heritage of Geography quite carefully, and indeed: one of the key strands of the last 30 years or so of geographical research has seen the critical reflection on this disciplinary history, as well as its enduring legacy – or ‘heritage’. But perhaps there can be an alternative story?

The key published disciplinary histories tend to focus on Geography (with a capital ‘G’) – see the work of people like Mike Heffernan, Felix Driver, Robert Mayhew (etc.). While these excellent broad syntheses tend to involve a gloss on the ‘early Geographers’, such as Eratosthenes and Ptolemy, the overwhelming emphasis of these disciplinary histories is an institutional story, which focuses of the developing discipline in the early modern era and rise of Geographical Societies in the 19th century; some key ‘explorers’ and navigators. This is certainly a laudable project, and the reflection that such a critical history has prompted has been one of the key intellectual developments during my lifetime as an academic; since being an undergraduate in the 1980s. But, do these histories do ‘geography’ (with a lower case ‘g’) a disservice?

Jerry Brotton’s (2012: 4) ‘History of the World in 12 Maps’ argues that “the urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct”. In other words, from early childhood, we make sense of the world through a sort of unconscious ‘cognitive mapping’ process, through which individuals acquire, order and recall all sorts of information and data about their spatial environment; all subconsciously “in relation to a vast and terrifying ‘world-out-there’”. Indeed, on a simple level you could say that humans are not alone in doing this – lots of animals are ‘geographers’ too: marking territory; travelling on migratory routes; dancing to demonstrate where the nectar can be found – though it seems that humans are the only ones to make the leap from ‘mapping’ to ‘map-making’. This suggests that we need to make more room for a project that explores the (lower case) ‘heritage of geography’, perhaps alongside the critical examination of legacy of (upper case) Geography’s Heritage.

If we take Jerry Brotton’s statement seriously, then we really should be diverting our attention to realms beyond the formal discipline: perhaps we need to explore the (all lower case) ‘heritage of geography’, as well as the more grandiose ‘Heritage of Geography’. Is Eratosthenes really the ‘first geographer’? Did the ‘first map’ really get produced to aid a trade mission in Mesopotamia (at Nuzi, in present day Iraq) around 2300BCE?

Map from c2300BCEMap from c2300BCE~2

[IMAGE: Early land map from Nuzi, Iraq, c.2300 BCE. Thought to be depicting a trade route]

Such a project would make space for relations between the human and the non-human, right from the outset – perhaps a key notion within and behind all conceptions of what ‘geography’ is meant to be about. And it also immediately takes us beyond the ‘famous people’ (usually ‘great’ white men), and beyond the formal, powerful institutions. This is what I am getting at when I talk about the distinction between ‘small g’ geography and ‘Big G’ Geography – and which can perhaps be mirrored by a distinction between ‘small h’ heritage, and ‘Big H’ Heritage.

If we take a slightly simplistic view of (small ‘g’) geography – as a knowing articulation and reflection on being in the world, which perhaps can be demonstrated by the use of a ‘map’, in whatever form, then the practice of map making must have surely been undertaken by early hominids? Maps are from before the time of homo-sapiens, or Neanderthals. Map making is probably older than speech or literature – or perhaps can be seen as a means of communicating that is commensurate with early ‘literature’. Indeed, perhaps bees (and other non-humans) were the world’s first ‘geographers’? ‘geographers’ (as opposed to ‘Geographers’) have always been with us; we have always been geographers.


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