Cultural Geography at the Millennium: A Call to (Intellectual) Arms

By Mitchell, Don | Journal of Cultural Geography, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Geography at the Millennium: A Call to (Intellectual) Arms


Mitchell, Don, Journal of Cultural Geography


It ought to be the best of times for cultural geography. Culture, it seems, is at the heart of everything. Economic geography, political geography, social geography, various environmental geographies, feminism, Marxism, post-structuralism, have all had their "cultural turns." Cultural studies is where people now turn for theoretical insight. Anyone not on the cultural bandwagon is left in the dust. Formerly hardnosed economic geographers dilate on the "culture of the firm;" political geographers enthuse about the power of discourse to shape geopolitics; urban geographers are fascinated by the new cultural economy of the city.

But anyone who really takes culture seriously knows that all these cultural turns are often little more than a theoretical and political dodge (even as some of the new topics that have been developed are important). It is a dodge because a radically under-theorized "culture" has come to be a catchall explanation, while, as anyone who studies culture seriously knows, culture can never be an explanation: it is what must be explained. So perhaps these are not the best of times for cultural geography--for those in geography who have made it their business to take culture deadly seriously and always and everywhere have sought to explain its manifestations. It is not the best of times because so much hard, difficult theorizing about how best to understand culture and its geographies is rapidly being undone by the rather sloppy cultural turn in human geography that is rapidly looking more and more like a cultural wipeout, a wipeout that might have some serious implications for the power of geography and geographers to intervene in the radically unjust world in which we live.

That is to say: this is a time of unparalleled opportunity for cultural geographers. It is an opportunity to assert what we know about culture and to assure that the cultural turn is neither a wipeout nor a dodge, but is rather something politically important. It is an opportunity to draw on the wealth of research in the field that has so convincingly shown that:

* The invocation of culture is always an assertion of power. This is true whether culture is invoked affirmatively or pejoratively. To assert culture as a site for identification, an explanation for behavior or process, or even as a special realm of meanings and values, is to assert power over how ways of life are to be defined and lived--a point well-understood, if not well-executed, by the architects of America's current wars on terror and Iraq. The true question for analysis, then, is how best to analyze assertions of power, their effectiveness, the ways they are resisted or thwarted, and so forth. Answering that question requires a careful, materialist, historically sensitive focus on real social processes.

* Focusing on real social processes is the only way to get at how, when, and especially, in particular circumstances, why "culture" operates as ideology.

* "Ways of life," "maps of meaning," "systems of signification," or "habits and norms" (all typical definitions of culture) are never natural or neutral. They are fought over, negotiated, imposed. Culture wars are real and they are important. While it is true that culture is sometimes not thought about (by those acting within, through, around, and over it), it is never true that culture is "unthought" (as the current jargon has it). Culture is strategy.

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