Karen Morin's new book is an appraisal of geography in the late nineteenth century, particularly of the dynamic, but now largely forgotten, president of the American Geographical Society (AGS), Charles Daly. Morin's biography of Daly is a doorway to consider several tensions that are still relevant today. These include tensions between scientific and "popular" geography, geography as a "militant" discipline with commercial goals, and, not least, geography as an epistemology and the politics of memory/forgetting; that is, the archive.
As hinted by the book title, Civic Discipline, for Daly geography was a popular and civic enterprise. Morin documents how Daly manipulated the press and was in turn manipulated by those with "geo-commercial"--and imperial (p. 12)--designs on Africa. Not least of these was King Leopold II of Belgium, and the story of how Daly and the AGS were enablers of the king's appropriation of the Congo is an outstandingly original contribution.
For Morin, geography is not just civic but also disciplined, in the Foucauldian sense. For Morin this means telling the story of the dialectic between thought and action: geographical thought and whether it disciplines how people think about the world and act on it. Without the right thought the action cannot take place in the way that it does. In this sense she is tackling the history of those who "thought out space," in the words of Foucault (1984, 244). What were the means by which they did this? From my perspective there are the maps, but Morin also documents the interplay between geographical knowledge and public outlets, such as lectures and the news media.
The most remarkable instance of this is how Daly's expertise and position not only as AGS president but also as what Morin calls a "jurist-geographer" enabled colonialization to take place in the Congo: "'Geographical knowledge' thus constituted and deployed by the AGS ... such as reports to influential civic and political bodies, as well as events honoring explorers of Africa such as the infamous Henry Morton Stanley ... shed light on American involvement in colonial Africa" (p. 21).
Morin argues that Daly "explicitly promoted a type of commercial colonization of Africa" (p. 163). As she points out, it is little acknowledged that the United States was an active participant in nineteenth-century African colonialization. What motivated Daly--the "gentle judge," as Morin calls him (p. 165)?
The answer, pretty clearly, is commercial advantage dressed up in humanitarian language. Whether Daly went along with this or was deceived by Leopold is a biographical detail I will leave aside. (Morin seems to feel that overall he was not "seduced" by Leopold.) More important, and for me one of the significant implications of this book is the connection between academic production of knowledge and state and commercial interests. Morin's careful documentation of how this occurred--initially through British explorations of Africa and the search for the source of the Nile and Congo rivers, and later on through the AGS'S own efforts in mapping or "armchair discovery," as Morin calls it (p. 167) and the drive for commercial advantage--copper, coal, tin, sugarcane, and so forth--amounted to an attempt to "morally uplift Africa out of the depths of slavery" through trade.
Daly's opposition to the Africa slave trade contrasted with his more instrumentalist view of slaveholding in the United States. For one thing, freed slaves created a labor problem and were the "bane" of Irish laborers (p. 169). Effectively, Morin is giving us the other side of the story; how practice affected what one thought about an issue. There is no key moral ground here: In Africa slavery obstructed commercial advantage; in the United States the abolition of slavery obstructed commercial advantage. Daly's epistemology was geographically conditioned. …