I attended the Association of American Geographers’ annual meeting in Chicago during the 21st -24th of April. Despite the name, this was a very interdisciplinary conference, and there were participants from a wide variety of disciplines, including media and cultural studies. Colleagues at BCU and other institutions also attended last year’s Royal Geographical Society conference, where a similar interdisciplinary discussion took place. All this indicates that geography is broadening as a discipline, and is becoming more open to contributions from other disciplines. I also noticed a refreshing sense of political and intellectual engagement at the conference, more so than at comparable media and cultural studies conferences.
One of the highlights of the conference was a plenary session entitled “Author meets critics” with David Harvey, in which several “critics” discussed their reactions to his recent book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (OUP 2014), after which Harvey responded as an “author”. One of the issues flagged up by the “critics” included the provocation posed to Marxists by Gibson-Graham’s work – and in particular the 1996 critique of “capitalocentric” analyses which do not acknowledge the range of non-capitalist practices which exist within capitalism. Harvey acknowledged that Gibson-Graham’s work (which he saw as a product of his time, having been written in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests) had inspired him to revisit Marx over the next fifteen years. Another contradiction which inspired much debate was between the expectations for continual, compound economic growth faced with the finite resources of the planet, and the challenges posed to capitalism by environmental devastation. This was a contradiction which the “critics” acknowledged would have not been identified in Marx’s day, but which has become urgent.
Although it was a very large conference and it was only possible to attend some of the sessions, I found those to be interesting and productive. I participated in a panel series called “Geographies of precarity”, which was an exploration of how the concept of precarity can be applied not only to work (as has been historically the case) but also in relation to place (and many of the presentations drew on Louise Waite’s work on critical geographies of precarity). Many of the other presentations explored issues such as insecure housing, evictions, work in the informal economy and so on. Refreshingly, the discussion had a transnational scope which extended beyond the global North, where discussions of precarity have been historically situated.
There were others sessions that would be of interest to media and cultural studies academics, such as one on community art, which included a very interesting presentation by Morag Rose on the politics of psychogeography and the Manchester-based Loiterers’ Resistance Movement. Another session interrogated the politics of mental health and the “healthy subject”, exploring topics ranging from Samuel Beckett’s plays to self-help books.
In addition to the formal sessions, there were Subconference sessions taking place when the rooms were not in use. These alternative sessions, mostly dedicated to activist research and open discussions. Outside the convention centre, there were also guided tours of Chicago, workshops, informal gatherings at the pub and other events.
Given the conference’s location (as well as the presence of local activists in some of the sessions), it was inevitable that local politics informed the discussions. The politics of race in relation to both policing and gentrification processes and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign were frequently brought up, as well as the fact that the University of Chicago was currently buying up property in a low-income area of Chicago, which risked displacing local residents; such self-reflexivity in relation to the role of universities was welcome.
I enjoyed the opportunity to have a genuinely transnational, interdisciplinary discussion, and one which was marked by a sense of political and intellectual urgency. However, where the discussion became problematic was a tendency towards descriptiveness – presenting empirical material without enough of an attempt to theorise or contextualise it—as though the material would speak for itself. I am not sure if this reflected a disciplinary convention or undertheorisation. However, overall it was well worth participating in this conference. The next session will be in San Francisco next year – and I encourage colleagues to participate next year.