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2001

Mitchell D., Cultural Geography - A Critical Introduction, 2000, Oxford / Malden (Mass.), Blackwell, 325 p.

Béatrice Collignon

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1Don Mitchell's Cultural Geography is more than just an introduction to that burgeoning field: it is a critical introduction, as the author claims from the first page to the last. Indeed, this is a book that is built from a very clear and strong position on cultural geography: that of a Marxist geographer for whom culture consists of relationships that, more often than not, are full of tension, leading to what the author calls "culture wars". Culture wars are being fought daily around the world; these are "battles over cultural identities—and the power to shape, determine, and, literally, emplace those identities" (p. 11), and it is these wars that cultural geography must study if it is to have any relevance at all. Culture is thus seen as a "system of power fully integrated into the political economy" (p. 85), and Mitchell calls geographers to engage in a demonstration of just how spaces and places are produced and constantly reasserted to ensure the reproduction of a social geography that benefits the dominant class (i.e.: white, upper-class and upper middle-class, straight males).

2Culture itself "is nothing" (p. 77) but a reification, controlled by the dominant class, of an existing state of affairs, with the purpose of naturalizing relationships that are in fact products of struggle. These relationships then tend to be developed to a point at which they can no longer be questioned, as they are understood to be natural instead of socially constructed situations. The work of the academic is to deconstruct this false image and show the powers at work behind it. Geographers have a special part to play here because "culture is spatial … it insinuates itself into our daily worlds as part of the spaces and spatial practices that define our lives" (p. 63); its reification is embedded in the landscapes and their representations, in the spatial organization of suburbia and the entrapment of women that goes with it, in the skid-rows of the inner city voluntarily deserted by the police, in the ghettos in which the Other is forced to live and stay so that we, the majority, can live our lives un-"disturbed" by their presence, in the very way we design our homes, etc.
After a general introduction stressing mainly what the book is NOT about—not about theory but about lived situations, and especially not about any post geography—Mitchell begins with a well-documented history of cultural geography, from its early, mainly American, promoters to those, mainly British, who completely renewed it in the 80's, building on their training in social geography. The first two chapters deserve special mention because, in my opinion, they present an excellent overview of the evolution of the field over a century, one that is seldom reached in books dealing with this topic, as they usually do not devote so many pages to this history. The critical position of the author adds to the quality of these chapters, as he goes beyond the factual story of who wrote what and when, in an effort to get to the theories (more or less implicit) lying behind these works and explain what, in his view, is wrong with them. In chapter three, which closes Part I, the author expresses is own theoretical point of view, that I've presented earlier, through very suggestive examples.

3Parts II and III are then devoted to presenting the various battlefields on which cultural wars are fought, and the ways in which a number of geographers have studied them: landscape, sex and sexuality, gender, race, nationalism and identities are discussed in turn. Here Mitchell provides very good accounts of most landmark works in this field for students and readers not familiar with current Anglophone human geographies, displaying in these pages a real pedagogical talent. Although there is little here that will be new for most professional human geographers, what is interesting is the general argument built step by step to convince us of the relevance of a critical agenda for cultural geography, and the opportunity to see the topics selected in these pages as relevant cultural geography, compared to those usually presented in books on the field (see Crang 98 for example). In showing how culture is a political issue, and how the geography of cultures is part of the construction of a social geography of domination and exclusion, Mitchell is indeed convincing.

4Of course, there is always something to criticize, and I'll express two regrets. Although the book reads well, it is at times somewhat repetitive, especially in the numerous introductions and conclusions to sections and chapters, but I was not particularly bothered by this. What did bother me, however, was Chapter 9, dedicated to "cultural geographies of race", which I find quite deceptive, apart from the five pages dedicated to the geography of apartheid. I would have liked to see the key issues enumerated in the conclusion ("Space Makes Race") of that chapter dealt with adequately instead of a long general presentation of the ideology of race (eight pages) followed by a discussion of The Bell Curve that is, in my opinion, much too long: certainly those eight full pages were not necessary, and I have the feeling the author here put his own interests above the requirements of his argument. My second regret is fueled by my own identity as a French geographer. Although Mitchell's aim is to show that culture wars are raging everywhere in the world, his world is indeed a small one, even smaller than the Anglo one, reduced almost entirely to the US stage. Aside from the discussion about the geography of apartheid, already mentioned, and a less common—and therefore, in my opinion, more interesting—one about the rise of nationalism in a reunited Germany, the rest of the world exists only in a few short paragraphs dealing with such issues as Jean-Marie Le Pen's politics, Vancouver's Chinatown landscape or Tienanmen Square as a special place for people to display resistance to the central power in China (and a few others) and several dealing with matters concerning England. The author apparently recognizes these lacunae and apologizes for them in his first pages (p. xvii). Still, one can only regret them. Not because we need a "complete" survey of cultural geography around the world (who could make one ?—and would such a thing make sense ?) but because we (or at least, I) would like to know more about his readings on culture wars in countries where separations between public and private space, relationships between City Centers and Suburbia, and the idea and geography of race—to give only a few examples—are dealt with in a totally different way than in the United States of America. We would then have a better understanding of whether Mitchell’s critical introduction concerns Cultural Geography, or American Cultural Geography.

5In spite of these remarks, the book as a whole is excellent, and reads easily. By placing cultural geography in the arena of discussion instead of just flatly presenting it, Mitchell has earned the right to deliver a book that has been badly needed after fifteen years of unbridled development in cultural studies and cultural geography. One might not agree with his agenda, with his readings of cultural wars, but that is not the point. The point is that Mitchell gives us grounds on which those of us who are more or less involved with cultural issues can look further into our reasons for becoming involved in the first place, and for continuing to be involved, and into the purposes of cultural geography and why we believe it deserves to be written. I might add that, as a French reader, I find it interesting to see once again the differences that create such a distance between French and Anglo Cultural Geography. Indeed, in France, cultural geography is mostly conservative in its objectives, its methods, its arguments, and in the approach of the people involved in it; those French geographers who work on issues related to what could be called the "leftist Anglo cultural geography" call themselves anything but cultural geographers.

6This book has the necessary qualities to become a reference in the field of cultural geography and cultural studies as a whole, and should be read by students interested in social and/or cultural geography and/or the epistemology of geography, as well as by professional human geographers. Its critical standpoint also makes it an excellent textbook for use in classroom discussions.

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Notes

References : Crang M., 1998, Cultural geography, London, Routledge

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Référence électronique

Béatrice Collignon, « Mitchell D., Cultural Geography - A Critical Introduction, 2000, Oxford / Malden (Mass.), Blackwell, 325 p. », Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Revue de livres, mis en ligne le 21 mars 2001, consulté le 27 novembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cybergeo/936 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cybergeo.936

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Béatrice Collignon

barcdue@tin.itéquipe EHGO UMR 8504 CNRS/Univ. Paris 1 - Géographie-cités

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