Stepping from the Wreckage: geography, pragmatism and anti-representational theory. Abstract



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Conclusion: radical incrementalism and witnessing
Calls to theory and research as creative action seem de rigour in geography. For example, as Hinchcliffe (2007) pleads in Geographies of Nature
rather than offering interpretations of nature, or analytical concepts, the injunction must be to join the doings, to experiment, to engage in the doings of environments, to environ them in better ways (191).
It seems we are all pragmatists now - or should be. Note here there is creativity with judgment - ‘better ways’. How are we to pursue better ways with out foundational grounds?
Whitford (1991: 14) points out that to envisage ‘new social or ethical forms’ is to confine the future within the conceptualisations of the present. ‘Progress’ is not about moving towards utopia, it is about moving away from dystopia, as Bauman (1993: 224) puts it, ‘what we want is to get away from here. Where we hope to land [ ] is a ‘there’ which we thought of little and knew of even less’.
We need a restless, radical incrementalism. As the Johnny Mercer / Harold Arlen song has it; ‘you’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative’. This can be done by modest, fallibilistic, experimentation, with a constant toing and froing between idea and practice (this is Rorty’s summation of Dewey’s work), a constant will to act and to judge the consequences in the settings of the particular. Thrift (2005), with some added ingredients, sets out a similar trajectory.
This work [NRT] earns a living from a relational view of reality [and] a constructionism of a particular kind, namely a transcendental empiricism (or pan-experimentalism) in which construction never takes place in general but always in relation to a matter of concern and commitment, a lure to our attention which provides an intensification of feeling (474).
In his paper on Wittgenstein, Harrison (2002) turns to the idea of witnessing to begin to build an ethical/political momentum for NRT (see also Thrift, 2004a). This essentially asks, what can be said about – or done with, Wittgenstein’s call for the event to be taken seriously (in and of itself), the call to describe and not to explain, or worse, to abstract or seek meaning elsewhere/prior to the event. Harrison feels that the direction to readers ‘to pay attention to whatever is taking place in front of them’ (2002: 500) can be understood as a call to witness, and that to witness is more than just observing and reporting on an event, it can be to share and deeply empathize with pain and suffering – the negative (although it could be applied to joy and love – the positive) and otherness – without fully knowing it. Pause to think how often it is that understandings of and responses to current/historical events are not prompted by explanation or analysis but by witnessing of one kind or another.
Witnessing is often expressed as narrative. And here we connect to the long running tension between explanation (representation) and certain forms of narrative. NRT is drawn to towards ethological narratives - a sort of ‘radical ecological empiricism’. Serres, an influential figure in NRT thinking (Bingham and Thrift, 2000), has made narrative a central means of exploring the flowing interconnectedness of life - ‘what better way to describe this fluctuation than with everyday words, concrete experiences--in short, by narrative?’ (Serres 1995: 65).
There is a strong affinity between narrative, artistic practice and NRT (see Thrift 2004a) and related approaches such as hybrid geographies (Whatmore, 2002). More generally the developing of linkages between geographical and artistic interests and methods is going on apace in the pursuit of methodologies sensitive to process, performativity and affect. Writers, painters, photographers, performers, and poets are often commenting upon, ‘analysing’ - witnessing the world and their and/or other people’s place in it, but through affective/creative narratives rather than rational/representational registers. They do this by generating new accounts of/in the world which might witness eloquently. They add new accounts to the world (e.g. images, movements, sounds, artefacts) which at the same time reposition current forms of being. (e.g. Dion, 2007).
Thrift is not the only one who considers that ‘performances’ are often more telling (of the world) and more ethically and politically alive than much social science and academia. Rorty (1991a/b) has been at pains to point out that art, particularly in the form of literature, can have much more telling effect on society than centuries of precisely argued metaphysical philosophy and, latterly, realist social science.
Witness and narrative are being explored as means of generating new political and ethical languages within poststructuralism and NRT. Barnett (2005) suggests that, at worst, poststructuralist theory can ‘generate [ ] an epistemological and ethico-political impasse for itself’ through the generic device of ‘essentializing the logic of exclusion as the ontological foundation of all modes of subjectivity’ (8). Barnett suggests that a reading of Levinas alongside Derrida can point to ways beyond this impasse by which the other is excluded. The ethical relationship, he suggests is inevitably (and) ‘irreducibly asymmetrical’ (18), and rests on an openness towards the Other in which temporal dimensions of being are critical. Within this temporal being in relationship to other, Barnett sees ‘acknowledgement’ (knowledge which includes recognition of suffering and sympathy and the demands of the other) as a means by which the gulf between self and other can be crossed.
Why should we want the world given to us or revealed to us when we can do it (or, at least, bits of it)? Correspondence theories, essentialist, universal truth claims are always going to be claims. Proof is always a kind of rhetoric, and can always be willfully ignored anyway. Secondly who/what is to say that if there are universal, essential truths that they are going to be comfortable for us or even take any notice of us. Relativism means we are freer to build our own world. Of course there are a myriad constraints, but there are a myriad opportunities as well (science can narrate both). And within this there are surely many possible futures some of which will be better and some worse. Our efforts should be geared to the former. If we get grounded on foundations movement is less possible. Conflicts are bound to occur, and conflicts based on fundamentalisms are extremely difficult to resolve and are the most destructive.
Radical incrementalism implies working with, yet away from the present, without any great plans as to where we are going. How do we respond then to the present in this kind of relation? If we keep witnessing (engaging with the practices of the world) and folding these accounts back into ongoing practice, who knows where the world goes? Of course there will be explanations, representations, and plans for action, but these always framed in an openness and an incremental experimentation which relies on re-witnessing or constant witnessing. And how do we judge as we have to in the end? The judgment is in what we choose to witness and the rewitnessing of the consequences of actions taken. Is this working? How do these stories compare? Where/when/how would I like to live? We need not be too sceptical; we can build on the common currencies of pain, suffering, well being, happiness and love.
As Louis MacNeice (1988) put it in the poem ‘London Rain’ - ‘We need no metaphysics / To sanction what we do’ (p. 72). We need to engineer new formations (Thrift, 2005) and pragmatism (like NRT) is a philosophy of heterogeneous engineering.
According to Peirce, the most fundamental engine of the evolutionary process is not struggle, strife, greed, or competition. Rather it is nurturing love, in which an entity is prepared to sacrifice its own perfection for the sake of the wellbeing of its neighbor (Burch, 2006: 1).
This is the idea of “agapeism” - ‘growth comes only from love’ Peirce (1893, in Menand, 1997: 52).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the referees and editors for invaluable help.
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Wood, N. and Smith S. (2008) Pragmatism and Geography, Geofourum, this issue.
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