A Radical Geography Community
Antipode is edited by Nik Theodore (University of Illinois at Chicago), Sharad Chari (University of the Witwatersrand), Tariq Jazeel (University College London – @rikjaz), Katherine McKittrick (Queen’s University – @demonicground) and Jenny Pickerill (University of Sheffield – @JennyPickerill).
Tariq was the last to join the Editorial Collective in May 2014, so it’s high time we caught up with him to see how he’s getting on…
Since 2013 Tariq has been a Reader in Human Geography at University College London. Before that he was a Senior Lecturer and Lecturer at the University of Sheffield, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the the Open University, and Teaching Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London (where he received his PhD, “Being Sri Lankan: Three Cultural Geographies”, and MA). Tariq’s publications include the books Sacred Modernity: Nature, Environment, and the Postcolonial Geographies of Sri Lankan Nationhood (Liverpool University Press, 2013) and Spatialising Politics: Culture and Geography in Postcolonial Sri Lanka (co-edited with Catherine Brun; Sage, 2009), and papers in Dialogues in Human Geography, the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Theory, Culture and Society, the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, and Social Text (of whose Editorial Collective he’s also a member).
Tariq works at the intersections of human geography, South Asian studies and postcolonial and critical theory. In broad terms, his research explores the spatial constitutions of nation, identity and belonging in South Asia, especially Sri Lanka, as well as the challenges of engaging non-western contexts. His published work has focused on aesthetic and environmental formations and their relationships to the politics of Sri Lankan nationhood, especially in relation to the country’s rich recent history of national emparkment and its “tropical modern” architecture. He has also written on literary geographies and various diasporic and “multicultural” formations, on the postcolonial politics of geographical knowledge production and responsibility, and on geographical engagements with radical alterity.
Here he’s interviewed by Antipode‘s editorial office manager, Andy Kent:
AK: You recently published Sacred Modernity, a book that pulls together research ongoing since you were a grad student. It contains a serious challenge for geographers: to think through the ways in which our concepts and categories (such as “nature” and “religion”) might dissimulate difference, how they can conceal or disguise radical otherness. Your contention, if I understand it correctly, is that in our investigations beyond the global North, our geographical knowledges “erase” part of the very things under investigation, a priori constraining our vision, leaving some aspects unnoticed and passing over others.
In examining that which we’re certain of, that which we (unconsciously) universalise, by “unlearning” EuroAmerican ideas, there’s an opportunity to engage alterity more adequately–on its own terms, as it were. But there’s also a threat; it’s “intimidating”, as you put it. How do we come to remember, to recall, and to relinquish what we “don’t know we know”? Sacred Modernity demonstrates brilliantly that it’s desirable and possible; how difficult is it, though, to avoid the “traps” (to borrow Wittgenstein’s words) that language sets for us, and develop what you call “subaltern” geographical imaginations?
TJ: Thanks Andy, that’s a wonderful and challenging question, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently because I’m teaching a new graduate class on “postcolonial cultural geographies” to a fantastic set of students who are all beginning to discern the politics of the kinds of “relinquishing” about which you ask. I think it’s an incredibly difficult task to continue the hard work to read the faint traces of these “quite other” (a phrase borrowed from Derrida) kinds of geographical imaginations, not least because one first needs a sense of why one should embark upon that task in the first place. In my book, I was intent on bringing into representation Buddhist aesthetics as they are experienced and instantiated through forms of cultural production in southern and central Sri Lanka (architecture, national emparkment, literature, etc.), because these I claim are non-dualistic worldings whose contours are ultimately disfigured by concepts such as “nature” and “religion”. It’s by making them visible that one is then able to discern their alarming political implications. And yes, I do claim these Buddhist aesthetics to be “subaltern geographies”, but subaltern only in relation to the hegemony of concepts like “nature” and “religion” that conceal the texture of these Buddhist structures of feeling and their ethnicizing effects. Thus let me be clear, though “subaltern” in the context of knowledge production, my claim is that these Buddhist aesthetics are, in the Sri Lankan context at least, thoroughly implicated in the territorializing power of Sinhala Buddhist nationhood. These are aesthetics that colonize the social. And that was why I wanted to develop a mechanism, a methodology if you like, for bringing into representation these radically different worldings, simply to show the geographical power relationships at work in this context.
In other work I’ve done, I’ve tried to show the political potential of thinking hard (critically and geographically I mean) about the provenance and implications of some of our most familiar and avowedly progressive intellectual tools. I’ve argued, for example, that cosmopolitanism is a concept that runs the risk of tethering attempts at living with difference to a decidedly EuroAmerican and neo-Kantian political and geographical imagination that is ultimately only able to pre-scribe difference on the terms it sees fit. I, for one, don’t want to live in a so-called “tolerant” society, because it seems to me that those who tolerate get to call the shots! As such, I see no problems in a more open, unstable, and contingent set of conjunctures and re-constellations going forward committed politically to trying harder to understand difference on its own and singular terms. In fact, politics I think should be open and committed to what William Connolly has referred to as this kind of “ethos of pluralisation”. You’re right, this kind of work is tough because it requires leaps of faith insofar as it is about relinquishing that which we don’t know we know. That is intimidating.
AK: Moving from the production of geographical knowledges to their distribution, I wonder if you’d say something about the publication of subaltern critical geographies, that is, critical geographies that contribute to but also seriously challenge Northern knowledges. Does the “quite other” speak in print, and if so how, where, and to whom?
TJ: Setting this kind of critical disposition to work in the university today is difficult. I’ve often wondered whether part of the difficulty is the result of a creeping neoliberalization of higher education and research that has resulted in the valorisation of “the constructive” over and above “critique”? What space for a kind of learning by unlearning in a climate where research and teaching are driven by the injunctions to be innovative, to make progress, and to be “useful” in a conjuncture when the academic must continually prove their value to society? I don’t know, I’m not sure. But it’s part of the reason why I’m so drawn to Antipode as a journal. Now more than ever it’s important to retain those spaces for critical intellectual work inspired by radical and contrarian agendas, and Antipode certainly is one space where we should protect the necessity for critique. Isn’t critique one of the most valuable things academicians can offer society?
I’m really delighted that we’re beginning to talk about critical geography and subaltern geography together, there’s much potential there I think to embark upon explorations of subalternity in the context of geography. Indeed, that’s something that will continue to be central to my work. Equally, however, I’m not sure I would want to pit subaltern geographies simply against Northern knowledges, that seems to me to be a slightly too easy distinction made between global North and South. The subaltern, for me, is always about the minor, the lesser order, the obscure, the ordinary, that which is somehow excluded from modernity. On a map of the world, that can and does exist anywhere.
But there’s also a very provocative tension in your astute question, “does the ‘quite other’ speak in print?”. Of course, as soon as subalternity appears in print, or in representation, it ceases to be subaltern. It is part of the hegemon, part of the establishment, no longer lesser order. Subalternity goes elsewhere. This is a familiar argument, but its one that we should remember at Antipode because it reminds us that as committed as we are to retaining our radical credentials, we are an established, respected and professional journal. Like it or not, we are part of the disciplinary establishment! And this presents a real challenge, a double bind (now borrowing a phrase from Spivak!), in terms of radical geography going forward. How to best retain our radical vitality in a neoliberal landscape of academic knowledge production where we are no longer the cheeky, awkward upstarts on that landscape?
AK: Finally, a year in to your editorship, how are things at Antipode? What kinds of papers are being submitted? Where do you see the journal, and radical geography more generally, going?
TJ: We’re doing some really exciting things at the journal, well I should say “at Antipode” because I think it’s really important that we consider the companion website together with the journal when we think about those challenges around the future of the radical that I’ve signalled above. Reviews, special issue proposals, interviews, editorials, regular submissions, video abstracts. All of these have been very exciting for me to be involved with, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time so far. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not a significant workload, and I’m not going to pretend I don’t gulp when I see another flurry of emails from you assigning me more papers to handle! But I feel a real opening in terms of my awareness of what’s going on in the field, where connections can be made, and the huge potential for creative politico-intellectual intervention that our contributors and reviewers harbour. I can’t really tell or predict where radical geography might be going, but I do sense that with the composition of the Editorial Collective and International Advisory Board as it is now, we might be at a juncture where the journal really speaks really usefully across and between its tradition of radical political economy (dialectical materialism) and emergent tendencies toward critical theory (including poststructuralism, postcolonialism, etc.). I think, I hope, the future of radical geography can be broad, accommodating, intersectional. Thank you for the opportunity to be part of it.