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Proximity, acceptance and hopeful ontologies
Article first published online: 9 MAY 2014
© 2014 Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)
Volume 46, Issue 2, pages 222–223, June 2014
How to Cite
Whitehead, M. (2014), Proximity, acceptance and hopeful ontologies. Area, 46: 222–223. doi: 10.1111/area.12091
- Issue published online: 9 MAY 2014
- Article first published online: 9 MAY 2014
- environmental geography;
This commentary considers how we might define a classic paper and suggests that ‘Not at our seaside’ helpfully challenges the grounds on which we confer status onto papers in the modern academy. Particular attention is given in this commentary to the role of ‘Not at our seaside’ in pre-empting geographical work on the spatial and cultural ‘othering’ of nature. The commentary concludes by reflecting on the positive ontologies of Philo's paper and its insights into what a more socially tolerant and environmentally literate world may involve.
There are, of course, many ways to define a ‘classic paper’. High citation metrics, impact on the work of others, the enduring nature of influence or the inherent novelty of a piece of work can all serve to bestow a classic status on to a paper. The Oxford English Dictionary simplifies the matter somewhat when it succinctly observes that to be classic is to be ‘judged over time to be of the highest quality’. Such definitional discussion may seem to be somewhat pedantic, but in the context of a paper that, in so many ways, prefigures geography's ongoing concern with the processes of classification and codification, it seems highly pertinent. The point I actually want to make is that while Philo's (1987) ‘Not at my seaside’ is clearly a classic paper, it is so in ways that may seem alien to how we evaluate and categorise papers today. ‘Not at our seaside’ has an admirably modest quality, which stands in stark contrast to the overtly paradigm-busting papers we are all encouraged to write today. Grounded in a carefully constructed historical narrative, it suggests theoretical implications (perhaps the codification of mental illness, certainly the role of the outsider within geographical inquiry), rather than allowing a pre-established conceptual framework to suffocate the empirical material. These are, perhaps, some of the reasons why (rather surprisingly) ‘Not at our seaside’ is not one of Chris Philo's most heavily cited papers. For me, however, it is a classic paper because with the passage of nearly 27 years it can now clearly be seen as an archetype, which set a definitive pattern for scholarship within historical and cultural geography. To put things another way, it is the mother ship for historical geography's ongoing concern with the spatial ordering of difference.
In many ways I see myself as something of an ‘outsider’ when reflecting on this paper. I am neither a cultural or historical geographer: if pushed, I would perhaps self-identify as an environmental geographer (albeit one whose own work has been deeply influenced by that of Philo; see Whitehead 2009). But as an environmental geographer I feel able to reflect on the broader, pan-disciplinary significance of ‘Not at our seaside’. I remember first encountering Philo's work during one of my undergraduate tutorials. The rural geographer Mike Woods (who was my tutor at the time) had asked us to read Philo's ‘Animals, geography and the city: notes on inclusions and exclusions’ (1995). Reading this paper, and the tutorial discussion that followed, served to introduce me to a very different form of geography than any I had previously encountered. At the time I saw myself as a fairly radical Marxist, and was, somewhat predictably, enthralled with the writings of David Harvey. Yet, in ‘Animals, geography and the city’ I found something that both challenged and rivalled the ability of Harvey to explain the socio-economic orderings of urban space, and to unlock the injustices that were inscribed in these processes. I can still remember being fascinating by Philo's account of the ways in which animals had once been such a prominent feature of urban public space, and how through various moral campaigns, laws and planning practices they had gradually been removed from the everyday fabric of metropolitan life (see also Philo and Wilbert 2000). This historical narrative illustrated so well how nature itself had been made an outsider within human society.
What is palpably clear is that ‘Not at our seaside’ is a precursor to ‘Animals, geography and the city’ and the broader concern of cultural and historical geography with the othering of nature (see Anderson 1997; Philo and Wilbert 2000). As I now re-read ‘Not at our seaside’, as a slightly more established environmental geographer, two things strike me. First is the recurring theme of proximity and acceptance that runs through the paper. Although many now claim that we are living in a geological epoch that is defined by the human transformation of the environment, it is clear that humans are increasingly segregated from the environmental systems on which they depend. On these terms, the attempts that are now being made to reconnect people with the more feral aspects of the natural world are vital in reinvigorating human understandings of the role of nature in our daily lives. Second, I recognise that ‘Not at our seaside’ is a good news story: an account of how hostility to the other can be converted into acceptance and understanding. I think that in geography we can often shun these positive ontologies in our pursuit of more scandalous accounts of injustice. As we attempt to build more cosmopolitan spaces of racial, environmental, cultural, mental, sexual and gendered understanding, we clearly need some positive ontologies on which to lay our foundations. Could it be that some of the foundations of a more socially tolerant and environmental literate world can be glimpsed in the happenings of a small English seaside town in the 19th century? I believe so.
- 1997 A walk on the wild side Progress in Human Geography 21 463–485
- 1987 ‘Not at our seaside’: community opposition to a nineteenth-century branch asylum Area 19 297–302
- 1995 Animals, geography and the city: notes on inclusions and exclusions Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 13 655–681
- 2000 Animal spaces, beastly places Routledge, London and
- 2009 State, sciences and the skies: governmentalities of the British atmosphere Wiley Blackwell, Oxford