- Introduction to Focus:Situating Geocriticism
Geocriticism has become an increasingly significant practice within literary studies over the past few years, even if the exact meaning of the term itself, along with its characteristics and methods, has not been definitively settled. The emergence of geocriticism is connected to a broader spatial turn in the humanities and social sciences. This “turn” is frequently associated with developments in critical theory, as exhibited in Foucault’s now famous declaration (initially in 1967, but published only in 1984) that ours is the “epoch of space,” and this sense has been amplified by the discourse on postmodernity, for which a peculiar “new spatiality” is a key feature, as registered in the work of Fredric Jameson, Edward Soja, David Harvey, and Nigel Thrift, to name but a few of the more influential figures. These theorists and others have called attention to material developments of the post-World War II era, especially the acceleration of the processes of globalization and financialization, as factors in both experiential and structural “time-space compression” in postmodern societies, which has in turn brought matters of space, place, and mapping to the fore in contemporary debates in social theory as well as cultural and literary studies. To be sure, there are numerous predecessors, and one could well argue that the pronounced spatiality of the postmodern condition is merely the continuation of the sort of modern transformations that social critics like Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, or even Marx and Engels were already addressing. Nevertheless, the rapid expansion in the number and quality of works focusing on spatial or geographical concerns in the last 40 years, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, have registered the degree to which a “spatial turn” has occurred.
More recently, with the rise of geocriticism, literary geography, and the spatial humanities more broadly, the importance of spatiality has only grown. The explosion in the number of books and articles on these subjects has been supplemented and supported by major international conferences in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, by new critical journals such as Literary Geographies and GeoHumanities, and new book series such as Indiana University Press’s “Spatial Humanities” or Palgrave Macmillan’s “Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies” (which I edit). Geocriticism, which has burgeoned in these last ten or fifteen years especially, partakes of this overall interest in space, place, and mapping, while also establishing its own place within literary and cultural studies. This special focus on geocriticism in American Book Review is thus a timely intervention, which may allow readers to situate geocriticism among other literary critical and scholarly practices and to get a sense of the state of the field in the present moment.
The term geocriticism gained currency with the publication of Bertrand Westphal’s Le Géocritique: Réel, fiction, espace in 2007 and its translation into English in 2011, but Westphal and I—along with many other critics, undoubtedly—had been separately thinking through the concepts associated with geocriticism years earlier. As I mentioned in my introduction to Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies (2011), I first began using the term geocriticism in the early 1990s as a provisional label for the kind of analytical or interpretative method I was hoping to articulate in my graduate research. Drawing upon various theorists and critics, particularly in the veins of poststructuralism, critical theory, and postcolonial studies, I intended for geocriticism to be a sort of literary critical counterpart to Deleuze’s notion of geophilosophy, although I used it in a broader sense that Deleuze would have intended. Specifically, I was interested in the ways that a spatial critical theory (labeled “cartographics”) could be brought to bear on a reading practice (geocriticism) geared toward understanding the ways in which narratives represented, shaped, and influenced social spaces (i.e., literary cartography). (Readers of my Spatiality  will recognize the use of these terms in that work.) Geocriticism provided a way of reading literature with a heightened sensitivity to spatial relations, as well as to place and to mapping, in and around the texts under consideration.
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In any event, what I...