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  • Have Theory; Will Travel: Constructions of “Cultural Geography”
  • Crystal Bartolovich
Peter Jackson and Jan Penrose, eds. Constructions of Race, Place, and Nation. Minneapolis: Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Traffic (trae-fik), sb. . . . 1. The transportation of merchandise for the purpose of trade; hence, trade between distant or distinct communities.


Cultural geographers are now experimenting with a range of new ideas and approaches, their aversion to theory now firmly overcome. These developments have drawn extensively on contemporary cultural studies and on other theoretical developments across the social sciences. But the traffic has not been in one direction: there is now at least the potential for repaying this debt by informing cultural studies with some of the insights of social and cultural geography.

— Peter Jackson, Maps of Meaning

I have chosen the above passage from Peter Jackson’s Maps of Meaning (1989) as the starting place for a discussion of his more recent book, Constructions of Race, Place and Nation, a collection of essays he edited with Jan Penrose, because its “trade” metaphor (“traffic”/ “debt”) calls attention in an economical fashion to a troubling aspect of both texts: a tendency to view “cultural studies” as a sort of theory warehouse for traditional disciplines, and to see “theory” as a stockpile of portable commodities (“ideas and approaches”) ready to be transported anywhere interchangeably. As Jackson and Penrose put it in their introduction, geographers have become “increasingly sensitive to debates in cultural studies” (19). In this essay I will pursue the limits of this “sensitivity” insofar as it can be traced in Constructions. The academy — from its perspective — is comprised of disciplines with well-defined, although semi-permeable, borders. Indeed, the “trade” image argues — linking the previous book even more firmly to the concerns of the more recent one — that disciplinary boundaries function rather like those of nation-states (before they were unsettled by transnational capital). Minimally, it assumes that controlled and accountable transactions (import and export) are negotiated among distinct scholarly domains. The very desire to set the balance of payments aright between “geography” and “cultural studies,” however, is already to undermine cultural studies understood as a postdisciplinary, critical practice.

Since I will be criticising Constructions largely on the grounds of its investments in “geography” as a discipline — investments that I think render a “sensitvity” to “cultural studies” impossible — I want to make my own institutional position and interests as explicit as I can from the start: I teach in a literary and cultural studies program at Carnegie Mellon University. In spite of the profound difficulties of doing so, we are committed to attempting to resist disciplinary structures, not only to make a “place” for ourselves, but also because the current organization of the university renders it problematic to cultural studies politically, intellectually, and practically. Attempts at transdisciplinarity threaten power bases of departments, which jealously guard their faculty lines, resources, and boundaries for reasons that often have more to do with self-reproduction than intellectual conviction — as most department members will readily acknowledge. Crises induced by university funding cuts have intensified these border fortifications. In a terrain of entrenched disciplines, it is very difficult indeed to pursue the kind of postdisciplinary practice toward which cultural studies has been moving. Given these conditions, the common gesture of traditional disciplines looking to cultural theory to revitalise themselves without in any way questioning their own disciplinary integrity can be seen as destructive to cultural studies. I address this state of affairs in the following pages.

A more sympathetic reader might object to my critique of Constructions on the grounds that it is a “specialist” book whose primary agenda is not, after all, positioning itself in relation to cultural studies. In any case (the defender of the book might add), its heart is in the right place; at a time of right-wing backlash against the left in the academy, and traditionalist backlash against “theory” and “cultural studies,” a book such as Constructions, which attempts to bring the highly charged issue of racism to the attention of a generally conservative discipline, is surely not an enemy. 1 The book — after all — deals with a very important topic. Without disputing these points, I am still left with...

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