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Biography 24.4 (2001) 935-938

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Pamela Moss, ed. Placing Autobiography in Geography. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001. 235 pp. ISBN 0-8156-2847-1, $45.00 cloth; ISBN 0-8156-2848-X, $19.95 paper.

Geography matters, as Doreen Massey and John Allen put it back in 1984. This collection goes some way towards proving that this is true for autobiography. Placing Autobiography in Geography consists of nine essays by geographers at diverse stages of their careers, together with two framing essays by [End Page 935] the collection's editor, Pamela Moss. Moss's intention is threefold: to use "autobiography to chronicle the discipline, as a methodological approach, and as an analytical method" (192). To this extent the collection is partially successful, but it suffers from a (not entirely productive) tension between the sophisticated feminist analysis of the potential that autobiography has to offer critical geography, which Moss discusses in her introduction, and the more uneven material produced by the contributors.

Moss groups the essays to follow her three broad aims. Thus the essays by Anne Buttimer, John Eyles, Kevin Archer, and Janice Monk all address the idea of how to chronicle the changing intellectual paradigms and institutional practices within a discipline (in this case geography) through the lives of geographers--a practice already familiar to geographers (7-8). The second aim is covered via the essays by Rachel Saltmarsh and Robin Roth, who both consider how who they are affects how they undertake research, the kinds of approaches they favor, and the choices they make over areas of research. Lawrence Knopp, Ian Cook, and David Butz provide examples of how autobiography may offer an analytical method, although how this differs from the methodological approach is only a matter of emphasis. Autobiography is no stranger to geography, but Moss intends the collection to generate discussion that takes autobiography beyond its current status as "either a bias-screening method or a source of information" (9). The second half of her introduction sets out some of the ways autobiography has been used and analyzed, focusing in particular on the notions of legitimacy and reflexivity.

This introductory background draws attention to the range of styles and approaches chosen by the contributors. Certain essays are written with authority, by authors who appear to know everything, while others attempt to call into question the very notion of their authors' institutionalized authority, the idea that they might know anything with certainty. In conjunction with these diverse approaches is the geographical range of this collection. The USA, Canada, Britain (including Wales and Scotland), and Australia (just) are all represented. Geographers, however, do not sit still. Sweden, Ireland, Pakistan, Belgium, France, and a village somewhere in the undifferentiated (by Roth) "Majority World" are covered by these itinerant intellectuals. With the notable exceptions of Archer, Knopp, and Butz, however, these transnational shifts in location do not have any discernible impact on the contributors, although Moss suggests that they do (189). The contributors chronicle their interactions with other academics and university administrators, not with the places they inhabit. Moss is heavily influenced by feminist analyses of self-reflexivity, life writing, and the idea that the self is not a unitary being, self-contained and looking out on the world from the Cartesian [End Page 936] vanishing point inside its own stable head. On the whole her contributors do not seem to have been influenced by the same critiques. In other words, they appear to move through their own lives as though nothing--or very little--affects or touches them. This is particularly true of Buttimer and Eyles (the latter's rather bitter rejection of geography remains unrelenting from beginning to end even as he documents what was a developing disappointment with the discipline).

The title of this collection is therefore misleading. It suggests a more geographic engagement with place, the idea of a tension between place-based senses of self and a spatial discipline. When people are grouped (by themselves or others) along the lines of their differing identities they are often expected to have particular links to particular places. This notion is exemplified by Saltmarsh...