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Review of Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues

by Riki Scanlan on December 4, 2018
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Doreen Massey: Critical Dialogues recognises that just as there is no point of departure for a dialogue, there is no point of conclusion. Dialogues with Massey continue even in her absence. The book spans twenty-six chapters, along with a variant on the introduction to the companion The Doreen Massey Reader and a new epilogue memorial, with a grand total of forty-three authors. I don’t think there could be a clearer demonstration of the wide range of conversations that Massey was engaged in prior to her passing in 2016. As a book framed around ’dialogues,’ the “authors listen attentively to Massey . . . but they also speak back to her” – which was, to my understanding, how Massey conducted her intellectual and political life. The book is an excellent tribute to how she intervened in so many debates in so many fields over the decades.

The editors organised the book into three parts, themed as Contexts, Conjunctures, and Connections. The first part traces the narratives of nine scholars’ engagements with Massey’s life and thought. The early chapters trace Massey’s early life, including a fascinating reflection on ‘her dark past’ as a regional scientist during the quantitative revolution in geography. The later chapters take up particular themes or debates, highlighting how Massey intervened in particular debates but also how her thought was formed during this early period. A stand-out chapter, for me, is Gillian Hart’s reflections on the 1990’s localities debates, where she drily notes that contemporary contestations over the planetary urbanisation thesis seem to mirror these earlier debates – including “in a similarly gendered fashion”.

Part Two – Conjunctures – is an exploration of particular conjunctures, primarily within the UK, with each chapter drawing on some of Massey’s foundational contributions to understanding landed property, spatial divisions of labour, places, global cities, and migration. The chapters avoid simply reflecting on Massey’s work but generally strive towards politically salient topics for debates within the Left today. Allan Cochrane, for example, undercuts the narrative of Brexit where Leave voters are represented as the economically ‘left-behind,’ living in underdeveloped regions. He argues that the geographies of Brexit and Bremain crosscut geographies of uneven development within the UK. Privileged elites outside of London voted to leave; insecure workers within London voted to remain. These voting patterns suggest the temporary formation of particular alliances, representing an open challenge for the Left to face today – “a challenge Doreen Massey would have welcomed”.

The final part focuses on the conceptual and practical connections between Massey’s life and thought with other places, disciplines, and politics. The chapters range from intersections with socio-ecological theory and queer phenomenology to the praxical relationship she had with Latin America. The nine chapters here, however, defy any general summation – perhaps just as her thought defies categorisation! (Is Massey an economic geographer? Critical geographer? Cultural theorist?) Part of why she is not readily categorised can be put down to her refusal to build systems. As the authors in this book frequently note, Massey lived by the axiom that ‘there is no point of departure.’ Massey’s concepts do not form a fixed theoretical edifice – unlike, for example, the work of Harvey, who stated in 1969 that the task of geography was to build theory and never changed his mind except to say that that theory was Marxism.

Her method of theoretical inquiry was (usually) grounded in empirical exploration. Spatial Divisions of Labour criticised prevailing views on uneven development by empirically exploring industrial restructuring in the UK. Her theory of place defended the political and methodological importance of studying and acting in particular places. But she always insisted for more – to drag concepts forward by entangling them with geographical and historical particularities. Hence her twist on uneven development with the ‘power-geometries of uneven development.’

Yet this theoretical flexibility and her theoretical dissidence lead to some fault lines in the book. First, the wide-ranging nature of Massey’s work and dialogues is reflected in the book, as I’ve highlighted earlier. But with twenty-six substantive chapters, spanning thirty-eight authors, the chapters begin to rehash the same conceptual material – there are only so many times that one can re-read an exposition, however short, of the same concept (power-geometries is the worst culprit)! Admittedly, this may be because of the ‘uneven development’ of Massey’s concepts within the academic literature.

Second, some of the chapters seem to make (conceptual) mountains out of (empirical) molehills. Questions of ontology and philosophy are foregrounded with regard to producing analyses which seems obvious (at least, to me). In one instance, Magilligan, Sneddon, and Fox draw on Massey’s insistence on the common epistemic community of physical and human geography to articulate a broader understanding of the process of dam removal in New England, USA. However, this leads them to make what seems like a self-evident claim: that “dam removal, although trying to achieve something biophysical, is at its core a social process”. Yet removing a dam involves the state, private companies, and local communities; ipso facto, it is social. Yes, explaining this demands a conversation between physical and human geographers, but their account of river restoration is wrapped up in theoretical language that quite possibly make it impenetrable to their physical geographer cousins.

The best of the book, I think, is in its historical and biographical detail: many of the chapters illuminate political and intellectual aspects of Massey as well as the debates she was engaged in throughout her life – detail that may be missed by someone, like me, who has not lived through those times or had the opportunity of dialogue with her. But I can say that Massey’s absence in this book is felt throughout, but it rarely bubbles through to the surface of the text. I am left wondering how the book would have felt if her absence from the dialogue had been brought to the foreground. The authors ‘speak back to her’ yet, I wonder: how would she have spoken back to them?

Riki Scanlan
Riki Scanlan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy. Their preferred pronouns are they/them/theirs. Their PhD research currently focuses on the intersection of debates around urbanisation, rent, and colonialism. They are fascinated by theoretical questions of space, time, and capital and buy more books than can be reasonably read.

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