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Review of The Doreen Massey Reader

by Llewellyn Williams-Brooks on January 8, 2019

To read Doreen Massey is to traverse the labyrinth-like history of the British New Left from their rupture in the radical sixties to the rolling crisis of the Great Recession. From her working-class origins in the Wythenshawe public-housing estate in Greater Manchester to her academic career at the Open University, Doreen Massey committed to locating the extent to which “Geography Matters!” (her most famous quote). Her contribution is overhanging and hard to understate, showcasing a lifetime of interventions in the fields of geography, but also sociology, political science, gender studies and political economy. It would seem then that the challenge for any posthumous collection such as The Doreen Massey Reader is to present an assemblage of work that represents the trajectory of its author faithfully. Overall, the Reader is largely successful in this ambitious task, although those familiar with Massey’s oeuvre might rightly feel that the work fails to surpass the other essential Space, Place and Gender.

Part one (Region) serves as an excellent supplement to her famous paper ‘In What Sense a Regional Problem?’ by highlighting the primacy of land, labour and gender in their historic context for analysing capital. Massey’s critique of Industrial Location Theory serves as the point of departure for this discussion, in which she argues that regions are not only composed of consumers and producers but of capitalists, workers, imperialism and private property. Subsequently Massey explores the importance of land-orientated analysis in a policy document prepared for the British Labour Party. A paper exploring the landed property of the British economy furthers these themes, highlighting the ascendancy of finance capital over the land holding of feudal and industrial private property. This leads nicely to a discussion of the changing spatial division of labour under global capitalism and its implications for trade union decline. A standout paper in the section explores the regional/industrial specificity of women’s historic work in England and its implication for social reproduction. For example, it is elaborated that the coal mining villages of Durham tended to intensify patriarchal modes of unpaid domestic work, while Lancashire women in the cotton industry formed a militant trade union stronghold.

Part two (Place) interrogates the interaction between subjective place-making and its relationship to structural processes of power. The intersection is best accounted for in the famous paper ‘Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’ which explores the contradictory nature of place. As is argued, placeness is something constructed by groups of people in distinct natural and built environments, however place is also experienced as something influx and unbounded. The remainder of the chapter develops a range of material pursuing the importance of pluralistic conceptualisations of place-solidarity; from an exploration of the relationship between the emergence of new social movements and Miner’s support group coalitions in England, to critiques of the gendered nature of knowledge economy workers in the tech industry. In this way, Massey depicts how the public sphere of work is able to dominate the private sphere of the households, while the gendering of work makes alternative geographies of labour appear inconceivable.

In the final section, the conceptualisation of space logically extends the previous discussions of region and place by critiquing ‘historic/time’ centric conceptions of social processes. Capital must also be contested as a holistic vantage for understanding social problems as she argues: “In any given actual society capital is differentiated also by such things as social character, temperament,regional history…”. In the same vein, the famous paper Flexible Sexism takes issue with two of the most famous works in Marxist geography: Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies and David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. As Massey scathingly claims, the central agent of their work is “… in fact mainly capital, for neither book allows much space for resistance, even from labour.” In extending her concern for agency, Massey advocates a feminist standpoint epistemology in order to provide foundation for gendered resistance, decentring masculine viewpoints as the natural location for understanding postmodernism. The section closes with a discussion of Venezuela’s ‘power-geometry’ project, which operationalised Massey’s critique of spatial power through spatial redistribution policy. Together, space emerges as a rich but dizzying category, which incorporates a regional and place-based conception of geography.

Massey’s Reader serves as a critical conjuncture for thinking geographically about social power. While other figures following the Marxist geographic turn of the 1960s would focus on deindustrialisation from the vantage of global capitalism (the ‘gestalt of scale’ to quote Neil Smith), Massey committed to shining a light on the specifically local dimensions of globalisation. She was able to demonstrate that the local and global are co-constitutive, and that there are advantages of thinking globally about local problems. Massey suggests that a global sense of placeness might be capable of transcending the increasingly polarised politics of working class communities, producing a new locally embedded form of resistance. Since her passing in 2016, the world has witnessed a range of regional ruptures contesting the legacy of globalisation. In this respect it seems that questions of regionalism and their relationship to place and space are increasingly urgent. Massey suggests that we need to propose progressive alternatives of solidarity to navigate the wilderness of the fractured international context. But this needs to be carefully understood as place-specific and largely subject to the history and process of social geography. For this reason, we should be grateful to possess the road map offered in the Reader in helping us nderstand the implications of Massey’s other well-known phrase:

“there is no point of departure”.

Llewellyn Williams-Brooks
Llewellyn Williams-Brooks is PhD Student in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His current research interests are Australian Historiography, Class and State theory, Economic Policy and Labour History.

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