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non-representational theory

  A theory of mobile practices. Non-representational theory, a term coined by Thrift (1996), is a radical attempt to wrench the social sciences and humanities out of their current emphasis on representation and interpretation by moving away from a view of the world based on contemplative models of thought and action towards theories of practice which amplify the potential of the flow of events.

Taking its line from early protagonists like Dewey, Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, as well as more recent writers like Shotter, Irigaray and Butler, non-representational theory depends upon a single question: how would the social sciences and humanities go on if they were to take practices seriously? But the answer to this seemingly simple question demands a number of reformulations. First, the world must be seen as momentary, as always in the making of now. Second, \'society\' becomes a set of more or less durable networks of heterogeneous actors — or, more properly, \'actants\' (see actor-network theory) — who are able to produce more or less durable moments by forging connections. However, this durability arising out of difference requires something more than the simple conjunction of actors, it also requires the expressive power offered by embodiment and the other capacities of actors or the moment cannot be made afresh and active. Third, and relatedly, the world cannot be counted as a primarily discursive phenomenon. Many capacities arise from interaction between elements, without any explicit discursive formulation (rather as time-geography attempted to argue but without the rigidities of that approach\'s graphic trails). Fourth, non-representational theory is based on a notion of time and space (or, rather, times and spaces) as the effects of the commotion arising from the manifold possibilities of interconnection produced by network-building. This is a world in which the \'and\' of the connection between actors defines the actors\' times and spaces and not vice versa. Places therefore became \'the effect of the folding of spaces, times and materials together into complex topological arrangements that perform a multitude of differences\' (Hetherington, 1997, p. 197). Fifth, this sense of the world entails the production of a new theoretical style. The old epistemology-driven technologies of theory, and the notions of theory that underpin them, are replaced by a more modest anti-epistemological style of work which is both determinedly political (in that it requires active engagement with the world) and determinedly partial (in that it no longer aims to encompass the world).

What does all this mean for human geography? So far as the discipline is concerned, non-representational theory challenges the increasingly anaemic and predictable hegemony of current cultural geography. In particular, much cultural geography, with its commitment to representation, is seen as reproducing elitist intellectual practices whilst arguing the opposite. So far as methodology is concerned, non-representational theory obtains much of its inspiration from the performing arts — theatre, dance, music, performance art, and the like — because they have to negotiate the non-discursive and because they are committed to notions of performance and performativity which foster the new. They have therefore developed a whole series of technologies for refiguring times and spaces upon which it is possible to call. Then, so far as politics is concerned, non-representational theory is an attempt to move off onto new ground where the witness must become an observant participant rather than a participant observer. Through its emphasis on the intensity of commitment and the commitment of intensity, non-representational theory allows of no hiding place. You must be in it. (NJT)

References Hetherington, K. 1997: In place of geometry: the materiality of place. In K. Hetherington, and R. Munro, eds, Ideas of difference. Social spaces and the labour of division. Oxford: Blackwell, 183-99. Thrift, N.J. 1996: Spatial formations. London: Sage. Thrift, N.J. 1997: The still point: expressive embodiment and dance. In S. Pile and M. Keith, eds, Geographies of resistance. London, Routledge, 124-51.

Suggested Reading Rose, G. and Thrift, N.J., eds, 2000: Special issue on performance and performativity. Environment and Planning D. Society and Space, 18(4). Thrift, N.J. 1999: Steps to an ecology of place. In J. Allen, D. Massey and Sarre, P., eds, Human geography today. Cambridge: Polity Press.



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