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poetics of geography

  A set of linguistic resources and a particular literary and theoretical sensibility to cope with problems of geographical representation. In the conventional view of language, known as naive realism, \'words are felt to link up with their thoughts or objects in essentially right and incontrovertible ways\' (Eagleton, 1983, p. 134). The task of writing, of representing the world, is simply the mechanical one of lining up words in the right order. This view of language and writing, however, has been severely criticized in twentieth-century philosophy on the grounds that words are not mirrors of the world. Instead, the two are in a much more complex relation involving social power, cultural norms, interpretive and rhetorical strategies, and, to use Wittgenstein\'s phrase, a people\'s very \'form of life\'. To signal that complexity, researchers in a number of fields in the humanities and social sciences have paid special attention to the process of inscription. Note that the issue is as much about a new theoretical and critical attitude to writing as it is about writing per se. It is devising different narrative strategies, novel tropes, and alternative vocabularies to represent a set of new critical theoretical goals such as reflexivity, or openness and inclusivity, or the denaturalization of commonly accepted relations (Culler, 1997). The heightened critical theoretical sensibility towards, and experimentation with, geographical writing constitute the poetics of geography.

The term \'poetics\' was first popularized in the sense described above in an important collection of ethnographic essays, Writing culture (Clifford and Marcus, 1986). There contributors wrestled with the problem of including in their representations the wider contexts of power, constraint, heterogeneity, historical rupture, and even redemption, that bear on both their subjects and themselves as authors. Lining up words mechanically in the right order does not work because there is no right order. This is the importance of poetics. It makes readers and authors acutely aware of both the difficulties and possibilities of writing (Barnes and Gregory, 1997, pp. 3-6). Note that poetics is not equivalent to purple prose, or the unfettered use of language, quite the opposite. It is about treating words with respect, recognizing their power, passion and potential, and using them with precision and consequence. To practise poetics is not to distance oneself from the world, but to take the world utterly seriously. Words are all that we have. \'Language goes all the way down\', as the American philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, and we must be keenly aware in deploying it.

In geography the issue of how to write is increasingly important, and found particularly in cultural geography in studies around identity politics and sexuality, and in recent feminist geographies. Olsson (1980, 1992) is perhaps the best-known experimenter within the English language, which is remarkable given that it is not his native tongue. Pred (1990) has also been acutely conscious of the power of words, both of others (discussed in his historical studies of Stockholm) and of his own. (TJB)

References Barnes, T.J. and Gregory, D., eds, 1997: Reading geography: the poetics and politics of inquiry. London: Arnold. Clifford, J. 1986: Introduction: partial truths. In J. Clifford and G.E. Marcus, eds, Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1-26. Clifford, J. and Marcus, G.E., eds, 1986: Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Culler, J. 1997: Literary theory: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Eagleton, T. 1983: Literary theory: an introduction. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Olsson, G. 1980: Birds in egg/eggs in bird. London: Pion Olsson, G. 1992: Lines of power/limits of language. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Pred, A. 1990: Lost words and lost worlds: modernity and language in everyday life in nineteenth century Stockholm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Suggested Reading Barnes and Gregory (1997), 1-9. Clifford and Marcus (1986).



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