Thinkability – Notes from the 2011 AAG Meeting in Seattle

I have just returned from the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers which took place in Seattle this year. I really enjoyed both the conference and the city (who would have thought that Seattle had so much sun to offer, especially, as it was still snowing in much of the surrounding area!). Due to the weather, I did not manage to experience a volcano up close – and neither did I manage to spot any grey whales – but then, both downtown Seattle and the AAG had other interesting experiences to offer.

Questionnaire from ‘Geographer-artists’ session

I first found it difficult to capture the spirit of the AAG (the human geography side, that is). Something felt quite different from the last time I went. Reading Antonio Negri’s ‘Art & Multitude’ in between sessions (thanks, Gail, for recommending it!) helped me to get closer to what I was perceiving. In ‘Art & Multitude’, Negri uses the term ‘thinkability’, which strongly seemed to resonate within many of the sessions I witnessed or heard other attendees talk about. One could argue that, of course, researchers are all the time working to expand our capacity to think – or think around – certain problems. However, this time, the difference appeared to be a genuine sense that recent physical and political changes had put into question established ways of thinking so strongly that this needed to be raised across a number of subjects. Resulting debates were often very passionate.

Examples are discussions of how to think the immensity of climate change and biodiversity loss or how to rethink the current political landscape and systems. These questions were not only tackled in paper sessions and panels, but also by the lectures. For instance, Nigel Thrift’s presentation, ‘The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing An Untoward Land’, clearly reflected his struggle to encounter recent economic and cultural changes on more than just analytical grounds. What new ways are there to pursue? Similar concerns were addressed by CUNY’s Neil Smith, who, in his lecture on ideology gave the example of the ‘Arab Spring’ and how it achieved an opening of the future for the whole world and an opening to imagine different futures – a sentiment which, he stated, had not been there in the past few decades. Asking questions such as ‘where do ideas come from?’ Smith reminded the audience to think about everyone’s potential agency in such creative processes.

The role of sensory experience as part of the process of re-imagining new kinds of politics seemed to be a particularly prominent theme. An author who was frequently cited in this relation was Jacques Rancière and his linking of perception and politics. Kanishka Goonewardena of the University of Toronto, for instance, used Rancière’s work to point out the neglected ‘centrality of the senses and the human body’ in Marxist thought. One of his first quotes was Rancière’s notion that ‘politics revolves around who has the ability to see’. Geraldine Pratt also drew on Rancière’s notion of ‘play at politics’. Talking about the difficulties in creating engagement and exchange around Filipino temporary workers in Canada, Pratt described her involvement in a ‘testimonial theatre’ play that sought to ‘redistribute the senses’, as she put it, ‘as to reconfigure what can be seen, heard, sensed and thought’ and to stimulate a wider debate. An experiment in shifting boundaries between victims, actors and audiences, her presentation raised the question for many what different courses of action are possible – for research subjects, researchers, different kinds of stakeholders in an issue – which had not been thought possible before. It was a call for examining our common ‘capacity to loosen our established patterns of thought’.

Pratt was not the only one to call for an experimentation with the world, especially the ‘world as we no longer know it’. In this context, a number of references were made to the Situationist movement, particularly in relation to recent ‘urban interventions by groups such as ‘Space Hijackers’. There were more or less sophisticated calls for new practices, new languages, new public geographies. Much of it reminded me of Negri’s plea for the ‘construction of a new language’, for experimenting and constructing, for a ‘creative materialism’, particularly the notion of creating and generating as ‘acts of resistance’. However, I was rather shocked how little critical engagement some of the presenters showed in engaging with creatively building new modes of communicating and living. I found myself spending half of my time at the conference talking about the dangers of uncritical engagement with art practice, sensation and exploration (the other half, I talked about Bakhtin’s negotiation of the ‘inhuman’, e.g. as part of a panel discussing Nigel Clark’s book ‘Inhuman Nature’). Particularly dangers which theorists in both the humanities and the social sciences have pointed out for decades, such as the parallels between communist and fascist aesthetics, or the potentially problematic romanticisation of certain forms exploration, were dismissed by some of the discussants. While I longed for an abandoning of much of the old that resurfacing in such discussions and towards truly new lines of thought (as much as this is possible), I also longed for a re-engagement with some of the ‘old’ that takes the demand for creating something new seriously.

Many of these impressions and thoughts were still with me during my post-AAG journey, which took me, via Ann Arbor, to Detroit. The felt scale of desertion of Detroit as well as the various narratives that are spun about a potential revival of the city truly seemed to illustrate what it means to reach the limits of ‘thinkability’. Visiting a few different downtown neighbourhoods and suburbs with members of the ‘Detroit Unreal Estate Agency’, I discovered some examples of how different groups of people engaged with the hard-to-imagine future of the city, be it citizens struggling to keep a vital and visionary school open, journalists trying to relay the developments or artists experimenting with re-shaping the city’s current trajectory. Unsurprisingly, it has been especially the artists that have been the focus of the news on Detroit. Indeed, signs of artistic activity can be spotted all over downtown, although in some cases it is not quite clear whether a particular aesthetic intervention was done by an artist or an angry non-artist resident (but then, isn’t everyone potentially an artist?). A question that was posed during the visit was: how many artists do you need to create an impact on the city? The city’s issues seemed so monstrous that, even if several hundred artists or architects took to Detroit, their efforts might just ‘go under’ in the sheer scale of things. In turn, this provoked the question: what is thinkable, what is do-able?

I would like to end this post with a passage from an article in Frieze magazine (no. 137) called ‘Good Intentions’, which I happened to come across at one of the University of Michigan’s libraries. It addresses the question whether art can effect political and social change:

‘All of this begs the question: when does dialogue become counter-productive? Are artists really able to levitate above the ugly stuff of politics and effect change? Should there be special artists’ visas? And with them would be open the floodgates of reconciliation? When does the so-called specialist status clause threaten to normalise the status quo, create a safe space from which to critique that, in the end, possibly stands to change nothing? When art provides the cover of a safe space from which one can make vague political statements about dialogue and community – when it allows for representations of violence in places of real and present violence – could it be time to withdraw altogether?’

Negar Azimi’s subsequent call (paraphrasing artist Tania Bruguera) for an art of ‘uncomfortable knowledge’, an art that ‘stems from knowing that we don’t actually have all the answers’, expresses to me the current climate of hope for the capacity to re-think ways of human dwelling and existence on this planet. For me, the same imperative remains that was highlighted by Geraldine Pratt: most of all we need to keep the conversation – our multiple conversations – going.

Related event: Mireille Roddier, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College, will be presenting on the Detroit ‘Unreal Estate’ at the third ‘Creative City Limits’ workshop at UCL on 1 June 2011 (11am-6pm). For further information, please see


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