104: Don Mitchell’s Cultural Geography

Don Mitchell’s Cultural Geography: An Introduction is a critical introduction to cultural geography intended for graduate (or advanced undergraduate) students.  By “critical,” Mitchell means a) he takes a normative position (here, informed by Marxism and materialism) and makes an argument, and b) he invites his readers to question, argue, and struggle with both the points he makes and the arguments behind them, because this kind of intellectual engagement will help us learn.  by “introduction to cultural geography,” he means that the book explores the “struggles” that make “culture,” both “to show how they get worked out in particular spaces and places – in particular landscapes – and to show how struggles over ‘culture’ are a key determinant, day in and day out, in the ways that we live our lives – and in what therefore constitutes significant cultural difference.”  Culture, in Mitchell’s formulation, is a relational process and is always political; the production of cultural space is thus the production of particular geometries of power that give shape and meaning to our lives.

In other words, Mitchell is interested in landscapes insofar as they shape and are shaped by culture.  Within global capitalism, landscape both does work and is a work: landscape structures and conditions social relations between people, and the “landscape way of seeing” is ideological, complicit in perpetuating existing structures of power.  Landscapes can obscure labor exploitation, reify and encode social differences like gender or race, and otherwise naturalize power relations.  But close examinations of landscapes reveal the cultural struggle that went into their creation, the dialectic between resistance and control.  Mitchell highlights several ways that the naturalized meanings of the landscape can/have been called into question, including street spectacles; Chauncey’s Gay New York and the recovery of gay male sexuality in the New York landscape; gender and the division of public and private space; segregation in the US/ apartheid in South Africa as inscribed and naturalized in the landscape; German deterritorialization and national identity.  In each, he shows how social, cultural, and political divisions become naturalized in the landscape.

Mitchell concludes with a normative call to action.  If culture is a “system of differentiation and a system of reproduction” whose efficacy increases as its relationships are reified in the landscape, a critical geography must do two things.  First, it must reveal the social and cultural contestation that went into the creation of the landscape, so that the power dynamics embedded in the landscape can be seen as socially constructed and thus changeable.  And second, a critical geography must advocate not for individual rights but for cultural rights in the landscape: the right to be in a particular place, make a living wage, and enjoy cultural autonomy, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc.

If his argument is heavily influenced in the language of the culture wars and multiculturalism, and if he insists on staying at the level of the cultural even though philosophically his argument requires the social, his call to examine landscapes in pursuit of imbalances of power – whatever the form of oppression – is still valid today, even in our current understanding of oppression as multiple, fragmented, and contingent.

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