The final day of the conference was another action-packed day, with a further 214 sessions across 35 stages.
Sessions sponsored by journals and others continued, with workshops by the Geographical Association, by the MDPI journal, Land, Palgrave Macmillan, and Wiley Digital Archives. There were also three further journal-sponsored lectures today. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography held their annual lecture, with Patricia Daley and Amber Murray speaking to the title Contemporary African Geographies and Defiant Scholarship; Louise Amoore delivered the Political Geography lecture, under the title of The deep border; and Ayona Datta delivered the Geoforum Annual Lecture – the first time it had been held in the UK – on ‘Thick time’: Experiments with feminist urban futures in community podcasts.
A particular highlight of the morning were the two sessions organised by Catherine Oliver on (Re-)thinking the academic conference space, which included a number of papers reflecting on the organisation and experience of academic conferences, both in person and online, and how these reproduce particular inequalities. A personal highlight for the Society’s conference organising team was also witnessing Chris McMorran welcoming delegates to the session Teaching and Learning in Geography: inspiring courage and compassion in the pedagogic borderlands.
One of the noticeable things about this week has been the prevalence of people talking about the conference online, using #RGSIBG21. This online engagement continued today, with comments on a variety of sessions:
The first plenary of the day, chaired by Rachel Squire, was delivered by Kim Peters, under the title, A line in the ocean 30 by 30: Ocean Borders and Geography’s Limits. Kim began the talk with a story about eating on a ship and seeing the most beautiful thing she had ever seen - a neat spacing of ships – a perfect line – an oceanic governance tool in action. The ships were spaced perfectly, as per the regulations that are required. This line starts at 1 Kensington Gore, with the Royal Institute of Navigation (RIN, which occupies the same address as the Society). The RIN were charged with putting order onto the oceans, imposing shipping lines and rules in attempt to prevent accidents and collisions. Similar lines now exist across every ocean.
These lines got Kim thinking about other lines in relation to oceans and the discipline of geography, such as the lines that separate the oceans from one another. These are not physical lines, they are simply abstractions. Other lines have sought to capture and categorise the resources available, for mining for instance. Lines are therefore not neutral, they are political, and interesting.
However, maritime lines themselves are not actually that well examined in geography. They are often assumed to be true – sitting as they do on maps and in policy documents -- but in reality, the lines have a violence to them. They mark out boundaries and borders that are always changing, and in flux. Environmental scholars have also talked of lines, albeit not in these terms, to try and impose solutions to ecological crises. Social and cultural geographers have discussed lines as ways of containing or separating. These lines are therefore meant to impose order on place. But why should non-marine geographers care about this? Well in part because it is impossible to separate the ocean from the land - the two are fluid and interconnected. Everyone is a geographer of the sea in some ways - 90% of goods we use, for instance, are shipped across the sea, meaning that without the sea there would be no city.
Kim then moved on to talk about the ways in which lines are interconnected with marine protection, through focusing on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). One such project is called 30X30 which is aiming to designate 30% of the oceans as MPAs by 2030. Some MPAs are community led and small scale, but many are just the product of geopolitical exercises and constructed on the idea that the ocean is empty - but this is far from true. The oceans are already full of governance. Line drawing is therefore based on logics of the frontier – they are about assigning and excising areas. These modes of governance should therefore not be seen as necessarily good just because they protect the environment, nor should they be seen as necessarily bad. But the line drawing involved needs more attention. We need to ensure that we do not ruin certain livelihoods, such as small-scale fishers, in imposing these MPAs for example, and to listen to different ways of knowing and living when we draw lines in the ocean. We need to not only bring in more diverse voices to our line drawing, but also draw on a more diverse set of lines, drawn by a more diverse set of people. 30X30 might well be the way to save the planet then – but it might also just bring with it more paper mills, and proliferate a carceral and colonial logic, aided by increased enclosure.
But questions remain about why there is no defined discipline of ocean geography. There are marine and coastal research groups and plenty of people working on oceans, but there is no coherence about this. This may be because of geography’s earth-bound nature. But there are questions of what this, maritime geography, would look like. Engaging with the sea might well teach us something new about geography, both in terms of how we think about spaces, places, and states, and also how we include different voices. But as the field grows it is also exposing its own inequalities – the exclusion of Black and Brown voices, of gender, of sexualities – and these will need to be challenged and exposed. We need to examine and reimagine all of these lines fully – the lines of our discipline, and the lines produced by our discipline.
Kim’s talk ended back at the Society, with a discussion of the Dreading the Map project, organised by Pat Noxolo, and a recognition that this is an important work of re-shaping lines in the very way we need to.
One of the striking things about the conference, and its theme, are the ways in which it has allowed discussion of some of the most pressing issues we face. These issues were again up for discussion in the final paper sessions of the conference, with both a session on Governing the COVID-19 pandemic, organised by Nick Clarke and Clive Barnett, and a session on Expanding radical housing geographies, organised by Mara Ferreri and Michele Lancione, in conjunction with the Journal of Radical Housing.
Conference Chair, Uma Kothari, chaired the final plenary session of the conference, in which David Olusoga presented History's Borders - Selective Memory and Britain's Empire of Amnesia. David’s talk started with a very simple thought exercise. He asked the audience to close their eyes and describe the images that come to mind when they hear the word ‘slavery.’ This he argued shows the ways in which British people often locate slavery as something that is far away, elsewhere, American. But they don’t describe the British slavery in the Caribbean, on sugar plantations and in sugar factories. This is partly because American culture is so prevalent, but also because our conceptual and cultural relationship with slavery in the UK has experienced behind border – off shore.
Images of slavery in the UK have also been obscured by fake narratives, those that were put out by the pro-slavery lobby, and by the current historians. These fake narratives have subsequently become enshrined as conceptual borders. Complex and uncomfortable histories around slavery, become highly emotional and with that they become unreasonable. This can be seen in the ways in which the National Trust’s Colonial Countryside project was reacted to. There is a question of geography at this juncture, however. Histories that are seen to have happened ‘over there’ are not allowed to be applied to those experienced ‘over here’ - it is a firm connection that is not allowed to be broken. This disconnection can be seen in the reactions to ‘A house through time,’ in which amongst dozens of uncomfortable topics have been discussed, yet only one has drawn complaints from the audience: slavery.
This relates to a kind of selective historical amnesia, a forgetting of history. A more modern example of this relates to the Windrush scandal, during which thousands of people fell foul of the forgetting of the history of the 1971 Immigration Act which gave these people the automatic right to remain. And this historical amnesia stretches further – most do not think, learn or know about the imperial histories that happened beyond the current boundaries of the UK. It is through this that we are able to ‘forget’ why people migrated to work in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in the first place, and the fact that these same people were already part of the same history that their fellow citizens are.
This amnesia is one that is produced through a particular cultural and geographical imaginary during which Britain (or England) is seen to have cast a brief spell over the colonies, to paraphrase Enoch Powell, but during which the colonies had not cast any spell over England itself. Indeed, at these times, people were starting to produce an idea of England that stretched back for thousands of years and remained untouched but the imperial era. It was a continuity that allowed for the reinstatement of ‘racial purity’ onto England in the postcolonial moment of the 1960s and 1970s. This then required a ‘clean break’ from our colonial past. The Commonwealth was seen, by Enoch Powell at least, as something that slowed down this separation.
But these analogies were of course flawed. For one, many people during this period left Britain for its former colonies. It was also a moment in which the former colonial peoples, mostly Black and Brown peoples, had already become integrated directly into British culture and it had been that way for hundreds of years. There was no pre-colonial moment for the British to retreat to. Powell demanded a remigration of Black and Brown bodies from British shores, but this became an impossibility. Yet the history had lost. As Stuart Hall states, immigrants are here, because you were there. It’s a history that needs to be told and remembered, but it is currently trapped behind the conceptual borders mentioned earlier. These are currently being attacked further, and for as long as this continues, we will be going backwards.
Following David’s talk, Uma offered thanks to everyone involved, before officially closing the conference. It has been an amazing and enriching week for all involved, and the Society would also like to extend our thanks to everyone who helped made it happen.
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