Response to Mitchell

Jonathan Smith

Editor's note: After NAS posted Academic Questions article "Remapping Geography," Don Mitchell offered a response to the authors, Jonathan M. Smith and Jim Norwine. Here Professor Smith responds to Mitchell.

I would like to thank Professor Mitchell for taking the time to read and respond to the article “Remapping Geography,” and also for his boldness and plainspoken candor.  His opinions are visible, his convictions earnest, and his pen deliciously poisonous.  He is not one of those academic rabbits forever sniffing the wind at the mouth of their burrows.  A point-by-point rebuttal of Mitchell’s response would be tedious, in large part because it would require a soporific rehearsal of arcane lore from the field of geography.  I will, however, attempt to answer three questions:  Did Norwine and I forget ourselves when we composed “Remapping Geography”?  Are books proposing remedies to nihilism to be taken as evidence that nihilism doesn’t exist?  Is Mitchell’s “critical” thought tendentious or fair?  I’ll close with a defiantly conciliatory note. 

Norwine and I did not say that there are no conservative scholars in geography.  Many times at geography conferences I’ve looked up while washing my hands and seen one.  And we state in the article that conservative opinion has been published.  But the fact that we’ve recently published a non-progressive editorial in the A.A.G. Newsletter is about as significant as the fact that I often see a conservative geographer in the bathroom mirror when it comes to assessing the tone and temper of the field.  Our editorial was, and Jim and I are, anomalous.  The instances that we describe as progressive political posturing are not anomalous; they are typical.  And they also differ in character from anything (except, perhaps, “Remapping Geography”) that Norwine or I have ever done.  The difference is that they are extravagant, in the literal sense of straying some measurable distance from the academic competence of the geographers in question.  It is understandable, and proper, that these geographers should form opinions on global warming, Darwinism in the schools, or the foreign policy of the Bush administration—we all do that—but none of them has academic authority on these questions.  They are simply educated citizens venting opinions and waving their geographer’s badges to see if anyone will be impressed.  The editorial that Norwine and I wrote was, in contrast, about education and the character and attitudes of students.  Most geographers are educators (not legislators, jurists, or law-enforcement officers), so the topic is appropriate.  Moreover, we both possess some academic authority on this question.  Between us there is more than half a century of teaching experience and a co-edited book; and Norwine has done research in this area for years. 

There are, I confess, a great many books I have not “cracked,” mention of Marx in the title sometimes being the reason.  No doubt there is in the books Mitchell cites some discussion of limits, absence of limits being widely recognized as a serious defect in almost all post-enlightenment thought.  Ever since modern philosophers dismantled the authority of tradition and the church in the eighteenth century, they have been scrambling to find a new source of authority (and hence of limits), in nature, reason, history, the deliverances of positivist science, or (like Leavis and Williams) art.  So far none have done this to general satisfaction.  Nietzsche is just one of the writers who insist that they labor in vain, since modernity is nihilistic at its core.  If Nietzsche is correct (and I believe he is, in diagnosis but not prescription), we should not be surprised to find that a desperate scramble for authority (and hence limits) is a pervasive feature of modern thought.  Just as we would not be seeking a cure for cancer if there were no cancer among us, so we would not be seeking a solution to nihilism if we were not nihilistic. 

Mitchell assures us that he does not indoctrinate his students, but rather seeks to make them think critically.  I do not doubt that this is true; nor do I doubt that his classes are stimulating, provocative, and lively.  He is an intelligent, articulate, and amiable man, justifiably confident in his abilities, and possessed of a real regard for justice and fair play.  Critical thought is not, however, limited to thought that issues from self-conscious reflection and open debate, and critical thinking is not the same as being able to articulate reasons for all of one’s opinions.  To limit the meaning of the word critical in this way is to insinuate an ideology (“crack,” for instance, Maurice Cowling’s Mill and Liberalism).  Critical thought is simply thought that embodies judgments, some of which have been consciously formed, some of which were received but are susceptible to rational defense, and some of which are core commitments held dogmatically as prejudices.  The reason that critical thinking is ideological under Mitchell’s narrow definition is that it always drives the weaker party in a debate into an impossible defense of his received opinions and core commitments.  Because he has no reason for these beliefs (the defect being accidental in the case of received opinions, necessary in the case of core commitments), an aggressive critic employing a wholly spurious logic may persuade him to disavow these beliefs.  I’m not suggesting that Mitchell is a bully; I’m almost certain he is not.  But his “critical thought” employs a bullying logic, and this bullying logic is, I have found, very common among progressive scholars.  It’s always the more timid person’s opinions that are in the dock (i.e. students lose).  There are also, I know, conservative bullies, but their tyrannies are much more obvious (and much less effective).  They dogmatize rather than criticize.  But criticism is very often dogmatism in disguise. 

Mitchell and I differ on many questions, but we are of a generation, and so like-minded on many others.  One idea that I believe we share—and that conservatives and radicals generally share—is that of a relational ontology.  This is simply a ponderous way of saying that we believe that human experience is not of things, or of mental states, but of relations between subjects and objects.  The simple lesson to derive from this is that few perspectives are complete fantasies, and no perspective is altogether true (in the austerely realist sense of that word).  Norwine and I painted our picture of the new cultural geography in bold colors and slashing strokes to make a vivid impression.  But we did not make it up and we are not subject to hallucinations.  It is, as we humanists like to say, a symbol of our experience.  And we did not form this symbol as “red meat” for some slavering pack of NAS members (talk about lurid fantasies!).  We wrote it, partly, for the new cultural geographers, who desperately need an “outsider’s perspective”; but we wrote it mainly for our fictional “eager young geographer,” who shouldn’t be made to feel like an outsider, whatever her politics, religion, or favorite flavor of ice cream.  “Remapping Geography” is, when all is said and done, an outsider’s perspective, and so has all the irritating rancor, useful clarity (and no doubt regrettable stupidities) common to such views. 

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