I recently got back from the AAG and thought I would share a few reflections on my time in Chicago. Having never been to an AAG conference, I was slightly surprised by the scale of it. On the first day alone, over 90 sessions ran alongside each other. It was big, perhaps to the point of being counterproductive, but it certainly meant that there was lots of take in and learn from as around 9000 ‘mobile human actors’ descended on the Hyatt hotel with their ‘particular epistemic baggage’ (see Craggs and Mahony)
The majority of sessions I attended (and the one I participated in) had a distinctly elemental theme. Pip Thornton from Royal Holloway, and myself, both presented in the second of two sessions on Terrain (organised by Stuart Elden and Gastón Gordillo). Stuart Elden introduced the theme, commenting on how terrain as a concept and practice tends to be uncritically adopted within geography and called instead for a deeper engagement with the geostrategic, material, three dimensional construct that is terrain. Pip’s paper drew on her own experiences of war to deal with light discipline on the battlefield whilst I discussed some of my research on the Cold War case study of Sealab II to explore how an undersea terrain can be thought about in practice, incorporating the sea floor, the volume of the sea, and the body (I may write some more about this in another post). It was great to present some of my first PhD work and I’m very grateful for the discussion and comments that followed – thanks to to Setha Low who acted as a discussant and facilitated this process. Also presenting on this panel were Gaston Gordillo and Clayton Whitt, both of whom gave really insightful papers – I particularly enjoyed thinking about the role of mud in terrain and the way it enables and constricts certain mobilities.
I began the conference with ‘Thinking through a Politics of the air’, organised by Marijn Nieuwenhuis and Miguel de Larrinaga. This included two fascinating but very different papers on tear gas, one grappling with the nature of tear gas, the other going behind the scenes to arms expo’s to trace the supply chain and explore how they are marketed and sold. Marjin also gave an insightful paper on ‘elemental territories: earth, water and …air?’ calling for a move beyond the politics of the surface and asking why we are so preoccupied with the earth over other elements. The session ended with a presentation by Sasha Engelmann on solar balloons and aerial artwork. It was based on her research with Tomás Saraceno, an artist who works ‘with scientists, engineers, sociologists, philosophers and nonhumans (like spiders) to speculate about a future in which humans live in lightweight, self-aggregating, nomadic structures called “cloud cities.” It really gave a sense of the agency of air and I very much look forward to reading more about the project as I think it has some important resonances with case studies such as Sealab that I have been engaging with.
‘Territory beyond Terra’, organised by Kim Peters and Phil Steinberg, followed which helpfully thought through how territory functions in a variety of spaces – from the sea, to land, to space. Kate Coddington’s paper on ‘The problem of circulation: asylum seeker mobility as a challenge to Australian territory’ was a highlight and raised important questions about Australia’s extreme anti-immigration strategies and the role of spaces such as the lifeboat in such strategies. Kate has a website on her research which can be accessed here.
Another highlight was the first ‘Oceanic Matters’ session organised by Catherine Phillips and Leah Gibbs. The papers covered a whole range of topics – the governing of ghost nets washing up on shores, the undersea sculptures of artist Jason deCaires Taylor, the embodied geographies of free diving, shark encounters, and an exploration of how our connections with the ocean can inform a sustainable lifestyle on land. It really showcased the fantastic array of research being done on sea spaces and demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the sea is a space worthy of more academic attention.
There are many other sessions I could mention (and many that I missed due to clashes). The No Man’s Land session organised by Alasdair Pinkerton and Noam Leshem was fantastic, giving plenty of food for thought on the materialities of no man’s lands, how they are constructed, maintained, moved in and around. I look forward to seeing how this field of enquiry develops. The session on Political Enactment (Alex Jeffrey, Colin Mcfarlane, Alex Vasudevan) was equally as interesting, exploring the bodies, infrastructures, and subjects of political enactments through coffee shops, waste politics, art, and temporary autonomous zones. Finally, I really enjoyed the plenary lecture organised by Mona Domosh which brought together geographers from a range of geographical disciplines (including Royal Holloway’s Harriet Hawkins) to discuss a number of themes and in doing so, actively demonstrate the value of intra-disciplinarity.
Both the conference and Chicago lived up to expectations and it was great to be a part of such a lively and diverse cohort of researchers from the Geography department at Royal Holloway. It has given me a lot to think about – particularly in terms of situating the elements in geography and geopolitics, but also in formulating an understanding of the ‘conference’ as an event with its own geographies and structures. Craggs and Mahony write that the conference provides an opportunity to ‘perform legitimacy’ and it certainly felt like I had completed a rite of passage in presenting a paper. On the other hand, some of my pre-conceptions went unfounded. I had heard of examples of senior academics belittling early-career scholars or PhD students, presumably to enact the power politics that Craggs and Mahony refer to. This was not reflected in my experience – people were generally very supportive, encouraging, and critically engaged in each of the sessions I attended. Perhaps the only time this was challenged was through the obscure language adopted in some papers, presenting ‘clear possibilities for exclusion from the academic debate’, and many an opportunity to become lost in a sea of epistemologies, typologies, and ‘ontological ontologies’.