Geography in Practice: Making Place, Space, and Nation in the Eighteenth Century

AHA Session 210
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Salon 828 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Jordan Kellman, University†of Louisiana at Lafayette
Christian J. Koot, Towson University

Session Abstract

             This panel investigates the actors, methods, sites, and situations that shaped the production of geographic knowledge in late eighteenth-century North America and France.  It shows that space and place were created through varied interactions between humans as well as non-humans.  These acts of production were local but their effects were global.  They took place at sites as diverse as a ministry map room in Paris; a tobacco inspector’s office on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; and a frontier farm in Fayette County, Kentucky.  They shaped the construction of new forms of knowledge, politics, and national identity in two republics emerging from revolution.

            The panel is rooted in a historical engagement with the work of cultural geographers Sarah Whatmore and Nigel Thrift, who have argued for “hybrid” and “non-representational” approaches.  It takes up Thrift’s call to examine “social knowledge in use” by examining the stories of surveyors and geographers, their real-life practices, and the practical problems and material conditions of their work.  A generation of historians of geography has focused on spatial representations and configurations, reading out of them the politics of geographical production.  This panel seeks to recast the basis of our understanding of the production of place, by exploring the practices through which surveyors and geographers produced knowledge about land, landscape, and territory.

            The panelists emphasize the hybrid qualities of the practices they study, describing the objects of their research as “‘mixed’ geography” (Kingston), “creole science” (Thompson), and “frontier knowledge” (Smith).  In all three papers, geographical “knowledge workers” overcame issues of access and authority by mobilizing an unconventional range of resources.  Surveyors and geographers built alliances outside their fields, co-opting old and new spatial representations and practices to fit their purposes.  The influence of their interactions was not limited to the creation of individual plans, maps, or atlases.  It provoked a basic question of what was “surveying” or “geography.”  New definitions found focus within specific places, including schoolrooms, courtrooms, and government map depots.

             The three papers also address the relationship between this local production of knowledge and the revolutionary politics of the era.  Thompson’s paper shows that a demand for simple surveying guides in the colonies at mid-century turned into a stream of patriotic surveying manuals for a national audience after the American Revolution.  For Smith, equally, it matters that Daniel Boone worked for sixteen years as a surveyor at the cutting edge of U.S. settlement.  Boone was not just measuring plots of land for local governments—he was creating property, status, and authority for American landowners and (less successfully) for himself.  Kingston’s paper directly addresses the role of the state.  Here, as with the other panelists, he engages with the work of James C. Scott on the role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in government systems.  He investigates how the needs of an “indivisible” nation (and, later, an expanding Empire) forced old-regime mapmakers like Jean-Denis Barbiť du Bocage to improvise new political and scientific alliances around collections seized and warehoused during the early years of the French Revolution.

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