September 4, 2019, by Benjamin Thorpe
“A Non-Representational Historical Geography?” Sessions at the 2019 RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, London
After its excursion to Cardiff in 2018, the RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society with Institute of British Geographers) Annual International Conference returned to its London headquarters for the 2019 edition, held from 27-30 August. This year’s theme was ‘Geographies of trouble / Geographies of hope’, though as news broke on the opening morning of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans to prorogue parliament for five weeks in the run-up to the ‘Brexit Day’ of 31 October, for many attendees the trouble began to outweigh the hope.
Capturing hopes, troubles, and other affects, atmospheres and encounters presents peculiar challenges to the historical geographer who must already approach their evidence through the gauze of time. These questions have been a recurrent influence upon the Conferencing the International project, previously addressed in a session at the 2018 AAG Annual Meeting on “Geographies of Sensory Politics: Re-thinking Atmospheres”. This double-session on the opening morning (28 August) of the RGS-IBG conference was thus something of a loose sequel, convened by Stephen Legg and Ivan Marković and chaired by Benjamin Thorpe, entitled “A Non-Representational Historical Geography? Archives, Affects and Atmospheres”.
The impressive crowd that made it to the fifth floor of Imperial College’s Sherfield Building for the 9am start were treated to Ruth Slatter’s fascinating account of the Pre-Raphaelite artist James Smetham’s everyday experience of religion, particularly the ‘squarings’ and ‘ventilators’ through which he reconciled his religion and his art. The theme of religion was carried over into Eric Olund’s talk on missionaries’ use of highly charged metaphors to communicate atmospheres and emotions in their anti-prostitution campaigns in Chicago’s Levee district in the early twentieth century. Stephen Legg spoke of atmospheres too, in his case the social atmospheres of the 1930-32 Round Table Conferences, in both the spectacular and more everyday conference spaces. Next, Hayden Lorimer discussed the House of Yardley’s production and promotion of lavender as a luxury scent, and their association of lavender with a certain version of nationalised loveliness and beauty. Finally, Maarten Loopmans told us of his use of sketching in his and Magaly Rodriguez Garcia’s interviews with a sex worker, and the way in which the process of drawing and the subject’s reaction to it unsettled the research dynamic.
The second session kicked off with Giulia Carabelli’s paper on “Empire as affect”, in which she spoke about apprehending the imperial atmosphere in Trieste, particularly the contested invocation of empire in the 25 April Liberation Day commemorations. In the following paper, Merle Patchett took from a box three avian accessories, which she used as a means of thinking (and teaching) the archive as animal, and demonstrating the mutual constitution of dualisms like natural/human history and animal/artefact. Next, Felicity Callard turned to the challenge of catching daydreams, and the attempts that have been made across a range of disciplines to do such a thing. Finally, Ivan Marković spoke about tobacco smoke in the 1980s workplace, and the way in which its traces are both absent and abundant in the archive. Ben Anderson acted as discussant, brilliantly pulling from across the morning’s papers to identify two broader senses of the non-representational at work: taken as a mode of enquiry, he argued, one could see its plenitude and proliferation within historical geography; however, taken as a set of phenomena, there were more tensions evident between the papers.
As well as attesting to the vibrancy and variety of non-representational work currently being pursued within historical geography, the sessions also made good use of props to puncture the wordiness of the typical conference paper presentation. Merle’s ‘botched birds’ proved not only illustrative of the thorny issues at hand, but of the dangers of a thorny materiality to hands. And Hayden infused the atmosphere of the room with the scent of lavender in aromatic illustration of his subject, a tactic that the audience might have been relieved that Ivan did not follow. A morning spent attuned to the non-representational certainly prepared those in the room for the anxiety provoked by the day’s news, as well as the stimulation of a packed conference programme across the following days, not to mention the conviviality of lunches on the RGS lawn in the late summer sun.