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Don Mitchell sets out writing his book "Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction" with an idealistic intention to argue and demonstrate that culture is nothing but what the powerful makes of it. His primary goal is to challenge the `superorganic' view of culture, which regards culture as an instrument that is above the people, and put forward a more socio-economic theory of culture by denaturalizing what is commonly viewed as natural. For Mitchell, culture is "human, all too human"!
Mitchell believes strongly in the ontological nonexistence of culture whatsoever. His motto "there is no such thing as culture -or race, or gender, or nation-" salutes the reader in every page of the book. Culture is not a `thing' per se, but only a realm over which take place continuing battles of political and economic interests, or "culture wars". Therefore, Mitchell asserts that "no decent cultural analysis can draw on culture itself as a source of explanation; rather culture is always something to be explained as it is socially produced through myriad struggles over and in spaces, scales, and landscapes," (p. xvi). Though he opposes to the ontological existence of culture, Mitchell believes in the `idealistic' existence of it: "there is no culture in the world... there is only a powerful idea of culture," (p. 74-5). Therefore, following a Gramscian view, Mitchell maintains that culture is an `ideology' that exists only in the mind of people and that facilitates the pursuit of certain interests. And like all other ideologies, cultural discourse works through "euphemizing" the social relations it is meant to explain by making the socially-constructed phenomena seem natural (p. 52-3). For Mitchell, "culture is politics by another name," (p. 294).
Mitchell's arguments are important not simply because they provide us a `critical' view of culture, but more importantly because they help us see the `social' (read: political-economic) aspects of culture. His approach to culture as an ideology deserves special credit in an age when we are bombarded with culture-based fatalistic arguments as to why certain things happen(ed) the they do (or did). Yet both his problematization of culture's `real' existence and his overemphasizing the influence of capitalist pressures on culture creates problems for a true understanding of what culture is. The next three sections will be on these problems.
Matrix or "How Do You Define Real?"
"They all muddy their waters in order to make them seem deep." Nietzsche, On Poets.
Throughout the book Mitchell uncompromisingly maintains the view that there is no such `thing' as culture -or gender, race, and nation. Yet his arguments to support that view fall short of being convincing and coherent. The first (or basic) problem with Mitchell's argument can be named as the problem of problematization. One can problematize any `abstract' concept if he/she wishes so. This is because all abstract concepts are more or less ambiguous and they all share the problem (?) of `infinite regress.' We have no agreed-upon definitions of democracy, morality, government, love, or even class. However, we do not conclude that these `things' are nonexistent. Whether they are perceived or interpreted differently by different people, they do exist. Yet Mitchell quickly reaches to the conclusion that culture does not exists simply because it is a "confusing" (p. 15) and "ambiguous" (p. 74) concept which is a victim of "infinite regress" (p.76). For Mitchell, thus, culture is made real only when someone stops the infinite regress and says "this is what culture is" (ibid). If approached that way, though, I cannot think of any abstract concept with `real' existence or even correspondence (Can somebody tell definitely what, say, love is?). Mitchell applies the same reasoning on race and nation, though. There is no such biological thing as race because it is a "chaotic concept" (p. 241) and can be identified only through "overlapping classification" (p. 240). In fact, any `abused' concept is a chaotic one and all the classifications we make in theory or practice are actually idealized categorizations of different yet `overlapping' groups. We would end up with very few `real' things if we chased after `mutually exclusive' groupings! Therefore, I do not think that we have the luxury of selectively blaming some concepts for having a shortcoming that is shared by all. We are either to stand in a Nietzschean position "there is no fact, but interpretations," or to assume that "what is perceived is real". Mitchell thinks that most of the postmodernist arguments leads to "academic over-intellectualizing" (p. xvii) and therefore he aims not to engage in them; yet, ironically, most of his arguments are par excellence examples of academic over-intellectualizing of a confused postmodern scholar.
Capitalism: Deus ex Machina?
"To be sure, the use of force by one party in a market transaction in order to improve his price was no invention of capitalism. Unequal exchange is an ancient practice. What was remarkable about capitalism as a historical system was the way in which this unequal exchange could be hidden," - Immanuel Wallerstein, Historical Capitalism
Mitchell's arguments as to what culture is are no less problematic than the ones claiming the nonexistence of it. Culture has a political economy. We live in capitalist ages and no aspect of our social relations is immune to capitalist pressures. Yet Mitchell takes this commonsensical truth to an extreme point as culture is political economy and thus reduces the cultural interactions to mere calculations/contestations of economic and political interests. Mitchell's main mistake, to me, is that he sees capitalism as the creator of our environment and not as a manipulator of it. Thus, he immediately concludes that everything that surrounds us is a result of capitalism. Yet, historically speaking, what capitalism has been most successful in is not the creation of new realms, but the manipulation of the existing ones. Capitalism aims to take advantage of the pre-existing institutions in a society and turn them into profits. To me, culture, gender, race, and nations are to be viewed from this perspective. So far as capitalism is concerned, it is `profit from culture', not `culture as a profit'.
Gender is the area where Mitchell's faulty reasoning strikes the reader most. He asserts that the "sequestering" of women in the home was itself a `product' of changing ideologies of domesticity associated with the "rise of the bourgeoisie" (p. 204). Even if put aside the counter-facts such as the dominance of female labor in the nineteenth-century industrial Britain and in the current maquiladoras in Mexico, there is a fact from which we cannot escape: domesticity of women has long been a historical issue, though its scale displayed some variations throughout. The house was a more feminine place in Hittites, Huns, Romans, Abbasids, Ottomans, and Habsburgs. And the streets of these nations were more masculine places. Denaturalizing everything is not that helpful regarding gender, because maybe there is something `natural' in gender differences. Yet Mitchell still claims that gender is not "possible outside of the structuring pressures of capitalism (or any other political-economic system)" (p. 220) and that gender is a "result" of political economic interests (p. 222). Here, suffice it to say that the Qur'an is the main `source' of female domesticity in Islamic countries. (Islam puts the burden of bread-winning on the shoulders of the husband and thus `allows' the women to stay at home.) Gender has existed prior to and independent of capitalism; what capitalism does is to try to turn it into its own advantage.
The same is true for `nationalism'. True, capitalism and the modern nation-states were not two separate historical inventions; rather, nation-states were "constructed in order to clothe, and enclose, the developing political economy of industrial capitalism." Yet nationalism, which is broadly defined as "a feeling of belonging to a nation" (p. 271), has existed throughout the history in different scales and forms. The wars between Spartans and Athenians or the ones between the Abbasids and the Umayyads, for example, can be read as conflicts between "feelings of belongings" to different groups, tribes, or communities, if not nations. Therefore, so far as the relationship between capitalism and nationalism is concerned, it is more a matter of form than substance.
Geography and Don Mitchell: The Apex of Irrelevance?
Rather than reiterating what I have said above, I prefer to conclude my paper with a comment on the relevance of Mitchell's arguments to geography. In several places Mitchell stresses the importance of `space' for culture. Yet in no chapter but in the one about sexuality he makes a more elaborate case for geography than underlining the mere fact that everything happens in a `space'. A spatial analysis is expected to focus on the interactions between different spaces. Yet Mitchell is more concerned about the universal and ubiquitous influence of capitalism on culture than the local variations of it. Thus, it seems that a title such as "the political economy of culture" would be more appropriate for Mitchell's book than "cultural geography".