Geopiracy and the Bowman Expeditions

Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought. 2013. By Joel Wainwright. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Joel Wainwright’s new book is an indispensable contribution to the Bowman Expeditions controversy.

Geopiracy is an intervention in the “Bowman Expeditions” and the controversy that has arisen around them since 2009. It appears in a new imprint from Palgrave Macmillan designed to provide an outlet for pieces that are longer than an article but shorter than a monograph–according to the publisher targeting texts of about 20-25,000 words. Geopiracy is fewer than 100 pages of text, but it acts like a glove to the face of geography, issuing a challenge.

Wainwright divides his book into 6 short chapters. He begins by discussing the initial objections to the Expeditions and reproducing selections of the letters from Oaxaca and the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) that were issued in January 2009. Although these letters are available online, it is useful to have large portions of them available here. The letters accuse the Bowman Expedition to Oaxaca and their project leader Peter Herlihy, the American Geographical Society (AGS) and the Foreign Military Study Office (FMSO) of the US Army of “geopiracy.” Wainwright glosses this later in the book:

the Bowman geographers were able to proceed expeditiously to [Oaxaca], conduct fieldwork, collect data, and capture this object in a GIS for the US Army (p. 72).

Wainwright states that these letters inspired his book. As he puts it, the question today is “how are we to rethink the question of representing space and place after the postcolonial critique?” (p. 71). This is our “ethical” question today.

Two sets of responses from geographers are discussed in the next two chapters, first from the “accused” geographers (Jerry Dobson, faculty at Kansas University and AGS Director, and Peter Herlihy also at KU). Again Wainwright provides large portions from their articles, including public presentations at conferences, which would not otherwise be available (Wainwright appears to have recorded these and it would be nice to also have them available online). He accepts that Dobson and Herlihy disclosed US Army funding of their research on the web (p. 11). If that were all the controversy were about, the book could end there, but of course it’s not just a question of disclosing military funds, but of accepting them in the first place.

Wainwright  Chapter 3 sets up the geographic discipline’s response, namely an AAG committee to revisit the organization’s ethics statement. Here Wainwright is frankly critical of the then-AAG president, John Agnew, a political geographer at UCLA and his refusal to take on the issue more fully. Wainwright is especially disturbed by Agnew’s comments (which he goes so far as to call an “attack”) about Joe Bryan, Wainwright’s co-author on several pieces about the Bowman Expeditions.

This is the most personal section of the book, and it will be easy for Wainwright’s critics to claim that this is nothing more than a personal riposte to Agnew. (Full disclosure: I have met Agnew a number of times, and admire his writings on political geography.) Wainwright clarifies that “his intent is not to analyze the psyche of Professor Agnew but to read these texts and draw out their lessons for polemos” (p. 29). On the whole, Wainwright succeeds in this. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that in Wainwright’s telling, Agnew does not come out well from the episode.

Wainwright contrasts the AAG’s rather hopeless response to the controversy with the way anthropology handled the Human Terrain System controversy in their discipline. They too re-did their ethical statement, but made it much more muscular and definitive, stating flatly that if work “occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment […] it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology” (pp. 32-3, ellipsis and emphasis in original). As Wainwright notes, Oaxaca was precisely in wartime conditions when the Expedition visited, meaning it cannot count as scholarly anthropology.

Why did anthropology do so much more, and more thoughtfully, when confronted with its dilemma? Wainwright offers two reasons: self-interest (ie if there are no subjects willing to talk to anthropologists they can’t do their work) and disciplinary politics. Anthropologists have long engaged with the legacy of the discipline’s “imperial roots” (p. 33) and the field has become politicized (Wainwright means this as a good thing). Quoting David Price, an anthropologist who has written extensively about HTS, it is war that “gives anthropology ethics” (p. 34). (This is partly what Wainwright means by polemos, quoted above, a term he deploys from Heidegger.)

Yet has not geography, cartography and GIS been developed to pursue war? Indeed. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, GIS company Esri has taken more than $3/4 billion in government funding, more than half of it from the Department of defense.) Another answer occurs. Anthropologists are trained to approach their work in a more holistic, cross-cultural, and contextual manner, which allows the consequences and linkages of actions to be brought forth. Thus it might not appear to be a big deal for an expedition to receive military funding (“and anyway we declared it on the first slide”) but it has, as we continue to see, consequences.

In other words, there are linkages between knowledge and power. This contrasts with (some of) the geography discipline’s belief in the efficacy of pure knowledge (the classic position of the modern good liberal; just get the right knowledge, or the right people in the room, and the solution will happen. In Wainwright’s view, this is Dobson and Herlihy’s fatal error.) This belief produces what Wainwright calls “militant empiricism” or the tendency to collect data–in the context of a declining US empire–for counterinsurgency and human terrain mapping (see Table 1, p. 58).

While counterinsurgency may have had its heyday, and its primary architect, General Petraeus, has resigned in embarrassment from his position as CIA director, it is true that shall we say GEOINT more generally is still ascendant. Comprising what historian Alfred McCoy calls the “triple canopy” (both the name of a defense contractor, and the idea of a complete ground-to-space vertical security and surveillance capability) the need for both physical and cultural data on populations is paramount (eg for drones to perform “signature strikes” based on “patterns of life” or “activity-based intelligence [ABI]).

It is no surprise however that in Chapter 4 Wainwright finds that the Bowman Expeditions have produced very little of scholarly value (despite taking in what he estimates is some $2.5 million in funding, see p. 54). He argues that the reason for this is not intellectual shortcomings but because of the very involvement of the military.

Here we get to the core of the issue, in my opinion. The involvement of the military is not problematic because Wainwright and his readers may be anti-military, but because 1) the military’s interests shape the research; not a fatal point as no doubt the NSF’s interests shape the grants it gets, as he seems to admit (p. 75), and 2) all labor is social (Marx) and this means “sharing and criticizing ideas openly” (p. 54) which is a huge difference between GEOINT and other funding agencies.

Why is this? On the one hand is an enterprise which seeks to lock down and “secure” knowledge, and on the other is an intellectual tradition of critique which seeks to problematize. This latter issue is the subject of Wainwright’s fifth chapter, which takes up the work more generally of Spivak and Ismail on postcolonial fieldwork. In my 2010 book Mapping, I visualized it this way:

Figure 12.1

It’s a set of differences between attempts to secure formal knowledges (eg., in GIS “ontologies” and make them do certain kinds of work, often for the state). Wainwright has a bit of fun with one of Dobson’s proposals for a a big macroscope for fieldwork, which has the effect of distancing subject and object (cf. Butler’s observation that “subject” has dual connotations; we are both subjects and we subject others to ourselves, subjects are constituted, not a priori). As she points out (in eg., Gender Trouble), following Foucault, it is necessary to trace a genealogy, in this case of mapping, GIS and GEOINT, precisely as technologies that constitute their subjects, rather than to “posit” a fieldwork site “from where we derive data” (p. 76).

Wainwright ends with a summary of his argument, in eight “theses.” These recapitulate and bring together his argument in the earlier chapters. For Wainwright, geography is–but does not have to remain–a reactionary discipline, adopting the empiricist epistemology “in the spirit of Isaiah Bowman” and “keeping our conscience clear” by putting “critical” before geography, and GIS (p. 87). In this way, Wainwright delivers a kind of parallel critique, not just of the Bowman Expeditions themselves, but of geography (Agnew, the AAG) and especially geographies which all too often employ insincere critique.Here Wainwright runs the danger of alienating all sides, although one might also read it as a call for a renewed spirit of inquiry (most detailed in Chapter 5 on postcolonialist geography). Wainwright does not profess to know what that renewed geography looks like; although we are warned away from weaponizing of geography (p. 88) in the service of the military. He reverses the usual dictum that “war is God’s way of teaching geography” to say that “war is a geographer’s excuse for ‘playing God'” (p. 89), a game we should refuse.

Wainwright’s book is not perfect. It is not aimed at the casual reader, but is a kind of cross between say David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) and Polt and Fried’s Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (2000). There is also an element of court documents (with accusations and “defense”). It will not settle any debates (indeed problematizing, as here, may require ongoing inquiry). But it is a passionate call for a new geography that refuses militant empiricism. It offers little on methodology except what you could forge from the discussions on subject-object or calls to study not just the dispossessed but “those who can call the cops” in Bernie Neitschmann’s phrase (p. 91), ie., those doing the geopiracy. But it’s a brave little book of a type we are not used to in geography, taking on issues that are usually avoided (will it be reviewed in the Geographical Review?) and showing that the issues are not just academic “controversies.”

3 responses to “Geopiracy and the Bowman Expeditions

  1. I must respond to this. Wainwright completely distorts my and the AAG’s role in the entire sorry episode. My position was and is that that the AAG could not “discipline” another organization (the AGS) for what it had done or the people who were involved in it but also happened to be members of the AAG. That was what Joe Bryan and others had called for. Moreover, initially the issue was about informed consent on the part of those being “studied.” On this I think we were all agreed that Dobson et al. were out of bounds, at least from what we knew. Dobson personally attacked me for my position on that. But mid-controversy the ground shifted to cover the question of establishment geography’s intrinsic militarism or some such because the AAG as a member organization could not insist that its members not take money from the US military. I have never and will never take funding from the military. I would hope that the AAG would never too, if I have any influence. Attacking me personally for not insisting as AAG President that, in true kangaroo court style, the AAG sanction members for their taking funds from the US military is pretty sad. In the end that is what this comes down to. Anyone care to defend that?

  2. Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
    Jeremy Crampton discusses Joel Wainwright’s new book Geopiracy. It sounds an interesting and important book, published in the new Palgrave Pivot series. Palgrave Pivot are books of 20-25,000 words in length – which is about a quarter of the length of most academic texts. But they are extraordinarily expensive – £30 for the book in hardback, and £17.17 for the Kindle edition. Really? I thought that these briefer projects, part way between a book and an article were an experiment in publishing. Seemingly not with these kinds of prices – okay print-on-demand might be expensive, but surely not an e-copy.

  3. Pingback: Bowman expeditions 2.0 | GGR1110 - ISSUES IN GEOGRAPHICAL THOUGHT AND PRACTICE

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