Peter Gould: Extract from seminar

I’m going through some of my Peter Gould material, and I came across this passage which Gould wrote for a seminar in the spring of 1987:

To what extent does the ‘geographic world’ into which you are thrown shape you? I often wonder what would have happened to me if I had gone to Wisconsin or Chicago in 1956. I am quite certain that my ‘career trajectory’ would have been different. The graduate years are absolutely crucial–in the literal sense of crux, a crossing point. Obviously, part of the way you practice as geographers will be shaped by your own desires and abilities; but, equally clearly, you will start to look at the world in a particular way shaped by the people with whom you come into contact. Or, of  course, you may react against them. But in reacting against them, you also make certain choices that would not be there if they did not exist to react against. Try to reflect deeply upon the ‘world’ that has shaped, and is still shaping, you. There is an intriguing question here of how we might describe the ‘unfolding’ of a discipline, how we might somehow capture and illuminate the intellectual influences, connections, and linkages. This is something I have thought about for a number of years now.

(Edit: this is from a large sheaf of writings, or more accurately what Gould called “raw, dictated notes” of his comments on the then-recently published book by Ron Johnston On Human Geography, 1986 Basil Blackwell.)

Gould went to Northwestern University for his doctorate, where he famously helped instigate the “quantitative revolution” (a term he disliked, see his paper “The Augean Period” for details). The title of that paper refers to one of the labors of Hercules (Herakles), namely shoveling out the sh*t from the stables, which gives you an indication of what Gould thought was an appropriate name for the intellectual task of that period. In the end Hercules diverted two rivers to do the task.

In the passage above, Gould gives us a flavor his style; at once pretentious and sincere. The concept of being “thrown into a world not of our own making” as he frequently stated it, is alluded to in the first sentence. Gould derives this from Heidegger, specifically Being and Time. In the last two decades of his life he intensively studied Heidegger with his friend and colleague at Penn State, Prof. Joseph Kockelmans, a Heidegger specialist. The concern of the passage however is the question of how we are shaped during our life trajectory, and how much of this of course is contingent, or could have gone another way. Gould was too clever to be a determinist, and this sense of other possibilities is very redolent of an enduring concern often expressed today (think of Deleuze’s virtual and actual for example).

The other aspect of this passage worth highlighting is how he invites others (in this case the members of the seminar) to reflect and think for themselves. This is another contradiction of Gould in addition being both a “space cadet” and a scholar of one of the most challenging philosophers of the twentieth century. That is, he was quite set in his patterns of thought (and had no reticence in proclaiming them; often he would remark that the job of a professor was to profess). Yet (at least rhetorically) he constantly tried to open up avenues of thought and inquiry.

Let me give an example. A telling moment appears in one of his books where he describes giving a lecture and getting a response during Q&A from an older member of the audience who appears to be struggling with the fact that Gould said something quite different ten years ago. Gould remarks something along the lines, “for a moment I thought he was dead… serious.” This is pure Gould, slightly mean and yet in a nose-tweaking way with an underlying thoughtful point about constant reflection etc.

I can’t post this small reflection on Gould without noting that during the 1990s he ran into some significant criticism from feminist scholars. Gould took this in good spirit (I mean in print; I don’t have any insight on his personal life), making fun of himself and the sexist cartoon he had earlier published in The Geographer at Work (1985). This was a book drawn from and mostly engaged with people in his life trajectory, with little pictures of the people at the side of the text. It was not great optics. Notably, it’s mostly white guys. It’s not that Gould was unable to recognize women geographers. He praised the work of Anne Buttimer for example. Although Gould was from an earlier generation (he was born in 1932) that same book was also attacked by a member of an even earlier generation, John Fraser Hart. Hart’s review of the book is unintentionally hilarious in its extremism (he says the problems of the book begin with the first word of the title: “the”). He also calls Gould the “enfant terrible of geography.” This is the kind of thing, where an editor gives the book review to a person with a known hostility to a person, that Gould rails about in the Augean period paper, when editors rejected quantitative papers on principle and they had to start a new journal (less common then than now) to get around the gatekeeping.

The other members of the seminar, as far as I can determine from my archival files were: Debra Strausfogel, Karen Drescher, Stefan Fabian-Marks, Brad Bass, Sven Holdar, Adena Schutzberg, Bruce Snyder, Lisa Ann Hornick, Keith Henderson, Mike Palecki, and Dan Leathers. Notably, several of these went on to be academics, and according to the autobiographies we drew up and shared for the seminar, came with a wide variety of interests, including GIS and physical geography. [Sorry to those who I couldn’t track down. You weren’t on LinkedIn!]

PS Gould went to Colgate College, NY as an undergraduate. Although a Brit, Gould was evacuated to the US during the war, to Hamilton NY, and (I’ll have to check this), went back to New York state for his BA in the early 1950s. When I visited Colgate earlier this year to give a talk, a certain window was pointed out to me (in the clocktower, I think or at least very high up) that was broken by Gould hitting a baseball, and apparently left like that for many years. Alas, when I was there it was repaired.

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2 responses to “Peter Gould: Extract from seminar

  1. I have been wondering for years if Gould’s seminar notes survived from the seminar…I would love to know more

  2. John if you mean the notes from this particular seminar, I have them. Gould dictated them and had them transcribed and prepared each week for the seminar. Incidentally the name of the person who did that was Sandra Koelle, who now lives in Portland, OR (and can be found on Facebook!).

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