Difficulties with Critical Geography

For a number of years a number of Professors in Human Geography (and some related disciplines) based in the German-speaking part of the European continent, with special interests in social theorising in Human Geography meet on a regular basis to critically discuss new and old developments in this field. This very informal and open group consists of Professors from Flensburg, Bayreuth, Hannover, Heidelberg, Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt, Halle, Fribourg (CH), Bolzano (Italy), Rotterdam (NL), Dresden, Bremen, Leipzig, Oxford (UK), Zurich (CH), Erlangen, Jena, Curitiba (Brasil), Nijmegen (NL), and some other places, and they regularly meet at a beautiful retreat-location at the shore of lake Zurich or at some other places, to freely read and deliberate on these theories. One of those seldom moments of free critical thinking without the daily pressures of academic performance and positioning.

While discussing social theories it was amazing to note that even though the German-speaking scientific community historically and traditionally has always had a very strong contribution to social theorising, while currently, it seems as if new developments in social theorising, irrespective of whether they originate from continental or overseas traditions, are only perceived and adopted in the field of geography if they have been ruminated by the Anglo-Saxon scientific community. This implies, that one only looks at continental thinking through an Anglo-Saxon lens, which very often does not take the contextuality of the origins of these theories into account or only in a rather distorted way.  Many uses of these theories are therefore based on only un-contextualised half-knowledges and cannot do full justice to their original ideas and objectives. For this group of Professors in Human Geography, this initiated the endeavour to revisit the original versions of these theories and to critically re-think them in relation to the problems and situations of today. This informal working group, established in 2018 is now known as the “German Theory”-group.

Although, as a group, we want to stay away from the “publish or perish” dictum, several publications and conference contributions have spontaneously emerged out of this group thinking. The most recent publication is the book by Poltical Geography Prof. Benedikt Korf from the University of Zurich on the “Difficulties with Critical Geography. Studies on a reflexive theory of society” just published in German by Transcript Publishers in Bielefeld, and in full-text available for free as open source at: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-6230-6/schwierigkeiten-mit-der-kritischen-geographie/. Of course, it is too pretentious to say that it originates out of this group, as this is the personal achievement and opinion of Prof. Benedikt Korf.

This highly recommendable book specifically addresses critical theorising, from a critical perspective, in an attempt to make them really critical again. The back cover summary reads as follows: Scientific criticism increasingly spares itself. It likes to produce rash generalisations and cheap assessments. Refusal to reflect promotes conformism and half-education. These protective positions spare critics the arduous work of self-criticism – intermediate tones, ambivalences and contradictions are faded out. Benedikt Korf analyses the resulting difficulties in a differentiated way. Using the example of critical geography, he illustrates the often hegemonic position of the term ‘critical’ in the social sciences and humanities.