The Practice of the Interdisciplinary: A Tribute to Doreen Massey

Aprés le feu (Jacques Perconte), 2010
Malini Guha remembers Doreen Massey, and explores how Massey's contention that the politics of space is the politics of difference resonated throughout her career, her activism, and her impact on geography and film studies

In a conversation with film and television scholar Karen Lury titled “Making Connections,” the late Doreen Massey observes

…what we have already agreed on, it seems, is that the potential for creative dialogue between people in film studies and those in geography is enormous. It has already been productive, and I think could be more so. A concern with mutual construction of spatiality and social relations (and identities) is clearly something which we share.1Karen Lury and Doreen Massey, “Making Connections,” Screen 40 (3), Autumn, 1999: 233.

The potential of which Massey speaks has conjured a substantial body of scholarship on spatiality and screen media, extending from the literature on film and the city specifically to volumes concerned with location and spatiality in relationship to the moving image, broadly conceived. Massey, a preeminent geographer, feminist, and political activist, herself donned the mantel of film analyst across numerous passages of a piece titled “Landscape/space/politics: an essay.” This essay stems from a collaborative project on the Future of Landscape and the Moving Image that brought together Massey with filmmaker Patrick Keiller, scholar Patrick Wright, and the PhD research of Matthew Flintham in the realization of a collective endeavor that not only traverses scholarly fields but also the boundaries between scholar and artist.

The outpouring of tributes to Massey that have emerged in the wake of her untimely death several months ago in March 2016 demonstrate the immensity of her contribution to geography as a discipline. They are also a testament to the extent to which her notions of spatiality have migrated across disciplinary divides, often at her own behest, as is evident in my brief outlines of her engagement with film. In this piece dedicated to Massey, I wish to articulate one of the seminal ways in which my own research as a film studies scholar is indebted to her insights and then extend outwards to make some provisional claims that build upon what Massey heralds as the mutually generative relationship between geography, film and, by extension, contemporary screen media. As so many of us working on spatiality within film, televisual and media contexts have gravitated towards Massey, there also the question of what drew Massey to the terrain of audio-visual culture as conducive to further explorations of her longstanding academic and political involvement with matters of space and place.

In a gesture intended to fuel my thoughts concerning the centrality that the mobilities of the legendary urban stroller, the flâneur, had come to occupy within early scholarship on film and the city, my Phd supervisor, Charlotte Brunsdon, encouraged me to turn to the work of Massey and to begin with the ]Screen article “Making Connections” as a specifically interdisciplinary point of entry. In response to Karen Lury’s overview of the way in which scholarship on cinematic as well as televisual spatiality began to morph into its own subfield during the early 2000s, Massey makes a proposition that assumed the role of catalyst for the research project that I ultimately pursued. She writes:

It is not just city spaces which were “of transit” or even transitory. Empirically, one might (perhaps should) point to that other set of mobilities–the massive mobilities of imperialism and colonialism–which were underway beyond, way beyond, the little worlds of flânerie, at the same period of history.2Lury and Massey, “Making Connections,” 231.

There is no question that the “modernity thesis,” a term that denotes a relationship of homology between 19th century urban modernity and the dawn of cinema, initiated productive reconsiderations of both the origins and formal attributes of early cinema. Nevertheless, in juxtaposing these two modes of mobility along the lines of scale, Massey’s observation directs us towards the Eurocentrism that underwrites the marginalization of narratives of empire across historical accounts of European modernity.

In bringing this critique to bear upon the founding narrative of the cinematic city, she unveils the way in which the movements, displacements, and stories of dispossession that transpired on a global scale during the age of imperialism are often diminished by scholars who are drawn to the largely idealized movements of streetwalking as parallels for cinematic spectatorship.3The work of Giuliana Bruno is a key example in this regard. For example, see: “Motion and Emotion: Film and the Urban Fabric,” in Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis, ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson, (London: Wallflower Press, 2008): 14-28. As many have argued, cinema isn’t simply a medium seemingly tailor-made to the shocks, fragmentation, and intensified mobilities of modern urban life, but it also a medium of the imperial era in its ability to survey, to objectify, and to render Otherness.4For example, see: Empire and Film, ed. Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe, London: British Film Institute, 2011.

In a recent interview in e-flux where she recounts her experience of translating Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Gayatri Spivak remarks: “But one thing I’ve never done is apply theory. Theorizing is a practice. It becomes internalized. You are changed in your thinking and that shows in your work.”5Gayatri Spivak, interviewed by Steve Paulson, “Critical Intimacy: An Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 29, 2016, accessed August 30, 2016,! Spivak speaks to the possibility of transformation that can arise from one’s encounter with scholarly work, a kernel that arguably resides in what Massey identifies as the capacity for a creative dialogue that can result from an ongoing conversation between geography and film studies. Spivak precisely describes the effect that reading Massey’s words had on me as a graduate student, which oriented my thinking about film and the city towards its structuring absences and towards narratives involving a confluence among cinema, cities, and imperial histories that needed to still be told. Massey’s comments also coincide with a widening of the subfield that has transpired since the early 2000s, whereby the modernity thesis, even in its revised variations, is only one of an ever expanding set of scholarly paradigms through which to consider the relationship between the moving image and urban environments.

Massey establishes a link between her intervention in this regard and a number of her signature claims about spatiality. Her observations in “Making Connections” can, in fact, be taken as a condensed version of a number of her career defining concepts and approaches to the study of space. An elaboration upon Massey’s scholarly oeuvre enables us to revisit the question of why her particular form of geographical thinking is conducive to contemporary screen studies and vice versa. Throughout a variety of publication formats, spanning traditional academic channels as well as open access publications like openDemocracy, Massey has continually returned to the notion of space as becoming.6For example, see: Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Minnesota and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage Publications 2005). Encapsulated in her iconic and much cited phrase, “stories-so-far,” space is produced through a multiplicity of narratives that lend it a provisional, rather than fixed, character.7Massey, For Space, 130. For Massey, space is where difference resides, a claim that is anchored in her refusal to view space as distinct from time; rather, space denotes the co-existence of a multitude of temporal registers, and hence, can never be bound within the confines of a single narrative. Massey’s comments also reverberate with her famed concept of “power geometries,” which denotes the study of differentiated modes of mobility and access that characterize spatial formations, forming the basis of a geopolitics that is intent on grappling with the intrinsic relationships between space and power.8Massey, Space, Place and Gender, 149.

As recounted by Massey in several essays, her notion of space as time intervenes within certain geographical discourses, whose emissaries include David Harvey and Michel de Certeau, that relegate space to the domain of representation.9Lury and Massey, “Making Connections,” 233-234. The notion of spatialization as representation partakes of a long lineage of thought that equates both with fixity, stasis, and stillness.10Lury and Massey, “Making Connections,” 234. In collapsing the distinction between space and time, Massey not only renews space as a site of openness that pulsates with temporality, but redeems representation itself as a conduit through which to grasp the dynamism of space-time.

To return to “Making Connections,” Lury contributes her own discipline-specific insights to this conversation by delineating the televisual experience as profoundly spatialized. We can situate this contemporary example within a long lineage of scholarly thought in film and media studies that conceptualizes space and time in relationship to each other, which offers a striking parallel to Massey’s interventions within the field of geography. Lury argues that the notion of televisual flow, a foundational concept in television studies, finds its fullest expression only when the act of viewing is understood as a spatial practice marked by “the coming and going, the attention and interruptions present in domestic routines.”11Lury and Massey, “Making Connections,” 236. Space and time are as indivisible in Lury’s assessment of televisual flow as they are in Massey’s accounts of spatiality. The notion of flow also stands in opposition to an understanding of representational mediums as static in their depiction of a world that is completely divisible from the screen. Instead, Lury positions television as dynamic and porous, as the spaces within which television is viewed rests on par with the spaces that appear on screen. While Lury privileges television over film in this regard, the consumption of audiovisual culture in the era of digital convergence has extended beyond the boundaries of an enraptured experience with a single screen. Today, various forms of spectatorship and/or interaction are just as readily characterized by flux and “flow.”

In the tail end of her response to Lury’s explication of televisual flow, Massey writes, “If television can really change our way of thinking about space/places so that they are conceived as open and interrelated, that would be an achievement.”12Lury and Massey, “Making Connections,” 236. Massey’s observation is explicitly geared towards modalities of geographical scholarship that undermine the significance of space, in its de facto association with stasis and fixity, in favor of time. But it is also inadvertently telling with respect to how her trademark conceptions of spatiality can take up residence within studies of contemporary screen media. While Massey’s comments pertain to television, her evocation of film in other essays is indicative of the broader applicability of this particular observation. In “Landscape/space/politics: an essay,” Massey performs a textual analysis, typical of a screen studies scholar, of portions of Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (2010), the film that emerged as part of their collaborative project. The film is comprised of static long takes of landscapes located in the south of Britain that are coupled with Robinson’s voice-over narration recounting a story about each space. Massey argues these filmed segments of space, shot through with multiple temporalities that correspond to the narratives Robinson tells, do not add up to a singular conception of landscape; on the contrary, they affirm the impossibility of representing any spatial formation as a finished or complete.13Doreen Massey, “Landscape/space/politics: an essay,” The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image (blog), accessed August 6, 2016. Massey’s delineation of space as becoming correlates with specific audio-visual techniques in this example, so that her notion of the narrativization of space is very much a matter of how stories are told as much as it is about which stories are told.

Taken together, Massey’s forays into the realm of film and television studies and Lury’s affirmation of the significance of a geographical understanding of space to studies of film and television, illustrate the intellectual promise of interdisciplinary exchange. This promise concerns the recognition of points of convergence as well as divergences that might yield invaluable critical insights across disciplinary divides, ones that can catapult us into the domain of “interdisciplinarity as practice,” a term I propose as an expanded version of Spivak’s notion of theory as practice. In this context, interdisciplinarity as practice presupposes that scholarly encounters initiated across contemporary screen studies and cultural geography can generate innovative approaches to the study of spatiality, approaches that can only arise from an interchange between the two.

I began this piece with a quotation from Massey articulating a concern with the construction of space vis-à-vis social identities as a connecting thread across disciplines. A second connection rests upon a refashioning of the relationship of homology between space and screen. Massey and Lury both suggest that this founding narrative of the cinematic city should expand to include a range of screen-based media and spaces that far exceed the haunting grounds of the flâneur. Massey’s continued emphasis on the openness of space and perhaps just as crucially, on space as narrative, finds its counterpart across strands of cinematic, televisual, and media production invested in the exploration of similar questions. Similarly, Massey’s delineation of television as a medium that can potentially influence the way in which we view space and place is akin to the assertion made by numerous scholars, including Lury, about the impossibility of limiting studies of spatiality to the confines of the screen; as Lury argues with respect to television specifically, Massey’s work serves as a central influence upon her understanding of television as “lived experience” and not simply as a textual object that is readily separated from what is portrays and how it is viewed.14Lury and Massey, “Making Connections,” 235.

Massey’s insistence that space and place continue to matter have significant ramifications for how film and media scholars contemplate the most pressing political questions of the contemporary moment stemming from globalization. In the introduction to their recently edited collection entitled Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image, John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel draw upon geographers such as Massey to argue that depictions of space and place across moving image cultures constitutes a potent response to the premature declaration of the death of place stemming from the homogenizing tendencies of globalization.15John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel, “Introduction,” in Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image, ed. John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel, (Minnesota and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011): xii. One of Massey’s most vital contributions to the enormous body of work on globalization is to suggest that the distinction between time and space perpetuated by numerous scholars on the subject inadvertently props up the master discourse of globalization as accelerated time, which is gradually overcoming the so-called burden of space.16Parallel assertions are also made by other scholars, including Saskia Sassen. See: “Spatialities and Temporalities of the Global: Elements for a theorization,” Public Culture 12 (1) (Winter 2000): 215-232. The political valency of such a claim is unmistakable, made explicit in “Landscape/space/politics: an essay.” Massey argues that the preoccupation with time – concretized in the ubiquitous use of terms like “movement” and “liquidity” throughout popular and scholarly domains alike – can be all too easily aligned with the market-driven discourses of financial globalization that celebrate the prowess of economic, social and cultural circulation in the interests of neoliberal capitalism.17Massey, “Landscape/space/politics: an essay.”

Massey’s observation allows us to pinpoint the impetus of privileging space-time as an optic through which to consider contemporary political questions arising very specifically from neoliberal globalization that might prove productive across disciplines. It can give us pause at a time when circulation, in its methodological guise, is gaining traction in a variety of disciplinary contexts. With respect to contemporary screen studies, circulation pertains to the study of how film and media objects are mobilized across a wide range of networks and routes, both virtual and material, that bypass the singularity of the nation state. While there is little doubt that thinking about film and media objects through the lens of circulation proffers rich insights with regard to the history of these mediums and their place within the contemporary global order, Massey’s notion of power-geometries encourages us to also consider the barriers in the way of circulation that include political questions related to language and access. If we extend our reach beyond film and media studies, Massey reminds us that the politics of space is the politics of difference, an insight that we cannot afford to leave behind when appeals to universality, intensified in particular ways by the homogenizing tendencies of globalization, threaten to undermine the specificity of contemporary political struggles. Drawing from Massey in conjunction with many other scholars, we can continue to reclaim specificity and difference as critical categories from their nearly singular association with the politics of terror in the current popular imaginary but also from their neglect across “positive” discourses of globalization.

And finally, Massey reminds me that the provisional nature of space guarantees the presence of alternatives, of stories that haven’t been told or that are yet to be told. In addressing statements made by numerous British politicians over the last several decades, including Margaret Thatcher’s notorious “no” to the viability of political alternatives, Massey writes, “Such reductions of the world serve, as always, to cover over the reality that there are always alternatives, and that the way ahead they urge upon us is a thoroughly political choice.”18Massey, “Landscape/space/politics: an essay.” That there are always alternatives is a thought that is all too easy to set aside when one is continually bombarded with the news that there are no alternatives to existing institutional frameworks, no alternatives to the acceptance of police brutality, no alternatives to the current political climate. Returning once again to academia specifically, if we view interdisciplinarity as a practice and not just a means of importing and applying theoretical concepts, then the outcome of such encounters resides within the realm of the alternative, a name that we can give to the transformative potential of cross-disciplinary dialogue. Like others who have written similar pieces in tribute to Massey, I remain in awe of the way in which she intertwined her political concerns and activism with her scholarly journey, one that she engaged in alongside of other such formidable figures, including the late Stuart Hall. The history of Massey’s cross-disciplinary collaborations, including the recently penned “After Neoliberalism: The Kilburn Manifesto” (edited with Hall and Michael Rustin), is exemplary of how the specter of the alternative shaped her work through various means; this manifesto appeared on open access sites in a twelve month installment, signifying as a productive, ongoing collaborative effort that addressed alternatives to neoliberalism, made available outside of traditional academic publication venues in the presumed interests of accessibility and potential impact.19Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin eds., After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto (Lawrence & Wishart Independent Radical Publishing), accessed August 25, 2016, The promise of the alternative, in all of its manifestations, travels alongside Massey’s concepts of spatiality, a thoroughly political promise that should be harnessed in the interests of investigating the world through our various scholarly tools while never forgetting that these are only ever “stories-so-far.”

Photo courtesy Vimeo


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