Doreen Massey (1944-2016)

Kilburn High Road (pic from The Calm Zone)

I came into academia via a fairly circuitous route. After a degree in sound engineering (which I left pretty sure I never wanted to enter a recording studio again; although it did introduce me to some unexpected concepts like dada which, oddly enough, is resurfacing in some of my recent reading), I ended up temping in a university in London and decided that it was easy enough to stay doing that. I worked for a while at the LSE, adminning for their massive summer school. It was fun in many ways, and one of the bonuses was getting to hear some of their excellent public lectures – my first experience of such events after a highly practical degree. Some of them were, admittedly, dull: a day in the life of the Bank of England’s chief economist is not all that exciting.

Others, though, had a much deeper impact. It must have been in 2008 that Doreen Massey was on the bill. I hadn’t heard of her at the time, but I was in attendance to usher 500 boisterous international students and hand the microphone around. She was brilliant though – completely accessible, full of stories of her time advising Ken Livingstone and the GLC, and very engaging. Like most geographers, she said, her interest in the subject had started with a love of maps. That was music to my ears, obviously, and I listened with great interest from there on. She went on to discuss the content of her new book, World City, which I went out and bought from Blackwells on Charing Cross Road the next day. It’s probably fair to say that it started me on the path to a MA in urban geography at Kings, and eventually on to my current studies.

Doreen Massey (pic from Urban Cultural Studies)

I don’t really like the idea of heroes. I’m making a point of studying those whose lives were unrecorded and often unadmirable. I find something repellent in the Birmingham Heroes campaign at UoB for instance, as though there were something special or different about academics doing apparently-cool research, as though they were more important human beings than the academic communities and networks that they are part of. So Doreen Massey is not my hero. In fact, given my somewhat deep-end approach to academia, swapping disciplines every five minutes, I haven’t given nearly enough attention to her output since that lecture. But I think she’s still someone to be admired, if for nothing else, than for her dead-accurate impression of Ken Livingstone.

My first proper essay that wasn’t on, say, the Doppler effect, was on the question of the ‘openness’ of cities raised by Massey in a textbook she had co-authored. Suffice to say, I mostly missed the point and got a very mediocre grade (if I remember right, I made up for it by completely slating Michael Dear’s LA postmodernism on the second essay). What I’ve read of Massey’s since would (hopefully!) enable me to make a better stab at it, because hers is a rich and very human approach to conceptualising space. It spares the reader from the extremes of over-quantification and over-abstraction in human geography.

cally road
Caledonian Road, London. When I first came to university, just around the corner, this bridge was emblazoned with “Hezbollah” in huge letters – something of a shock to a country lad new to the big city. Perhaps it wasn’t that unusual though – check out the description of Kilburn in A Global Sense of Place. (Pic from Google Street View)

Perhaps the best example is her essay A Global Sense Of Place, which uses her own neighbourhood of Kilburn, NW London as its case study. In this, Massey decouples the idea of ‘place’ from some its most longstanding assumptions – that places are fixed, that they mean one thing, that they stay meaning that; even that places can be defined within space. Better, she says, to take a global view of space: a space, any space, is never static – it exists within time; space is not bounded in the way we make it convenient, but fluid, open and subjective; it does not have a single identity but “are full of internal conflicts.”

The specificity of place is continually reproduced, but it’s not a specificity which results from some long, internalized history; there are a number of sources of this specificity – the uniqueness of place.

There’s much in Massey’s view which chimes with what I understand of Henri Lefebvre, and although I don’t think she wrote in depth about HL, it appears that she would have felt the same. I’m particularly interested to follow up on her feminist take that the linked review mentioned – it’s a gap in HL’s work that others (Shields, for instance) have noted. She wrote for historians too, it should be noticed: her article in Past & Present in 1995 is a great encapsulation of this way of thinking about space.

In more recent times, Massey remained thoroughly politically engaged, bringing a geographer’s slant to advice for the Venezuelan government. Again, it’s always deeply impressive to me when thinkers take action; in fact, when they live out their own philosophy in their deeds. There’s much to admire in every aspect of Doreen Massey’s work and action. Not only is it intellectually wonderful and coherent, it’s also utterly human. It’s at human scale, and about humans on a human level. It’s a sad thing that it’s taken her death, which was announced on Saturday, to prompt me in my reading.

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