Favourite Readings 2021 – Critical Thinking about Contemporary Geographies and Deep Time

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bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994)

Milton Santos, The Nature of Space (Duke University Press, 2021 [Translated by Brenda Baletti])

Helen Gordon, Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through our Past and Future Worlds (Profile Books, 2021)

As in previous years, EJIL’s Review section, has invited EJIL board members and editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from . You can read all the posts in this series here

‘The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy’ (Teaching to Transgress, at 12).

bell hooks passed away in between drafts of this post and I wasn’t sure I, a white cis middle class Scottish woman, could or should be continuing to write this post anymore. What on earth could I say? Reading bell hooks always and rightly makes me check myself. Yet, she would be the first to remind us that ‘it is crucial that critical thinkers who want to change our teaching practices talk to one another’ (at 129).

There are some beautiful tributes that say far more about the woman and her legacy than I ever could, such as this one by Brittney Cooper, this by Samhita Mukhopadhyaythis by Shanita Hubbard and this by Sophie Smith in LRB. hooks will always be a scholar who continues to change lives and change classrooms, and it is in relation to her insights about pedagogical practices that I was re-reading Teaching to Transgress this year. There are some truly remarkable feminist scholars at the University of St Andrews where I worked at the time and where her work is celebrated. I re-read the book as I made the move to teaching international law at the University of Manchester. I was finding IR a more natural place to engage in diverse, inclusive, even disruptive pedagogical practices than international law and I was trying to figure out why. I turned to bell hooks who powerfully and honestly reminds us to reflect on the practices of our teaching and different modes of learning. In the one of the essays, bell hooks recounts the experiences that taught her ‘about the kind of teacher I did not want to become’ and through this lens, it is possible to learn more about the teacher we do want to become. The dialogue with Ron Scapp is filled with wonderful reflections about teaching practices that, especially in this welcome time of decolonising the curriculum, are vital to think about. bell hooks notes that

‘so many professors who are progressive in their politics, who have been willing to change their curriculum, … in fact have resolutely refused to change the nature of their pedagogical practice.

…it is also really important to acknowledge that professors may attempt to deconstruct traditional biases while sharing that information through body posture, tone, word choice, and so on that perpetuates those very hierarchies and biases they are critiquing’ (at 140-141).

Ron Scapp responds by remarking that it is often the case that ‘work on race, ethnicity, and gender is used, but not in a subversive way. It is simply used to update the curriculum superficially’ (at 142).

And so, this book was one of my favourite reads this year – and absolute favourite reads on pedagogy ever. It is with great sadness and grief that many will return to bell hook’s writing. Her legacy seems impossible to put into words – it is enduring and powerful; her writing unflinching and loving. I will never forget that ‘the engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself’ (at 11).

Brazilian geographer Milton Santos’ much anticipated book did not disappoint when I sat down to read it. It is the kind of book I know I will be returning to over again. In The Nature of Space, Santos thinks about the object of the discipline of geography and how we think about the content-form of space, before discussing the transformations of space, such as the productive effects of the contemporary technical-scientific-informational milieu, in a globalized world. His reflections on the transformation of spaces in the age of networks, and the form and content of these networks, are vital contributions to making sense of this sometimes incomprehensible and destabilising ‘world of fluidity’ with its ‘dizziness of velocity, frequency of dislocation, banality of movement, and the constant allusions to places and distant things’ (at 215). He notes that while the concept of the network is ‘in vogue’ today, its popularity has come at a price: it is often discussed in vague, imprecise, and ambiguous terms which risks rendering it meaningless. The Nature of Space is a rich, at times intense, and deep consideration of the relation between space and time and definitely up there as one of my favourite reads of 2021.

Speaking of time and space, Helen Gordon’s Notes from Deep Time allowed me to step back from the ‘fast time’ of the contemporary world in Santos’ book to ‘deep time’ where time is thought of in terms of the hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of years. I first picked up the book wanting to contextualise the also very much ‘in vogue’ concept of the Anthropocene more. Gordon offers some wonderful, but British- and American-centric, reflections on the shift in human thinking from biblical times where we thought we were the centre of the world, to Darwin, Holmes, and others demonstrating that humans are just a small part of ‘the vastness of deep time’, back to the Anthropocene ‘put[ting] humans back at the centre of the world – the place where, for hundreds of years, we unquestionably thought we were’ (at 243-244).

It was also a nice change of pace in writing style: Gordon writes in fluid and clear prose with little stories and vignettes weaving together biographies, science, poetry, humour, sharp insights, and political messages. She brings geology and deep time to life in a manner that only my sister, a geophysicist, has ever done for me before. Gordon explains the layers in an excavation near the V&A Museum of Childhood in London evocatively, comparing the colour of the ‘damp sand and gravel’ to the yellow of a ‘sponge cake soaked in tea’ (at 5). My sister explained her PhD on the earth’s core to me with reference to Cadbury chocolate bars – part crunchie or part wispa, part dairy milk, and part caramel if you were interested.

And if I may have two honourable mentions, then it would be to say that I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Eyal Benvenisti’s, The Law of Global Governance (Brill 2014) and reading Rebecca Schmidt’s Regulatory Integration Across Borders: Public–Private Cooperation in Transnational Regulation (CUP, 2018). I read them together this spring and they are wonderful and vital studies of contemporary global legal structures.

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