The Culture of Epistemology

Ulf Strohmayer. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications. 2003.

The Circularity of Knowledge

Culture and knowledge do not sit together easily. Hence the need for a chapter on the ways they relate to one another. The problem can be stated simply: while every notion of ‘culture’—especially in a book like the present one—represents a form of knowledge, this latter can never wholly be separated from cultural influences. To define ‘knowledge’ is thus to enter a twilight zone of sorts where success presupposes what it seeks to explain. In this respect, the scientific analysis of ‘culture’ is no different from other forms of scientific inquiry: it, too, is caught in a circle where knowledge and its objects are mutually constitutive elements. This chapter explores the ramifications of the initial arrangement set out in the preceding two sentences. It contends that both the concept of ‘culture’ and its academic pursuit can profitably be understood as attempts to address the involvement of knowledge in the workings of societies. In other words, ‘culture’ is one key epistemological answer to the mutual constitution of science and its objects and thus to the problem of circularity that has troubled and continues to trouble the (human) sciences.

To develop this argument, the chapter proceeds from a historical reconstruction of knowledge and the problems that have traditionally been associated with its constructed character to the role of ‘culture’ in the attempts to create novel and illuminating forms of insight. Already, this may strike some readers as a highly contrived setup for a chapter addressing the cultural side of epistemology. And I would agree that we do not normally perceive of knowledge in this manner -as an object itself, rather than a condition. Still, it is appropriate for a chapter addressing ‘the nexus between culture and knowledge’ to be clear about its own limitations. In fact, the impulse itself that makes us seek clarity concerning the boundaries to knowledge has been one of the guiding principles of epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Here scepticism has arguably been central, at least within the western canon of philosophical texts. Such scepticism has variously attached itself to the relationship between ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge’ and that between ‘experience’ and ‘knowledge,’ and arguably reached its pinnacle in the work of the seventeenth-century author René Descartes (Hookway, 1990).

We shall have numerous occasions to revisit the emerging and quintessentially modern battleground between the optimistic and pessimistic views as to how best to break free of the circularity at the root of epistemology—a circularity that binds ‘knowledge’ to its objects without allowing the latter ever to be independent from the former. Before we do so, we need to make clear that ‘circularity’ does not in and of itself pose a limit to any kind of knowledge. Rather, it imposes a no less important structural characteristic. Recognizing this trait, we can say that any attempt to delineate spaces of knowledge has to address what is often merely implicit in many other definitions of knowledge: the self-referential nature of its constitution. To give examples here, the uncritical invocation of ‘knowledge’ is rather akin to the explanation of an apple through reference to an apple tree or the definition of a ‘thief through reference to an activity called ‘stealing’: one has to be familiar with the one to make any sense of the other.

A still more fitting analogy would perhaps liken the limits to ‘knowledge’ to the closed reference system of a thesaurus or an encyclopedia, where in order to understand a definition a reader has to be able to comprehend the terms of the definition. We shall return to this analogy shortly. Before we do so, it is fitting to acknowledge that the circularity invoked here is not at all unusual or itself problematic. Since ‘knowledge’ is part of the human condition, it will come as little surprise to find the structures of knowledge intimately linked with everyday experience, thought processes and other forms of human practice. The emerging intimate relationship between experience, knowledge and practice is thus not inherently problematic; it is made awkward only because in the pursuit of ‘cultural geography’ or ‘cultural studies’ one of the elements—knowledge—is privileged over the others. Then, the reflexive impulse that seeks insights by asking ‘why,’ ‘how’ or ‘why not differently’—whether it leads to something called ‘knowledge’ or not—is often led into cul-de-sac of sorts: intellectually, starting anew would be the rigorous course of action, one that is pursued by only a handful of individuals. In short, the circularity of thinking hinders neither action nor the continuation of the reflexive impulse per se. ‘Culture’ is a way both of understanding this situation and of epistemologically addressing the issues it raises. Cultural geography and cultural studies represent some of the more intricate ways of addressing both the circularity of knowledge and the everyday context of experience that remains largely unhampered by epistemological concerns.

The Role of Culture

To recognize the involvement of ‘culture’ in the spaces of modern knowledge, we need to pry open the association between knowledge and everyday experience that we fashioned a moment ago. We need to acknowledge that even the reflexive variant of everyday experience hardly ever confronts problems of prioritization. We know that things exist because they play a role in our lives. Even the time-honoured distinction between subject and object that has long plagued epistemology is of little consequence for the continuation of everyday practice, as is testified by the hybrid etymology of the word ‘existence.’ Since the word ‘culture’ in a direct way captures this entanglement of existence with and in the world, rather than postulating some unattainable ‘outside,’ it is tempting to rush to conclusions and proclaim that every form of knowledge is somehow ‘cultural’ and to render the ‘cultural construction of reality’ the sine qua non of each and every attempt towards understanding. Yet however tempting, such a move would merely bypass, rather than address, the epistemological issues raised by ‘the cultural problem.’ Since avoided issues have a tendency to resurface at inopportune moments, this chapter centres its argument on the relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘knowledge’ without according either term an a priori, accepted status. In order for the ‘spaces of knowledge’ that are central to this Handbook—the spaces of body, region, the local and the nation, to mention but a few—to be knowable entities, rather than circular postulations of ‘a will to culture,’ we have to justify the explanatory power of ‘culture’ as an analytical concept.

In other words, it is crucial to acknowledge that the entanglement of knowledge and its object is a fundamental dilemma for anyone interested in delimiting knowledge and in assuring the status of ‘cultural’ forms of learning as valid forms of research. This dilemma is caused by the standards adopted in the now dominant western and modernist manner of conceptualizing knowledge as that which provides a secure basis from which to understand the world. If pre-modern and protomodern sceptics from Pyrrho to Montaigne could afford freely to speculate about the grounding of respective claims to knowledge, such luxury was increasingly denied to their modern heirs apparent. Indeed, it was Descartes again who famously decreed the defeat of scepticism as the primary undertaking of modern philosophy. More than other words perhaps, it is the word ‘fact’ that reflects the novelty of this understanding of ‘knowledge’: the currently dominant mode of thinking in western societies dictates that once uncovered and determined, ‘facts’ become trustworthy points of departure for the pursuit of future, as yet unknown forms of knowledge. In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1961) early dictum, it is the totality of facts that constitutes ‘the world’ for us. From its origin in the world of commerce, the ‘modern fact’ and the knowledges to which it led have created the sense of confidence necessary for the sciences to be conceptualized as progressive and mutually supportive enterprises (Poovey, 1998). At bottom, such trustworthiness has resulted in an implied optimism that has been characteristic of modernity in general and of modern science in particular throughout most of the last two centuries.

Yet ‘facts’ are facts not because scientists have recognized some innate quality residing within an object but because some knowledge of ‘facticity’ in general, or the ‘factness’ of facts, has been applied to an object. In short, we recognize something as a fact, because we were looking for facts -and not because something revealed itself as a ‘fact.’ Upon reflection, circularity yet again rears its untimely head. Rather than recognizing a ‘fact,’ we accept that certain statements are true while others are not. In most cases, this recognition takes place subconsciously: it becomes part of ‘common sense’ in the form of a largely taken-for-granted context that we inherit. Who, for instance, would doubt that water flows downstream? And what point would there be in doubting that it does?

The circular notion at the heart of conceptualizations of knowledge is thus as unavoidable as it is real. If ‘knowledge’ cannot create the spaces it requires by its own, modern standards to be separated from other forms of reflexive behaviour, perhaps it is time to reconfigure ‘knowledge’ differently: perhaps as a particular form of ‘practice’ or ‘culture’ that operates in accordance with its own set of rules and regulations and according to the spaces that are produced by these ‘practised knowledges.’ Rather than insisting on the idea of knowledge as being ‘external’ to and detached from experience, we would then be free to speak of ‘knowledge’ as one form of culture, which resides alongside other forms of existence. Alternatively, such recognition could lead to a levelling of the distance between culture and knowledge, effectively elevating any kind of practice to the status of knowledge (and vice versa). In the first case, witchcraft and modern medicine would no longer be categorically distinct; in the second, the laboratory and the kitchen were both to emerge as spaces of knowledge. Perhaps. But what would initially have been gained by such a move if, to invoke Ian Hacking (1999), the emerging cultural construction of reality would leave both knowledge and culture ill defined and lacking in analytical rigour? In other words, would we not merely bypass what we need to understand? Faced with the difficulty of defining knowledge, we might arguably have been well advised to have begun by placing ‘knowledge’ in relationship to other concepts. After all, socially and culturally specific practices such as ‘knowledge’ acquire their meaning by being placed in relationship to other practices and concepts. To give an example: we can identify the meaning of ‘employment’ because we can place it within a spectrum of related activities that range from ‘slavery’ to non-profit forms of work such as say gardening. Alternatively, we employ a range of practices alluded to as ‘leisure’ activities to create a context that is different in kind from the one we designate as ‘employment.’ Together, these concepts and the semantic fields they characterize bestow meaning on the world we inhabit.

‘Knowledge’ is no different from other concepts: it, too, forms part of strings of concepts that allow us to differentiate practices from one another. But again there is one crucial difference: more than most practices, ‘knowledge’ is set aside from other concepts not merely with the help of dualisms that together form part of a semantic web. Rather, ‘knowledge’ becomes what it is perceived to be through the stabilization of dualisms into polar opposites of the ‘either/or’ kind (Doel, 1999; Hannah, 1999). The bipolarity of individualized phenomena, or the fact that propositions are either true or false, is translated into a model for knowledge as such (Wittgenstein, 1961). In western societies in particular, ‘knowledge’ is thus characterized as much by reference to what it is as by allusions to what it is not. This essentially Hegelian insight, the recognition that each and every ‘positive’ identification creates some form of ‘negative’ context, usually takes the form of an axis between what is identified as ‘knowledge’ and its opposite other, variously defined as ignorance, simplicity, error or other signs of absence. Arguably its most fundamental axis, however, is that between ‘knowledge’ and the form of ‘non-knowledge’ usually referred to as ‘belief. The solidification of the polarity between various forms of religious practice and scientific knowledge is finally one of the key defining elements of modernity.

In the rest of this chapter, I explore some of the key ramifications of this fundamental setup for the study of culture. I suggested earlier that perhaps it would be advisable not to approach ‘knowledge’ by the commonly accepted standards, which present it as an endeavour external to everyday routine and thus capable of avoiding the circularity that attaches to other forms of human practice. For such a critical approach to work, we will have to clarify where and why the adoption of this standard occurred—and why it continues to matter. Only then will this chapter be in a position to analyse the contribution of ‘culture’ to ongoing epistemological debates and to clarify any possible contribution that ‘cultural approaches’ could make to the human sciences.

The Rise of Knowledge

How, then, did ‘knowledge’ come to be what it is today—the most common of yardsticks for the evaluation of claims about various aspects of reality? The first and admittedly obvious point to note is the historical novelty of both the status and the current conceptualization of knowledge. The break most commonly associated with the twin occurrence of the Renaissance and the Reformation in western Europe is of key significance precisely because it shattered the certainties of old and replaced them with the impersonal and accountable system most people in the modern world recognize as ‘knowledge’ (Jardine, 1996). Since much has been written about these key epochs in the history of the western world, I take the liberty of assuming a shared horizon with readers of this chapter—which allows me to be succinct. What remains of crucial importance from a cultural point of view is the close association between knowledge and the rise of the ‘subject’ as an identifiable entity (Cosgrove, 1989) autonomously capable of interpreting the world (Lambropoulos, 1993). The epistemological subject capable of conquering doubt that emerged in Descartes’ infamous cogito, ergo sum thus has a practical complement in the legal subject. What unites both the epistemological and the legal subject is arguably the ability of both to empower across geographic distances: a reader need not guess but is invited to share the presence of something beyond doubt; and what could be less the subject of doubt than the affirmed presence of someone? Historically, the most significant example of this ‘witnessing ego’ can arguably be found in the figure of the nineteenth-century heroic explorer using all the financial muscle provided by western forms of capital and modern technological means of documentation to construct detached ‘knowledge’ about non-western societies (Driver, 2001; see also Mattelart, 2000).

As a result, the new importance attached to ‘knowledge’ some five centuries ago is still recognizably part of our contemporary intellectual landscape, western style, with its overt emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility, authorship and legal subjects—symbolically encapsulated in the importance attributed to individual signatures. But the link between the modern subject cum scientist and ‘knowledge’ is far from a straightforward one: while on the one hand the advances in knowledge have been closely associated with the names of key individuals (the ‘canonical’ figures of modern science), ‘knowledge’ as such is thought to exist independently of individual achievements. The word ‘evidence’ only highlights this seeming paradox (Ginzburg, 1989) while at the same time leading us to the key structural element uniting subject and knowledge: the long-underestimated importance of representation in the production of knowledge. Simply put, it is the role of the modern subject to represent truths about the world that subsequently—once they have been rendered communicatively available—take on a life of their own. The validity of this ‘life’ is thought to rest entirely on extrinsic criteria and is constructed around the notion, so aptly deployed by Richard Rorty (1979), of the ‘mirroring’ capacity embodied by particular forms of representation.

What we witness here is an important step: although unthinkable without the originating presence of modern subjects, ‘knowledge’ requires these subjects—read: scientific authors—to recede into the background, to blend into the representations that empower knowledge. The book, the scientific article, the slide-show, the anatomical chart or the geological map all embody this key facet of knowledge: their ‘production’ virtually disappears behind their claim to validity (Nelson, 2000; Rose, 2000). This step gives birth to another and by no means less important distinction: the difference between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ forms of knowing the world. Although born of the reflexive mode which this chapter initially examined under the rubric of ‘scepticism,’ ‘knowledge’ requires the ‘tain’ or silvering behind the mirror of nature not to be tainted by its construction or (social) practice but to embody an aspatial form of existence (Gasché, 1986).

The problem is that such a mirror does not exist: irrespective of their usefulness or the status they have acquired as ‘objective’ forms of representations, none of the scientific means of representation mentioned above can ever be disassociated from the context in which they arose. In fact, the very notion of ‘objectivity,’ by virtue of being ‘useful,’ can profitably be understood to characterize a particular form of ‘practice’ (or ‘language game’) itself which is circular no less for being called ‘knowledge’: its ‘success’ is ascertained purely through internal consistency. In this, ‘knowledge’ is no different from other practices.

The Spatialization of Knowledge

It is this train of thought that allows us to reveal the relevance of the above historical detour for the construction of ‘cultural’ knowledges. For me, the key consequence lies in the epistemological revaluation of the concept of ‘culture’ within the human sciences during the latter half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. This first significance of ‘the cultural’ and ‘culture’ is by now well documented, as is its intellectual lineage from Matthew Arnold through Max Weber and the Frankfurt School to Raymond Williams and the birth and development of ‘cultural studies’ and ‘cultural geography’ in the 1970s (Bennett et al., 1981; Storey, 1993). From our current perspective it is vital to note that the importance of culture as an explanatory concept was fostered by the acute disappointment felt by many when applying the standard model of knowledge to the realm of human activities (Strohmayer, 1997). In other words, it was precisely the paradoxical relationship between reflexive origin and objectified status of knowledge unearthed in the preceding pages that has brought forth the most violent of critiques—spaces of knowledge of sorts—and was instrumental in the rise of culturally sensitive knowledges.

We can summarize these critiques as falling into two broad groups: the phenomenological and the social constructionst reappraisal of knowledge. Both share a view of classical ‘representationism’ (as developed above) as being idealist; they part company in the alternatives they offer for the scientifically interested practitioner. The former, phenomenology, radicalized an insight that was already familiar to empiricists during the eighteenth century: it reinstated the importance of experience by insisting that knowledge was always knowledge of something that someone had intentionally made the centre of her or his attention. Rather than establishing a neutral relationship between subject and object, the very existence of intentionality was thus indicative of an irreducibly personal aspect to the construction of knowledge.

The ‘tain’ of the mirror of representation—to use the earlier metaphor—could not but be shaped by likes and dislikes, biographies and individual constraints (Pickles, 1985; Spiegelberg, 1994). My own interest in epistemological questions, to give but one example, has been shaped by an earlier series of communication breakdowns in the process of ‘doing research,’ by a host of personal moves between different countries and by the odd chance encounter. ‘Objectively,’ this should not matter: whatever research I would produce would be evaluated independently from its context. Realistically, however, traces remain and idiosyncrasies proliferate: being white and male, any possible contribution to knowledge about, for example, slavery would undoubtedly remain tainted by this personal context. A similar conclusion was advanced by social constructionism. Broadly conceived, this includes any claim that the construction of knowledge needs to be understood within its proper historical, social and cultural context. Rather than offering timeless insights produced from a single, ‘original’ vantage point into the workings of societies, a relativized, scaled-down and locally sensitized form of knowledge was seen to be more appropriate.

Although vastly dissimilar in scale, if not in ambition, both critiques—and the notion of culture they sought to resurrect—had one point of convergence in common: both acknowledged the ‘situated’ nature of knowledge (Haraway, 1988). In other words, they derived a logically compelling place for the role of ‘culture’ in the production of knowledge. Methodologically, this acknowledgement often implied a turn to ‘local’ forms of knowledge. The introduction of this term into the realm of cultural and geographic knowledges was in essence a spatialization of what had become known as tacit knowledge amongst epistemologists (Geertz, 1983). ‘Tacit’ here circumscribes the implicit character of the many forms of knowledge that allow us as human beings to exist: from the biologically determined and largely instinctive (breathing) to the selectively acquired and trained (driving), we rely on internalized forms of knowing to live our lives.

Circumscribing the boundedness of knowledge within local traditions, ‘local knowledge’ furthermore highlighted the fact that knowledge is not just the outcome of academic or scientific ways of analysing the world, it also constituted a social practice (Thrift, 1983). In practice, this effectively enlarged the spectrum of possible knowledges through the designation of a spectrum stretching from ‘knowing’ one’s way about within the confines of a familiar spatial context (say a kitchen) to the artificially created spaces of a laboratory. In the realm of science studies, this enlargement has by now, largely through the input made by feminist scholars, produced the most important results (Duden, 1993; Harding, 1992; Keller, 1985; Latour, 1987). Of particular interest for our given topic is the term ‘epistemic cultures’ (Knorr-Cetina, 1999; but see Hacking, 1999), which critiques the notion of a unified, progressive science that was so central to modernity as a whole.

Such a reappraisal of the cultures of science is all the more pertinent in the context of the present rush into as yet unstructured knowledge and expert societies. At the same time, however, the scale of individual objects of analysis was often drastically diminished: the centrality accorded to ‘the body’ (Butler, 1990; Nast and Pile, 1998; Shilling, 1993; Stratton, 2001) and/or to ‘performance’ (Crang, 1994; Hetherington, 1998; Lewis and Pile, 1996; McDowell, 1995) in the human sciences recently is indicative, amongst other things, of the reduction in scale that has marked the most recent developments in many human sciences. Knowledge through the body and in performance strives to be mobile and mimetically approximates the object of its curiosity: what it lacks in transferability, it makes up in rigour and precision.

Crucially, ‘culture’ played a key role in the construction of such knowledges, as well as explaining the variations found in practices around the globe. It did so through the invocation of ‘everyday’ practices that have shaped and continue to shape the various histories and geographies that form the body of our knowledges (de Certeau, 1984). The fact that these latter now often appear with a plural ‘s’ is indicative of this response: where ‘knowledge’ becomes spatially constructed—as it does once we allow for ‘the local’ or ‘tacit knowledge’ to become legitimate grounds for the construction of knowledge—a researcher will more likely than not find himself or herself confronting a plurality of ‘knowledges’ or spaces of knowledge. What is more, the fact that these ‘knowledges’ often compete with one another is no longer seen as a threat to the unity of the sciences but becomes part of their dialogical construction. In other words, where the traditional model of sciences, western style, acknowledged at best (in say the works of Karl Popper) the existence of temporal variations -often read as ‘progressions’—in the truth content of scientific explanations, the ‘cultural’ sciences today accept the existence of spatial and hence cultural differences: scientific paradigms no longer merely succeed one another, they also coexist (Kuhn, 1962).

Cultural Knowledge

The acknowledgement of ‘the cultural’ over the last two centuries would have been unthinkable, however, without a realization that had its roots in both of the developments mentioned above: (1) the novel relevance being attributed to phenomena of everyday significance, and (2) the acknowledgement of ‘representation’ being a key epistemological issue for any production of knowledge. For me, both converge in what has become known as ‘the linguistic turn’ (Rorty, 1967)—the realization that ‘language’ is (at) the heart of knowledge and of cultural expressions, as well as cultural change. Within the field of epistemology, this insight was nothing new: language had always been central to the many and various theories of knowledge. What changed during the reappraisal of ‘culture’ in the 1970s was a new centrality that was accorded to discourse, a particular subcategory of linguistic enquiry that makes sense of language as practice (Beneviste, 1971). It was in this form that language entered into the cultural sciences and into cultural geography (Barnett, 1998; Curry, 1996; Mills, 1997). Owing a great deal to Wittgenstein’s (1953) designation of ‘language games,’ the notion of ‘discourse’ underlined the need to understand knowledge as a particular, highly contextualized form of communication. In other words, ‘discourse’ signaled a turn to ‘practices’ in the human sciences and thus, albeit implicitly, legitimized ‘culture’ as a key concept within and beyond the human sciences.

The consequences of this development were far-reaching indeed. Not only was a rather amorphous interest in matters cultural concretized through the centrality accorded to language, but the interest in ‘discourse’ furthermore opened up whole new worlds to the epistemologically interested. These worlds included the novel interpretations of modern history, science and culture unearthed in the work of Michel Foucault (1979; 1989), the ‘deconstruction’ of the western philosophical tradition advanced by Jacques Derrida (1982; 1989), and the displacement of the subject from the throne rightly or wrongly assumed in the early modern period in the books of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987), Jacques Lacan (1977) and Bruno Latour (1993).

This is emphatically not the place for an in-depth review of all the trends mentioned above. Some signposts will thus have to suffice to clarify the connection between this kind of discourse-driven research and the study of culture. What is initially clear is that we are confronted with a novel impulse: rather than turn its attention to an allegedly ‘progressing’ march of scientific achievements, science now increasingly turned its attention onto itself and analysed itself—to use Foucault’s term—as an archive. In this already, we can manifest a ‘cultural’ impulse in the sense that the differences between ‘knowledge’ and other forms of human practice were gradually erased. In fact, ‘knowledge’ often became a byword for human practice in general, thus losing the privileged position it had acquired since its inception some 500 years ago. We shall return to this theme later in this chapter.

Among the concepts that have proven to be fruitful within the culturally inspired human sciences, Derrida’s notion of différance needs to be singled out. Radicalizing the earlier insistence upon difference that had already led to the acknowledgement of the ‘local’ characteristics of knowledge (as discussed above), différance effectively localized ‘the local.’ In denying stability to the concepts employed to ground epistemic differences in space and time, Derrida refocused the question of power within the human sciences. A similar argument emerged in the writings of Foucault, who read the accepted history of western progress against the grain and in this way uncovered the ‘blind’ spots of scientific discourses: the ‘normalization’ of western cultures here goes hand-in-hand with the creation of abnormal or non-normal ‘others’—the sick, the homeless, those without work, the sexually perverted and so on.

Both themes have arguably been rendered most susceptible to cultural analyses in the work of Gayatri Spivak (1988) and Homi Bhabha (1994). What emerges as a key, if often overlooked, theme is a new centrality accorded to the construction and maintenance of communities. ‘Knowledge’ and the scientific communities it created are but one example amongst many of how the notion of a ‘community’ came to be constructed in the wake of modernity. The notion of ‘common sense’ developed earlier is again crucial in this respect in that it represents a shared if mostly unexamined communality at the heart of many communities. A ‘cultural’ trait itself, the discursive construction of communities around such shared—and culturally highly relevant -notions as ‘fact’ (the scientific community), ‘representation’ (the political community), ‘the public’ (the civic community) or ‘wants’ (economic discourses), became a legitimate area of research (Mouffe, 1993). This deconstruction of the discursive unity underlying various communities across the scales radicalized the very notion of culture as a recognizably unifying set of practices. In this, the study of culture followed a lead originally initiated by the Frankfurt School -whose pessimistic interpretation of modern knowledge was increasingly reconciled with the notion of ‘culture’ as lacking in clear direction (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1979). The link between discursive construction of communities and history in the work of Walter Benjamin in particular was to prove of singular importance within the field of cultural studies, broadly conceived (Benjamin, 1999).

Just as important, however, was the price incurred by a particular radicalization of ‘the cultural’ in its linguistic manifestations during the last two centuries: the (analytically rigorous) acknowledgement that ‘knowledge’ might vary geographically was often but a first step up the ladder of relativism. Unable or unwilling—in the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1961)—to ‘forget’ the ladder once it had served its purpose, cultural and other scientists suddenly found themselves facing the contingency of not merely the phenomena under investigation but also the claims to knowledge that they presented to the wider world. In short, cultural scientists of many persuasions were surrounded by a phenomenon many saw fit to label ‘postmodernism’ (Bertens, 1998; Dear, 2001). ‘Postmodern’ cultural geography, although not a term commonly used by its practitioners, placed a particular emphasis on the plurality of cultural knowledges, rather than on a unity of knowledge created through the invocation of the term ‘culture’—an impulse that was very much alive in cultural geography until the late 1970s. Others still saw the acknowledgement of relative knowledge less in terms of a departure from ‘modernity’ as such. Interpreting the stability traditionally provided by univocal forms of representation as a structural component of knowledge in general, this second group interpreted the move towards localized or otherwise situated types of knowledge as a departure from ‘structural’ forms of knowledge production, advocating ‘poststructural’ approaches instead (Doel, 1999).

For readers interested in cultural ‘spaces of knowledge,’ the difference between the two positions outlined above is important and needs to be spelled out in greater detail. While culturally sensitive approaches to the construction of science are strictly speaking compatible with a postmodern point of view, they do not square easily with a denial of structures per se. At bottom, the difference attaches to a different interpretation of ‘materiality’ and thus of the status of ‘culture’ amongst the sciences. While a ‘postmodern’ view interprets the recognition of ‘culture’ as a change in the real makeup of societies—a view easily compatible with the development of ‘multicultural’ societies and the increasing obsolescence of other non-local forms of interpretation such as colonialism, Marxism or Fordism—the denial of structures refocused attention on the purely epistemological realm.

The resulting wavering between ontological and epistemological claims has left a clear mark on the study of ‘culture.’ Expressed perhaps most succinctly in the doubts raised by Don Mitchell (1995), the resulting tension is very much present today. On the one hand, the acknowledgement of the key role of ‘culture’ has left an imprint on all those intellectual developments that seek to localize powerful discourses, from postcolonialism (Barnett, 1998; Said, 1993; Sidaway, 1997; 2000) to post-Marxism (Gibson-Graham, 1996; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985) and post-Fordism (Amin, 1994). On the other hand, ‘culture’ continues to serve discursive strategies that unearth the relativity of claims to understanding. According to some observers, both strands of inquiry can be seen to converge upon the role of ‘resistance’ as a cultural expression of both the ‘positive’ existence of something and the ‘negative’ disruption to ‘common sense’ it creates (Cresswell, 1996; Pile and Keith, 1997; Scott, 1985). However, the epistemological status of such claims remains unclear and continues to be vulnerable to sustained critique (Sharp, 2000).

It may be pertinent to attempt a first and tentative summary at this point in our discussion. Such an endeavour would posit ‘culture’ as a key concept in the attempts to address epistemological issues that have emerged in the nineteenth century. The recognition of ‘representation’ and ‘discourse’ in particular within theories of knowledge has been instrumental in the move towards experience, everyday life and other, local forms of knowledge. These latter in turn fostered an environment conducive to an interest in matters cultural. What remains unresolved, however, is the status of ‘culture’ as a concept: does it function according to the logic of established scientific discourse or does it operate in a different manner? Perhaps the avoidance of the term ‘culture’ by those interested in genuinely novel ways of creating insights is indicative in this respect. One could also argue with some degree of justification that the conceptual history of the term ‘culture,’ with its associated uses especially during colonialism and the construction of nation-states, renders it ill suited to advance knowledge theoretically. Be that as it may, this author is quite at ease in allowing the perceptions created by the entanglements of culture and the spaces of knowledge to speak for themselves.

Culture and Representation

This chapter would be intellectually dishonest if it were to deny that (epistemologically speaking) the headlong flight into matters cultural was but one of many escape routes from the ‘crisis of representation’ (Dear, 1988) diagnosed during the last two decades of the twentieth century. As often, the roads not travelled are every bit as interesting as the paradigms actually developed. The resilience, for instance, of many in the human sciences towards the ideas initially proposed by Karl Popper (1962)—accepting ‘falsification’ as a means of establishing the temporary status of competing forms of representation—still surprises. Equally astonishing is perhaps the lack of any culturally inspired responses to the challenges born of ‘the crisis of representation’ that were developed in a pragmatist mode (Habermas, 1972; 1988). In particular, the lack of any sustained engagement between cultural theory and structurationism comes as a surprise given their mutual interest in the avoidance of dualist patterns of thinking (Giddens, 1984; but see Shilling, 1993). A similarly unfortunate neglect characterizes the possibility of exchange between critical realism and cultural theory (Bhaskar, 1986; Hannah, 1999; Sayer, 1992).

There is, however, another form of critique that has proven to be equally important in the rise of culture to the status it currently enjoys. Here I am thinking of the critique of the partiality of many accepted forms of knowledge. The most pertinent of these critiques was and continues to be that launched under the heading of ‘feminism.’ At its best, this appraisal has avoided replacing one set of partial viewpoints with another and established genuinely novel forms of cultural analyses (Bordo, 1993; 1998). Take, for instance, the reappraisal of the importance of ocular metaphors in the realm of science (Levin, 1993; also Jay, 1993). Once thought to be innocent expressions of a universally shared desire to know, the very notion of enlightening cultural and other phenomena is now increasingly seen as part and parcel of an objectified worldview (Rose, 1993; but see Gould, 1999) and thus -crucially—of an embodied way of knowing (Pile and Thrift, 1995). This is also as good an example as any of the taken-for-granted nature of the construction of knowledge in western societies: the privileging of the ‘eye’ over and against other forms of connecting to the world not only comes naturally to most, it clearly is also an expression of a certain kind of culture that helps to ferment that culture through the delegitimation of alternative ‘ways of seeing’ (Rose, 2000; Ryan, 1997).

Not coincidentally, it is the eye with its propensity to declare things to be either present or absent that has become the Leitmotif of modern science: it nicely complements other strategies that modern science has utilized to its advantage. The sheer diversity of cultural expressions and the rather obvious deficiencies offered by an exclusively visual approach have made this critique appear perhaps to be less radical than it is, for the target of this and many other culturally minded approaches to knowledge has often been a concept at the heart of the modern scientific enterprise: the notion of identity (Cohen, 1999; Friese, 2001). Implied in much of what has been discussed in this chapter, it is perhaps fitting finally to arrive at some semblance of a centre. ‘Identity’ is of course one of the key concepts of philosophy writ large. It is also the term customarily deployed to signify those irreducible, non-circular elements that form the basis for structures in general. Amongst a developing set of concepts denoting ‘identity’ -including political concepts such as ‘the nation,’ aesthetic concepts such as ‘landscape’ and economic concepts like weights and measurements—the (modern) subject occupied a privileged position. Linked with visual metaphors through the designation of clear and unequivocal positions to the human gaze, identity is constantly reaffirmed in an everyday context by just about everyone.

The acknowledgement of culture, situatedness and contextuality challenged the beautiful, if restrictive, geometry of the associated production of knowledge. Folded back upon its origin and the cultural context that surrounded it, ‘identity’ revealed itself to have been a social construction that masked often surprising forms of difference. Once more, a key initial impulse came from feminist cultural scholars who recognized the importance of gender differences in the construction of identities. Other differences soon followed in the wake of this recognition, quickly turning ‘difference’ into one of the key concepts of cultural analyses. But the critique of identity did not stop until it had coined a new category to designate the evaporation of identity into its opposite other, hybridity (Bhabha, 1994; Whatmore, 1997). Used both as an epistemological concept and as a strategic tool, the recognition of hybridity can thus been seen as the logical answer to a fundamental paradox of identity already acknowledged by Ludwig Wittgenstein: ‘Incidentally, to say of two things that they are identical is nonsense, and to say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all’ (1961: 5.5303). Verging between a highly suspicious ‘as if and meaningless tautology, identity as the touchstone of all knowledge becomes infested with power; as a consequence, in the fitting words of Gunnar Olsson, ‘knowledge can be defined as the ability and the opportunity of saying that a = b and be believed when one does it’ (1998: 147–8, see also Olsson, 2000). The analysis of ‘culture’ is equally affected by this insight but suffers less from it given its overall structure and the reality of its existence as practice.

Of the many issues raised in conjunction with the concept of ‘identity,’ none is perhaps more pertinent to the title of this section than the sheer diversity of abstract and practical approaches that different philosophical cultures the world over have developed to focus on its existence (Mbiti, 1990). Lacking the space and the expertise properly to explore non-western traditions, the present pages can merely allude to this most fundamental of differences in the hope for a more inclusive form of cultural knowledge. Identity may well be central to all of them; addressing it, however, does not always follow the same route, nor does it yield structurally comparable results. The communitarian tradition that characterized much of African thinking and culture and which has left a mark on politics in Leopold Senghor’s notion of négritude, for instance, does not in general favour the individualized notions of science and knowledge familiar to anyone in the west (Birt, 2001; Gottlieb, 1992; Kwame, 1997; Mudimbe, 1988; Senghor, 1964). The resulting social role of cultural practices such as animism, for instance, can arguably not be understood within a framework derived from and ultimately aimed at western forms of identity and subjects (Rooney, 2001). A similar disposition to seek knowledge at a scale larger than the individual has been characteristic of the Latin American experience (Schutte, 1993; Wolf, 2001), while the prevalence of holistic, non-dualistic traditions has seen Asian culture and thinking develop yet different approaches to the understanding of humankind and its cultures (Ames et al., 1994; Loy, 1988). The resulting set of questions has become central to the emergence of ‘postcolonial’ forms of geographic knowledges (Clayton, 2001; Sidaway, 2000) that are explored elsewhere in this volume.


All of this allows us at long last to approach the role of theory in the construction of knowledge. A vast terrain itself, the realm of ‘theory’ is often thought to be the antipode to empiricist notions of knowledge. Historically speaking this is not quite accurate given the existence of developed theoretical systems supporting the primacy of empirical approaches over and against other forms of knowledge production. Otherwise, the fortunes of ‘theory’ within the knowledge of culture have changed substantially since the days of Max Weber. Once thought to provide a context for the pursuit of knowledge, the invocation of ‘theory’ has a much looser meaning nowadays. We no longer speak of observations being ‘in line with theoretical assumptions,’ opting instead for watered-down ‘theoretically informed’ ways of approaching cultural phenomena. All of which is perfectly in line with our discussion so far: the very idea of ‘localized’ knowledge, of different cultures or of a lack of stable identities implies a different, a substantively reduced status and applicability for the notion of transferable, generalizable and abstract claims to knowledge. Knowledge about culture will tend to be idiosyncratic knowledge. It will tend to focus on the concrete workings of particular cultural configurations and leave claims about the bigger picture to others. Instead of theory, what has emerged is ‘metatheory’ of the kind attempted in this chapter: the examination of possibilities, limitations and contradictions within, as well as between, various epistemological propositions (Bordo, 1998).

This chapter has sought to present the plurality of ‘spaces of knowledge’ as a logical outcome of epistemological debates within the human sciences. The concept of ‘culture’ attaches to these spaces—in fact, it becomes largely synonymous with these spaces—because unlike many other general concepts, ‘culture’ does not resist the reductions in claims to knowledge that is one of the main characteristics of contemporary knowledge in the human sciences. To my mind, this accounts for some of the attraction of ‘cultural’ forms of knowledge. As such, ‘cultural’ geography (or other ‘culturally’ sensitive approaches to the production of knowledge) offers a practical solution to the problem of circularity with which this chapter began; as solutions go, this one does not make the original problem disappear, but it has the advantage of dissolving into a form of practice what otherwise would remain hidden from view. The resulting ‘denaturalization’ of, amongst others, common-sense, taken-for-granted customs and methodological assumptions clearly is a benefit of the cultural reconsiderations of past decades.

There is, however, a danger that needs to be spelled out just as urgently. We speak of ‘culture’ in a global manner, thus subsuming what could—and often should—just as sensibly be analysed under the rubric of ‘the economy,’ ‘politics’ or individual psychological categories. If experience and epistemological rigour invite us to these too, as tied into the workings of ‘culture,’ we arguably stand to lose as much as we can expect to gain. At the very least, anyone interested in the cultural ways of knowledge should acknowledge that ‘culture,’ too, can and must be subjected to the same localization that has previously produced so many unexpected insights. This last step would represent a genuine and much welcome addition to the ‘spaces of knowledge’ we create, nourish and inhabit.