Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Paper Road

The Paper Road

The Paper Road, by Erik Mueggler.

Earlier this year, the Historical Geography Reading Group discussed a book by anthropologist Erik Mueggler, entitled The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (University of California Press, 2011). Erik Mueggler, a specialist on ritual, landscape, religion and nature in southern and western China, has conducted extensive ethnographic research in the field, as well as historical research in archives in the UK, USA and China. The Paper Road connects directly with recent work on landscape and nature within geography, although its points of reference are mainly to anthropology and history. Felix Driver has written a review of the book for the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History: a draft appears below.

There are some books that stick in the mind from the moment you first encounter them. Perhaps it is the way they are written, perhaps the intrinsic interest of the story they tell, perhaps their ramifications way beyond the subject at hand: very rarely it is all three. The Paper Road is one of those books. At one level, it is a scholarly history of the work of two early twentieth-century botanists – the Scot George Forrest and the American Joseph Rock – whose travels took them over large distances in China, Tibet and Burma gathering botanical specimens. There is more than enough in their biographies to attract the historian and the reader. Yet more, much more is accomplished here. The focus is less on these individuals than on their relationships – with local (and not so local) collectors and authorities, with the disciplinary and political fields in and through which they worked, and above all with the landscape itself. In its allusive and reflective style, as in its substantive concerns with landscape, archive and knowledge, this book deserves a wide readership across the humanities.

The Paper Road is not an easy work to encapsulate in a few sentences, though the cover blurbs certainly make for enticing reading: exhilarating, breathtaking, eloquent, haunting…. A good place to begin is with the author’s own description of the two-volume Ancient Na-Khi Kingdom of Southwest China, by Joseph Rock, published by the Harvard Yenching Institute in 1947: ‘It was a strange text, in no established genre: awkward, haphazard, badly edited, brilliantly illustrated, and brutally unreadable…Rock’s editors despaired of his prose’ (pp. 278-9). Thankfully the same cannot be said of Erik Mueggler. The Paper Road may be in some respects strange – its voice a distinctive and sometimes unsettling amalgam of historical narration and philosophical reflection – but its prose is nicely pitched, and the contents are artfully constructed, well—illustrated and consistently absorbing. This is saying a lot for a large book on a potentially daunting topic, which involves digressions into some pretty scholastic issues around, inter alia, the dongba script of the Naxi people, or the writings of Merleau-Ponty.

The Paper Road weaves historical narrative, landscape description and philosophical reflection into a compelling whole. It combines ideas from a number of disciplines with an impressive knowledge of a huge region boldly described in the title as ‘West China and Tibet’. Stylistically and conceptually, the book is in fact much more than a regional study and is evidently written with a wider audience in mind: in this respect it stands comparison with Paul Carter’s The Road to Botany Bay, Greg Dening’s Mr Bligh’s Bad Language or Graeme Burnett’s Masters of all they Surveyed, all works which share Mueggler’s interest in texts and in the encounters through which exploration and empire were produced. While Carter is mentioned briefly as one of the sources for the kind of ‘spatial history’ in evidence here, The Paper Road is arguably closer to the ground and closer to the experience of encounter than this would imply. Mueggler’s concern is essentially with the texture of encounters and interactions between very different ways of inhabiting and traversing landscape. This may reflect the author’s disciplinary background in anthropology, but it also greatly enhances the reach of a book that in general wears its theoretical colours more lightly than many comparable works. Overall, The Paper Road is more concerned with affect than discourse.

Mueggler’s phenomenological concerns with landscape and embodiment are reflected in his treatment of practices of walking, talking, reciting, narrating collecting and travelling. And his historical imagination draws him increasingly towards reflections on the nature of archives – less as the imperial archive, more as different (yet intersecting) forms of archive and memory, from the letters in British and American collections to the dongba script which is presented here as a distinctive form of social memory. The relations between western and ‘local’ forms of memory, as between the botanists and the local collectors who enabled their collections to be produced in the first place, lie at the core of a fascinating book. This is a history in motion and of motion; a profound and far-reaching meditation on the relationships between individuals who found their place and made their mark by turning landscape into paper.


Hugh Crosfield (Ph.D candidate) discussed the importance of oranges to anti-apartheid activism over on his blog.

Chomping at the Bloodied Bit

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Open sky

Clare Booker (Ph.D. candidate) presents a new painting over on her blog.

Complex context: Aboriginal participation in hosting the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games

This paper—published recently in Leisure Studies—is a collaboration between Jennifer Silver (University of Guleph), Zoe Meletis (University of Northern British Columbia), and myself. Jennifer’s work deals explicitly with Aboriginal politics, treaty-making, and access to coastal resources in British Columbia, Canada, and Zoe’s work contemplates justice issues related to tourism and coastal development in marginalized areas. My Masters research investigated how Aboriginal people in Vancouver, Whistler, and the surrounds were engaged in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games planning process. As the paper’s abstract explains:

In an effort to build understanding of diverse Indigenous experiences with the Olympics, we explore the relationship between the Vancouver Organizing Committee and the Four Host First Nations Society (FHFN). The research is grounded in theory that stresses the social influence and political nature of material–cultural landscapes. The article also connects important details from two disparate literatures: the politics and imagery of Olympic hosting, and the history and tensions surrounding Aboriginal sovereignty in British Columbia (BC). After discussing our methodological approach and reviewing this literature, we trace the formalisation of the FHFN and consider how protocol agreements guided its relationship with the Vancouver Organizing Committee. Next, we overview programmes that enlisted Aboriginal artists and entrepreneurs, highlighting how prominent additions to the material–cultural landscape were produced and overseen, and have since been discursively framed. The hosting relationship has resulted in benefits for some Aboriginal persons and businesses. However, it has also imprinted the landscape in ways that may (re)legitimise dominant political, economic and cultural objectives and perspectives over time. Thus, we question whether the relationship should be taken as a model for future Indigenous participation in the Olympics and/or as evidence of improved relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in BC.

You can view the paper at Taylor & Francis Online (requires a subscription).

Priya Vadi (Ph.D. candidate)

Hugh Crossfield (Ph.D. candidate) talks about the cultural geographies of consumer boycotts over on his blog.

Chomping at the Bloodied Bit

Over the last two years I have been researching the work of the radical anti-apartheid and anti-racist organization, Boycot Outspan Actie (Boycott Outspan Action). Founded in 1972 in Leiden, Holland, the BOA were led by the charismatic South African exile, Esau du Plessis.  After first contacting du Plessis in 2010, I have interviewed many key BOA activists and associates in Sweden and Holland; during this time I have been fortunate enough to have access to a range of compelling sources stored in private archives and correspondence. Much of this research will be published in my thesis in 2013. Here, as a little taster, I would like to provide you with a visual introduction to the organization that reworked the blood-sugar topos into a powerful anti-apartheid weapon.

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Tim Cresswell reflects about the relationship between places and lists over on his blog.



I am writing a book about the area of Chicago surrounding the Maxwell Street Market – for most of the last century this was the largest open air market in North America before it was forcibly displaced in the 1990s by the University of Illinois at Chicago. I always start books with the intention of writing differently – combining my interests in the creative process with my academic pursuits

As I write I cannot help but be impressed by the number of lists that I have encountered. These lists might be inventories of catalogues (associated with archives and attempting some form of completeness) or they turn up in the writings of journalists or visiting novelists and philosophers who try and capture the place that is a market. Lists, its seems to me, are integral to place in some way. This is especially true in markets. While considering lists I…

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Musicians on the move

In a new paper, published recently in Mobilites, I reflect on the relationship between mobility and identity. In it, I look at how a group of musicians from Texas produce and reproduce their identities whilst on tour. My analysis is focused on the importance of the road in this process. To quote from the abstract:

This article examines how a group of musicians produce and reproduce their identities whilst on the move. More specifically, it shows how touring (a very specific type of mobility) affects and impacts the musicians’ processes of identity construction. What is it like to be on the road? How do musicians value this experience? What meanings do they confer to their mobility? How does it impact on their identities as musicians? The paper is divided into four parts. First it provides a portrait of what it is like to be on the road with a band in order to inquire into the musicians’ motivations to tour in the second section. Then, there is a significant shift from ethnographic accounts to historical analysis. The third part explores links between the rock culture and mobile sensibilities, from a historical point of view. It concludes with a consideration of the musician as a figure of mobility: someone who depends on mobility to construct himself as such.

You can view the paper at Taylor & Francis Online (requires a subscription).

André Nóvoa (Ph.D. candidate)

Neil Smith

At our Landscape Surgery meeting yesterday Felix Driver mentioned the death of Neil Smith. I wanted to add a few words. I heard about Neil Smith’s death pretty much at the moment when I was entering yet another entry by his name in the index for a book on Geographic Though. I think any such book cannot help but have multiple entries in his index under his name. His work on gentrification was seminal but even more important (in my view) was his higher level theorisation of the production of space and nature through processes of uneven development.

When I first started attending AAG conferences in 1988 Neil Smith was always one of the start attractions for a postgraduate student with radical inclinations. I loved to watch him say it as he saw hit with rarely a mention of words like “ambiguous” or “ambivalent”. Neil knew what he wanted to say and said it. He was a great performer. I have several memories of him that go beyond his academic abilities however. The first was his presence in the audience for a session at an International Geographical Congress conference in Washington DC as I, a young postgraduate student, fumbled my way thought an attempt at a theoretical paper on place and ideology. Also in the lineup was Anssi Paasi, who was similarly at the beginning of his career. Neil spoke to me afterwards. I was giddy with the presence of a “big name” geographer who I admired. He congratulated me on some of the talk and gave me some advice on what he saw as some shortcomings. he did this gently and generously. He could have not been in the room (there was no-one on the agenda who came with an existing reputation) and he could have just left but he saw fit to engage with some young scholars in a way that was no obvious benefit to him. He made me feel like I might just be able to succeed in this line of work. This was a lesson I try (and often fail) to learn from.

Later in life, when a lecturer at Aberystwyth, I wrote to Neil to ask for his help as a guest for our inaugural New York field trip. I wanted to take students around the Lower East Side and who better to hear about this from than Neil? He said yes, gave us several hours of his time on a cold day, and left some of the students (and me, still) with stars in their eyes. One of those students was Pete Adey (see his posting on I imagine Neil spent many hours performing this task for free (we bought him Shepherd’s Pie at a favourite Irish pub afterwards – no fancy wine bars!) following many similar requests. Again -there was little obvious benefit for Neil in sharing in this way. How many of us would give up our hours for some undergraduates visiting from abroad?

I was very sad to hear of Neil’s death. I am sure we will all miss his spirit, his politics, his intellectual gifts, and, most of all, his generosity.

Tim Cresswell