Self-Portraits of a Surgeon – My Affair with Cultural Geography

ImageIt was never meant to happen. I was just curious; experimental. I mean, it was my first year at university – this is what you’re meant to do right? I was just messing around but I knew where my passions really lay. Yet before I realised, something changed – my flirting was no longer just harmless, tangential fun. It meant something. I had to be honest with myself – I no longer liked what I used to, I was into something different and it was exciting.

Starting my undergraduate degree at Plymouth, I was an ardent physical geographer. My experience of geography up till that point had told me that human geography was pretty boring and it was in the physical sciences where it was really happening. Indeed I remember being quite taken aback during sixth form when someone suggested that I must favour the human side of discipline. I could not dispute their reasoning (based on my very social science/humanities A-Level subjects) but the conclusion almost repulsed me. A similar feeling of steadfastness was experienced in my first lecture at Plymouth when Dr Richard Yarwood ‘guaranteed’ that the majority of us in the room would favour human geography by the end of the degree.

I was tempted within two weeks.

The introductory lectures in human geography were nothing like what I had experienced hitherto – they were exciting, intriguing and seemed to be about real life – about people, places, the world. In comparison, the physical lectures seemed dated, dull and if I am going to be honest – too sciencey for me.  I was slowly being seduced by human geography. I found it fascinating that you could use poetry in geographical enquiry, that a coastal walk could be cutting edge fieldwork. By Christmas I was a fully-fledged human-geography-convert when I was introduced to Yi-Fu Tuan. Assigned an essay about my sense of place, I discovered the idea that peoples’ feeling, emotions, actions, thoughts and opinions about things really mattered, in life and in geography. What a revelation that was, since that point I haven’t taken a single physical geography module – I was a human geographer and proud.

The remaining two and a half years at Plymouth were spent finding my feet, I was still cagey in this new ground; unsure of what human geography really was, what held it together and what type of human geographer I was. I was definitely having a crisis of identity, struggling to articulate to my family and friends what it is I was studying and how it all related to geography. Unfortunately this is not a story of epiphanic realisation or how I became a born-again cultural geographer. Truth be told, I still have the same difficulty – sometimes I say I am a cultural geographer, sometimes a social-cultural geographer, sometimes a human geographer, sometimes a geographer and sometimes just a researcher. I have a fuzzy academic identity but I know I have found a home in cultural geography.

I ended up at Royal Holloway, studying the MA Cultural Geography, not because I decided I was a cultural geographer (in fact I had never had a cultural geography lecture before I enrolled) but because so much of the geography that really excited me was coming from here. If I have assumed the label of a cultural geographer because of that, I am ok with it because I feel cultural geography and me are well-matched. In my first seminar here we discussed what culture and cultural geography were. We concluded that we did not know. The concept of culture is too difficult to pin down, the remit of cultural geography is broad beyond compare and cultural geographers come from such diverse disciplinary backgrounds – there is no archetypal cultural geographer.

It appears that cultural geography is also very fuzzy. While I may struggle to explain at a party what I do and why I do it in a catchy sound bite, I am happy to embrace all this fuzziness and run with it – the results of which are enthusiasm, excitement and fascination. While I recognise the jack of all trades, master of none argument, I am not concerned by it. I prefer to think of cultural geography, not as a list of researchable topics, but as a disposition and way of thinking. To me cultural geography explores how spaces, places, people and things are, how they become meaningful, how they are experienced, and how they are perceived, imagined and practised by different people / things. It is about how we live our lives, the places we live in, how we create meaning and the affects/effects of such things and yes, that is very broad but also of incredible importance.

I am curious about the world, and cultural geography not only accommodates this widespread concern but actively encourages it; constantly questioning, challenging and pushing me to think in different ways, research in different ways and see the world from different perspectives. 3 years 4 months ago, I would not believe it but: my name is Simon Cook and I am having an affair with cultural geography.

Simon Cook (M.A Candidate)

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One thought on “Self-Portraits of a Surgeon – My Affair with Cultural Geography

  1. simoniancook says:

    Reblogged this on Jographies and commented:
    My ‘Self-Portrait of a Surgeon’ has just been published over at Landscape Surgery. In the piece I explain my relationship with cultural geography through the metaphor of an affair. In it I discuss my journey from a physical geographer to a cultural geographer and my thoughts on what it means to me. Thanks to Mike Duggan for the invitation to take part and curating this very interesting series.

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