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RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference 2019


Photo by @rgsmidterm2019

Attendees at the end of the RGS-IBG PGF Midterm Conference (Source: Twitter, @RGSmidterm2019)


This year’s Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference was held at Manchester Metropolitan University from 24th to 26th April. Royal Holloway was well represented at the conference by PhD students in the Department of Geography, and here a selection of our cohort share their experiences from Manchester.


Megan Harvey

I was really thankful for the opportunity to present some of my preliminary PhD work at this year’s fantastic RGS Midterm Conference. My paper, entitled The Geographies of Sleep: Corporatisation, Codification and Dreams of Subversion, was allocated to an oral presentation session that sought to explore various developments in ‘innovative research methodologies’ that are being utilised in incredibly exciting and often interdisciplinary capacities by postgraduate researchers. From the outset, this demanded an identification of my research’s technical approaches, encouraging me to critically reflect on the alternative investigative techniques that I plan to implement. As I expressed throughout the presentation, most of my inspiration, both conceptually and empirically, comes from adopting and adapting knowledges from not only the social sciences, but from neuroscientific and psychological fields of study. Resultantly, I argued that my PhD’s ‘innovative’ practice is merely a consequence of my attempt to bridge the scholarly gap in scientific vocabulary that currently dominates sleep research. In essence, I called for the cultivation of a ‘neurogeographic’ research methodology that will challenge the lexicon of sleeping and dreaming and recognise the cognitive, embodied, and experiential aspects of its performance through a geographic lens. Only through doing so can we begin to truly understand the phenomena’s impact within our restless capitalist society.

For me, the experience of presenting my work to the RGS Midterm audience was wholly encouraging. It allowed me to gather invaluable feedback and advice on my own research, meet some brilliant individuals from outside of the Royal Holloway contingent, and become inspired by the sheer quantity of great work that’s going on within the discipline of Geography at the moment!


Nina Willment

It was really lovely to be able to attend the RGS Midterm Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University in April. I always forget how much I enjoy this conference and it is my favourite conference of the year hands down! The atmosphere is always so friendly and welcoming and I always end up meeting and spending time with some really wonderful people who also happen to be fab academics. It was really lovely this year to be asked to chair a session on ‘gender and class mobilities’. Chairing a session was really nerve-wracking at first, but in reality it’s kind of like being the host of a (very scholarly) party?! You are just in charge of making sure the speakers keep to time, everyone knows what they are doing and generally just has a good time! At the conference, I also stepped down from my role as Chairperson of the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum. Getting involved in the Postgraduate Forum has given me valuable insight and experience of working as part of a wider committee and within the Royal Geographical Society as a whole. I’ve also had the chance to meet and work with a really amazing group of postgraduates from around the country, many of whom have now become really good friends of mine. Every year the PGF look for new committee members for a variety of roles on the committee and it is really a great opportunity to get involved which I would recommend to anyone. More information can be found on the RGS-PGF website here. You can also find more information about becoming a Postgraduate Fellow of the RGS here. Huge thanks go out to Jamie, Gail, Valerie, Matt, Fraser, Harry and Maria from Manchester Metropolitan for organising such a fun and fantastic conference! Roll on 2020!


Alice Reynolds

It was really great to attend my first RGS Midterm Conference at Manchester Metropolitan University this year. It was rewarding to meet other young researchers and academics and to share with others the experiences of doing a PhD. It was particularly interesting to hear about such a range of diverse research being undertaken by geographers, and I am excited to follow the journeys of other researchers as their research develops.

I presented in a session titled ‘The Geographies of Education’ which consisted of my research on student housing in Dublin, a presentation by Ellen Bishop from the University of Leicester on the educational experiences of pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities in a mainstream secondary school, and a presentation by Amy Walker from the University of Birmingham on the materialities of children and young people’s homemaking in post-separation families. As my first time presenting at an academic conference, it was a really supportive environment to do so and I presented to less than ten people in our session, so it was a small enough group to not be too intimidating! It’s a useful opportunity to test out some of your research ideas and progress so far, and gain feedback in a supportive environment.

Not only was the conference a good opportunity to meet other PhD students, it was also great to meet other academics and hear about their stories from academia. There was also a range of workshops to choose from. I found a workshop on publishing particularly useful; and I also particularly enjoyed Dr. Morag Rose’s workshop on using walking as a research method, a method which I have never really explored before. Now I know more, I think it could be particularly useful for my own research. I also enjoyed viewing the posters produced by other PhD students, so if you are thinking of attending the conference in the future but don’t want to give a presentation, a poster is also a great way to demonstrate your research. Of course you don’t have to do either, and can simply come and enjoy the conference instead!

I would really recommend that any new (or old!) researchers attend the 2020 Midterm conference!


Jack Lowe

The RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference was a wonderful occasion that gave me the opportunity to gain more experience in presenting my research, field questions on my research from an audience, meet other geographers at the same academic career stage, and also explore a bit of Manchester – a city I’d never visited before.

I presented in a session organised around the theme of ‘Innovative Research Methods’ alongside fellow RHUL PhD student Megan Harvey – and in fact, we were the only presenters in the session as the third planned speaker did not attend! This allowed us to take our time with the presentations, and also respond to more questions at the end, so we both got the maximum possible out of the session. In my presentation I discussed what I’ve learnt so far from the process of making games and other digital narrative artworks as a research method, drawing on my experience of creating story-based treasure hunting game The Timekeeper’s Return at the start of my PhD, and most recently making prototypes for my final project. I was very happy with how I delivered the material in the end, and particularly grateful that I was asked some thought-provoking questions that helped me consider how I might frame my methodology discussion in my eventual thesis. This conference is small enough that there are also lots of opportunities to continue discussions outside the sessions, which is great for getting feedback and making connections with those who share your research interests.

Fortunately, my session was in the first paper presentation timeslot of the conference, so once it had finished I was able to focus on getting the most out of the remainder of the sessions, and meeting fellow Geography postgrads from other institutions. Particular highlights from the rest of the conference for me were Morag Rose’s workshop on walking as a research method, which took us outside into the built environment of the conference location, and the paper sessions on ‘Performing Place Identities’ and ‘Health and Wellbeing’, in which many of the presentations had interesting crossovers with my own research interests, despite coming from quite diverging topics.

My favourite moment, however, has to be Kim Peters’ keynote on the first night. Kim detailed her academic journey that has taken her work across some wildly varied research topics, and evoked this experience to make a claim for being eclectic in the paths that our research takes. She encouraged us to stay curious within our discipline and to research what really interests us, rather than being too quick to categorise ourselves as a certain ‘type’ of geographer and consequently limit our opportunities for both career paths and personal growth. As a result, I felt newly inspired to continue exploring fresh directions that I could take my research, and to stay aware of what new fields of inquiry are opening up across the discipline.

Overall, the Midterm for me was a very welcome opportunity to break free from the ‘bubble’ of doing independent research, and remind myself why I love Geography in all its breadth and diversity. The organising team at MMU deserve huge credit for creating a thoroughly engaging programme and managing the masses of admin and logistics that go into making an event like this happen.


Photo by @CaitlinHafferty

Kim Peters during her talk on ‘Eclectic Geographies’ (Source: Twitter, @CaitlinHafferty)



On Friday 31st May, the Centre for the GeoHumanities (Royal Holloway, University of London), in collaboration with the Department of Geography at the University of Portsmouth and the Department of Geography at Stockholm University, welcomed a network of scholars from the UK and overseas with a shared interest in methodologies for exploring social media, specifically blogs, vlogs and blog/vlogospheres. The purpose of this interdisciplinary workshop was to bring together scholars in discussions around understanding social media activities and spaces, and the associated opportunities and challenges involved in both their production and their examination.

Jenny Sjöholm (Centre for the GeoHumanities, RHUL) opened the workshop by highlighting a series of questions and debates: Why do women create such spaces of memory? In what ways do these creative spaces matter? How can we understand and approach these spaces? How do women’s pre-digital-era detailed accounts of everyday life – such as travel diaries, pocket diaries and photo albums – compare and contrast with their online equivalents? Are we in need of new tools and perspectives? How can we balance our understanding of the personal elements of such constructions with their professional and commercial aspects?

Following this activity, we were invited to explore the outdoor space of Bedford Square. Under the shade of the trees, scholars were invited to be involved in a ‘speed networking’ event. Here, we had a chance to network with other members of the workshop to find out what everyone else was working on. This networking continued back in Bedford Square over a working lunch. It was really exciting to find parallels and cross-overs between work on emotional ‘care’ work, the fashion industry, travel bloggers, food cultures and Eurovision, all in the context of social media and blogs, which will hopefully open the way for some potential collaborations and cross-overs in the near future!

LS Picture
Image courtesy of Jamie Halliwell, Manchester Metropolitan University

After some much-deserved refreshments, Dr Sally Bayley (University of Oxford) led an interactive mini-workshop based on her recent study of the diary and journal as a form of literary and social self-construction. Her book The Private Life of the Diary from Pepys to Tweets: A history of the diary as an artform (2016) explores diary-making as a form of private and public identity as it is constructed across history. Sally opened the mini-workshop by introducing the group to the diary of Sylvia Plath. The group were invited to attempt to decipher both the words and the meanings of the images on the page. Sally also discussed the ideas of micro-space and the associated geographies of the page in relation to practices and processes of self-recording.

LSpic 2
Image courtesy of Jamie Halliwell, Manchester Metropolitan University

Keeping with this idea of geographies of the page, participants were then invited to think about their own acts of self-recording in relation to the micro-geographies of the page space. Using individual raffle tickets (which together comprised one page of a raffle ticket book or one distinct spatiality), we were asked to think about and draw out a private space we had inhabited that day. Each raffle ticket, therefore, represented both a micro-space of the geographies of the page and of the personal space. Together, in a roundtable discussion, we then discussed our spatial maps. This exercise prompted discussions around both the intimacies and subtle differences of each participant’s account of self-recording.

LS pic 3
Image courtesy of Nina Willment Royal Holloway University of London

Reflecting on these self-recordings, for the final exercise of the day, we were then asked to write a short ‘diary’ entry about these images. Participants were asked to make a conscious choice about the distinctive materiality they used to make this recording (from the phone notes app to the invoice book to the humble notepad itself). In doing so, participants were invited to think about and discuss the constraints and affordances which their distinctive choice of ‘page’ afforded them. This activity led on to some lively discussion around ideas of aesthetisation of the blog as diary online and the blog/diary as public versus private space.

LS pic 4
Image courtesy of Jamie Halliwell, Manchester Metropolitan University

We hope this workshop provided an opportunity to serve as the foundation for establishing a network of scholars working on such issues around social media data, blogs and blogospheres in the GeoHumanities and beyond. With huge thanks to my co-organisers, Jenny Sjöholm (Centre for the GeoHumanities RHUL), Taylor Brydges (Department of Geography, Stockholm University), Carol Ekinsmyth (Department of Geography, University of Portsmouth) and also to the Centre for the GeoHumanities (RHUL) for all of their help and support in making this event a success.

Written by Nina Willment, edited by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe

GeoHumanities Creative Commissions 2018

For the penultimate Landscape Surgery of the academic year, we were delighted to be joined by two guest speakers. Jol Thomson (PhD student at the University of Westminster) and Dr. Julian Brigstocke (Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University) joined us to discuss their work as part of Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities Creative Commissions, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and AHRC, and last year organised around the theme of ‘Creating Earth Futures’. Five works were selected for the 2018 programme, three of which we were introduced to in the session. Full details about all of the selected works are available on the Centre for the GeoHumanities’ blog.

First up to present was Jol Thomson discussing ‘In the Future Perfect’, the commissioned work he developed alongside Julian Weaver, an artist at Finetuned Ltd. Jol and Julian’s project seeks to interrogate the imaginaries and implications of scientific work operating in the realm of pataphysics: that which examines imaginary phenomena existing in a world beyond metaphysics; outside the basic principles of existence. In this regard, their work explores the discourses and materialities of nuclear fusion and its implications for energy provision and climate change.

Jol explained that the cultural imaginary around this branch of scientific experimentation and technological development has so far only existed in the future perfect, with fusion consistently projected over the past century to be ‘30 years away’ from being a viable power source. Decades of fusion experiments have faced continued difficulties in containing the reaction in a manner requiring less energy than the amount that can be extracted.

To develop their creative research, Jol and Julian sought to gain access to The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the UK’s national nuclear fusion research laboratory located in Oxfordshire, as well as visiting the ITER Centre in Marseille, an internationally-recognised experimental site for nuclear fusion. One of the most significant observations the pair have made during their research at both sites is the scale of infrastructure needed to make fusion reactions possible. Jol illustrated using maps and photographs how the UK’s Culham Centre is situated close to both a power station and solar field, and also draws on sources of energy from further afield to function. Meanwhile, it was explained by Jol that for fusion to be viable as a source of energy, research has shown that humans would need to mine off-world to recover the minerals needed to create adequate conditions for fusion to occur, which are rare to find on earth.

Even aside from these very practical limitations to the fusion process, Jol hypothesised what would happen if humans could harness the unlimited, self-sustaining energy that nuclear fusion promises. It has been projected that population levels could eventually become so high that our impacts as humans would become devastating to the earth’s ecosystem and ultimately be unsustainable, undermining the ‘green’ credentials of fusion as a method of energy production. In considering what the legacy of fusion energy could look like millennia into the future, Jol and Julian have been inspired by the film Into Eternity, which explores ideas about how a nuclear waste site in Finland could be marked as hazardous for future inhabitants of Earth, who are unlikely to communicate using the same languages we do today.

Both film and sound recording have been employed by the pair to interrogate the atmospheres and energies that permeate today’s nuclear fusion testing sites. In the session, Jol played sound files that audibly represented what takes place inside a tokamak test reactor, where a magnetic field confines the heated plasma used in nuclear fusion experiments, suggesting that him and Julian could eventually score this sonic output for a choir as a performative piece. Through the process of transforming these scientific operations into visual and sonic outputs, their work demonstrates both the elusive and ethereal qualities of current fusion experiments, and the level of imagination necessary to make nuclear fusion as a power source a tangible reality.

Following Jol, Dr. Julian Brigstocke gave a presentation titled ‘Thinking in Suspension: The Geoaesthetics of Sand’. His presentation introduced his collaborative project ‘Harena’, which he works on alongside Victoria Jones, an installation artist exploring the ways humans use their senses to connect with and create a sense of place. Their creative collaboration investigates the contemporary politics of sand mining through a series of experiments with the material properties and cultural experiences of sand.

For Julian, sand is both a vital substance and display of power. It connects the elemental to the global; marks time, decay and death; and as the primary component of concrete, cement, glass, fibreglass, asphalt, microchips and more, is the most important constituent material of our urban landscapes. Despite being a finite natural resource which takes centuries to form, it is the world’s most consumed resource after air and water, and humans are using it at accelerating rates, particularly in construction (Morrow, 2018). In 2014, the UN Environmental Program declared that sand mining was causing “unequivocal” environmental problems (ibid).

In this regard, Julian made particular reference to Hong Kong, where sand extracted from seabeds has provided the material for land reclamation, at the cost of catastrophic damage to marine ecosystems. While land reclamation projects appear to promise a quick fix to endemic housing shortages in one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas, political debates rage around how far these projects go towards reducing Hong Kong’s vast inequalities in wealth; where the sand itself comes from; why existing brownfield sites are not used instead; and government collusion with private property owners and developers.

As well as carrying out fieldwork in Hong Kong and visiting sand mines in the UK, Julian and Victoria’s work has delved into the sensual and material properties of sand through a series of ‘experiments’ that explore its qualities of suspension. Julian recounted his unsettling experience of a sensory deprivation tank, where participants lie face up on a pool of water warmed to body temperature and containing a high proportion of salt in suspension, enabling them to lose all sense of the body’s external boundaries. Elsewhere, him and Victoria visited an anechoic chamber, which prevents users from hearing anything inside it, as an exploration of the silence that suspension in air entails; while indoor skydiving allowed them to perceive how tiny adjustments in bodily weight can cause significant directional movements when bodies are suspended in air. In thinking about these processes of attunement with various environmental and atmospheric conditions – of drifting, disorientation and movement across earth, water and air – Julian was reminded of a quotation from Michel Serres (1982: 83): “nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal”.

Julian ended his presentation with a provocation central to the joint political and cultural territory of his and Victoria’s project. He asked: how might the granular thinking necessary to understand the properties of sand pollute the contemporary noisy landscapes of consumerism, for example in the concrete, glass and asphalt landscapes of Hong Kong?

To conclude the session, we were presented with a film by Matterlurgy (Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright) made in collaboration with filmmaker Daniel Beck, entitled ‘Rehearsals for Uncertain Futures’. Featuring Royal Holloway’s Department of Geology’s Sea Ice Simulator (SIS), used in climate science to predict and model the impact of black carbon on ice reflectivity, the film emphasises the create commission project’s broader emphasis on noticing (Tsing, 2015). Focusing on the polyphonic dimensions of environmental processes and methods of observing them, “[s]uch an inquiry finds its roots through interleaved theories of listening […] and the practices of performance and fictioning. It considers the vibratory, affective and speculative forms of agency bound within the technologies and practices produced by GEC [Global Environmental Change]” (Hall, 2018).

Heavily featuring the work and daily practices of Professor Martin King (Professor in Environmental Geoscience in the Department of Earth Sciences at RHUL), the film never once features Professor King’s full body or face, but instead focuses on the materiality of the shipping containers situated in the woodland where the SIS is stored, the bird song in the background and the diverse sounds produced by the SIS machinery.

“The film focuses on the interconnections between the lab and field amplifying physical and material production practices behind climate simulation and predictive data modelling. How does data become data, where exactly is the field, what practices of maintenance and care does simulation require?” (Helena Hunter, no date).

The film is just one part of a broader project which seeks to produce a series of artworks which “challenge and re-imagine how GEC is both sensed and non sensed, signalled and signed, heard and unheard” (Hall, 2018).

We would like to extend our thanks to Jol and Julian for joining us in the session, and to Helena and Mark for allowing us to view their film. We look forward to seeing how the projects develop.



Hall, L. (2018) Matterlurgy selected for the Creating Earth Futures Commissions. Available at: (Accessed: 14 May 2019)

Hunter, H. (no date) Rehearsals for Uncertain Futures. Available at: (Accessed: 27 May 2019)

Morrow, S. (2018) 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Sand. Available at:–sand (Accessed: 27 May 2019)

Serres, M. (1982) Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Tsing, A. (2015) The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Written by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe

LONDON MANIFEST: A film by Matthew Phillips, Emma Christian and Ollie Devereux



LONDON MANIFEST is a short film made in the context of the MA in Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. It presents London with various geographical themes in mind. Our original idea for this project collapsed due to unexpected circumstances. Pressed for time, we improvised an alternative.

We began by exploring the city, letting our minds wander, considering the mechanics of its being. Focusing on core ideas of flux, continuity and performance of the urban environment. Capturing the city in flux, we contemplated points of transit and motion; crowds funnelling through the underground and out into the streets above. In this section, we juxtapose original words focusing on the anonymising transit infrastructure of the city with words from Poe’s Man of the Crowd, recognising the humanity of individuals in the crowd.

In the film’s second part, (Re-)construction, we turn our attention to the city’s ever-changing architecture, analysing the unfinishable nature of urban environments; the continual presence and constant motion of cranes as an indicator of ‘development’.

Following this we then shift to the city’s landmarks, with words inspired by Sharon Macdonald’s book Memorylands. We decided to combine our own contemporary footage of the city’s monuments with archival footage, splicing them together. Through this process we hoped to capture the persistence of monumental structures like Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral, framed by references to the flux. We use music throughout these sections to allude to the continuing and changing rhythms and rhizomes of the city.

In The Unreal City, we focus on the production and performance of London’s cultures. Through an overlaying of skaters with their past and future selves, we seek the patterns of performativity. We explore the notion of the city as a stage where performance has been practised in a backstage environment such as the home; a private space. Citizens give themselves a role to which they shape the attribute. This bounces on fluidity in the sense that performances and choices of movement in the city are influenced by flux and common norms. Further, we move our lens to document the recording of these performances, and the occurrent meta-theatrics.

In the final section, (Re-)orientation, we address our positionality in the city. With reference to the flows and structures of previous sections, we attempt in some way to catch the urban unaware. We feel it is necessary as geographers to re-orientate ourselves in the city, to subvert societal pressures of conformity, and indoctrinated modes of urban understanding. With this in mind we visually and audibly adjust our perspectives. This section features a reading of Etienne Sicard’s A Londres au Crepuscule, in its original French. We elected to use work from another language to offer an alternative perspective on London, as well as to act as part of the re-orientation, subverting assumptions about a massively multilingual city’s Anglo-dominant identity.

Getting the footage of the city was one of the most enjoyable aspects of making the film. We began filming before we actually had the idea of what would develop, as we went to London to gather ‘b-roll’ for the original film idea. The initial idea was about BASE jumping as an urban subversive practice. However, our contact for the film stopped responding the week we were meant to interview and record them. The footage we got initially with the BASE jumping film in mind can be seen at the beginning of the film, as well as during the (Re-)construction section.

Creating the film out of what is essentially 300+ clips of b-roll is certainly an interesting challenge as it relies on the other aspects of the film to carry any narrative or message. That being said, we have tried to make the visuals part of the narrative, such as the use of archival video and our own footage of the same scene, overlaying the skateboarders, and teleporting around London. Overall, the visuals of the film are designed to tie together the poetry to the city.


Written by Matthew Phillips, Emma Christian and Ollie Devereux. Edited by Jack Lowe.

The Digital Libidinal City: Part 2 – Jack Lowe

In responding to Alfie Bown’s observations on desire in today’s digitally-mediated cities, which comprised the first part of this Landscape Surgery session on The Digital Libidinal City, Jack Lowe used his discussion to focus on the relationships between digital technology and experience more generally within everyday urban life.

While much of the early scholarship on digital technology in the humanities and social sciences lauded the possibilities and dangers of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘the information age’, Jack proposed that the ‘digital turn’ in these disciplines arrived at a ‘sweet spot’ in academic exchanges. The critical scholarship of the 80s and 90s gave us the tools to dissect the representational power of digital media, while postmodern and post-structural approaches have helped us to make sense of the agency that digital media have within wider processes of societal function and everyday life. In particular, with the move since the turn of the millennium towards thinking about materialities and the post-human, research into digital technology has helped us become more aware than ever of how our lived experiences are shaped by our relationships with material things. Ultimately, Jack argued, this enables us to understand digital technology in context – as one agent within a wider field of human and non-human agents that assemble during our everyday experiences.

Turning to Alfie’s example of Pokémon GO, Jack discussed how studying this widely-played mobile game is useful for thinking about the geographical relationship between play and everyday life. While existing studies of the game’s geographies have largely focused on how the gameplay has changed practices of navigation, sociability and embodiment in cities (e.g. Evans and Saker, 2019; Apperley and Moore, 2019), much of the research on Pokémon GO focuses on what the game was like during the craze of summer 2016, despite the game having changed significantly since then.

Most impactfully, players have since been able to participate in raids, a very popular activity in which groups of players gather in designated locations at particular times, working together to defeat powerful Pokémon and ultimately capture them. Jack contended that geographers could fruitfully employ techniques of rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre, 2004) to examine how the desire to get a strong Pokémon influences the timelines of those participating, and their relationships with other players, non-players and their environment. For it is this intersection between the rhythms of everyday life and the timescales of raids where the game has often had the greatest impressions on the everyday experiences of players (and non-players), provoking users previously unknown to each other to organise themselves using social platforms outside the game, change their routines, interact with the mundane events happening at the raid location, and develop intimate connections (memories of past raids and friendships formed, knowledge of signal strength, etc.) with the locations in which raids take place.


Raid battles are time-limited events where players must group together to defeat powerful Pokémon.


A raid battle in progress on Pokémon GO. You can see other players’ monsters battling at the same time.














In relation to Alfie’s discussion of dating and food delivery apps, Jack drew connections with geographer James Ash’s (2015) work on interfaces. Ash’s research has explored the digital media used by payday loans providers, for example, examining how the affective qualities of app design features such as sliders and buttons can purposefully alter users’ experiences of them (Ash et al., 2018). Nonetheless, Ash and other interface scholars have been keen to emphasise that the ways these digital products are designed and used do not amount to straightforward manipulation, with the qualities of the experience depending on a number of contingent factors. Indeed, many people will be familiar with having used commercial websites owned by large companies that are frustrating to navigate; and accessing any digital services can always be curtailed by technology failures, or simple lack of affordability (e.g. of smartphones).

Furthermore, Jack emphasised the need to be nuanced in thinking about the different kinds of desire that can be fostered through various types of digital products. Not all apps and games are intended to foster, or result in fostering, deliberate patterns of consumption or generation of data for commercial and/or surveillance purposes. For example, media artists such as Blast Theory have experimented with these platforms to evoke experiences that question the ethics and affordances of digital technologies, as well as the social relationships that are mediated by them. Desire itself is a concept that encompasses a wide range of affective relationships that could be harnessed, for example, towards artistic, community-building and health-improving ends using digital media, and some could even provide methods of potentially subverting capitalist forces mediated by these technologies. Jack accepted, however, that such goals are always hindered by the detachment we experience from the working conditions through which digital products are made, and the lack of clarity regarding the ethics of how they are used.

To make sense of these nuances, Jack advocated for the value of ethnographic and autoethnographic research into the everyday geographies of digital media, so that we might perceive how they affect our lives at the level of experience (Duggan, 2017). Notably, he highlighted the need for more practice-based research in this area, where academics are actively involved in creating products using digital tools. This process can enable researchers to identify how each of their design decisions, as well as the affordances of the technologies used, influence the outcomes of the product being made for individual and collective experiences. In doing so, such research could potentially reveal the level at which these design decisions and technological affordances impact on our everyday behaviours.

Jack finished his response by drawing together three key questions that geographers might consider in relation to experience in digitally-mediated cities:

  • How can we as geographers critically examine the ways digital technology affects our everyday experiences and behaviours, both theoretically and methodologically?
  • How is power distributed in different kinds of digitally-mediated experiences, and what roles do space and place play in these relationships of power?
  • In line with aiming to adequately contextualise the production and experience of digital technology, how would we study and interpret digitally-mediated relationships in societies in the Global South, or across diverse communities of people more generally?

This post is Part 2 of a three-part series based on The Digital Libinal City session. Part 1 featured Alfie Bown’s presentation on desire and digital media in contemporary urban life. Part 3 concludes the series with Megan Harvey’s discussion of the psychoanalytic dimensions of desire and its relationship with capitalist reproduction, dreamwork and subversion in the digital sphere.



Apperley, T. and Moore, K. (2019) “Haptic ambience: Ambient play, the haptic effect and co-presence in Pokémon GO” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 25(1): 6-17.

Ash, J. (2015) The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power. New York and London: Bloomsbury.

Ash, J., Anderson, B., Gordon, R. and Langley, P. (2018) “Digital Interface Design and Power: Friction, Threshold, Transition” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 36(6): 1136-1153.

Duggan, M. (2017) “Questioning “digital ethnography” in an era of ubiquitous computing” Geography Compass 11(5). DOI: 10.1111/gec3.12313

Evans, L. and Saker, M. (2019) “The playeur and Pokémon Go: Examining the effects of locative play on spatiality and sociality” Mobile Media & Communication 7(2): 232-247.

Lefebvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. London and New York: Continuum.


Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Alice Reynolds

The Digital Libidinal City: Part 1 – Alfie Bown

Our final Landscape Surgery session of the Spring term, The Digital Libidinal City, delved into the topic of desire and digital media in contemporary urban life. For this session we welcomed Alfie Bown, lecturer in the Media Arts department at Royal Holloway, author of The Playstation Dreamworld (2017) and Enjoying It: Candy Crush and Capitalism (2015), and contributor to The Guardian and The Paris Review. Acting as discussants for Alfie’s presentation were Jack Lowe and Megan Harvey, PhD students in the Department of Geography and members of the department’s Social, Cultural and Historical Geographies Research Group.

Seeking in his presentation to frame the smart city as the scene for relationships of love and desire, Alfie introduced his presentation by pointing to past representations of desire in the early Romantic literature, in which love is framed as a scene composed of objects arranged with semiotic significance in the urban environment. Unlike ‘love at first sight’, the love experienced by the narrators of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, is not a single moment of encounter between a subject and their desired object, but rather ‘love at last sight’ – the broader scene in which desire is activated.




In thinking about this scenography of desire, Alfie finds value in Roland Barthes’ work on semiotics, which examines how objects are organised into meaningful relationships that reflect wider cultural values. Alfie contended that desire in today’s digitally-mediated cities is evoked through the same process – through the arrangement of objects using interfaces, not just a singular association between subject and object of desire. Whether the desire is for a lover (e.g. Tinder, Grindr), food (e.g. Uber Eats) or something entirely fictional (e.g. Pokémon GO), the moment when this desire begins is the point at which a new relationship between the subject and implicated objects is formed – and increasingly these relationships are mediated through the digital technologies of smartphone applications, artificial intelligence (AI) and data profiling.

To illustrate his argument, Alfie presented three examples of contemporary smartphone apps that mediate this arrangement of objects using data, in an attempt to produce ‘desirable’ outcomes.

Replika is an AI chatbot that learns what the user wants in a friend by asking them a series of questions. Alfie explained that even if the user chooses to submit the bare minimum of personal information in advance, the chatbot can learn a great deal of personal information by offering the kind of helpful conversation that a supportive friend would provide, “a space where you can safely share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, experiences, memories, dreams”. Replika is consequently marketed as the “the AI companion who cares”.




Shapr is an app that uses LinkedIn data to suggest connections that could be relevant to your career. Its algorithm recommends 15 people each day that you may want to connect with, which users then swipe through to determine who they are keen to meet or not. If the interest to connect is mutual, users can organise to meet each other in person through the app’s messaging system. Through this activity, the app claims to help people “find inspiration and new opportunities” and “make professional networking simple, efficient and enjoyable for everyone”.

Lastly, Serendipity is an app that alerts the user when they happen to be near another person with a similar data profile. Based on the idea that there are only six degrees of separation connecting everybody on earth, the app encourages users to meet new people and find out who you know or what you have in common, so that you will “never miss a connection again”. Among other features, the app also allows you to track friends you are meeting with (if they are late), or those who are part of your group (if they are lost). All that is required for these services is for users to import all their contacts, and the app will do the rest.

These three apps, Alfie suggested, demonstrate the close interrelationship between objects of various forms that are represented through interfaces, and the desires that manifest in urban life today – for companionship and personal support, for making relevant professional contacts, and for expanding your network of friends and acquaintances.

While none of the outcomes of these three apps may seem particularly concerning at face value, Alfie warned that the purposes of digital media like these can easily expand beyond modelling and predicting user characteristics and actions, to actively manipulating their behaviours. While working in Hangzhou in eastern China, Alfie learned about the development of AI cars powered by Alibaba’s big data lab City Brain, which can respond to passenger needs. Not only do the cars use data generated by the user’s patterns of behaviour and language to tell you when you are hungry, but they can tell you exactly what you want to eat, taking you directly to the food outlet serving what you desire. This is an example of smart technology directly changing how users navigate the city and, most disturbingly, in a way that actively benefits one corporation over another.

Smart technology changing how we navigate the city is not a trend restricted to China’s smart cities. Alfie explained that Transport for London already has the technology to monitor where and when people are gathering, and could use these algorithms, and the data generated by passengers, to direct people along different routes using their journey planning services. Beyond applications that aim to move people more efficiently across the city, this technology could effectively play a role in, for example, preventing people from joining a political protest.

Elsewhere, manipulation of movement has entered the sphere of leisure activities. Alfie was in Hong Kong during the summer of 2016 when the hugely popular mobile game, Pokémon GO, was released worldwide. One Pokémon that was especially rare in those early months, Porygon, could only be obtained by visiting one particular shopping mall in the territory. With catching all the available Pokémon being one of the principal aims of the game, this meant that players were guided through the gameplay towards certain sites of consumption. Across many countries, this trend linking the mobile gameplay with locations of consumption has manifested through Pokéstops – in-game sites mapped onto physical landmarks where players can receive items in Pokémon GO – being sponsored by companies such as McDonald’s and Starbucks.


Trees Street Pokemon Game House Pokemon Go Lawn


Through these different examples, Alfie aimed to demonstrate how three seemingly disparate desires of contemporary urban life – Pokémon, food and lovers – all share the same qualities algorithmically and conceptually, in that the interfaces through which these desires are mediated can be structurally organised in ways that are open to manipulation, particularly when it comes to how people navigate cities. What makes this risk even more prevalent is that people today often implicitly trust digital services and big data to make the best choices for them.

Alfie struck a different chord at the conclusion of his presentation, however, by indicating that there are possibilities for resisting and subverting the algorithmic manipulation of desire. In another Chinese city, Shenzhen, where Pokémon GO is banned (as it is across the mainland), people with the technological know-how have found a way to play the game by layering the in-game map of New York – a city whose streets share a similar grid layout – on top of the map of Shenzhen. Due to the inevitable differences between the street layouts, players would embrace methods of navigating the city that are socially unacceptable and on occasions dangerous: reaching particular Pokémon spawns and Pokéstops by climbing over fences, walls and train tracks, alongside other forms of trespass.

Perhaps, then, there are still opportunities for desire to be harnessed as a tool for asserting what we individually or collectively want in our increasingly digitally-mediated cities.

We would like to thank Alfie for sharing his path-breaking research with a geographical audience, and for helping to continue the strong relationship between the Geography and Media Arts departments at Royal Holloway.

This post is Part 1 of a three-part series based on The Digital Libinal City session. In Part 2 we will feature Jack Lowe’s response to Alfie’s presentation, which focused on the relationships between digital technologies and everyday urban experience, particularly in the form of video games and apps. Part 3 concludes the series with Megan Harvey’s discussion of the psychoanalytic dimensions of desire and its relationship with capitalist reproduction, dreamwork and subversion in the digital sphere.

Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Alice Reynolds

Minor Theory: A workshop with Thomas Jellis and Joe Gerlach

For our third Landscape Surgery of the term, we were delighted to host visiting speakers Dr. Thomas Jellis, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford and Research Fellow at Keble College, and Dr Joe Gerlach, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Bristol, who put together an engaging workshop to discuss the growing necessity to reinvigorate geographical dialogues with the ambiguous investments of minor theory.


Part one:

Keen to establish an agenda from the outset, Thomas foregrounded the conversation by dissecting certain perceptions of theory that have developed in the study of Geography of late. Central to this argument stands the impression that human geographers have begun to express a deep scepticism towards conceptual work. A somewhat surprising notion given the on-going explosion of theoretical engagement that rings throughout the scholarly field. For Thomas, this scepticism is couched within a general feeling that hegemonic and widely cited bodies of theory are becoming overstatements or parodies of the issues they were originally devised to overcome. For others, he suggested, there is a fear that the discipline has become so engulfed in faddishly adopting and critiquing the work of mainstream theorists that we have begun to take all theory (namely Major totalising theories “bent on mastery” (Katz 1996: 488)) for granted.

Or perhaps more problematically, the issue lies in a focus on the ‘wrong kind’ of theory, meaning we are now drowning in an abundance of work which fails to coherently shape politically robust and passionate senses of the world around us. Particularly at the expense of gendered, racial, class-based and LGBTQ+ accounts. With these vehement concerns in mind, Thomas critically questioned whether we have exhausted all working parameters of credible theory, leaving us at an awkward stalemate of doing theory purely for the sake of theory.

If this diagnosis is true, what does this mean for theory as a whole? As a discipline, are we now suffering a disengagement with theoretical work because it is seemingly impractical, impenetrable, and politically inflexible? Or does this position give us more incentive to recapture and reclaim theory, forcing us to think beyond impact and to reshape how concepts are used so they cannot be reduced to the stagnation of stability?

More decisively, Thomas deliberated what these concerns have to do with minor theory. His answer put briefly- everything.

Whilst this is undoubtedly an intimidating prospect, we cannot begin to unpack this claim without revisiting our elemental understandings of the minor. Following Thomas and Joe’s own work on micropolitics and the minor (Jellis and Gerlach 2017), we can begin to comprehend the minor as an innately ambiguous assemblage that teeters along the edge of knowing, allowing it to avoid the constraints of definitive conceptualisation. As a basis, we should appreciate that “both the micropolitical and the minor cannot be allied to any particular scale or register of significance” (Jellis and Gerlach 2017: 564). Alternatively, as uncertain as it seems, we need to view the minor as uncommitted or unbound to any political spectrums. “If anything”, they write, “the minor ‘demands a ‘letting-go’ of the left and the right as political axioms, as much as it requires an abandonment of the affixation of labels ‘radical’ and ‘critical’, imposed by way of intellectual vogue. Instead, micropolitics and the minor are always, already present; it is what one makes of it as a mode of action that matters. Part of this mode of action is, simply, to ask awkward questions’’ (Jellis and Gerlach 2017:  564).

Offering further clarity, Cindi Katz aimed to push the threshold of what constitutes the minor by pondering how it could be apprehended as a tool to both expose and debunk the major.  Put briefly, Katz (1996) comments that the minor does not exist merely on the peripheries or in total opposition to the major, but fundamentally offers different ways to work with theoretical material. This is largely because the minor is not about naming or labelling something as solid or definite, but rather is about engaging with a language or vocabulary that feels uncomfortable and unsettling, making the minor an unstable form that is both “relentlessly transformative and inextricably relational” (Katz 1996, p489) to the major, rather than its direct antonym. For Thomas and Katz (1996) alike, there is enormous power in this relationship, allowing us to re-work, re-structure and re-negotiate the major from within, without wholly dismantling it.

Certainly, many scholars over the years have similarly tried to navigate this tumultuous terrain, producing new and eclectic retorts to popular bodies of theory that assertively demand we problematise the normative. Non-Representational Theory (NRT), for instance, critiques mechanic theories that have the inability “to do anything other than hold onto, produce, represent, the fixed and the dead” (Harrison 2000: 499), meaning that they fail to “apprehend the lived present as an open-ended and generative process”. Dewsbury et al. (2002: 438) similarly suggest that such approaches ultimately drain the vitality of the world around us “for the sake of orders, mechanisms, structures and processes”. Expectedly then, leading NRT thinker Nigel Thrift (2000) stresses the need to abandon the embalming fascination of believing theory is capable of fabricating totalising solutions and answers. Therefore, rather than seeking worldly explanations from theory, we need to consider new ways of experiencing, observing and practicing the “responsive and rhetorical” (Thrift 2000, p223) realm of encounter, and in order to do so, we must view all theory as a toolkit or supplementary resource that helps to co-produce the world, rather than exclusively rationalise it.

Isabelle Stengers’ equally provocative work with the minor contemplates the linguistic frictions that arise when dealing with theoretical abstractions and propositions. For Stengers (2008), theory often falls into the trap of ‘adequacy’, in which our ideas or perceptions are inherently shaped by inhibiting linguistic interpretations. Her resolution is not to apprehend experience as devoid of interpretation, but to redesign language in such a perplexing and disarrayed manner that nothing can be entirely defined by a specific noun or adjective. As such, theoretical abstractions for Stengers (2008: 95-6) “are not ‘abstract forms’ that determine what we feel, perceive and think, nor are they ‘abstracted from’ something more concrete, and, finally, they are not generalizations”. They are “lures” enticing our attention “toward something that matters, vectorising concrete experience […] to induce empirically felt variations in the way our experience matters” (Stengers 2008, p96). Resultantly, luring abstractions (propositions) act as a mode of the minor. They are theories in the making that are not bound to unbending binaries of ‘true’ or ‘false’, or even ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because they are not entrapped within the judgements of language. Propositions are therefore novel theories always under construction, that critically have the potential to collapse thought patterns, individual feelings and more ferociously; social order (Stengers 2008).

To summarise this section of the session, Thomas highlighted a common denominator in the semi-tonal shifts that aim to rework the language of the major, allowing for reconciliations and apprehensions of the ways in which we encounter the trajectories of life to become fully realised. Considering this, it is evident that the minor is always interlaced within the fabric of the major, disrupting its standardisation and questioning its seemingly stable structures. As the minor’s inert instability courses through the major, resisting crystallisation and oscillation, we are forced to interrogate the rigid political axioms of representation that the major aims to preserve. In essence, the minor is perhaps best understood as a moving target that collides with, congeals, and rearranges our geographical imaginations. It insists on deterritorialising a spectrum of universal truths presented to us by the major, and offers a chance to decolonise our thoughts, senses and articulations of the world in ways that cannot be anticipated. Perhaps a consequence of Thomas’ evident passion, or indeed the minor’s own capacity to dislodge prior judgements, it is evident that a minor theory has radical potential that is too important to be ignored.


Part two:

Before leading onto the closing conversation, Joe and Thomas prepared a workshop task designed to play on the notion of a ‘Landscape Surgery’. Presented with a collection of fragmented and detached statements about the minor, the session convenors asked us to collectively and forensically recompose our own diagnosis of the minor, for the minor. Joe and Thomas then asked us to write a postcard of our final assemblage and address it to someone or something. This assignment saw a number of expressive outputs from our surgeons, from postcards addressed to Freud and the RGS, to more tangible dismemberments and reconfigurations of the collection of snippets offered to us. Below lie a few examples of our surgeons’ efforts:


Part three:

In the final discussion, Joe took the opportunity to offer some further thoughts on the composition of the minor in relation to thematic geographic concerns. Echoing earlier conversations, Joe reinforced the view that the minor does not derive from its essence, but comes from the act of minoritizing, and whilst the push to minoritise is becoming increasingly urgent, neither he nor Thomas is certain of what actually it looks or feels like. Their goal, nonetheless, is to contemplate biography, fieldwork and ethics in order to begin to trial new ways of doing minor theory in practice. Of course, to outline a manifesto would be entirely oxymoronic, as once the ethos of the minor is sedimented within strategy it loses the potency of its desired resistance. Instead, this segment sought to pitch several loosely bound techniques of minoritisation that amplify the minors disruptive micropolitical affectivities.



For Joe, biography and geography are indivisible notions. On the surface, their prefixes are similarly rooted within some kind of worlding, a coming together of life, being and earth. But they become even more inseparable when their theorising becomes composed within the minor. However, as Joe commented, it is difficult to write a biography in a minor tenor, particularly when the passions and indifferences of life become swallowed in the oscillating macropolitical experiences of intensity and monotony- an erroneous pitfall that many authors have succumbed to. Joe singled out the epitaph’s suspiciously vivid plot, suggesting the temptation of reputation and fame often surpasses rectitude, but all is excused as nothing is ever as it truly seems anyway.

So how can we allow the minor to apprehend biography? Can we alter the pathways of these (ropey) life-stories to make way for minor lines of flight?

Following Guattari’s (2012) psychoanalytical work, Joe argued that we can try to write a minor biography by staging a series of spatially and temporally fragmented accounts of inexplicit encounters that narrowly avoid the threshold of consistency. Through doing so, we can suspend biographies in a limbo of sorts, a space devoid of taxonomic distinction between the virtual and the actual, the real and fiction – a flamboyant schizoid style that decentres the biographer with intent to disrupt the status quo (Guattari 2012). As Joe indicated, such an approach allows biographies to become stories of existence that aren’t merely the colourful tales of a single author, but hijacked encounters that are strung together through a collective resonance of an event (Manning 2016). The force of a minor biography is therefore highly unstable and its trajectories uncertain, reified only by its relation to other bodies, objects, sensitivities and energies.



For Joe, all fieldwork is bound into major structures of application, empiricism and impact, leaving opportunity for a minor fieldwork meditation to critique the problematic nature of empirical work more generally. Non-representational geographies for example, have sought to expand the parameters of what counts as empirical fieldwork by playing between the boundaries of reality and representation, although Joe admits that this has gotten somewhat lost in the asphyxiation of the theory into brand name ‘NRT’. Alternatively, Didier Debaise (2009) aimed to liberate the terms ‘impact’ and ‘applicability’ to ponder what they might mean under speculative or minor empiricisms. Here, Debaise (2009) suggests that the contrived nature ‘applicability’ places not only a heavy burden on fieldwork to account for the all-encompassing epistemologies of experience, but also increases the relational aperture between subjects and objects. Resultantly, he urges the need to move away from a vocabulary of ‘applicability’ to one of ‘adequacy’. This does not pertain to commenting on the competencies of fieldwork to accurately testify experience, but to the pragmatics of thought, thinking and theorising that occur in experiential fields during empirical work.

By tuning into these subtle variations in experiential and elemental conditions, Joe hinted that the minor can become foregrounded as its own unique methodological technique. As such, minor fieldwork is less about identifying a particular category or case study to investigate, but about detecting the minute folds in our existence. For Joe, minor fieldwork is therefore pivotal in conceptually energising, enlivening, and charging the dimensions and details of the world. As ever, the minor in this geographical motif is not about mastery, and will not add any clarity to empirical work, but instead intervenes with and valorises the meaning entrenched into all aspects of fieldwork encounters.



Ethics served to be the most problematic of the three geographic concerns to minoritize for Joe, as its stubborn political contexts seem to ardently reject the minute tonal shifts exerted by minor energies. Keen to probe the plasticity of this resistance, Joe sought to examine the frequently coupled tropes of morals and ethics that have become something of a well-established obligational concern within social scientific ethical fields. Ethics, he argued, shouldn’t be about willing or controlling certain events to happen smoothly, nor is it about resenting lapses in their ability to adhere to expectations. Instead, ethics is about building certain ontological capacities through the performance of bodies, spaces, temporal zones, geographic imaginations and embedded histories that exist within ethical contexts of an event.

As such, minor ethics relates to post-humanist thought because it speaks to the anthropogenic concerns of ontological vitalism. In this sense, it would be comfortable to construct a minor ethics that contemplates the willing of events expressed via the affective nodes of the human body, anticipating how this affectation subconsciously predisposes, and on some level controls, the outcomes of ethical procedure. Yet, a minor ethics is one of composition, a coming together of multiple sensitivities, tangibilities and sensibilities, and whilst a somatic speculation of an event is necessary, it paints an incomplete picture of the minor’s capacity; silencing the importance of value when aiming to disrupt major ethics.

In a return to earlier claims to resist the major’s totalising mastery of theory (Katz 1996), Joe argued that we must abandon popular theories that hold concepts hostage in suffocating hierarchies of value, and instead use a minor ethics to reassess the transformative coupling of ontology and judgement (Hemmings 2005). Indeed, as Brian Massumi (2002) hints, we need to move away from the ecologies of power produced within political and economic domains that necessitate a quantitative relation to value, and now focus on the affective force of value regardless of how unsettling it may feel. Value should therefore be about attuning our registers to the elemental – the aesthetic and the atmospheric qualities of ethics – rather than its assumed agency and power (Engelmann and McCormack 2017).


In an attempt to summarise this deeply provocative surgery, Thomas and Joe suggested that the minor should be thought of as a ‘productive paradox’; a working methodological and theoretical practice that seeks to mainstream the minor whilst simultaneously minoritising the mainstream. Importantly, a call for the minor is not about imploring temporary engagements within dominating bodies of work, nor is it about soliciting haphazard cosmetic overhauls of their theory. For Thomas and Joe, an embracing of the minor is about shifting the mechanisms of the major to conjure new articulations, imaginations, languages, and possibilities for the discipline of Geography. Certainly, the analytic dimensions of the minor must be practiced, its nebulous style rehearsed through extensive performance to allow for the dubious politics of the major’s totalising universalisms to be questioned. After all, as Joe romantically postulated, minor flourishes have the capacity to change the shape of the universe, and as a discipline it is crucial that we are well equipped for major ruptures inevitably caused by the minors’ cosmic waves.


We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Thomas and Joe for sharing their critical work with the minor with us, and for creating a surgery that was both engaging and insightful. We wish you every success for the forthcoming release of ‘Why Guattari? A Liberation of Cartographies, Ecologies and Politics’ as seen in the image below (Jellis, Gerlach and Dewsbury 2019).




Debaise, D. (2009) The Emergence of a Speculative Empiricism: Whitehead Reading Bergson. Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, pp.77-88.

Dewsbury, J., Harrison, P., Rose, M. and Wylie, J. (2002) Enacting geographies. Geoforum, 33(4), pp.437-440.

Engelmann, S. and McCormack, D. (2017) Elemental Aesthetics: On Artistic Experiments with Solar Energy. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(1), pp.241-259.

Guattari, F. (2012) Schizoanalytic cartographies. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Harrison, P. (2000) Making Sense: Embodiment and the Sensibilities of the Everyday. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(4), pp.497-517.

Hemmings, C. (2005) Invoking Affect: cultural theory and the ontological turn. Cultural Studies, 19(5), pp.548-567.

Jellis, T. and Gerlach, J. (2017) Micropolitics and the minor. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4), pp.563-567.

Jellis, T., Gerlach, J. and Dewsbury, J. (2019) Why Guattari? A Liberation of Cartographies, Ecologies and Politics. Routledge.

Katz, C. (1996) Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), pp.487-499.

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the virtual. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stengers, I. (2008) A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality. Theory, Culture & Society, 25(4), pp.91-110.

Thrift, N. (2000) Afterwords. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(2), pp.213-255.


Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Jack Lowe, Alice Reynolds and Ed Armston-Sheret.


The first Landscape Surgery of 2019 brought together three different perspectives on explorers’ bodies. This interdisciplinary session was organised by me (Ed Armston-Sheret), and included papers by Dr Vanessa Heggie (Reader in the Institute of Applied Health at the University of Birmingham), Rosanna White (PhD candidate from the GDSJ group of Royal Holloway’s Geography Department) and myself. In bringing together cross-disciplinary perspectives on the explorer’s body, the papers sought to develop insights relevant to scholarship on the body, the history of geography, and the continuing role of explorers in debates about heroism and national identity.

Bodies in ‘the Death Zone’

Vanessa Heggie presented a paper titled ‘Standardised Encounters,’ examining the disproportionate attention given to the white-male body within much medical research about the effects of extreme environments. She began by talking about the ‘Death Zone’ on Everest — the area near the summit of the mountain where there is not enough oxygen to sustain human life. Vanessa highlighted how the Death Zone is a subjective concept: atmospheric conditions and latitude can cause the amount of oxygen in the air to vary considerably, while bodily differences mean some are able to cope with it better than others. Such high-stakes spaces consequently offer valuable opportunities to consider the relationships between different kinds of human and non-human bodies.

Mountain range towards Mount Everest (Credit: Carole Reeves)

Until the 1950s, the Death Zone, Vanessa argued, was constructed as a white-male space. Women were excluded from Everest expeditions for much of the 20th century and the experiences and bodies of Sherpas and other ‘porters’ were frequently ignored.  Vanessa explained that the standardisation of the white-male body as the normal body for physiological experiments in extreme environments had a number of consequences. On one level, it defined what medics viewed as the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ body in medicine — and has since led to a diminished scientific understanding of how female and non-white bodies respond to altitude. In turn, this problem became self-reinforcing, as the lack of knowledge about women’s responses to altitude was used as an excuse to exclude women from future expeditions.

Vanessa also highlighted how a focus on the white-male body has shaped the design of clothing and equipment.  While white-male members of expeditions had bespoke clothing and equipment designed to fit their bodies, this was not true of women or Nepalese climbers.  Indeed, oxygen masks weren’t designed to fit Nepalese faces until 50 years after the first use of oxygen on Everest, despite the central role Nepalese climbers played in every Everest expedition in the intervening period.

Tabloid medicine chest used on the 1933 Mount Everest Expedition (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Finally, Vanessa explored how bodies themselves mark the Death Zone. The bodies of dead climbers are often difficult to remove because of both altitude and weather conditions, meaning that most people who die in the Death Zone remain on Everest. This has meant that some bodies have even become waypoints that mark routes up the mountain, taking on a cultural significance that exceeds their physiological attributes and the physical conditions that led to their deaths.

Bodies and Sovereignty

The second paper of the session was presented by Rosanna White. Rosanna’s paper examined the efforts of the Canadian government to claim sovereignty over the Arctic through representations of exploration heritage. Rosanna explained that the Arctic presented a particular challenge for traditional notions of sovereignty, and historically made it hard for the Canadian government to settle the Canadian Arctic in the same way as other parts of Canada. As Rosanna noted, the inhospitable conditions of the Arctic made many traditional expressions of sovereignty — e.g. establishing large settlements, building transport links or other state infrastructure — expensive or impractical.

Reflecting on how the Canadian government approached the discovery of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, wreckages of two ships led by Victorian British explorer Sir John Franklin, Rosanna argued that Canada had used these ships to try to demonstrate the longevity of Canadian presence in the Arctic. By deciding to leave these ships on the sea-bed of the North-West Passage, where they have become both historic landmarks and ecosystems for sea life, the Canadian government articulated a form of sovereignty underpinned by a consistent heritage of exploration and stewardship of nature.

Image of an 1850s expedition searching for HMS Erebus. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Another angle from which Rosanna approached this situation was the Canadian state’s changing policy towards Inuit communities living near the ships. In recent years, Rosanna noted, Inuit communities have been actively involved in the management and stewardship of the wreck sites. Not only was this a practical measure to help preserve the wreckages, but simultaneously an innovative way to extend the reach of the Canadian government into the Arctic by encouraging local participation in maintaining national heritage. In particular, Rosanna recognised that the project intersected with national guilt surrounding the state’s colonial practices towards Inuit communities.

A razor blade recovered from the Franklin expedition (Credit: Science Museum, London).

The final part of Rosanna’s presentation discussed a Canadian stamp series which featured HMS Erebus, one of the Franklin ships. One stamp image depicted the ship trapped in ice, highlighting both the ice’s materiality and the hindrances it presented to exploration; while another included a map of the area where the ship was found, using Inuktut place names. Rosanna contended that these stamps were exemplary of the Canadian government’s efforts to use evidence of historic exploration and indigenous culture to demonstrate sovereignty over the Arctic.

Is brandy a tropical medicine?

Finally, my presentation analysed how late nineteenth-century British explorers used alcohol to help them cope with the effects of travel in the tropics. I highlighted how many travel guides and some explorers advocated moderate and regular drinking when a traveller was in the tropics. Therefore, alcohol became defined in spatial terms: practices of drinking that might be harmful in Europe were often considered beneficial elsewhere.

I contextualised this debate within nineteenth-century thinking about acclimatisation. Some thought that Europeans were inherently unsuited to warm climates; others thought the body could adapt if the correct precautions were followed. The tropics were often constructed as a moral arena, where good conduct and ‘clean living’ were considered important. Notably, these ideas intersected with changing medical attitudes towards drink over the course of the nineteenth century, as other medical treatments fell into decline and the temperance movement grew in prominence throughout Europe.

Explorer's medicine chest

Medicine chest used by the explorer David Livingstone (Science Museum, London)

Delving further into these historic moral geographies of alcohol consumption, my presentation identified how ideas about tropical drinking were simultaneously rooted in Victorian notions of racial difference. While alcohol was often listed as a medicinal supply for European members of an expedition, local people were generally seen as not needing to drink in the same way. But because curbing ‘native alcoholism’ was often used as part of the justification for colonial rule, European drinking in the tropics could also prove problematic for both the travellers themselves (who often found ‘moderate’ consumption hard to define) but also to the moral basis for colonial rule. By the early twentieth century, drinking in the tropics was widely discouraged, partly down to the rise of tea and coffee as alternative stimulants and partly because of accusations that Europeans were drinking too much.

Ultimately, I argued that these issues highlighted the importance of travel and globalisation in changing attitudes towards drink, temperance, and consumption, as well as the central role of environment in much nineteenth-century thinking about the body.

The papers were followed by a lively and wide-ranging discussion that unpacked a diverse set of themes arising from the presentations. One of the questions put to the presenters considered the role of non-human bodies in both exploration and extreme environments. This question highlighted how the exploration of extreme environments was only possible through the use/exploitation of various non-human bodies. Another question addressed the issue of vulnerability and imperviousness, which provoked a discussion about the role of national rivalry and ideas of racial difference in extreme-environment physiology. Other questions addressed the differentiation between the bodies of leaders and subordinate members of expedition teams, and the degree to which leadership required a certain type of body. The panellists were also asked about affective practices of care and co-operation among team members.

I would like to thank my fellow presenters Vanessa and Rosanna for sharing their insights on the topic of explorers’ bodies alongside me in this session, and to those who attended for engaging so fully in the discussion prompted by our presentations.

Written by Ed Armston-Sheret, edited by Megan Harvey, Jack Lowe and Alice Reynolds


A second guest post by Rachael Utting, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, whose project is entitled ‘Collecting Leviathan: curiosity, exchange and the British Southern Whale Fishery (1775-1860)’.

An extract from the journal of whaling surgeon Dr Eldred Fysh describes the committal to the deep of the body of a deceased whaleman early one morning. The attending doctor laments that the dead man will be forgotten by teatime, such was the callous nature of whalemen. He was not alone in this viewpoint. Whaling surgeon John Wilson described the crew of the whaleship Gypsy “the very lowest dregs of society, the refuse of Ratcliffe Highway and New Gravel Lane [in Wapping.]” However, a visit to the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford tells a very different story. The Bethel, or sailor’s church was built in 1832 to cater to the spiritual needs of the town’s large whaling population, particularly before embarking on a voyage, or to give thanks for a safe return. The Seamen’s Bethel sits in the New Bedford Historic District, a cultural area designated to protect and promote the towns whaling history. That history can be read on the small, neat marble plaques lining the walls of the Bethel, erected to the memory of whalers lost at sea and members of the local fishing community lost in more recent disasters.

new bedford 1There are stories of shark attacks, accidents, drownings, and disease. What strikes me in the Bethel is the palpable sense of sadness at the passing of crewmates. Many memorials states, “payed for by his crewmates”, “erected with respect”, “payed for by subscription.” Whalers were a notoriously poor bunch, earning a ‘lay,’ a percentage wage based on the amount of oil brought home and their seniority within the vessel. Some whalers came home owing more money than they had earned, their meagre lay having been eaten away by the extortionate prices of ships stores, known as ‘slops.’ That on their return to port they were prepared to spare their pennies to remember a crew mate lost at sea, perhaps several years previously rather counters Dr Fysh’s comments. It also tells us that crewmen were maintaining the relationships forged onboard whilst back on land. It would take time, organisation and communication to bring together the funds to erect a memorial. In the coastal towns of the Eastern seaboard many men went whaling with family members, sons, cousins and brothers (a trend mimicked in the London whale fishery but to a lesser extent.) However, the plaques also memorialise foreigners such as John Glover of London, lost overboard, Daniel Burns of Pictou, Nova Scotia, and Charles Wilson of the Sandwich Isles (Hawaii.) These show the international nature of the nineteenth-century whaling trade and highlight the strength of bonds created between crew members during long whaling voyages, irrelevant of nationality. As the epitaph to Londoner, John Glover reads,

“This sacred cenotaph is reared,

By those who shar’d his grief and joy:

To them his memory is endeare’d

By ties which death cannot destroy

Nor could their effort save him there,

Those who may meet a watery grave

Should for a sudden death prepare.”

Considering the American portrayal of the heroic golden age of whaling and conversely the lack of historical memory regarding whaling in Britain, the Seamen’s Bethel offers us an opportunity to recast whalers in a more nuanced vision; less as the dregs of Wapping Wall, but not quite the American vision of heroic masculinity fighting the elements. It allows nineteenth-century whalers to be seen as human and caring. To be both sombre and sober.


Safe Space

For our fourth Landscape Surgery of the autumn term, we were kindly joined by members of our affiliated research group, Geopolitics, Development, Security and Justice (GDSJ), to deliberate the notion of ‘safe space’. The surgery was chaired by Professor Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway), and was divided into two presentations given by Dr Janet Bowstead (Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway) and Riina Lundman (Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Turku, Finland) respectively, before concluding with an open panel discussion that sought to think more broadly about the geographical importance of ‘safe space’ in today’s social and political climate.

From the outset, the task of defining ‘safe space’ presented itself as a challenging undertaking, perhaps a consequence of the expression’s resurgence within the public domain of late that has prompted rather unapologetic and heated debates “over what ‘safe spaces’ mean and if they should be encouraged and protected” (Djohari et al., 2018, p351). As noted within the latter group discussion, it seems as though the term has become obscured to negatively describe ‘sanitised’ spaces of ‘free expression’, often being paired with other culturally loaded neologisms such as ‘snowflake generation’ and ‘political correctness’ to incite adverse confrontations of speech (Djohari et al., 2018). Whilst these particular mobilisations of the term cannot be ignored, Katherine noted that ‘safe space’ in its most rudimentary form, describes:

“A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” – (Oxford dictionary)

Indeed, when probed further this particular explanation raises important questions surrounding the theorisation of the material, physical, emotional and imagined capacity of ‘safe spaces’. However, it is starkly apparent that the concept is inherently contested, diverse and subjective, meaning that no solitary definition is ever quite appropriate, and its geographical relevance is substantially entwined within ever expansive political and social webs of understanding.


A pink inverted triangle encased within a green circle used to symbolise alliance with LGBTQ+ rights. This is just one example of a safe space symbol. Source:

To highlight the individuality of our own perceptions of ‘safe space’, the session’s convenor, Katherine Brickell, encouraged the group to mental map our own spaces of safety through the medium of language and illustration. As a critical methodology, mental mapping has been utilised by feminist geographers to allow participants to reflexively consider their own “geographical imaginations and complex identity negotiations” in relation to social locations (Jung, 2012, p985).  In this sense, mental maps are not solely reflections of an individual’s cognitive identity, but are a multi-layered artefact rife with emotion, impression and knowledge.

Among the group, the home and the bedroom featured heavily as perceived sites of safety. Whilst this is unsurprising given the popular tropes of peace and security that resonate in imaginations of the domestic, it is evident that for many the home is deeply unsafe, with 1.9 million adults in the England and Wales experiencing abuse within the home in 2017 alone (ONS, 2017). For others, ‘safe space’ was recognised to be unbound by specific locations, but as visceral encounters between friends, family, animals and nature. Similarly, for some, safe space is temporally attached to particular hours of the day, fleeting feelings of comfort found in the early morning or the last few moments before nightfall.


A mental map of my own safe spaces. Source: Authors own, 2018. 

Our first speaker, Dr Janet Bowstead, is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. Janet conducts interdisciplinary research that cuts across geography, sociology and social policy to examine strategies of safety for women who have suffered from domestic violence. In her presentation, entitled: “Safe Spaces of Refuge, Shelter and Contact”, sought to consider service responses to women and girls at risk of abuse in both the global North and South by examining a forthcoming selection of articles in the journal of Gender, Place and Culture.

Janet begun by suggesting that safe spaces of shelter have the potential to offer freedom to victims of violence when (1) explicit boundary work is done to carve out safe spaces in hostile environments, (2) the practices for ensuring safety are central in allowing women to evoke relational place-making performances, and (3) the shelter becomes a temporary contact zone of refuge, safety and autonomy.

Thinking specifically about research conducted by the ASPIRE Project (Analysing Safety and Place in Immigrant and Refugee Experience) that examined community-led responses to violence against immigrant and refugee women in Australia, Janet noted that minority groups of women face unique barriers when attempting to access domestic violence services (Murray et al., forthcoming). For instance, many women travelled long distances or entirely relocated to gain access to help, yet once they had moved were judged or shamed by other members of their community for leaving violent relationships. Moreover, language barriers between shelters and vulnerable women ultimately impacted their overarching perceptions of safety, as services could not regularly provide appropriate interpreters with correct ethical training, resulting in women feeling fearful that confidentiality breaches could leave them at risk.

Similarly, research conducted in shelter homes in Eastern India by Mima Guha (forthcoming) found that shelters can prevent emotional healing from abuse by enforcing punitive measures, leaving women feeling isolated and punished for their experience as victims. As Janet further highlighted, some protection schemes in East Indian shelters showed evidence of mistreatment by the state and families to punish ‘sexually deviant’ young women for eloping with partners without familial consent. In these cases, women’s subversive sexual behaviour became reframed as ‘victimhood’, resulting in alleged ‘safe spaces’ becoming a site in which to control and manage female agency under the guise of state protection and rehabilitation.

It is clear that “women need to be safe from abuse before they can be safe to achieve wider control, autonomy and freedom” (Lewis et al, 2015 n.p.). As such, it is necessary for shelters and refuges to offer support throughout the emotional stages of recovery and empowerment following abuse. For Janet, this is carried out through the nature of the safety, and by the nature of the space. For instance, shelters with communal facilities produce a very different rehabilitation programme than those with self-contained flats. Likewise, shelters that implement collaborative participatory creative outputs ‘can enable processes of self-help and collective support to counteract the isolation of abuse and to help prepare women for their lives after the refuge’ (Bowstead for RGS-IBG, 2017). However, this is not to suggest that the onus for rehabilitation is solely the role of shelters and the individuals themselves. Instead, it is critical that discussions on ‘safe space’ continue to be opened up and dissected to generate a new narrative for a human rights approach that allows women to feel truly, and unequivocally, safe and free within society.

Indeed, as Janet’s presentation summarised, safe spaces across the global North and South are not static or singular in their ability to afford safety and freedom for women. However, “temporary spaces of shelter, refuge and contact can be powerful places of protection and recovery” (Bowstead, 2018 in presentation) that can transform lives, inspire collective support and encourage wider societal change in attitudes towards women who have experienced violence.

Our second speaker, Dr Riina Lundman, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Turku, Finland, with interests in urban studies, public space and creative geographies. Riina’s presentation continued the session theme and discussed the idea of ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly.

Paraphrasing Furedi (2002: n.p.), Riina suggested that “safety has become one of Western society’s fundamental values”, as organisations, institutions and social groups strive to offer diverse spaces of inclusivity, to which everyone feels welcome. However, for Riina, ‘safe space’ is intrinsically paradoxical by nature. If one space is safe, does that mean all others are unsafe? And if that is the case, is it possible to generate a new ‘safe(r) space’ attitude that reduces the disparity?

In response, Riina argues that a ‘safe(r) space’ narrative could be pivotal in bridging this gap, particularly in Finland where social and political knowledges on ‘safe space’ are yet to build substantial prominence within legal research. As such, Riina is currently in the process of investigating Finnish laws and policies to examine what safe(r) spaces could mean for elderly people, and moreover, the kinds of solutions that could be implemented to allow a more sustainable practice for creating and managing elderly spatial safety.

Following Koskela’s (2009) dimensions of safety and security, Riina illustrated that in order for senior care homes to become safe(r) safes, they should cohere to the following aspects: (1) be well calculated and measured, (2) designed to be experienced and to feel personal, (3), respect cultural differences and structural duties of care, (4) have strong social elements to reduce isolation, (5) be imaginative and creative, and finally, (6) have these ideals manifested in physical and material elements, rather than allowing the notion of safety to exist solely on a theoretical basis.

However, as one would expect, the generational group of the elderly is incredibly diverse, from differences in social, cultural and political values, to what is needed and required from a medical standpoint to ensure that a space is entirely safe. With this in mind, Riina is sympathetic that there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ formula to generating ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly, but rather that there is a wealth of work to be done in social and legal policy to enable the best care to be given.

For Riina, much of this can be done by confronting the negative stigmas of ageism and ableism that frequently infiltrate discussions on senior safety. By looking at specific case examples of senior co-housing communities that offer more relaxed approaches to elderly care, for instance the Loppukiri in Helsinki that provides private housing clustered around communal spaces, Riina is hopeful that spatio-legal approaches to safe(r) spaces will begin to adopt a far more open and accepting attitude towards elderly care.

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Katherine, Janet and Riina for their fantastic Landscape Surgery session, and for their continued work in sustaining what can be extremely difficult conversations regarding safe space.



Bowstead, J. (2017) AC2017 – Geographies of Safe Space (1): Spaces of embodiment, identity and education. [online] Available at:

Djohari, N., Pyndiah, G. and Arnone, A. (2018) Rethinking ‘safe spaces’ in children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies, 16(4), pp.351-355.

Furedi, F. (2002) Epidemic of Fear | Frank Furedi. [online] Available at:

Guha, M (2018) ‘Safe spaces’ and ‘bad’ girls: Child-marriage victims experiences from a shelter home in Eastern India. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)

Jung, H. (2012) Let Their Voices Be Seen: Exploring Mental Mapping as a Feminist Visual Methodology for the Study of Migrant Women. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), pp.985-1002.

Koskela, H. (2009) The Spiral of Fear: Politics of Fear, Security Business, and the Struggle over Urban Space. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Lewis, R., Sharp, E., Remnant, J. and Redpath, R. (2015) ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), pp.1-14.

Murray, L., Warr, D., Chen, J., Block, K., Murdolo, A., Quiazon, R., Davis, E., Vaughan, C. (2018) Between ‘here’ and ‘there’: family violence against immigrant and refugee women in urban and rural Southern Australia. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming) (2017) Domestic abuse in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at:

Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe.