Map is not Theory

Specializing in Specialization

This made me laugh.

But it touches on something serious. Geographers as politicians. There's a great book by J. Z. Smith called Map is not Territory. The chief aim of the work is to delineate the boundary of a realm that is beyond the purview of empirical experience. It is an element of human experience that cannot be subject to quantification, to dissection upon a grid. It lies beside and beyond the world of storms and tectonics. It is as if geographers, those who scrutinize the ground beneath their feet, have understood this to mean map is not merely territory. That perhaps one can delve into the very core of what it is to be human, with the right compass and charts.

Perhaps this is a bit of a harsh treatment of geographers, specifically those who focus their attention upon the very human topography of this planet we inhabit. Indeed, my discussion of political geography, or perhaps critical geography, is based on the most cursory knowledge and blatant prejudices. But I would like to use it more as a landmark, a signpost towards a broader phenomenon.

A quick look at a university campus today might be a bit bewildering. There is an endless flourishing of new programs, new areas of specialization. We'll leave aside the matter of the disciplines that are ditched for their dustiness, sent to the knackers. On the whole there is at least the sense of some continuous unfolding of knowledge, a flowering of civilization. What really seems to be taking place is a bizarre fragmentation of disciplines into one another, setting up strange mimicries of each other. Suddenly, something called cultural geography is setting up shop amongst the cartographers, hawking what amounts to a distinct brand of philosophy.

Such a dynamic is manifest across all sorts of disciplines, in part, because it has such a powerful appeal. It provides a safe haven for failed philosophers, for those who yearn to jettison the baggage of a tradition, to avoid uncomfortable questions. It allows a fresh start in the discussion, the privilege of being the host: a captive audience. It is also appealing to the geographer, in this case, those lazy or self-loathing academics who much prefer expending their energy in settings where they are inevitably amateurs, dabbling hobbyists. This is a perfect symbiotic storm, so it should be no surprise if specialization only intensifies over time.

An important question needs to be asked though as to the implications of this seemingly inevitable specialization. If we're going to specialize, shouldn't we do it right? It's not a matter of efficiency. Not a mere disdain at the seeming absurdity of it. It is that we are utterly and progressively failing to provide entire generations of young people with even the most basic understanding of the world in which they live. Surely we can't expect everything to be fine when a student's understanding of the human condition is encapsulated in a film theory class, or a course on classical economics.

In the disciplinary infighting, a kind of vacuum has formed, where students now learn not very much of something really specific and a bit of something that's wrong. This is arguably worse than the prospect of learning just a meagre portion of everything in particular. But if specialization is not perfect, what can you do? The messiness is tied to its vitality, to the ever increasing prosperity and sophistication it yields. No complex system is without its glitches. For better or worse we are all particularly attached to some vague subconscious sense of our own invincibility. Maybe that's a good thing. I'm not sure, and not looking to speculate.

I will, however, look at what we do know. An individual can do good to make peace with the imperfection of his accomplishments and establish a healthy distance from his ideals. A civilization does not have the luxury of such acceptance. It is the duty of a society, of a public, to serve as the bearer of ideals. A culture must shared and understood. Without this, the individual is left to shoulder the burden alone, one that is too often too great. Few can be both judge and performer. It is the role of a society to allow for an individual to strive for ideals that remain plausible even if out of reach. Everyone can be president.

This idea of a society enabling human fulfillment is not new, it's as old as political thought itself. We gather together to be seen and heard, not just for the view.