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  • Jessica Jacobs

Doreen Massey: Reflections from a Paper Age


Most official biographies of Doreen Massey, who died earlier this year at the age of 72, will tell you she was an internationally renowned British geographer best known for her ground-breaking work on feminist, cultural and critical geography, particularly in relation to space, place and power. Those written by her friends will also tell you what was so special about Doreen – that not only did this formidable working-class girl from the North of England with a great sense of humor have a profound impact on geography, but that her passion for social justice meant that her impact reached to the wider social sciences, and out in the world of everyday activism. This essay includes a video discussion I had with Massey so that you can hear her in her own words.

Doreen often spoke about how she felt like an outsider from an early age. Firstly, she came from a humble background, brought up on a large council estate in Wythenshawe in Manchester. Although she won a scholarship to the prestigious St Hugh’s College, Oxford, Doreen always said she felt “like a space invader” and “agog at the beauty of Radcliffe Square”, but also angry at the exclusive sense of privilege it represented. It was at Oxford that she met the acclaimed cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall, and became a “raving socialist.” When she graduated with a first-class degree, she went to work at the left-leaning Centre for Environmental Studies, until it was abolished in 1979 by then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She then went to study for a Masters in Regional Science at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to the UK in 1982 to take up a post at the Open University. Many books and articles followed, but despite being awarded the Vautrin Lud International Geography Prize in 1998, the geographers’ equivalent of a Nobel Prize, and being offered prestigious appointments at Oxford and other leading universities, she remained firmly attached to the Open University and its ethos of social justice and democracy for the rest of her career.

It was in 1998 at the Open University where I first met Doreen. I had sent both the Sociology and the Geography Departments my Ph.D. proposal. The Sociology department was in disarray because Stuart Hall had just retired, so only the Geography Department responded. When I went to the campus Doreen was particularly enthusiastic about my research focus – an exploration of the romantic, gendered and racialized landscapes involved in western women’s tourism to Egypt. I came from a political science background and hadn’t even studied geography at school, but I could see what a remarkable woman she was the minute I met her and jumped at the chance when I was offered a faculty scholarship with Doreen as my supervisor. She was a formidable supervisor and could be intimidating, but her criticisms of your work were nearly always piercingly correct and never delivered directly. You knew what she said mattered. And she always managed to say things clearly and engagingly. I’d never met anyone like her. We stayed in touch after I left the OU, even when I went to work in Jordan for two years, and gradually over the years our relationship evolved from student-professor to friends. Thanks to Doreen I felt enfranchised to be an activist geographer and prioritize social justice in my research, particularly in my commitment to maintaining enduring and strong links with the communities and people I work with. Doreen brought the discipline alive to me – and crucially she succeeded in connecting it to the real world. It was almost impossible to separate her activism from her academic work – in the 1970s and 1980s she was involved in the miner’s strikes and advised Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. She contributed to Marxism Today and co-founded Soundings - a radical independent journal of the Left based in London. In the 1980s she learned Spanish and worked with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua on the impact of the Contra war. In the 1990s she was invited by the African National Congress to South Africa to help establish gender equality in their employment legislation. Other geographers might write at length about the perniciousness of neoliberalism, but Doreen acted on her beliefs, too. For example, when the anti-capitalist Occupy Movement occupied St. Pauls Cathedral in October 2011 to protest against the domination of London’s secretive financial district, Doreen was one of the first public intellectuals to be invited to give talks at their ‘Tent University’ – helping to inspire a new generation of political activists.

So what is the video below about? Sitting in a café on cloudy day in North West London, a couple of years ago, Doreen and I fell into one of our usual laments – when, why and how did the market take such a dramatic hold over our lives? At what point did universities change from places that encouraged or at least allowed radical ideas, into the sites of production of knowledge by career obsessed servants of the status quo? Why are research ideas today only considered to be successful by grant funders if they can be measured by an assessment of the finding’s performance and impact on the world after the research. Whatever happened to research that was informed by the world at large – that then went on to impact the world of university research? And more importantly – how could students today know that it wasn’t always like this, there was a time when our activism enhanced our academic life. We thought about all the possible reasons. Then Doreen told me about all all the campaign leaflets, lecture notes and other material in her office at the Open University (and stored in several other offices too). She said she knew she had to move them from the Open University because they were taking up so much space, so she was beginning to go through them, chucking things out before taking them to a storage facility in Barrow in Furness (the north of England). Wait! I cried, before you take them there let’s go through them – the answers to our questions are in those files.

Significant Geographies: Reflections from a Paper Age was supposed to be a joint effort from Doreen and myself. We wanted to use digital tools, particularly film – to collect, record and reflect upon the written materials and photographs left behind from Doreen’s activist and academic life. As a testament to an analogue age before the neoliberal university. As a way to answer some of these pressing questions. And as a way to help our digital native students today understand a world that has only recently passed but that they were not part of.

The idea of using film to document our recent past is not new. However, there was an immediate appeal to both of us to use film as a way in to understand the tangible materials of this paper age. It wasn’t that Doreen didn’t like computers, but she thought through paper. All her ideas were created in real time – not by typing as I am doing now, but by handwriting everything down on paper - it was the way that she thought through her ideas and her clarity, and the pace of presentation reflects this. Doreen loved the visual and was a great fan of cinema, so she immediately understood how filming "Paper Geographies" could bring the textual quality of her archive material to life for a generation raised on digital media. Film would allow us to show the immediate contrast between this paper world and the one that followed; it would allow the project to explore how the way we collect information affects the way we understand the world.

We immediately set about discussing what kinds of documentation we wanted to look at, whom we would need to interview and which were the best stories to tell. Doreen was clear from the outset that she didn’t want it to be a telling of her life but an argument and demonstration of how geography has influenced the political world at some crucial junctures.

Sadly, we had only really just gotten started when Doreen passed in March this year. Of course, I just miss her – and feel, like most people that met her, that I have lost a heroine. Selfishly, I am bereft that I can no longer call her for a chat and immediately feel the benefit of her generous spirit, incredible intellect and wonderful sense of humor. But somehow this project lingers. It carries its own force. With every passing day I am reminded how limited our time is on this planet. Which is even more reason to be the person we want to be now, to say what we have to say, and to step up for what we believe in.

Jessica Jacobs is a geographer based at Queen Mary University of London. Her research looks at how Western identity is shaped by tourist encounters in the Middle East with a focus on creative filmmaking as a research method.

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