For a while, in the earliest days of my teaching career, I worked as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Sussex and a contract lecturer at Queen’s University (Canada) Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux (BISC). I taught a first-year, introductory Human Geography course to British and Canadian students respectively, with a sprinkling of others from the U.S., China, and Japan. I remember those times as so exciting. After decades of being the sign language interpreter in the classroom, it was quite heady to have my own classes for the first time. As a teaching assistant at Sussex I worked with Brian Short and Michael Collyer, both of whom affected my approach to the subject. With their initial guidance, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of walking our students through the vastness of the discipline. I approached the course as a humanist would, beginning with how we, individually, understand ourselves and our places, then moving on to other scales of understanding human geography, but for the end of each course, I liked to swing back around to the individual and grapple with emotional geographies.
What brought this to mind was an event I attended this evening, a long-standing community-based discussion group that concerns itself with a variety of intellectual topics and hosted by one of my RIT colleagues, Michael Brown. I am a sporadic attendee; I tend to dip in to the group when the week’s topic interests me and I can get my tired self out of the house on ‘Hump Day.’ This evening’s topic was ‘the romance of the mind.’ As the conversation got underway, I found myself smiling to remember my Human Geography teaching experiences, most specifically, the final reading of each term, John Wylie’s 2009 ‘Landscape, absence and the geographies of love.’ I haven’t taught Human Geography for four years now, and I miss it. I especially miss teaching this final component, where we began to describe our metaphysical and emotional experiences we have using geographical terms.
One year, either I was ill or the trains weren’t running for some reason, I can’t seem to remember, but the final seminar didn’t meet. Instead, I sat down and pounded out the following for my students:
General Notes on Wylie and the Article
Be sure to look up John Wylie. His webpage is extensive and interesting reading.
Note this piece is published in Transactions. This is the most important journal in British Geography.
John Wylie’s writing is very different to most geography reading you will encounter that predates it. One of the things I enjoy most about reading Wylie is his literary, almost lyrical, style. He is an incredible wordsmith with a gift for description. Using a narrative style, he pulls the reader into the landscapes he describes. Reading his work, we feel as though we are right there, walking along with him. Importantly, Wylie leads us through a descriptive landscape at the same time he carefully weaves a theoretical argument. This is writing and academic work of the first order and very persuasive. (To me, there’s more to this style of writing as a persuasive form than I have time to describe here. If you’re interested, we can discuss it.)
A note on geographical historiography…Suppose Wylie was writing this in the early 1960s. What would a quantitative piece on memorial benches look like? An article back then would have had to include at least one topography map of the location of the benches and, no doubt, several charts of all kinds of data relating to the physical make-up of the benches themselves, how many local councils promoted the scheme, etc. We would have had to wait much longer to read an article discussing the social justice of locating these benches, and even longer to read a piece about who could afford to have it and the privileging of certain people based on class, gender or ethnicity over others in getting a bench at all! This kind of writing couldn’t happen without the cultural turn and post-structuralism.
Lastly, Wylie states that these ideas are unfinished. Like Nagar & Geiger (2007), he resists the idea of drawing a line under this work and making hard and fast conclusions. This means that parts of this piece read less coherently than others. I quite like this reflexive transparency. We get to follow along on his thought experiments, and perhaps open up our own minds to new pathways. It also leaves the author an open door to changing his mind in the future. I also like that it disrupts the tradition of only publishing ‘complete’ works in academe.
Locating the work
Let’s begin by discussing the actual location. I’ve haven’t had the chance to visit Mullion Cove, but people who have tell me the description is very accurate. When I read it, I pictured the benches lined up on the hillside with the longest sea view in my town, Hastings. Do you have a place like that where you live? A hilltop park perhaps? I can also picture the parks at Greenwich and Hampstead Heath.
I want to consider memory benches in their practical and physical sense. As an American, I find memorial benches to be a fascinating and very British phenomenon. In the states, we tend to plant trees in memory of our loved ones, not erect benches. What are the politics of memorial benches? Who gets to have one? How is it decided? At the local council level? Are they expensive? Who pays? How do they get to be where they are? Do the loved ones choose? How does one choose the specific location? Is it a place loved by the deceased or one allotted by lottery? Who chooses their positioning in the landscape? The family? The council? The park’s grounds keeper who pours the cement footings? Why are they so often in a lookout position? Why aren’t they positioned with their backs to the vista? What happens when they are vandalised or destroyed? Are they replaced with a new bench and a copy of the same plaque? Or is it the moment the council can sneak in a new one? I want to come back to the idea of plaques later on.
Metaphysical geographies and the textual quality of landscapes
Wylie is asking us to consider how we interact with landscapes, in this particular case, a location of memorials. I think he is also asking not just about the physical landscapes, but the metaphysical ones, the internal psychological/spiritual/emotional landscapes we continually construct and reconstruct in our mind’s eye. For example, think of a place that has strong and resonating memories for you. When you are in that location, what are you experiencing? Do you feel a sense of affinity with the place? How are you ‘reading’ it? Are your memories crowding up to jostle with one another and with what is happening there in real time? For me, they do. It’s a kind of hyper-speeding flipbook in my mind, a chronological layering (a palimpsest) of memories that overlays my real-time experience of the landscape and, as we have discussed before in terms of looking at art, that is reconstructed uniquely amd based on my previous experiences each time I am there. ‘Coincidence’ occurs when we experience these layers simultaneously. By engaging with a landscape this way, we are confronted by our internal landscapes, or memories, and perhaps learn more about ourselves.
Geographies of Absence and Love
Back to the benches. What is the purpose of these benches? Why do they look out over panoramic views? If I read the bench’s plaque, I might give a moment to think about the person to whom it is dedicated, and if it’s someone I don’t know I might assemble him/her in my imagination using the same layering technique I described above based on the information and perhaps the immediacy effect. Sometimes, I don’t really ‘see’ the person’s name but in my head think of someone I love and lost. For a moment or two or, if I’m lucky, three, my memory returns that person to me. It is, in a sense, a kind of haunting, not in the Amityville Horror sense, but in the sense of desire to have that person be with us again. If I let my mind wander, I might not see the pretty view ahead of me at all, but go into my memories of interactions with that lost loved one.
Take a moment to think about how we describe these experiences. We often use physical and geographical terms to describe this experience. Above, I used ‘wander’ and the act of a loved one ‘returning’ which implies a coming and going, a physical distance. Here’s another example. Think about the person you love most in the world, the person who is closest to you. And though they are the person who knows you best and you love the most, they are still not you and therefore separate entities, implying there is some measurable distance between you. How can we, as geographers, describe these distances? Do you know, I think love may just be the striving to close that separateness, the distance between us, and it is in this shared experience of moving towards that goal and at the same time thrilling in the distance that continues to separate us that is infinitely fascinating and the work of a lifetime. These are wonderful and heady ideas to work with.
These notes only begin to unpack the depth of material in this piece. There is plenty of room for continued discussion. Could you have imagined nine weeks ago that you would be discussing haunting and love in a geography course?? It’s been something of a rollercoaster ride as we have covered huge amounts of ground this term at breakneck speed, sampling the vast array of ideas that are continuing to challenge and invigorate geographers, I hope you have expanded your sense of the scope and possibilities this field has to offer. I wish you the very best as you continue in your studies.
(With apologies to John Wylie. Sir, as you can see, I thoroughly enjoy your work. This is not intended as a review but a conversation with first-year pupils about a small portion of this piece.)
Written with gratitude to my former students. Thank you for the conversations!
 Wylie, J. 2009. ‘Landscape, absence and the geographies of love’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 34(3) pp275-289.