Monday, 31 July 2017

RGS-IBG 2017: Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought’

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference in London is now just a month away. I'm organising a Friday afternoon session on Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought’ and very much looking forward to it.

I've wanted to arrange something along these lines since I first read Traces over Christmas/New Year 2015/16 and noticed at the time that it was coming up to its 50th anniversary of publication. My initial thought was to put something forward for the Association of American Geographers conference this year. Finances and other circumstances precluded that; however, this side of the pond also has historians of geography!

It will be a more informal and conversational session than the standard papers-presentational format, having three panelists who will introduce and lead an open discussion with whoever decides to turn up and participate. I'm very pleased to have Innes Keighren, Georgina Endfield and David Livingstone on board for this task. The line-up was also to also to include Stuart Elden. Unfortunately, scheduling issues prevented his being able to attend the conference on the Friday and the organisers were not able to schedule it on another day.

It may chop and change over the next month (and over the two and a half days of the conference that I'll have to reflect upon and fine-tune it); however, here is the draft of my introduction to the session:
With the subtitle ‘Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century,’ Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore casts a long shadow on the history of geographical ideas, even after half a century. Published in 1967, this 700+ page monolith remains unsurpassed in its genre. Indeed, in a way, it is a genre unto itself. 
Tracing a grand narrative arc from the antiquity of Stoic cosmoses and Hippocratic climates, to early Christian teleologies of divine creation and human fallenness, to early Modern physico-theology and mechanical determinisms, to Enlightenment self-assurances regarding the perfectibility of man and the domination of nature – it is quite a vista. 
Assuredly, books such as this are rarely written today. Taking over ten years to produce, without any apparent urgency and, until the closing stages, without tenure, it is something of a throwback – and in more ways than one. While its conditions of production might strike us with a certain nostalgia, at 50 years old, its style of historiography has been out of fashion for almost as long. 
Glacken introduces his work as setting out to trace the lineage of three ideas: “the idea of a designed earth; the idea of environmental influence; and the idea of man as a geographic agent” (p.vii). And this trinitarian scheme seemingly echoes his own educational formation. 
In 1949, at the age of 40, Glacken joined Johns Hopkins University to write his PhD thesis on ‘The Idea of the Habitable World,’ which he completed in just two years. Despite having retired eleven years previously, Johns Hopkins at this time still bore the impression of perhaps the most influential Anglophone historian of ideas of the early twentieth-century, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy. 
His best known work, The Great Chain of Being (published in 1937), was also structured upon a trinity. The idea of the ‘great chain’ – “one of the major conceptions in Occidental thought,” Lovejoy wrote – was the result of three interlocking principles that could be found and followed over the centuries: ‘plenitude,’ ‘continuity’ and ‘graduation.’ 
Glacken indeed credits Lovejoy’s work for having “made an important segment of Western thought intelligible” to him (p.xix) and Traces in fact began its existence as an introduction (!) to the book that was to be derived from his PhD thesis. 
There are two important points that I want to draw from this: 
First, this is not, for the most part, a tradition of historiography that holds much sway today. Rather, our standards are set more by the Parisian epistemology of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem via the seemingly omnipresent persona of Michel Foucault. Our received wisdom, it seems to me, is one of ‘epistemic breaks’ rather than grand narratives, radical transcendence rather than longitudinal continuity. 
The second point I’d like to make, in accordance with what we’ve been talking about over the past few days, is that such uncomplicated identification with a lineage of ‘Western’ or ‘Occidental’ ideas must, today, set alarm bells ringing. 
In one telling footnote in Traces, Glacken confesses: “I have reluctantly omitted discussion of Ibn Khaldūn. His ideas belong to Arab thought and not to the West, least of all in this period” (p.255). Such a partitioning of knowledge traditions was questionable in 1967 and, to say the least, is even more so today. 
It should be added, on this point, that Glacken was not in the least bit parochial in terms of his intercultural experiences. By the time he finished his master’s degree in 1931, he was fluent in German, French and Spanish and had knowledge of Greek and Latin. Over the course of his career, he would also learn Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Japanese. After spending the mid-1930s working for the Farm Security Administration, in 1937 he set off to travel the world, taking in Japan, China, Indochina, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Drafted into the army in 1941, he was posted to Japan and Korea. And, after completing his thesis, he returned to Japan to research village life in Okinawa, resulting in a monograph published in 1955. 
It was not a lack of either interest or ability that confined his studies to the West, then, it was something rather more fundamental. For him, ‘the West’ existed. Are we so sure? 
There is much more that could be said – and, I hope, will be said! – on all of this and more, this afternoon and afterwards. And so now I will pass things over to our three panellists, Innes Keighren, Georgina Endfield and David Livingstone, and ask them to speak for a few minutes about their own encounter with Glacken’s text, their valuation of it in terms of the history of geographical ideas and anything else they would like to raise by way of observation or provocation. 
In the spirit of keeping things as horizontal and informal as possible, we will then open things up to questions, answers, comments and other responses, and take it from there.

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