Massey v Harvey: The Punch-up that Didn’t Happen

by | 1 Dec 2010

sun-3Early in opening discussion at the ‘Spatial Justice’ workshop, Massey said that those who had come for a punch-up were going to be disappointed, and she was right. While I wasn’t blood-thirsty for a Massey Harvey heavy-weight match, along with many others I was looking forward to what a direct dialogue between these two hugely influential radical geographers might produce. The two authors have much in common (most simply, an emphasis on the political importance of space and a social understanding of space) but they also have serious differences.

Massey has described Harvey’s book “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1989) as fundamentally anti-feminist, arguing that his arguments assume an uncritical universality that fails to deal with structures of race, gender and sexuality (Massey, “Flexible Sexism” (1991)). Harvey is a Marxist and, as he re-stated on Friday, he believes in universals. Massey does not ascribe to an ideology, or at least not one that is easy to name. What I would have liked to see more of was an engagement on their points of difference – Harvey’s universalism is not a simplistic one, and Massey could also be accused of a kind of moralistic universalism in her push for geographies of responsibility without a real questioning of what such responsibility might mean (is it Levianisian, for example, or is it something else?). The workshop might have been an opportunity to question whether universalism is necessarily an accusation, or to at least unpick the differences in the normative thrusts of their respective works, to question whether “spatial justice” is necessarily relational, and what relationality means in that context. What we got instead was a fairly broad account of Massey’s and Harvey’s work, which was of course in itself interesting – particularly to those less familiar with their work – but not the potentially productive debate that many of us were hoping for.

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