Doreen Massey has died

by | 15 Mar 2016

20081029_36860Doreen Massey died four days ago at her home in Kilburn. Even before her close friends and family could decide on how to announce her death, the social media were bursting with wishes for her peaceful rest: hundreds of mini memorials of 140 characters dedicated to a woman and a scholar who has redefined, not just geography, but space itself, and in relation to a vast amount of disciplines, including law and politics. This was a personal loss to so many of us, whether we have met her personally or not. It is often said about someone, especially after their death, that they have touched many lives. In Doreen’s case, this is an incontestable truth. Doreen’s touch was of an irresistible affective force: intellectual, political and personal at the same time, Doreen not only touched your life but nestled in your thoughts as an uncompromising idea, a force of justice, and an inordinate amount of human warmth.

In the twitter and facebook tributes to her, many talk about how they met her in passing ‘and they had a chat’; or how they listened to her at one of her innumerable talks, and were touched by it; or how her books were read again and again and provided unfailing inspiration. Several reminisce of the ‘first time’ (that they read one of her books, heard her speak, or had a chat with her) and the wave of change that settled in them following that encounter, be it geographical, political or gender-related. It would seem that we have all had a love affair with Doreen, perhaps real, perhaps imaginary but astonishingly, always requited. Doreen always returned this love through her pages or through her physical presence.

Because every love is personal, allow me to talk about mine. The first time I encountered Doreen was at an event that our mutual friend and colleague, Chantal Mouffe and I were organising on the issue of Spatial Justice. Doreen was talking shortly after David Harvey. The session was already fascinating, the room heaving. However remarkable what she said might have been, one thing that Doreen did has been etched in my mind: when it was her turn to talk, she stood up, placed one knee on the chair and said, ‘I cannot see you when seated, so I will stand. I want to be able to see you all’. She gave the whole talk in that most uncomfortable position because she wanted to see us. This was not about her being seen by the people attending; nor, however, was simply about her wanting to have eye contact with us. It was because she wanted us with her all the way. She invited us into a space of intense participation and thinking and she wanted to see how that was reflected on our faces. We were providing instant feedback for her talk, which I felt was modulating according to the audience’s desires. She needed to see this so she could give us what we needed. We were all sharing in.

This is how my coup-de-foudre with Doreen begun. It was followed by several meetings with her, remarkably always revolving around sharing food. This is an important element. Her connection to food was full of respect, just as it was her connection to space: she would savour every bite deeply without ever allowing any food to go to waste, always in her local Kilburn, which she knew and loved with a passion so evident that I would always be only too happy to go there. We would order in common and we would share everything. The same kind of space she created in her talk, she also created around the food. The table became a space of sharing, enabling us to get worked up with our differences and wallow in our similarities. There was no text, trip or art show that would not form the basis of a discussion on the need for shared spaces. There was nothing that you would say that she would not play with, and return it to you more beautiful than you ever thought possible. There was never a time when she would not reciprocate a question, or indeed initiate a cascade of questions, from academic to personal, and listen to you with unfeigned interest. And I was hooked.

You must understand my position: I had been reading Massey ever since I started having an interest in space (I cannot recall a time when I did not), and to me she has always been a stentorious voice of authority, full of wisdom and political conviction, philosophically aware and empirically dedicated, that inspired me more than any other geographer I had ever read. Not only that but I knew that she was an inspiration for an astounding amount of people from entirely different disciplines and practices, and everyone wanted a piece of her. Yet she could dedicate time and energy to me? This is no false modesty: I was genuinely astonished.

Once the astonishment subsided, however, the awe settled. Figures of that calibre, I felt, cannot be your friend. There are exceptions of course, but generally there is something prohibitive about academic authority. I was close to believing that it would be impossible to be a great thinker and an open, warm, honest – in short ‘normal’ person. Authority has its own rules: kind invitations are often interrupted by arbitrarily erected boundaries; there is regularly an elusiveness and difficulty of contact, a certain distance required or cultivated by the amount of admiration that has been vested on them over the years. I had been struggling with issues of authority, indeed my own emerging authority, for some time, trying to understand whether my desire to be approachable and personal got in the way of the image that my readers had constructed of me. Doreen has given me licence to be what I want to, without being tormented by the need to cultivate another persona. Doreen showed me that one could be an irrepressible thinker and an approachable person who has time for everyone. She knew our waiters by their first name, she remembered their stories, she asked them questions. She was telling me stories of students and readers with unfailing tenderness, even when things were not always smooth. She was ferocious with what she did not believe in, and she was constantly searching for ways to connect us (academics, political activists, gendered human beings) to the world and to each other. Doreen embodied in life what she wrote in her books. She was one of the most humblingly accomplished human beings I have ever encountered.

Her unfinished project, a spatiotemporal mapping of neoliberalism, has been violently interrupted by her death. It is a hope that her thinking But the space she leaves behind, indeed her very understanding of space and the tools she has given us to carry on doing so, will always be around us and in us.

Andreas is Professor of Law & Theory at the University of Westminster, London, and Director of The Westminster Law & Theory Lab.


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