Navigating Space and Time with Nigel Thrift

At the Chancellor’s Colloquium event on Monday, February 23rd, Sir Nigel Thrift explored how Geography structures both “how we know where we are, and how we feel where we are.”

In a talk entitled “Why Geography Matters,” Thrift, a noted geographer, professor, and vice chancellor at the University of Warwick knighted for his services to higher education in 2015, decided to “do something academic” rather than administrative in his Chancellor’s Colloquium presentation and delivered a “defense of the discipline of Geography.”

“Traversing space is very hard work, and history is littered with people getting horribly lost,” Thrift began. “One of the first things humans needed to know is where they are and where they are going.”

Thrift explained that the history of mapping reflects the ways in which humans attempted to move time and space together through a succession of technologies, from the compass to satellite global position systems. Each navigational device “used for knowing where you are” produces knowledge about how we know and experience space in radically different ways.

Thrift offered the example that it is “only comparatively recent in human history that we’ve been able to ‘see down’ – like looking outside an airplane window – which is a view we now take for granted.”

Moving into the second part of his talk, Thrift touched briefly on how the state and the economy provide ways to “standardize and stabilize” our experiences of moving through space. The practice of mapping intensified as European empires engaged in an “age of exploration” across the globe, which fundamentally restructured economies under colonial rule, Thrift summarized.

Mario Biagioli, UC Davis Professor of Law and History and Director of the Center for Science and Innovation Studies, led the public question and answer portion of colloquium and queried Thrift on tensions between the “way we know space and the way we feel it,” and the challenges to Geography as an academic discipline.

“There are enormous dividends to be had by transcending disciplinary boundaries without getting rid of them altogether,” Thrift explained, and geography seems particularly suited to these “interdisciplinary times.” Part of the genealogy of Thrift’s talk included accounting for the unexpected associations geographers make by putting different things together – like maps and time.

Thrift ended with a challenge to the field: “A fundamental fact of geography is that we’ve got to sort out cities, it’s where many people live and they are severely dysfunctional – socially and technically. To sort this out is one of the greatest things that we have to do at this point in time,” Thrift said.

Thrift’s visit to UC Davis coincided with an announcement that the University of Warwick will expand to California with a new campus in Placer County. The new campus will potentially serve 6,000 students on land donated by a partnership from the family of Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, one of Sacramento’s leading land developers, according to the Sacramento Bee.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies