6th annual conference of the Research Group in Cultural Humanistic Geography in Diamantina, Brazil

GHUM_seminarThis past week I gave the keynote address at the 6th annual conference of the Research Group in Cultural Humanistic Geography (“Grupo de Pesquisa Geografia Humanista Cultural” or GHUM) in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brazil. I also took the time to attend some of their sessions. From my experiences at the conference, I can definitely say that humanistic geography and phenomenology are very much a growing in interest in Brazil.

Humanistic geography had its heyday in the United States during the decades of the 1970s and ’80s, but has faded greatly since then. Many geography departments that focused on this field lost this focus when faculty retired or left. In the English-speaking world, the only country that has a strong presence in humanistic geography is the United Kingdom.

Some of you may be wondering at this point what humanistic geography has to do with heritage conservation? A lot, if you’ve ever read David Lowenthal, who happens to be a humanistic geographer at the University College London. His book, The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) is considered to be the founding text of the critical heritage studies movement and is commonly read in many historic preservation degree programs in the United States.

In terms of Lowenthal’s work, I am curious how many of the anthropologists that dominate the critical heritage studies movement know that he is a humanistic geographer who used a phenomenological approach in his work? My question goes to the heart of why phenomenology is largely absent from critical heritage studies research, where ethnographic methodologies predominate. I find it strange that the field that references the seminal quality of Lowenthal’s text doesn’t seem to be too interested in using his methodology. The same question goes for professors who use his text to teach in built heritage programs that would never consider using, much less discussing, phenomenology in context with the conservation of the historic environment.

I have a very poignant memory when I read The Past is a Foreign County as a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania’s historic preservation program. Profoundly affected by the book, and about halfway through reading it, I was ready to drop out of the program and find some other career. Keep in mind that up to this point, I had already gone through a bachelor’s program in historic preservation, so I had a very good concept of orthodox theory and practice in the field. Lowenthal’s accurate, but critical perspective on the practice of built heritage conservation entirely deflated everything that I had taken for granted in my nascent discipline. Specifically, it made me question the idea of received wisdom in my field, which was based on the assumption that after 150 years of debate, historic preservation surely rested on a solid foundation of theory and philosophy. Lowenthal neatly turned this solidity into a stack of cards, which promptly blew over.

After some long thinking about my situation, I resolved to finish reading the book. At the end of this intense process, I decided to continue my education, which, all things being considered, was probably a good decision. But, what Lowenthal’s book did was made me question, for the first time, the legitimacy of orthodox preservation doctrine and its genesis. I now understood that “heritage” is constructed from social and cultural meanings, which challenge the positivistic ontology that orthodox theory and practice holds so dear. The Past is a Foreign Country gave me a sense of purpose in my career — to understand how and why orthodox preservation doctrine developed and to explore ways to make heritage conservation more legitimate and relevant for everyday people.

Now, back to the conference. In Brazil, humanistic geography and phenomenology in geography is a relatively recent arrival, only gaining traction in the past couple of decades, according to conversations I had with the conference participants. The foundational texts in English by Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward Relph, and David Seamon were all well known by the attendees including more recent work by Kim Dovey, Jeff Malpas, and Robert Mugerauer. In fact, at the book table at the conference were Portuguese versions of Tuan’s Topophilia and Space and Place. I was impressed and intrigued.

There were a wide variety of topics covered at the conference, which included (translated from Portuguese):

  • “Geographical Phenomenology of the Symbolic and Sacred” (Tommy Akira Goto, Sylvio Gil Filho and Virginia Palhares; coordinated by Yuri Elias Gaspar)
  • “Gaston Bachelard and Infancy: Primary Approximations” (Juliana Maddalena Trifilio Dias)
  • “The Concept of Landscape in the Philosophy of Adriana Verissimo Serrão” (Thiago Rodriguez Gonçalves)
  • “Brazilian Rivers in Humanistic Cultural Geography” (Lurdes Bertol Rocha and Rita Jaqueline Nogueira Chiapetti)
  • “Ramblings about Phenomenology and Deep Ecology” (Gabriela Gazola Brandão)
  • “Approaches to Goethean Science” (Priscila Marchiori Dal Gallo)
  • “Primary Revelations for a Way beyond the Photograph” (Valéria do Carmo Amorim)
  • “A Poetic Direction for Geography: Contributions from Bertand Lévy” (Tiago Viera Cavalcante)
  • “The Imperative Vocative Esthetic of the Phenomenology of the Senses from Michel Serres” (Eduardo Marandola, Jr.)
  • “A Dawdling Time on the Possibilities of Humanistic Geography” (Luiz Tiago de Paula)
  • “Our Corner of the World: For a Domestic Geography” (Laelia Nogueira)
  • “Husserl, the Lifeworld and Geography” (Rafael Bastos Ferreira)
  • “‘Heretic Trials’ of Jan Patocka: Considerations of the French Edition and a Translation Proposal” (Werther Holzer)
  • “The Three Movements of History for Jan Patocka: An Authentic Life and the Freedom of Action” (Gabrielle Mesquita Alves Rosas)
  • “’The Fall of Being’: Nietzsche as a Key to Open Phenomenology” (David E. Madeira Davim)

What I picked up from the conference participants was an excitement about the future of phenomenology in Brazil and much interest in the work that has been done by American phenomenologists. Students — both graduate and undergraduate — were also in attendance in significant numbers. As far as I know, American undergraduate students don’t really have many options to study phenomenology in geography programs, but in Brazil, there are many programs to choose from. I found these students’ curiosity to be insatiable and I had many enjoyable conversations with them about their work.

As far as my keynote, I presented — in Portuguese (thank you to Letícia Pádua for translating my paper) — how phenomenology can be integrated into built heritage conservation practice through the concept of “age value”, which is related to patina and decay. As in the rest of the world, phenomenological research into topics related to the historic environment, patina, and decay are also novel in Brazil, so my paper generated a great deal of interest with the attendees. My hope is that perhaps I have inspired a few people in Brazil to explore this topic as well.

Lastly, I want to thank Letícia Pádua for inviting me to present at the conference and to experience a Brazilian perspective on humanistic geography and phenomenology. I met many wonderful people with whom I hope to remain in contact; perhaps some collaborative opportunities will arise as well.

In a word, maravilhoso!


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