Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Geographical Turn -- Part III

The Annales was not the only school of though affected by geography. In Germany, Landeskunde (regional studies) took off at the university of Bonn with the establishing of a special institute. The goals of the institute were, in part, propagandistic. They defended against the French occupation of the Rhineland. Their work was, however, founded the notion that human labors shaped the landscape.

[This is part III of a three-part series. To read part I, click here. To read part II, click here.]

They – Hermann Aubin, Theodor Frings, Franz Steinbach – used linguistic geography to understand the history of the movement of culture. Sound shifts were evidence of historical interaction between communities. Language and dialect were, therefore, means of understanding the structure of historical landscapes.

As their appointment to Strasbourg was political as well as academic, Bloch and Febvre confronted the research produced at Bonn. Bloch felt that the Bonn institute was trapped in a discourse of natural boundaries and regions. Febvre critiqued the “pseudo-geography” of borders and landscapes, but for the most part he published favorable reviews of many publications, including atlases of Saar and Alsace-Lorraine that positioned them as part of Germany.

Despite the international conflict that informed the works of the Bonn institute, Febvre incorporated much of their research into his The Rhine and its History (review in French), his work closest to The Mediterranean. He attempted to create a middle ground, both methodologically and historiographically, between French and German scholarship. Febvre created a work that was not bounded by Franco-German antagonism, that went beyond the narrow confines of that conflict, that studied the people and the place of the river in European civilization.

By the time The Mediterranean appeared, geography was on the decline. The cartographer became a tool of the state, establishing claims over territory and determining locations for bombardment. After World War Two geography was reduced to a descriptive project, not quite a science, not quite a social science, not quite its own discipline.


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