Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, And Other Inscrutable Geographies, by Alastair Bonnet
This book was at least moderately enjoyable to read. Obviously, this book goes down a lot better if one shares the author’s political agendas (hint: he’s strongly anti-libertarian), but if you want a book that gives you an idea of how contemporary geographers make their field about themselves, this book is certainly not the worst example you can find and it makes for a modestly enjoyable read even for someone who doesn’t find a lot to like about the author’s own point of view. To be sure, I am not unfamiliar with works about odd places , and so this book is certainly not too much of a stretch for me. At times this book’s contents seem to work at cross-purposes, with the author simultaneously bashing places in Somalia and the borderlands of India and Bangladesh for showing that freedom from the state is a bad thing while also pointing out that the problem in many of those areas is abusive government. Likewise, the author tries to appeal to readers with a discussion of his own imaginary space created as a child, after having written an entire article that deals with the interest of various immature colleagues of his with the geography of public sex. There’s a lot of muddle to be found here.
This book consists of about 47 different “disorienting” places, in the opinion of the author, that are organized into several chapters by theme that take up about 250 pages or so. As might be expected, the options have strong political angles and are a very mixed bag. First the author begins with lost spaces, looking at the way that old places get lost by business (Old Mecca) or politics (Leningrad) or the desertification (the Aralqum Desert in Central Asia). Other places are hidden geographies that are inaccessible to most people, like the underground cities of Cappadocia, or the dwellings of the North Cemetery in Manila or North Sentinel Island. Still other areas, like the long space between border posts in Guinea and Senegal or the Traffic Islands on British roads, are in-between spaces that disorient us by not belonging to one thing or another. Still other places, like Pripyat and Agdam, are dead places that are the signs of failure and loss and destruction due to human folly. A great many places, like Mount Athos (and similar all-male places in Ethiopia not discussed by the author) as well as FARC-controlled Colombia and Hobyo, are places of exception from the ordinary rules of contemporary human society. There are a few places that are enclaves (most endearingly Baarele-Nassau and Baarele Hertog) like Sealand and Gagauzia, some floating islands that serve as elite vacation spots that lack a sense of community, and some ephemeral places like the LAX Parking lot.
It is worthwhile to ponder what makes places disorienting. Some places are charming in their quirkiness (like the Dutch and Belgian enclaves) while other places are the site of people attempting to escape from unwanted communities or profit from the weaknesses of government or places where the behavior of governments and institutions creates areas where people have fallen through the gaps and lacked proper protection and care from those who had an obligation to provide it. If I do not agree with the author’s perspective, the author does at least point out that there is an essential dilemma in much of our lives, namely that we want the benefits of community but often find the responsibilities to be unpleasant and undesirable. Likewise, any institutions powerful enough to serve our interests will be powerful enough to oppress us. The author clearly has populist leanings, but seems unable to overcome his native statist bias in his portrayal of places with the implicit call for more state action to solve the problems often caused and exacerbated by those same states.
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