Meet the IPM: Interview with Dr Jess Edwards

Meet the IPM: Interview with Dr Jess Edwards

Jess EdwardsJess Edwards, Fellow of the Institute of Place Management, is Head of the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research, since his Phd in the 1990s, has consistently focused on the literary aspects of geography and the geographic aspects of literature. Until 2014 his publications dealt with seventeenth and eighteenth century geographic culture, but recently he has begun a project exploring the place of literature, culture and public participation in landscape policy and strategy. Edwards is part of a local research group of creative writers and critics at Manchester Met with an interest in place, which supports an MA course route in Place Writing and a growing number of Postgraduate Research students in the area.


Jess Edwards, you head the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University and your own research has consistently focused on the relationship between literature and space/place. Can you tell us about that relationship?

Jess Edwards: I start from the premise that geography is -both by etymology and in essence- the ‘writing of the earth’- and that like all writing it is a representation, rather than a reflection of its object. It’s always selective, always partial, and always metaphorical.  Literary critics and historians like me tend to emphasise the way in which perception of space and place is mediated by culture, rather than being consistent. We often point out that there’s hardly any way of naming landscape ‘itself’ that doesn’t imply an act of representation and territorial framing. Including, of course, landscape (which is a verb as well as a noun) and territory.

“Literary critics and historians like me tend to emphasise the way in which perception of space and place is mediated by culture, rather than being consistent.”

Equally, literature is both an expression of spatially and temporally local cultures, through which we can understand the ways in which particular communities have experienced space and place, and a means through which perception is influenced and shaped. Novels, poems, etc. write or ‘perform’ space and place just as maps do, and these different forms of spatial representation -the literary and geographic- help to constitute one another: literature helps geography to seem more ‘objective’ by performing verbal subjectivity; geography helps literature seem more human by performing mathematical objectivity.


Texts, narratives and discourses have had a constant presence in human geography for several decades now. Conversely, geographical representations and imagination have had an important part in literary analysis. Do you find that geographers talk to literature experts and vice versa? And are students of English today interested in geography?

Jess Edwards: I’ve been talking to human geographers for 25 years now, and also to historical geographers and cartographic historians. Then there’s the broad category of cultural geography, which includes literary geographers, as people like me are sometimes called, who tend to work in English departments, but also human geographers in geography departments with the interests you describe. There’s a highly productive fluidity in disciplinary alignment here which has allowed people to move across the border to take up posts, but also to carry on what looks like literature work in geography departments and vice versa.

“Novels, poems, etc. write or ‘perform’ space and place just as maps do, and these different forms of spatial representation -the literary and geographic- help to constitute one another.”

It helps tremendously that both English and geography are highly diverse and constantly evolving disciplines, whose research structures tolerate this fluidity. So, lots of traffic at a professional academic level and amongst research students, but I couldn’t say confidently from my own experience that this has trickled down to undergraduate level yet. Students at my own institution are just getting used to the idea of working on interdisciplinary projects with partners from more obviously cognate disciplines.


You are currently working on a project that explores the relationship between literature, landscape and public policy. How do you link these three concepts?

Jess Edwards: I’m interested in the way policy, particularly since the European Landscape Convention (ELC), has tried to engage with the public perception of space and place. I think there’s an inherent tension between the planner’s conventional drive to achieve consensus on what is distinctive and valuable about a landscape, and the inevitable diversity of perceptions of that distinctiveness and value amongst residents and users. I think that in the UK at least, this has led in the main to a one-dimensional approach to ‘sense of place’ which is not truly democratic in the spirit of the ELC.

“I think there’s an inherent tension between the planner’s conventional drive to achieve consensus on what is distinctive and valuable about a landscape, and the inevitable diversity of perceptions of that distinctiveness and value amongst residents and users.”

Literature is sometimes called upon to show how a particular ‘sense of place’ inspires consistent representation, yet I argue that what literature really shows is how sense of place can change, with changing tastes and values. I’m calling for a more dynamic use of literature, and particularly creative writing, to foster a more inclusive and pluralistic engagement of individuals and communities with place and to cultivate an imaginative ‘right to roam’. I think this could help to inform more relevant and democratic policy-making.


You have several publications on Daniel Defoe, who you also call “a geographer”. What was Defoe’s geographical world?

Jess Edwards: Literary historians have described Defoe’s era as one in which elements of materiality -from skirting boards to English towns- begin appearing in literature, not just as ancillary to plot development, but as signifiers of reality and truth. Early novelists like Defoe are to some degree geographers by default, because place matters more in the writing of their time than it ever had before. But Defoe was also a geographer by education, inclination and to some extent by profession. He was educated at a dissenting academy, where geography was an essential element in a curriculum informed by the Puritan preference for useful knowledge. His own writings on education make geographic literacy essential to the training of both gentlemen and tradesmen (he said the tradesman should be a ‘walking map’). His novels set this principle of geographic literacy in motion, as his characters succeed or fail in navigating the high seas or the streetscapes of London.

“Defoe was also a geographer by education, inclination and to some extent by profession.”

Defoe also wrote books which are explicitly geographic in focus: certainly A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain, but possibly also other works whose attribution to him is less secure. What these books have in common (and what supports the attribution) is what I call the notion of ‘providential geography’ -a world designed by God for trade, where the most godly human activity is realising that potential. Defoe’s economic philosophy lies at the tipping point between mercantilism (the philosophy which sees commerce as a means of warfare between nations and views the balance of trade as the measure of success or failure in that contest) and an emerging free market philosophy which values trade between peoples as an inherent good, and conducive to peace and common benefit. Defoe loves nothing more than a canal, which represents for him nature mastered and improved for human benefit in exactly the way God intended it to be.


You have also looked at the geographical contribution of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Can you tell us more about that?

Jess Edwards: Like Defoe, Locke and Hobbes appealed to me as figures best known for things other than geography, but who ‘did geography’ in ways that can tell us interesting things about their better known ideas. I think they appeal to me as amphibious creatures because my own research is in some ways amphibious. The young Hobbes worked for his patron William Cavendish as a surveyor of his Derbyshire estate and wrote a long ‘journey poem’ which characterised the ‘seven wonders’ of the Derbyshire Peak. Locke made a map of Carolina for his patron, one of the Lords Proprietors of the colony. Hobbes’s poetic geography of wild nature tamed through human power in the Peak anticipated some of the political ideas for which he would later become famous. Locke’s American map, on the other hand, implicitly reinforced an imperial order which limited colonial expansion and even protected the rights of native imperial dependents, ironically contradicting that colonial and capitalist individualism with which he’s associated.


What do you think the Institute of Place Management has to offer an academic who works on the intersection between literature and geography?

Jess Edwards: My research has brought me into contact not just with academic geographers, but people involved practically with the representation, making and management of place: most recently landscape consultants, landscape ecologists and architects. All of us are involved in what an architect has described to me as ‘the intimate exploration of place’. All of us are interested in heritage, aesthetics, the broad categories of distinctiveness and value which distinguish one place from another; and all of us are interested not just in expert analyses of this distinctiveness and value, but in individual and community perceptions, and what these might hinge upon.

“I see membership of the IPM as an extension of my capacity to link place writing research in English, including my own, to place-related research and practical place-making projects originating in other disciplines, for mutual benefit.”

We all need to think about inclusivity for our work to be relevant. We have different sets of tools and strategies for doing our work and a great deal to learn from one another. As a Head of Department I do a lot of matchmaking for my colleagues. I see membership of the IPM as an extension of my capacity to link place writing research in English, including my own, to place-related research and practical place-making projects originating in other disciplines, for mutual benefit. This interplay of different but complementary approaches could be productive in any of the contexts your question mentions: SIGs, conferences, study trips, postgraduate programmes.


The interview was conducted by Ares Kalandides