Zoltán Glück: Archive of a Radical Geographer: Neil Smith’s Papers—An Interview with Don Mitchell

In 2014, Don Mitchell was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Advanced Research Collaborative, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). His primary project during this time was to sort through the large collection of papers, files, clippings, and correspondences left behind by Neil Smith after his untimely death in September 2012. 

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Don Mitchell – October 2, 2014 (photo by Joseph W. Ho)

Having studied with Smith at Rutgers University in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Mitchell has become one of Smith’s most well-known students, as well as a leading scholar in the tradition of radical geography with seminal publications such as The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape (1996), The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (2003), and They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (2012). In 2013, he published a long obituary for Smith, a short version of which appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers. It offers a personal and detailed picture of Smith’s work, ideas, and life and is well worth a read. I caught up with Don Mitchell in 2014 to ask him about the work of going through Smith’s papers and what they contain.

ZOLTÁN GLÜCK: I’d like to start by asking about what you’ve been doing here at CUNY this year. What is happening with Neil Smith’s papers? And what is in the archive?

DON MITCHELL: The main thing that I’ve been doing, as you know, is sorting through Neil’s papers and whatever else he happened to leave behind. I started last May, helping Deb Cowen clear out their flat in Jackson Heights, and we boxed up lots of books and papers and sent them here to the Grad Center. First, they just sat here for the summer, and now I’ve just spent the year going through all that he left behind.

The papers include a lot of correspondence from the late 1970s, there is a little bit from when he was in Philadelphia as an undergraduate, there is a lot in the 1980s, and it goes until about 1996 or 1997 when email takes over. It is a very rich collection of correspondence. Sure, some of it is the boring stuff like “Can we republish such and such?” but a lot of it is Neil trying out ideas on people or responding to things that they’ve been doing academically, intellectually, or politically. And as we all know, with Neil there was never a separation between the political and the personal. So the letters are actually quite rich in that regard, and you get a really interesting sense of the development of a radical scholar, a very political being. You get a sense of Neil as many people knew him: as a very generous and warm person and also caustic and everything else that he was. I’ve gone through all of the letters now—I haven’t read them all really carefully, but I’ve gone through all of them and I’ve made an index.

He also left behind a quite remarkable archive of his work on [Isaiah] Bowman, the American Century, and Cold War geopolitics. I’ve gone through that material a little bit less assiduously, figured out what’s there. A lot of it of course is just copies of material from the Johns Hopkins or American Geographical society archives; also a lot of it is his notes. You can get a good sense of him constructing that book and the things that he was thinking about. Then there are a lot of drafts of published papers as well as substantial clipping files. He spent most of his time, I think, clipping out newspaper articles about everything he was interested in. These are massive clipping files that I haven’t looked through at all. But all of this stuff is a really interesting record of a radical scholar.

Then, also, there’s very interesting sets of things from back in the ’80s up to the present: outlines of books he was thinking about or he had been talking to people about. He clearly was thinking hard at times about a book on scale that he’s got several different outlines and collections of documents for. And so you get an interesting sense of what Neil was thinking of at this time. And he collected a lot about the closing of geography departments around the US in the 1970s and ’80s. Columbia was being closed out from underneath him, and he was writing about Harvard at the same time. It’s a very interesting partial record of a kind of crisis of geography in the ’80s. So, I’ve been looking at that and thinking about picking up some of what he collected there to see if maybe I can tell a story about the transformation of geography, its crisis in the early ’80s, and its remaking both through social theory broadly, radical scholarship more particularly, as well as through the rise of techniques like GIS. Of course, Neil was central to a lot of this story, and that moment of the closing of departments I think was pivotal in it as well.

I should also be able to get a hold of his laptop computers before long. But his electronic records from before he came to the Grad Center, as well as those from while he was here, have proved elusive or nonexistent. The university IT people say that they can’t find any, and the reason for this is that when someone leaves the university, their discs get scrubbed after some point. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have a provision for people who leave by dying. Hopefully that will change, but I don’t know what, if anything, of consequence may have been lost in that.

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Neil Smith – October 2010 (photo by Tom Slater)

ZG: Are there any particular pieces of interest that you’ve found that you want to share? Is there anything in particular that has surprised you?

DM: Yeah, there are a couple of things that stand out. There’s a very broad correspondence with a lot of people who wrote to Neil from all over the world asking his advice on intellectual and political things. He was, near as I can tell, really good at answering until quite late. He spent a lot of time on his correspondence. And you get a sense of a really generous scholar. I mean, he could be pointed but he was very generous. You also get a sense of the broader field and the way that so many people saw him as a touchstone in radical geography.

There’s a really rich set of correspondence with his undergraduate adviser, Joe Doherty. They corresponded at least up until the end of paper. And from when Neil first came to the US in the mid-’90s, there is a really rich correspondence about politics. Both were very interested in Trotskyist sort of movements. Neil was in the International Socialist Organization [ISO], so you get a real good sense of what happened to that organization in the 1980s through these letters and some other documents and letters that he saved. You get a good sense of what they saw as the key issues in leftist geography. There are also moments where Neil is complaining about how soft David Harvey was in his politics. Actually, David was just saying to me today that a video has surfaced of David giving a talk at Durham about his “Historical Materialist Manifesto” in 1984, and Neil is in the audience and he calls him out along the same lines—so, Neil was consistent and some of this is in the letters as well.

One interesting piece is this paper he wrote about devaluation, depreciation, and devalorization in Marx’s writing. It’s actually a very interesting paper. He wrote the first draft of it around 1978 or ’79—so pretty early—as a grad student. He sent it to New Left Review—Perry Anderson I think was the editor at the time—so it was sent to “Professor Anderson.” He gets a note back from Mike Davis, who is at the journal at the time, saying he found it to be a very interesting paper but there is such a backlog at NLR there’s no way that they can publish it, but he’s sure that Neil will find a publisher without any hassle. So he then sends it to all kind of places—Capital & Class, the Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics, and half a dozen or more places—and he just kept getting rejections. The rejections are around a couple of lines: one was, “We don’t understand why you’re telling us all of this; you need to make it clearer why it’s important,” and then the second line of rejections were that “the conclusion is a bit weird.” And it’s true, the conclusion was one sentence—it’s a real disaster of a conclusion. But the point is, he never changed a word of it. He just sent it to another place and would get another set of rejection letters and he kept all of these.

But let me tell you what’s happening with the paper now. Sometime in the fall I got a note from a couple of Spanish scholars who are putting together a book about Neil.1 They’ve done a few of these now—one on David Harvey,2 one on Manuel Castells, perhaps others—and before he died they were going to do a book about Neil. The idea is that there is an introduction by the editors, an original piece by whoever the subject is, a series of commentaries by some interlocutors of various kinds, and then an interview with the person. Neil died just about before any of that was done. So I sent them this devaluation paper with an explanation, a kind of history of the article that I was able to piece together from all this material. Instead of doing an interview with him they’ve done an interview with a whole range of different scholars. Then once it’s been published in Spanish, I’ll find an outlet in English. So this old article will finally see the light of day in that collection. But what’s interesting is how germane it has become. These questions of devalorization, of devaluation, and depreciation are central to the crises of capitalism right now in a way that they weren’t quite in the ’70s and into the ’80s. It’s really in the wake of deindustrialization and everything else that those questions have become really important. So that’s one thing that’s interesting piece that has comes out of the archive.

ZG: What is a radical scholar?

DM: One thing Neil always used to say—and he probably still said it when you were around—was the importance of this notion of “engaging in the ruthless critique of all that exists.” Well, the place where this first really hit me was in the very first paper that I wrote was for a proseminar by a geomorphologist by the name of Fritz Nelson. It was a very good course, actually. So I wrote a piece on culture, trying to take on the old cultural geography, and I was drawing very heavily on Jim Duncan’s work; particularly, he was talking about the superorganic in cultural geography. So I did it for Fritz’s class and then Neil wanted to read it. Then we sat down to talk about it and he said, you know I think you’re beginning to develop some really interesting ideas here, but someone someday is going to have to take Duncan on, because I don’t think he quite gets it right. He didn’t say why he didn’t like it or anything else; he just said, “I don’t think he quite gets it right.” So that kind of pushed me to think through how to reconceptualize culture. It was that kind of thing, saying, “Don’t just take these arguments for granted, but really think through what they’re doing and push them.”

And I don’t know if this is being a radical scholar, but this generosity of spirit was crucial in Neil. It is something that I’ve taken, or have tried to take, very seriously. He was amazing in the way that he could support even people he did not agree with politically. Of course, he would be dismissive of people that were on the right. But arguments within the left were another matter—even if he didn’t necessarily agree with you, he could still be immensely supportive. As long as he thought you were out there doing good work and were being honest about what you were doing, then he was incredibly supportive. And I think that’s a crucial piece of radical scholarship: that sense of supporting each other.

ZG: Yes, I see that. It’s radical because it’s a kind of mutual aid, which is interesting, as it is not usually what is talked about when you talk about “radical geography.” Such notions of mutuality, support, and radical care should be more central to our conception of what it means to be a radical scholar.

DM: Yeah, I agree. Then of course, there’s another piece of what it means to be a radical scholar, which is political orientation. Political orientation in my scholarly work is affinity or working in solidarity with a set of political goals. I’m still to this day not deeply politically active in the sense of organizing on the ground, but for me political orientation is absolutely critical. It’s that classical labor question of which side are you on. Which means starting your arguments from the side that you are on. Which doesn’t mean you can’t critique your own side. In developing knowledge you are constantly questioning yourself about this. But it’s a question of where you stand in relation to the political currents and the political struggles that are going on. Neil did that all the time, and it was central to him. By the time I got to know him, he was out of the ISO and his direct political engagements of that type were a lot less involved, as I can tell from his letters. But there’s always a very strong political orientation to his work.

Then I think the other place where we have an important intervention, and that we don’t pay enough attention to, is in teaching . Of course, you can’t just go in and proselytize, but you can orient the class in particular ways, you can get people to see and think through things differently, and sometimes you can radicalize them. Or, they will radicalize themselves around the issues that are being raised. Some of that is incredibly intangible and ephemeral, but I know any number of people who have taken radical classes then gone on to get involved in various kinds of organizing.

But I think there are a lot of ways to be a radical scholar. For Neil early on, it was through his direct involvement with the ISO as well as with a whole range of other things that were going on. As David Harvey says, Neil would drag him to just about every picket line in Baltimore. At the time I got to know him, he was doing much less of that, then it picked up again. But it picked up for him around his ideas. People would seek him out because of the way that he would explain gentrification, because of his take on American imperialism, and those kinds of things. He became very central resource, I think, to a lot of political people. And his generosity was important in all of this.

1. The book, Neil Smith edited by Luz Marina Garcia Herrera and Fernando Sabaté, will be published in September 2015 as a part of Icaria Editorial’s Espacios Críticos series.
2. Don Mitchell has clarified that the series does not include a book on David Harvey but does have volumes about Ed Soja and Doreen Massey.

Cite as: Mitchell, Don, and Zoltán Glück. 2015. “Archive of a Radical Geographer: Neil Smith’s Papers—An Interview with Don Mitchell,” FocaalBlog, 18 March, www.focaalblog.com/2015/03/18/zoltan-gluck-archive-of-a-radical-geographer-neil-smiths-papers-an-interview-with-don-mitchell.