Pragmatism in Practice: Interrogating the Role of Uncertainty and Learning in (Geographies of) Radical Democratic Politics

Authors: Alice Huff*, UCLA
Topics: Political Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: democracy, Dewey, uncertainty, politics of place, school reform, New Orleans
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Galerie 3, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the context of persistent, deadly forms of immiseration and depoliticization, this paper explores the value of uncertainty for participants in place-based politics, and for geographers who analyze such struggles. Working from a case study of contestation over neighborhood-school reform in New Orleans, I show how uncertainty, and a concomitant willingness to deliberate over values-conflicts, can sap political momentum. But I also find that uncertainty can create conditions for learning across difference, generating new political possibilities. From this point of departure, I highlight a similar dilemma facing political geographers. A willingness to engage seriously with doubt and difference may inhibit our ability to identify and resist entrenched dynamics that tear at democracy; yet, in a world that is always in the making, even our most well-founded beliefs regarding the nature of these dynamics may require reexamination. I draw on John Dewey’s articulation of engaged pluralism to argue for geographies informed by a sense of fallibilism. Without requiring us to abandon our commitments, this orientation compels us to consider ideas and experiences that challenge settled understandings. It pushes us to examine political practices that might otherwise be ignored. Moreover, it helps to ensure that our ideological commitments do not become dogmatic; that our work remains attuned and accountable to emplaced experience. The hope Deweyan pragmatism provides is therefore based not on the likelihood that it will deliver any particular future, but that it might facilitate our collective ability to ethically determine and re-determine what that future should entail.

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