Cindi Katz Keynote, "Revisiting Minor Theory," at 2015 Critical Geography Conference

Minor theory is a way of doing theory differently, of working inside out, of fugitive moves and emergent practices interstitial with ‘major’ productions of knowledge. To do minor theory is to make conscious use of displacement so that new subjectivities, spatialities, and temporalities might be marked and produced in spaces of betweenness that reveal the limits of the major as it is transformed along with the minor. Inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of ‘minor literature,’ I wrote about minor theory twenty years ago causing a ‘minor’ stir, but little else. In the past year or so the idea of the minor has surfaced in several places, not least as the theme of this conference. Asking what might underlie this ‘surgence’ of interest, I will look at some of the political, social, cultural relations and conditions of the present in Geography and in the worlds we inhabit to think about what possibilities minor theory offers for thinking and acting differently in the face of growing economic inequality at all scales, persistent violence against people of color, intensifying environmental crises, joblessness, and social relations of production and reproduction that remain exploitive and oppressive in their articulations of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

If I Had a Hammer

For the past five years or so, I have been working on adaptations of algebraic or spectral graph theory to study geomorphic, pedological, and ecological systems. My most recent development (unpublished, for reasons that will become clear in a moment) is some methods for measuring the complexity of historical sequences in Earth surface systems.

The idea is that a historical sequence represents a series of different states or stages—for example, vegetation communities along a successional trajectory; river channel morphological states; different soils in a paleosol sequence; depositional environments in a stratigraphic sequence, nodes of phylogenetic trees in biological evolution, etc.  These are treated as directed graphs. The states or stages are the graph nodes or vertices, and the historical transitions are the edges or links between the nodes.

Connecting the Dot Factors

The standard conceptual model for pedology, soil geomorphology, and soil geography is often called the “clorpt” model, for the way it was portrayed in Hans Jenny’s famous 1941 book The Factors of Soil Formation:

S = f(cl, o, r, p, t) . . . .

This equation states that soil types or soil properties (S) are a function of climate (cl), biotic effects (o for organisms), topography (r for relief), parent material (p), and t for time, conceived as the age of the surface the soils are formed on, or the time period the soil has been developing under a given broad set of environmental controls. This factorial approach, considering soils as a function of the combined, interacting influences of environmental factors such as geology, climate, and biota, was originated by V.V. Dokuchaev in Russia in the 1880s, popularized in English by C.F. Marbut in the 1920s and 1930s, and developed by Jenny into the familiar clorpt form.

The Dialectics of Geomorphic Complexity

Nearly 10 years ago, while pondering complex nonlinear dynamics in geomorphic systems, I was struck by how often we reduce problems to the interplay of opposing forces (e.g. uplift vs. denudation; soil formation vs. soil erosion, etc). I began to wonder how the concept of dialectics might be applicable in Earth sciences, or maybe I just wanted to increase my pseudo-intellectual street cred by using "dialectics" in an article. Anyway, I started work on a manuscript with the working title shown above, and then dropped it. I rediscovered it on the hard drive recently, and while I still can't convince myself it is journal article material, I do think there's some potentially interesting ideas there. 

What you see below is what I wrote in early 2006 (thus the absence of reference to work since then), unmodified except for putting in a few graphics to relieve the visual tedium.

1. Introduction

The title begs at least three questions: what do I mean by dialectics, how am I defining complexity, and how do I propose to link them?

1.1.  Geomorphic Complexity

Del Casino Delivers Geography's Distinguished Alumni Address

The University of Kentucky’s Department of Geography celebrates its inaugural Distinguished Alumni Lecture Series and Award Friday, Oct. 16. The premiere honoree is professor of geography and development Vincent del Casino Jr.,

The Dubious Power of Power Laws


Everyone knows the classic normal distribution—the “bell curve,” where most observations cluster around the mean, and the frequency falls off toward either end, with well known statistical properties. Lots of things in nature are more-or-less normally distributed, but lots of things are not. In some cases distributions are “heavy-tailed,” such that for example there are many of the small ones, and increasingly fewer as size increases. Famous examples are the distribution of earthquake magnitudes, rank-size distributions of cities, and the distribution of wealth in societies.

Models of avalanche size distributions in (mathematically-simulated) sand piles were seminal in developing ideas about self-organized criticality and power laws, both in geomorphology and in general. Unfortunately even real sandpiles, much less more complex systems, are not necessarily well described by the models.

Convergence, Divergence & Reverse Engineering Power Laws

Landform and landscape evolution may be convergent, whereby initial differences and irregularities are (on average) reduced and smoothed, or divergent, with increasing variation and irregularity. Convergent and divergent evolution are directly related to dynamical (in)stability. Unstable interactions among geomorphic system components tend to dominate in earlier stages of development, while stable limits often become dominant in later stages. This results in mode switching, from unstable, divergent to stable, convergent development. Divergent-to-convergent mode switches emerge from a common structure in many geomorphic systems: mutually reinforcing or competitive interrelationships among system components, and negative self-effects limiting individual components. When the interactions between components are dominant, divergent evolution occurs. As threshold limits to divergent development are approached, self-limiting effects become more important, triggering a switch to convergence. The mode shift is an emergent phenomenon, arising from basic principles of threshold modulation and gradient selection.

Circular Reasoning

Scientists, including geographers and geoscientists, are easily seduced by repeated forms and patterns in nature. This is not surprising, as our mission is to detect and explain patterns in nature, ideally arising from some unifying underlying law or principle. Further, in the case of geography and Earth sciences, spatial patterns and form-process relationships are paramount.

Unfortunately, the recurrence of similar shapes, forms, or patterns may not tell us much. Over the years we have made much of, e.g. logarithmic spirals, Fibonacci sequences, fractal geometry, and power-law distributions—all of which recur in numerous phenomena—only to learn that they don’t necessarily tell us anything, other than that several different phenomena or causes can lead to the same form or pattern. The phenomenon whereby different processes, causes, or histories can lead to similar outcomes is called equifinality.

Center pivot irrigation in Kansas, USA (USGS photo).

With New Living, Comes New Learning: LLP Continues to Expand

With a new era in student living well underway on the University of Kentucky campus, so too is a new era of learning. This is an era that fosters learning beyond the classroom

Enforcing equality: court rulings, indigenous women, and political participation in Oaxaca, Mexico

Within the last decade, Mexico´s federal electoral courts have taken unprecedented steps to promote affirmative action in favor of women´s political participation. At the federal, state, and municipal levels, this has largely meant rulings that support legislation on gender-based quotas for public posts.  A stumbling block to this affirmative action initiative has been the predominately indigenous municipalities that hold local elections through tradition and custom instead of universal suffrage and secret ballot. Legally recognized as part of indigenous people´s collective right to self-determination, election through custom and tradition has been difficult to fit into existing juridical logics of gender equality.  In the past three years, however, a growing number of electoral conflicts appealed to the federal courts have brought the question of indigenous women´s political participation to the forefront. I examine several of these cases to explore how the courts mediate between the question of collective self-determination and individual women´s rights, how they seek to promote a liberal notion of gender equality, and how women and communities are responding to their rulings in unexpected ways.  I argue that what is at stake is more than just women´s political participation; rather, these rulings reflect contemporary contestations over gender, indigeneity, modernity, and democracy in Mexico more broadly.  
Holly Worthen is a Professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociológicas at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.  She received her Phd in Geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Her work focuses on gender, migration, development and indigenous politics.
Wednesday, September 16, 2015 - 3:00pm to 4:30pm
231 White Hall Classroom Building
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