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Elisee Reclus: Pour une geographie nouvelle.

Federico Ferretti, Elisee Reclus: Pour une geographie nouvelle

Paris: Editions du CTHS, 2014; 447pp; 9782735508273

Federico Ferretti's book on the making and meanings of Elisee Reclus's monumental work La Nouvelle Geographie Universelle (NGU) is not only an excellent essay on a towering intellectual figure within the anarchist movement; it also offers fascinating insights into the history and construction of geography as a politicised scientific field and the interplay and tensions between publishing and anarchist politics. It explores the collegial work underpinning the writing of Reclus's iconic study, making a strong point about the collaborative nature of the NGU. Altogether, it is an erudite and fascinating book, written in an accessible and engaging way, in which Ferretti occasionally breaks with academic reserve to offer insightful remarks.

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which situates Reclus as a central figure in 'an intellectual network between science and militancy'. It charts Reclus' intertwined political and intellectual itineraries from the 1850s to the 1870s, by which time he had become an anarchist, his deep involvement with the Commune and prominence as an anarchist, which became a cause of concern for his publisher, Hachette. Ferretti paints a lively picture of the cultural politics of the period, especially during the Commune trials, showing how intricately linked scientific research and social and political discussions were for Reclus, his networks and the nascent anarchist movement.

Section two, 'The Making of the Work', offers a fascinating depiction of interwoven scientific, literary, political and family networks, introducing the stellar cast of Reclus's networks of collaborators--his own family, as well as Paul Robin, James Guillaume, Peter Kropotkin and Leon Metchnikoff. Ferretti's extensive primary research across a wide range of sources allows him to describe their working relationships and the personal bonds underpinning them. What results is a complex and realistic portrait of an anarchist intellectual and his approach to work: 'This perception of geographical work as woven by relationships is therefore far removed from the romantic idea of individual writing. It involves managing collaborators and informers, following up on correspondences, cultural organisation and even a certain artisanal "know how''' (p237). Financial considerations loom large in this portrayal and Ferretti does an excellent job of documenting negotiations and transactions between Reclus and his publishers as well as within his own networks of contributors.

The interplay of the scientific and the political pervades the work. Ferretti highlights the tension between Reclus's militancy, the politics of publishing and occasional instances of seemingly accidental censorship, within the context of an altogether remarkable freedom of expression. Reclus's and his collaborators' conceptions of scientific work, rooted in the period's cultural wars, were revolutionary in so far as they aimed to make knowledge publicly available--and this knowledge could prove inherently subversive, for instance by asserting the evolutionist theoretical underpinnings of science against the claims of religion, conservative ideas and polygenesis.

One thematic red thread derives from Reclus's somewhat paradoxical, or at least occasionally uneasy position, as an anarchist intellectual. The enduring moral and financial support for Reclus on the part of the Hachette family, even when he was in jail after the Commune, is remarkable; it finds an echo a few years later, when Ferretti underlines the publishers' approach, which 'allows for a dialogue... between the circuits of popular publishing and a group of banished intellectuals who were very politically unpopular among the upper classes' (p232).

The last section, 'Europe and the West in the NGU', places Reclus's work in the context of contemporary geographies, usefully guiding the uninitiated reader through contemporary and current schools of geographic thought and locating Reclus's work in relation to them. It discusses, among others, the complex definition of Europe and its external and internal borders, the critique of Western hegemony and colonisation despite Reclus's association of Europe with the progressive values of ancient Greece, the Enlightenment and the 1789 Declaration the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Reclus's pioneering stance as a social geographer focusing on social and economic features alongside natural ones is stressed--another aspect linking the political and scholarly dimensions of his work.

Luckily for non-French speakers, Ferretti himself is a prolific writer, and much of his academic output is available in English and open access. Nonetheless, this book is an important piece of work, which engages with several lively areas of research within anarchist studies (transnational history, anarchist geographies) and certainly merits publication in a translated version, hopefully as reasonably priced as the original.

Constance Bantman, University of Surrey
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Author:Bantman, Constance
Publication:Anarchist Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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