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geographical imagination

  A sensitivity towards the significance of place and space, landscape and nature in the constitution and conduct of life on earth. As such, a geographical imagination is by no means the exclusive preserve of the academic discipline of geography. Indeed, H.C. Prince (1962) portrayed it as \'a persistent and universal instinct of [humankind]\'. The geographical imagination as he saw it was a response to places and landscapes, and above all to their commingling of \'culture\' and \'nature\', that \'calls into action our powers of sympathetic insight and imaginative understanding\' and whose rendering \'is a creative art\'. Prince\'s emphasis on art was, in part, a critical response to the then ongoing reformulation of geography as a spatial science. To Prince, these formal abstractions were ingenious and inventive but — \'like abstract painting\' — they would always remain indirect approaches to a world to which the freshest, fullest and richest response was (in his view) literary. It was vitally important, Prince believed, to preserve \'a direct experience of landscape\' through the art of geographical description.

Some ten years later David Harvey (1973) provided a discussion of the geographical imagination that also recognized the value of the aesthetic, but Harvey departed from Prince\'s account in two particularly significant ways: Harvey\'s critique of spatial science was much more open to formal theoretical vocabularies (indeed, it relied on them), and its characteristic emphasis was on place and space rather than landscape and nature (which had occupied a much more prominent position in Prince\'s discussion). In Harvey\'s eyes, therefore, the geographical imagination

enables … individual[s] to recognize the role of space and place in [their] own biograph[ies], to relate to the spaces [they] see around [them], and to recognize how transactions between individuals and between organizations are affected by the space that separates them … to judge the relevance of events in other places … to fashion and use space creatively, and to appreciate the meaning of the spatial forms created by others.Harvey wanted to contrast the \'geographical imagination\' with and also to connect it to what sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) had previously called the \'sociological imagination\', a capacity which \'enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two in society\'. Neither Harvey nor Mills confined the terms to their own disciplines: they both said they were talking about \'habits of mind\' that transcended particular disciplines and spiralled far beyond the discourse of the academy. Nonetheless, much of the discussion that followed more or less directly from Harvey\'s intervention was concerned with formal questions of theory and method.

A central preoccupation was the articulation between social theory and human geography. \'It has been a fundamental concern of mine for several years now\', so Harvey (1973) had written, \'to heal the breach in our thought between what appear to be two distinctive and indeed irreconcilable modes of analysis\', and he presented his seminal Social justice and the city as (in part) a \'quest to bridge the gap between sociological and geographical imaginations\'. It was urgently necessary to humanize human geography, and ideas and concepts were drawn in from the humanities and (especially) the social sciences: in particular, from political economy, social theory and cultural studies. En route, however, it became clear that the reverse movement was equally important, sensitizing these other fields to a geographical imagination, because most of them took a compositional approach that had little interest in place and space. Some ten years after Social justice, therefore, Harvey had this to say:

The insertion of space, place, locale and milieu into any social theory has a numbing effect upon that theory\'s central propositions. … Marx, Marshall, Weber and Durkheim all have this in common: they prioritize time over space and, where they treat the latter at all, tend to view it unproblematically as the site or context for historical action. Whenever social theorists of whatever stripe actively interrogate the meaning of geographical categories, they are forced either to make so many ad hoc adjustments to their theory that it splinters into incoherence, or else to abandon their theory in favour of some language derived from pure geometry. The insertion of spatial concepts into social theory has not yet been successfully accomplished. Yet social theory that ignores the materialities of actual geographical configurations, relations and processes lacks validity. (Harvey, 1984.)Subsequent commentators reported considerable progress in sensitizing social theory and social thought more generally to these concerns. There was (and remains) an immensely productive dialogue between Marxist geography and historical materialism, especially through urban and regional political economy, and these conversations have spilled over into a number of other politico-intellectual traditions (Harvey, 1990); the rise of postmodernism was hailed as emblematic of a distinctively geographical (or at any rate \'spatial\') imagination (Soja, 1989); and the interest in postcolonialism and post-structuralism has contributed in still more radical ways to the critique of abstract and universal models of \'the human subject\' and \'society\' (cf. contextual approach; Grand Theory; see space; human geography).

But three other dimensions of the geographical imagination have received closer attention in recent years, and each of them works towards the production of \'impure\' geographies that depart considerably from the closures and clinical approaches of Geography-with-a-capital-G.

In the first place, there has been a renewed interrogation of the \'academic\' geographical imagination and, in particular, of the two versions proposed by Prince and Harvey (above). Influenced by post-structuralism in different ways and to different degrees, and in particular by the thematization of geography as a discourse, several critics have argued that Geography is not simply framed by or reflective of changes in the \'real\' world because its discourses are constitutive of that world. For Gregory (1994) and Deutsche (1995), for example, both drawing on Mitchell\'s (1989) account of the \'world-as-exhibition\', human geography is construed as \'a site where images of the city and space more generally are set up as reality\', as \'fictions\' in the literal sense of \'something made\', and hence as \'the effects rather than the ground of disciplinary knowledge\' (emphasis added). Thus the modern geographical imagination, in its usual hegemonic forms, not only \'stages the world-as-exhibition and at the same time is fabricated by the picture it creates\'; it also characteristically disavows its dependence on the image by adopting an objectifying epistemology which separates itself from the picture as an autonomous, all-seeing \'spectatorial\' subject (Deutsche, 1995). Such an epistemology is, as she remarks, a vehicle for \'the silent spatial production\' of \'the self-possessed subject of geographical knowledge who, severed from its object, is positioned to perceive an external totality and so avoids the partiality of immersion on the world\' (cf. situated knowledge). Gillian Rose (1993) emphasizes that this is both an act of mastery — hence her critique of \'the masculinism of geographical knowledge\' (p. 84) — but also an act which is shot through with ambivalence:

In geography, a controlling, objective distance is not the only relationship which positions the knower in relation to his object of study. There is rather an ambivalence, which produces the restlessness of the signifiers within the discipline\'s dualistic thinking. On the one hand, there is a fear of the Other, of an involvement with the Other, which does produce a distance and a desire to dominate in order to maintain that distance. This is central to social-scientific masculinism. On the other hand, there is also a desire for knowledge and intimacy, for closeness and humility in order to learn, and this is the desire of aesthetic masculinity to invoke its other. (p. 77)Rose\'s critique identifies the first position (\'social-scientific masculinity\') with projects like Harvey\'s and the second position (\'aesthetic masculinity\') with projects like Prince\'s.

Rose and Deutsche both urged that this recognition of the limits (rather than the presumed completeness) of geographical knowledge requires an engagement with psychoanalytic theory in order to grapple not with the conscious and creative exercise of the \'imagination\' — something which concerned Prince (1962) in particular and humanistic geography in general — but with the imaginary: in other words, with \'the psychic register in which the subject searches for plenitude, for a reflection of its own completeness\'. By this means, Rose (1993, p. 85) suggests, it is possible \'to think about a different kind of geographical imagination which could enable a recognition of radical difference from itself; an imagination sensitive to difference and power which allows others rather than an Other\' (see also feminist geography; postcolonialism).

In the second place, there has been a pluralization of geographical imaginations. Many human geographers have become markedly reluctant to speak of \'the\' geographical imagination — unless they are referring to a hegemonic form of geographical inquiry, and then usually as an object of critique — and are correspondingly much more interested in the possibilities and predicaments that arise from working in the spaces in between different philosophical and theoretical traditions (see Gregory, 1994). Closely connected to the production of these \'impure\' geographies, there has also been a considerable interest in geographical knowledges that are not confined to (indeed, have often been excluded by) the formalizations of the academy. The boundaries of geography have thus been called into question through the recovery of quite other imaginative geographies: by critical readings of travel writing, for example, and by the critical recovery of \'popular\' geographical imaginations (see Crowhurst, 1997; Pred, 1997). These studies are not being conducted in some sort of annex to the central structures of Geography. Not only are they informed by contemporary politico-intellectual preoccupations but they also contest the conventional partitions between \'high\' and \'low\' cultures and imaginations (which explains the scare-quotes around \'popular\'). The circulation of discourses in and out of academic institutions is of vital importance to any elucidation of the politics of geographical imaginations. A number of these studies have been informed by post-colonialism, and it is not surprising that there should — at last — be signs of a belated recognition of the \'whiteness\' of most western geographical imaginations ( Jackson, 1998) and, crucially, of the salience of geographical imaginations outside the western academy (see Slater, 1992; cf. Eurocentrism).

Thirdly, there has been a renewed engagement with nature within academic geographical imaginations. In the previous paragraphs \'nature\' has effectively been displaced from the central position it was once accorded within most traditions of geography and its place taken by \'space\' (cf. Turner, 1991). The price paid for the articulation of a \'human\' geography in the wake of what many critics saw as a de-humanizing spatial science was \'a peculiar silence on the question of nature\' (Fitzsimmons, 1989). This was always an issue within Marxist geography, though even there it was arguably more honoured in the breach (cf. Smith, 1990), but there has since been a considerable interest in \'rethinking the “human” in human geography\' in terms that seek to move beyond the dualisms of \'society\' and \'nature\' and the dialectic between them that animates historical materialism (Whatmore, 1999; cf. Harvey, 1996). These newer formulations do not eschew the significance of space — on the contrary, informed by actor-network theory they elaborate a topological \'spatial imagination\' — but they do so in ways that produce a much more sensuous geographical imagination. For they \'alert us to a world of commotion in which the sites, tracks and contours of social life are constantly in the making through networks of actants-in-relation that are at once local and global, natural and cultural, and always more than human\' (Whatmore, 1999, p. 33; see also Braun and Castree, 1998). Such an approach, as Whatmore notes, \'implicates geographical imaginations and practices both in the purifying logic which … fragments living fabrics of association and designates the proper places of “nature” and “society”, and in the promise of its refusal\' (p. 34; emphases added). It is in the attempt to fulfil such a promise that critical inquiry will require the production of radically \'impure\' geographies. As the philosopher A.N. Whitehead once famously remarked, \'Nature doesn\'t come as clean as you can think it\'. And for the reasons spelled out in the last three paragraphs, many would now agree that geographical imaginations are becoming much dirtier. (DG)

References Braun, B. and Castree, N., eds, 1998: Remaking reality: nature at the millennium. London and New York: Routledge. Crowhurst, A. 1997: Empire theatres and the empire: the popular geographical imagination in the age of Empire. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15: 155-74. Deutsche, R. 1995: Surprising geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85: 168-75. Fitzsimmons, M. 1989: The matter of nature. Antipode 21 (2): 106-20. Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Oxford: Blackwell. Harvey, D. 1973: Social justice and the city. London: Edward Arnold. Harvey, D. 1984: On the history and present condition of geography: an historical materialist manifesto. Professional Geographer 36: 1-11. Harvey, D. 1990: Between space and time: reflections on the geographical imagination. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 80: 418-34. Harvey, D. 1996: Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford UK and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Jackson, P. 1998: Constructions of \'whiteness\' in the geographical imagination. Area 30: 99-106. Mills, C.W. 1959: The sociological imagination. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Mitchell, T. 1989: The world-as-exhibition. Comparative Studies in Society and History 31: 217-36. Pred, A. 1997: Somebody else, somewhere else: racisms, racialized spaces and the popular geographical imagination in Sweden. Antipode 29: 383-416. Prince, H.C. 1962: The geographical imagination. Landscape 11: 22-5. Rose, G. 1993: Feminism and geography: the limits of geographical knowledge. Cambridge: Polity; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Slater, D. 1992: On the borders of social theory: learning from other regions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10: 307-27. Smith, N. 1990: Uneven development: nature, capital and the production of space, 2nd edn. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Soja, E. 1989: Postmodern geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory. London: Verso. Turner, B.L. et al., eds, 1991: The earth as transformed by human action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Whatmore, S. 1999: Hybrid geographies: rethinking the \'human\' in human geography. In D. Massey, J. Allen and P. Sarre, eds, Human geography today. Cambridge: Polity Press, 22-39.

Suggested Reading Gregory (1994), ch. 2. Harvey (1990). Rose (1993), ch. 4. Whatmore (1999).



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