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imaginative geographies

  representations of other places — of peoples and landscapes, cultures and \'natures\' — and the ways in which these images reflect the desires, fantasies and preconceptions of their authors and the grids of power between them and their subjects. The term was proposed by the Palestinian/ American cultural and literary critic Edward Said (1978) in his influential critique of Orientalism (see Gregory, 1995a). It is possible to derive from Said\'s discussion several significant differences between an \'imaginative geography\' as he conceived it and the concepts of \'mental map\', \'behavioural environment\' or \'perceived environment\' then current in behavioural geography.

In the first place, Said\'s emphasis on power (in the case that most concerned him, colonial power) was alien to behavioural geography, and drew attention to the \'non-innocence\' of any act of representation. In one sense, perhaps, Said\'s formulation anticipated ideas of the situatedness of knowledge and the positionality of the viewing subject (see situated knowledge); but he was most concerned to disclose the privileges that European and American authors typically arrogated to themselves when representing other cultures and hence the asymmetric grid of power within which (specifically) \'the West\' watches, \'the East\' is watched (see also ethnocentrism; Eurocentrism).

In the second place, Said\'s emphasis on viewing, watching, looking, observing — on vision and visuality — drew attention to the cultural construction of the gaze. Unlike \'mental maps\' and the other constructs of behavioural geography, imaginative geographies are never the product of purely cognitive operations. Their images are animated by fantasy and the play of desire (though Said himself said rather too little about these issues for those of his critics who are more sympathetic to psychoanalytic theory) and carry within them comparative valorizations — what Said, following Bachelard (1969) called a \'poetics of space\' — by means of which places are endowed with \'figurative value\'.

In the third place, Said claimed that those figurative values enter not only into the production of alterity (see other/otherness) but also into the identity-formation of the viewing subject. Imaginative geographies sustain images of \'home\' as well as images of \'away\' or \'abroad\', therefore: \'Imaginative geography and history help the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatizing the distance and difference between what is close to it and what is far away\' (Said, 1978, p. 55).

In the fourth place, \'dramatization\' is not (quite) the same as \'falsification\', and Said\'s discussion undercut the distinction between \'real\' and \'perceived\' worlds on which behavioural geography depended. This is the most complicated and contentious part of Said\'s argument. There are certainly passages where he contrasted what he called \'positive knowledge\' with imaginative geographies produced under the sign of Orientalism. And yet: if imaginative geographies are \'fictions\' in the original Latin sense of fictio — something made, something fabricated — this does not mean that they are necessarily without concreteness, substance and, indeed, \'reality\'. On the contrary: Said emphasized that imaginative geographies circulate in material forms (including sketches, paintings and photographs — cf. art and geography and \'intelligence\' reports, and popular travel writing; and in collections and exhibitions), and they become sedimented over time to form an internally structured and, crucially, self-reinforcing \'archive\'. This \'citationary structure\' is also in some substantial sense performative: it shapes and legitimizes the attitudes and dispositions, policies and practices of its collective audience, so that in this way imaginative geographies spiral into and out of a sort of cultural paradigm of \'otherness\'.

There have been several studies of imaginative geographies that, while they may have been inspired by Said\'s original formulations, retain at best a loose affiliation with his work: thus, for example, Carter\'s (1987) project of an avowedly spatial history that seeks to show how the landscape of Australia was brought within the horizon of European intelligibility through a series of explicitly textual practices (see also Ryan, 1996). The concept of an imaginative geography has also been developed in directions that Said\'s original discussion left largely unremarked: thus, for example, feminist scholars have shown how the production of imaginative geographies intersects with gender and sexuality, and the very idea of an \'imagination\' has been extended through geographies indebted to various forms of psychoanalytic theory for an understanding of the operations of fantasy, desire and the unconscious. What has been clearly retained from Said\'s account, in large part a result of his initial debt to Foucault, has been an interest in recovering the imaginative geographies of other \'spaces\' produced under the signs of colonialism and post-colonialism ( Jarosz, 1992; Gregory, 1995b; Radcliffe, 1996). But there are indications of an emerging interest in recovering imaginative geographies of other \'natures\' too (Sioh, 1998).

It should be noted that there has been a long tradition of reading nominally fictional works as expressive of \'imaginative geographies\' in a far more limited sense than Said had in mind. This approach to the text (almost always the novel) has usually been naive in the extreme, with little or no engagement with literary or critical theory and an extraordinarily weak understanding of the work of re-presentation (e.g. Darby, 1948; cf. hermeneutics). But these criticisms are more than methodological; they extend to the very object of such studies. For Said\'s concept of an \'imaginative geography\' is not confined to ostensibly fictional works. On the contrary, there is an important sense in which all geographies are imaginative: even the most formal, geometric lattices of spatial science are at once abstractions and cultural constructions, and as such vulnerable to the critical readings proposed by Said and other scholars. (DG)

References Bachelard, G. 1969: The poetics of space. Boston: Beacon Press. Carter, P. 1987: The road to Botany Bay: an essay in spatial history. London: Faber. Darby, H.C. 1948: The regional geography of Hardy\'s Wessex. Geographical Review 38: 426-43. Gregory, D. 1995a: Imaginative geographies. Progress in Human Geography 19: 447-85. Gregory, D. 1995b: Between the book and the lamp: imaginative geographies of Egypt, 1849-50. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 20: 29-57. Jarosz, L. 1992: Constructing the Dark Continent: metaphor as geographic representation of Africa. Geografisker Annaler 74B: 105-15. Mitchell, T. 1988: Colonising Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Radcliffe, S. 1996: Imaginative geographies, postcolonialism and national identities: contemporary discourses of the nation in Ecuador. Ecumene 3: 23-42. Ryan, S. 1996: The cartographic eye: how explorers saw Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Said, E. 1978: Orientalism. London: Penguin [1995: new edition with Afterword]. Sioh, M. 1998: Authorizing the Malaysian rainforest: configuring space, contesting claims and conquering imaginaries. Ecumene 5: 144-66.

Suggested Reading Gregory (1995a). Said (1978), 49-73.



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