Theoretical Musings

Imaginative Geographies: Some Theoretical Considerations
April 30, 2008, 8:28 am
Filed under: Conference Presentations | Tags: , ,

This is an adapted version of a conference presentation I gave at SUNY-Brockport in April 2008. The title of the conference was– “Reconsidering The ‘Orient” and ‘Occident’ in the 21st Century: Observing the 30th Anniversary of Edward Said’s Orientalism”

Imaginative Geographies: Some Theoretical Considerations

“The objective space of a house—its corners, corridors, cellar, rooms—is far less important than what poetically it is endowed with, which is usually a quality with an imaginative or figurative value we can name and feel; thus a house may be haunted or homelike, or prisonlike or magical. So space acquires emotional and even rational sense by a kind of poetic process, whereby the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance are converted into meaning for us here” (Orientalism, 55).


This paper aims to explore the concept of ‘imaginative geographies,’ one that Edward Said memorably introduced in the first part of Orientalism. I will do so by engaging with two authors who use, critique and otherwise engage with Said’s work in order to set up a conceptual framework for the following papers in this panel. In this way, my paper presents Said’s theoretical understanding of imaginative geographies, by probing his writings in Orientalism. I then point to the ways in which his theoretical work relates to current geographical accounts.

The second part of the paper looks to two theorists who engage with Said’s influential theoretical contribution. I make brief stops in the fields of post-colonial theory, feminist theory, and cultural geography and their various intersections, in order to consider how imaginative geographies have been re-conceptualized. This last part of the paper looks to point to new horizons in our understanding of Said’s geographical imagination. While in Culture & Imperialism he pointed to how none of us are completely free from the struggle over geography, over territory, over space, and over place, and this continues to be evident in the Palestinian struggle Said so eloquently articulated, theorizing what precisely Said meant by geography is key in building on his work.

Imaginative Geographies

The second part of Chapter One of Orientalism is entitled: “Imaginative Geography and its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental.” In this section, Said argues that Orientalism relies heavily on the production of geographical knowledge in the imperial centre, since for him any representation of the Orient is necessarily spatial. Yet, beyond the techniques of mapping that underplayed the imperial project, he is interested in teasing out the cultural and symbolic domains of this geographical understanding, since it is the cultural politics of space and place that he is primarily concerned with uncovering. Thus, his is not a typical geographical undertaking, one that seeks to direct us to the cartographic techniques of what he calls the Orientalizing process. On the contrary, Said’s aim is to trouble common-sense understandings of space, in this case of the Orient, in order to destabilize the spatial, and might I add, racial order upon which Oriental knowledge is produced.

To further develop the tension between the material and symbolic that Said is looking to trouble, I will turn to the citation I gave at the beginning of the paper. Relying on Gaston Bachelard, Said uses the metaphor of the inside of a house to direct us to how objective spaces acquire a sense of intimacy, secrecy and security due to experiences that seem appropriate to it. He makes the rather provocative statement that the objective space of a house is far less important than what he calls, the poetics of space. Through such poetics, the space of a house, its material dimensions if you will, are endowed with imaginative value(s) through which a range of cultural meanings are attributed to a particular space. In this way, through this imaginative process, space gains a whole series of meanings that are otherwise not naturally embodied in any given material space. A house can be haunted, a city can be cosmopolitan, a nation can be evil, yet none of these meanings come to the space naturally. It seems Said wants to direct us to the processes through which material spaces come to be understood in relation to the symbolic.

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Sunera Thobani’s Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada
March 7, 2008, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , ,

A version of this review will appear in the Canadian Journal of Sociology, vol. 33, no. 2 (June 2008).

Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Sunera Thobani. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2007. 384 pages.

Sunera Thobani’s Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada stands out as an important contribution to the burgeoning field of critical Canadian Studies. In it, Thobani develops an exciting theoretical framework for explicating the relationship between national and racial subject formation that productively builds on the works of well-established Canadian scholars such as Himani Bannerji, Sherene Razack, and Eva Mackey. What Thobani calls the ‘exaltation process,’ or the process delineating the specific human characteristics said to distinguish the nation and its national subjects from others, stands out as an innovative theoretical contribution to the fields of critical nationalism, race and post-colonial studies more broadly. As such, anybody conducting research or teaching in the fields of Canadian nationalism, and especially, the constitution of national subjects, will find this book provides a useful approach.

Thobani begins her study with a thorough introductory chapter that lays out her theoretical project. She explains, in clear language, that her work uses Foucault’s theorization of subject formation within modernity, premised on the dual process of subjection and subjectification. However, eschewing the full and enthusiastic embrace of Foucault that has long been in vogue in certain circles of contemporary social theory, Thobani plots out how Foucault’s understanding of sovereignty in relation to subject formation, for example, in such works as The History of Sexuality vol. I & II, must be re-worked in any analysis of colonial relations.

To illustrate, she productively draws on the work of Achille Mbembe and Frantz Fanon, whose accounts of colonial violence figure prominently in Thobani’s post-colonial theorization. In Mbembe’s work on sovereign power, what he calls ‘necro-politics’ over colonized populations is enacted through the capacity to dictate “who may live and who must die” (12). Thobani argues persuasively that this conception problematizes Foucault’s understanding of the self-constituting practices of the subject, since different modalities of force relations than those present within the European imperial centre, the site for much of Foucault’s historical work, govern colonized populations. “The colonial world,” Thobani explains using Fanon’s explication of the colonial encounter, “emerged as a world divided: on the one side, a world of law, privilege, access to wealth, status, and power for the settler; on the other, a world defined in law as being ‘lawless,’ a world of poverty, squalor, and death for the native” (38). Thobani demonstrates how in order to theorize such colonial governmentalities, one must engage in genealogical work that interrogates distinct colonial forms of power, a task Thobani sets out to accomplish throughout this study.

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Samuel de Champlain’s Travel Writing: Cartography, the Making of the Imperial Subject and the Colonial Present

This is an adapted version of a conference presentation I gave at the Université de Laval’s annual graduate student conference in February 2008– “Commémorations: le Québec et les francophonies”

Samuel de Champlain’s Travel Writing: Cartography, the Making of the Imperial Subject and the Colonial Present

I visited Quebec City last year, when I was in the initial stages of forming my idea for my dissertation. I was here to do research for my supervisor, whose work involves a study of the creation of les écoles normales in the mid 19th century. At the time, I was moved by the romantic nature of the old city, as I had been on previous occasions. But that lingering feeling also led to some unease, a questioning of my understanding of the colonial heart of the city that beat quietly underneath its quaint charms. Working in these beautiful archives somewhere inside the maze of fortifications, I was unable to quell that unease.

With this in mind, I’ve been struggling to find ways to articulate my ambivalence, both deeply political and personal, with the ways in which Québec City, and specifically, the early colonial period, is imagined in French Canadian historiography. In order to do so, I’ve turned to some theoretical literature that I believe allows me to interrogate the colonial nature of the historical narratives celebrating the founding of the city, and as is most often claimed in relation to this, of French civilization in the Americas.

I do so with the backdrop of an important contemporary manifestation of colonial management having recently completed its purported mission: the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Here, the racist and nationalist practices at the centre of the Québecois nationalist project were laid bare for all to see, coalescing nicely with the planning for the quatercentennary celebrations. While I won’t comment directly on these practices in my paper, I will discuss the formation of racial space, through which such national practices become possible.

First, I begin with a brief overview of some post-colonial and critical geography theory in order to explore the imperial subject’s constitution in the colonial encounter. Here, I provide a close analysis of not only the role Samuel de Champlain played in constituting the nascent imperial order of things, but also of the ways in which subsequent European subjectivities were formed in the colonial encounter. I do so by exploring some of Champlain’s travel writing.

Lastly, I finish with a set of questions about current academic trends in French Canada. I’m most interested in understanding how and why intellectual cultures in French Canada have been so pre-occupied with historical and social parameters that don’t consider wider intellectual trends, especially as this pertains to critical race and nation theories that abound in other intellectual environments.

Un-mapping The Imperial Subject

When imagining someone like Samuel de Champlain, as so many of us do, poised to discover new lands, and found settlements in the wilderness, it is important to consider what role this imaginary plays in constituting social and historical relations.

As I will be arguing, the vision of the imperial subject mapping and thus taming the unknown wilderness is a central figure in the imperial imagination, what Kathleen Kirby (1991) has called the Cartesian subject. David Harvey (1993:15), writing in another context, has also commented on the 16th century cartographic revolution. For him, the most salient aspect of this spatial re-imagining wasn’t the discovery and acceptance of new mapping techniques, but the transformation in the ways of thought of those who used them. Importantly, many post-colonial and feminist critics have explained how this subject was founded at the expense of racialized and gendered Others, in the case of Champlain, the original inhabitants of the north-eastern Americas. I want to underline here the violence inherent in this encounter, whether sexualized and gendered violence or racial violence, all of which relied on European epistemological frames that deemed original inhabitants inferior in a forceful civilizational imaginary, one in which cartography played a constitutive role.

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Sherene Razack’s Dark Threats and White Knights
February 21, 2008, 4:15 am
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , ,

Dark Threats & White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism. Sherene H. Razack. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2004. 236 pages.

At the beginning of her analysis of Canadian peacekeeping, and particularly of what has come to be popularly known in Canada as the Somalia Affair, Sherene Razack uses a well-known poem by Rudyard Kipling, ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ to set the stage for her analysis:

Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child (xi).

This poem not only acts as an apt metaphor for Canadian peacekeeping in Razack’s analysis, but also serves to locate her discussion throughout this study. What Razack is arguing, quite convincingly following a very thorough look at a wide range of documents related to Somalia and Canadian peacekeeping more generally, is that the encounter between Canadian peacekeepers and peoples of the Global South, in this case in Somalia, but more recently in Haiti, Kosovo and Afghanistan is a colonial encounter that is, in her words, “overdetermined by race” (6). As a colonial encounter, it inserts itself into broader national narratives about the civilizing role of Canadians called forth to bring peace, order, and democracy to corners of the world that are decidedly inferior, and thus, in dire need of help. She suggests that, in fact, this de-historicized narrative makes violence inevitable, since it is through violence against subjugated bodies that this fanciful national myth is actually constituted. She also reminds us how Canadians have actually been produced as national subjects through the violence done against indigenous peoples and people of colour, and that this history has in turn shaped the peacekeeping encounter. In this way, the spaces of here and there are markedly linked.

Why then, should we look at peacekeeping, such a cherished symbol of Canadian kindness and decency, in these terms? Razack believes that the strength of thinking about peacekeeping violence as colonial violence is that in this way it implicates us all, since it is done in our names in the first place. It no longer becomes about a few bad apples tarnishing the entire bucket, as she explains, but it is about dismantling the national narratives that set out our innocence and benevolence, our innate abilities as humanitarians, by probing their productive functions.

Razack uses national archives, popular media sources, testimony from the federal commission of inquiry into the Somalia Affair, various criminal and military trials, canonical literature (see Kipling and Conrad), and, of course, numerous academic sources to build her case. And while it might make for an at-times dizzying array of source material, in the end I would argue that she is able to use it all productively to dismantle several central myths in the contemporary making of Canada.

Among many other cases, Razack uses the example of General Roméo Dallaire, a well-known Canadian peacekeeper on the international stage, to illustrate her argument. Dallaire is the Canadian soldier who, at the height of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, was left with a skeletal UN force unable to quell the surrounding violence (recently captured in the film Hotal Rwanda, featuring Nick Nolte playing Dallaire). Powerless in the face of great evil, or so we are told, he returned to Canada a broken man traumatized and suicidal. Razack is not interested in exhaustively reviewing his role in the unfolding events or to probe the extent of his trauma, but instead focuses on how his story, and those of other traumatized peacekeepers like him who served in Somalia, has entered the national narrative. How, when violence travels from South to the North, is it largely “forgotten and forgiven, erased and de-raced” (7)? Razack suggests that it is in seeing Canadian soldiers as the victims of genocide, as overwhelmed by the absolute evil in places like Rwanda or Somalia, that this narrativized version of events takes place. This way, people from the South are rendered ‘speechless,’ an act that is accomplished because the horror is unthinkable and unknowable precisely because it takes place outside of history (22).

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Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes
February 21, 2008, 4:12 am
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , ,

Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Mary Louise Pratt. London and New York: Routledge. 1992. 257 pages.

In the introduction to her thorough investigation of the ways in which travel writing helped to produce subject positions for diverse individuals within imperialism, Mary Louise Pratt relates two stories: the first, the story of her strange rural Canadian connection to Dr. David Livingstone, the infamous English missionary, through a letter hanging on her pharmacist’s wall; and the second, the story of the early 20th century discovery of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Quechua and Spanish-language 1,200-page political and historical manuscript to the King of Spain in the Danish Royal Archives in Copenhagen. At first glance, these two stories seem to hold little in common aside from a very broad relationship to imperial history. However, throughout this seminal work, Pratt manages to bring such disparate experiences of imperialism together to forge a meaningful engagement with and re-assessment of “the vast, discontinuous and over-determined history of imperial meaning-making,” (4) the major goal of her work. As such, she positions herself politically in the burgeoning movement to decolonize knowledge with a marked commitment to a de-centering of the Western eye and a rethinking of the relation between centre and periphery.

The starting point for the book is the mid-18th century, a moment, Pratt claims, that denotes a shift in European consciousness, when bourgeois forms of subjectivity and power were consolidated and a new territorial phase of capitalist expansion began. The theoretical lens she develops to accomplish this task is that of “transculturation,” a concept she borrows from ethnography. For her, this concept demonstrates how metropolitan cultures were shaped by the periphery: “…[the metropolis] habitually blinds itself to the ways in which the periphery determines the metropolis- beginning perhaps, with the latter’s obsessive need to present and re-present its peripheries and its others continually to itself” (6). This was undoubtedly a groundbreaking approach to the study of imperialism at the time of publication, since it promised to shed light on resistance and the productive nature of imperial discourses.

As such, this framework provides a meaningful encounter with the diverse forms of data Pratt tackles throughout this book. In particular, her discussion about the process of “creole self-fashioning” (113) that she develops in Part II stands out as a strong theoretical contribution and re-working of the relationship between the centre and the periphery, since it illustrates some of the ways in which the metropolis and periphery work in an unequally structured dialectic relationship. However, I would argue that overall, the concept of transculturation remains relatively under-developed. As an example, much of Pratt’s focus is on canonical European travel texts, an aspect of her work that limits her ability to engage with forms of resistance in the periphery and the constitutive dimensions of such configurations in forming European subjectivities. When she does explore such instances, as in the case of creole self-fashioning, she focuses primarily on European colonists’ influence on European subjectivities, thereby marginalizing the role of indigenous and African peoples’ resistance in reformulating the metropolis. I believe a more sustained focus on such counter-narratives, especially for their potential in contributing to Pratt’s goals of de-centering the European imperial eye, would have proven fruitful.

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