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.

To develop this idea further, Said also demonstrates how this same process operates in relation to time. He argues, in this section of Orientalism, that seemingly settled temporal markers such as “long ago,” “the beginning,” and “at the end of time” are useless unless they’re endowed with some additional meanings. For example, for a scholar of Medieval Europe, “long ago” has a much different meaning than for an evolutionary biologist, in much the same way that my sense of the material space of my childhood home is qualitatively different than my father’s. Consequently, Said would have us think through how space and time converge together to form a particular understanding of the Orient. In his words: “For there is no doubt that 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. This is no less true of the feelings we often have that we would have been more “at home” in the sixteenth century or in Tahiti” .

But what does this have to do with Orientalism, and Said’s determined attempts to underline the power relations at the heart of the imperial order? To answer this, I’d like to highlight two key features of Said’s imaginative geographies. The first feature comes through in the last citation I provided. In it, he refers to the dramatization of distance and difference involved in the imaginative geographical process. Key to Said’s theorization, is the folding of difference through a series of what geographer Nicholas Blomley calls spatializations, or a set of geographical markers such as grids, surveys, and territories, among others.

Said argues that these partitions and enclosures work to more clearly demarcate a familiar space that is “ours” from one that is “theirs.” To illustrate this, he gives the example of a group of people living on a few acres of land who set up boundaries and call the territory beyond these boundaries the ‘land of the barbarians.’ Clearly this distinction is arbitrary, in that it does not depend on the so-called barbarians to acknowledge the our land-barbarian land distinction. Said goes on the explain that it is thus enough to set up the distinction in our minds: they become they and us becomes us in relation to territory, and perhaps other factors such as social, ethnic and cultural markers.

Considering this, I would argue that the heart of Said’s geographical project lies in his explication of how distance itself is not fixed, in the same sense as the corridor or closet in the inside of our homes, since the idea of distance is created and made intelligible through cultural practices, such as the poetics of space, where, as in the first citation I provided above, “the vacant or anonymous reaches of distance are converted into meaning for us here.” Consequently, Said lays out the cultural practices that produce Western knowledge about the Orient throughout Orientalism.

Fragments of the second key feature of the concept of imaginative geographies that I’d like to highlight can also be found in the last citation, when Said gestures to how imaginative geography can “help the mind to intensify its own sense of itself…” As we all know, Said argues throughout Orientalism that far from being an innocent project of imperial meaning-making, Orientalism has helped to produce European imperial subjects. Thus, the role imaginative geographies play in forming a sense of place through understandings of belonging and non-belonging in space, also forcefully produce a sense of self, an imperial identity. For Said, there is an intimate connection between the spatialities of various imaginative geographies and the production of identity. One could say, in a gesture to Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault, that space and subjectivity are mutually constitutive, in that subjects define a particular space in the ways Said discusses, and a given space produces particular subjects.

So, living in Paris, for example, I may have a particular, historically-specific way of imagining and practicing my city (how I see the city in relation to others, what I believe can happen in different parts of the city, who I see as belonging, etc) which helps to constitute the space, but the space of the city also helps to define what type of subject I can be (what kind of neighbourhood I can live in, who I see everyday, where I go to shop, to play, etc). It is this interplay between space and subjectivity that I want to highlight here in relation to Said’s notion of ‘imaginative geography,’ before continuing with two uses of this concept in geography and post-colonial theory.

Other considerations

In my opinion, cultural geographer and post-colonial theorist Derek Gregory has most usefully theorized Said’s notion of imaginative geography through a series of book chapters and journal articles dating back over a decade. I’d like to highlight one key point from his work, one I find particularly exciting theoretically.

Building on Said’s work on the production of distance, sameness and difference, Gregory proposes that we see imaginative geographies as performative, in the sense that “[they] produce[s] the effects that [they] name[s].” In this way, space is not just a material domain, as in the walls of the house I presented above, but more to the point, space is a ‘doing’. And in this vision of space, performance necessarily creates newness, however conditional and precarious, which allows one to know spaces differently. Gregory uses the work of Judith Butler to frame the creative possibilities of performance, which in her words, are a way of being “implicated in that which one opposes, [yet] turning power against itself to produce alternative political modalities, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not ‘pure opposition’ but a difficult labour of forging a future from resources inevitably impure.” In Gregory’s understanding, one gets to produce a given space through its performance, so that distance, for example, comes to mean very different things depending on how one performs space. I would argue that this understanding of space as a ‘doing’ moves us beyond an understanding of space as primarily imagined, since it also concretely points to the practices that produce a given space.

For example, I might have an idea of a given space, let’s say Chinatown. Typical racialized understandings of this space include a focus on peculiar foods, non-western restaurants, perhaps even illegal activity and a general busy-ness. I enter into the space with these understandings in mind, so that I perform them in the way that I enter the space, what I do in the space, and then how I exit the space. For instance, such performances could include buying particular Asian products, and eating at a given Chinese restaurant. These performances of space allow me exit the space having experienced it for what I perceive as its difference, rendering it distant from my own experiences. In this way, I perform the imagined geography of Chinatown, in much the same way that the West performs the Orient

I am aware that I’m nearing the end of my presentation, but before wrapping up, I’d also like to run though another influential use of Said’s concept by feminist geographer Sarah A. Radcliffe. I believe this rendering of Said’s work is particularly useful for the discussion that will follow on this panel.

Radcliffe has productively used the concept of ‘imaginative geographies’ to think through how particular national geographical configurations are constituted. She explains that state structures and practices, such as national education, are often at the forefront of creating and maintaining imagined geographies. In this way, state schooling presents citizens-to-be with the official version of a national geography through an understanding of national borders, and important internal geographical and topographical features such as rivers, mountains, and provincial or state boundaries.

Alongside this official nationalism, popular, non-formal geographies are produced and circulated, through such vehicles as films, television, novels, the internet and others still. Consequently, any national imaginative geography must necessarily be informed by official and popular accounts of national space. As she explains, “The need for citizens of the nation to place themselves imaginatively within a ‘known’ territory, and to possess a ‘geographic common sense’ of belonging are part of the processes which produce and sustain nationalisms” .

Radcliffe’s understanding of the national dimension of geography overlaps rather nicely with Said’s understanding in that she borrows the concept of imagined geographies from his work and links it up with Benedict Anderson’s work on nationalism. In her case, she looks to the particular narratives that explain the territorial evolution of the state as an important component of national imagined geographies. For example, such stories could highlight a given border dispute or the loss of territory as key factors in the development of a particular national consciousness. In the case of Canada, I propose that a central theme of our national imagined geography is that we are a vast northern country, a land of expansive territory and cold weather.

This in and of itself is hardly notable, but as Radcliffe points out, national identity rests upon imaginative geographies, so that this image of Canada also helps to produce an image of the hardy, enterprising Canadian settler, braving the harsh landscape to carve out a new place for Europeans. Thus, Radcliffe highlights the relationship between national subjectivity and imagined geographies in such a way that theoretically it becomes possible to think through imagined geographies in disparate national contexts.
In any case, I believe Radcliffe builds nicely on Said’s concept by focusing quite specifically on the national dimension of imaginative geographies. What are some of the most common national geographies here in the U.S.?


This brings me to the end of my presentation throughout which I set out to explore four key theoretical points.

First, I presented Said’s idea of the production of distance through imaginative geographies. Distance, difference, and sameness all go into the production of place, or how a given space becomes associated with notions of belonging or non-belonging. Second, I discussed the relationship between ideas of space and the production of identities. My aim here was to demonstrate how space and subjectivity are mutually constitutive. Third, through looking at Derek Gregory’s work, I sought to explain the importance of seeing space as a performance, as something subjects ‘do’ in the everyday. Lastly, Sarah Radcliffe shows us how it is possible to use Said’s concept of imagined geographies at a national level to explain particular national geographical articulations.


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for this article! Interesting reading! I would like to cite it in a paper but i havn’t been able to find the name of the autor. Could you please be so kind as to send it to me?
Sincerely, Andrea Castro.

Comment by Andrea Castro

I’m not sure if I ever replied. Here’s the full citation!

Leroux, Darryl. “Imaginative Geographies: Some Theoretical Considerations.”
Theoretical Musings. 2008.

Comment by Darryl

Your article is insightful. I would like to ask for permission to quote from it.

Best wishes

Comment by Elaref Khalid

it is a wonderful presentation,

thanks for the effert.

Comment by abdellah

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