Unimaginative geographies

Last week I was asked to contribute a 6-700 word Op-Ed to the Washington Post‘s In Theory series on ‘othering’ and the Middle East.  They wanted me to write about Edward Said‘s concept of ‘imaginative geographies’ and its implications for US foreign policy.

I wrote a quick draft and sent it off.  The core argument was that one of the most debilitating consequences of these bipolar imaginative geographies is their refusal to recognize and value those things that we have in common with others.  This wasn’t a clarion call for the reinstatement of the supposedly universal subject of humanism, of course: just a reminder that the accent on difference can blind us to the co-presence of commonality.  Nothing new about that, really, and like Matthew Yglesias (below) I’ve been arguing this for an age:

YGLESIAS Commonality.001

Then I took the dog for a walk.  By the time I returned, I had an idea for a conclusion, which was about radical narcissism, so I sent it off:

At best, we are offered a radical narcissism in which we imagine what it would be like if the suburbs of Washington, D.C., suffered air raids night after night, or if our skies were full of the sound of drones, watching and waiting to strike without warning. In imagining our lives made newly vulnerable to military violence, however, we continue to privilege “our” space and separate it from “their” space. If we can imagine such horrors happening to us, why is it so difficult to imagine them being visited on others?

This follows more or less directly from what I’d been thinking about the ways in which, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States collectively imagined itself as newly vulnerable: hence the stream of articles and illustrations in the 1940s and 50s imagining a nuclear strike on New York or Washington.

But over the weekend I took the dog for another walk, and had another thought – about the politics of affect.   If we limit our understanding of imaginative geographies to the interpretative frameworks of ‘the other’ – the assumptions and conventions through which they make sense of the world – then we marginalise the affective: in particular those visceral responses to the experience of violent death and destruction which we also share to varying degrees.  So it is that too often we fail to grasp the anger of somebody desperately seeking shelter from yet another air strike, the anguish of a mother or father cradling the body of their dead child, the despair of a family as they watch their home bulldozed to the ground, or the humiliation of a young man made to lower his trousers and raise his shirt by soldiers at a checkpoint.  And as we attribute their response to ‘their’ unreason we continue to inflict our own, always ‘rational’ – read ‘precise’, ‘measured’, ‘scientific’ – violence upon them.

Too late for the published version, which you can find here.

2 thoughts on “Unimaginative geographies

  1. Pingback: Paris of/in the Middle East | geographical imaginations

  2. yes yes yes! The last point is so important, I hope you’ll take it up again elsewhere.

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