The Colonial Present

Gregory, Derek. 2004. The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Oxford: Blackwell. [Ch. 1-3]

I won’t go into a whole lot of detail. I just wanted to read these chapters to get a sense of how Derek Gregory is using and making arguments through Edward Said’s ideas about Orientalism and imaginative geographies. Exploring the “War on Terror” via Orientalism allows Gregory to show how culture in the colonial present is intrinsic to the violent production of political-economic and military geographies. Culture forms the matériel from the making and deployment of an “Other”—a Them and an Us. In this violent Manichaean world, “distance becomes difference” and that difference underwrites, makes possible, and conditions today’s colonial modernity.

In his critique of Orientalism, Edward Said describes this unequal process as the production of imaginative geographies, and anthropologist Fernando Coronil connects it umbilically to what he calls Occidentalism. By this he means not the ways in which other cultural formations represent ‘the West,” important though this is, but rather the self-constructions of “the West” that underwrite and animate its constructions of the others. (4)

By making the “War on Terror” a project based on narratives of some absolute super-organic culture, the Other is sapped of any legitimate political-economic grievances and positioned as simply and irredeemably culturally defective. “But that’s really the point: distance – like difference – is not an absolute, fixed and given, but is set in motion and made meaningful through cultural practices” (18). “Seen as occupying a space beyond the pale of the modern, [colonial] antagonists were held to have repudiated its moral geography and for this reason to have forfeited its rights, protections, and dignities” (28).

Gregory considers the aftermath of the 9/11 events as products of what Said called “overlapping territories” and “intertwined histories” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine (20). He claims that “recovering these spatial stories and their contrapuntal filiations requires me to track backwards and forwards around September 11, connecting different places and combining different time-scales” (20). His point is to show how these entwined histories and overlapping territories are intimately bound to, and not estranged from, modern imperial power and its role in the making and entrenching of socio-spatial enmities (44). In this way, 9/11 and the response become ricocheted echoes of a much longer and broader historical-geography of colonialsm and modernity.

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