Geographical Imaginations

Gregory, Derek. 1994. Geographical Imaginations. Oxford: Blackwell. [Ch. 2 & 6]

Chapter 2 sets out to explore critiques of the spatial science geography of the 1950s and 1960s from two perspectives: humanism and historical materialism, which were also in tense debate with each other. Humanistic geography often claimed that theory (and objectivism) was getting in the way of “experience” as the main register for geographic inquiry. It called, at least in Yi-Fu Tuan’s hands, for a more phenomenological approach. David Ley criticized people like Harvey for engaging theory for theory’s sake, while ostracizing the empirical and experienced world (80).

Meanwhile, Donald Meinig called for “geography as art” with a total attendance to and evocation of place as experience. Science (and theory) merely got in the way, or so these thinkers argued. Spatial science, like Harvey’s version of historical-geographical materialism, rested on an economic emphasis that largely bracketed the cultural terrain—even in its Sauerian skein. Historical materialist-inspired geography was an important advance in denaturalizing the spaces depicted by spatial science (and non-Marxist humanists), but it obviously retained many silences.

In tracing the connections between Western Marxism and geography, Gregory highlights the singular importance of Harvey’s work in conjoining—among other things—the theoretical and the practical—that is, not severing social and spatial formations from eaxh other (89). “These processes [the geography of capitalism] are not straightforward, Harvey points out, because a knife-edge has to be constantly negotiated “between preserving the values of past commitments made at a particular place and time, or devaluing them to open up fresh room for accumulation” (93).

In other words, capitalism is predicated on the material production of space that it is in turn forced to abandon, destroy, and supersede as part of its own propagation (expanded reproduction of the social relations of production) in and through space. But this re-orientation came at the expense of a more cultural materialism. A revival of this cultural materialism did not come up until the 1980s, drawing on thinkers like EP Thompson, Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, and Stuart Hall among others.

Gregory highlights the productive tensions between Marxism and Post-Marxism, particularly in terms of the latter’s more humble vision of theory as opposed to Marxism’s construction of “a single, centered conceptual system” (102). If this implies a skepticism toward Grand Theory, Gregory carefully notes, this does not mean that Post-Marxism shies away from big questions.

He then moves into a discussion of structuration theory, after a brief foray into the Thompson-Althusser debate and Anderson’s intervention. Structuration theory was an attempt to reintegrate the rather unhelpful “estranged symbiosis” (Abrams) between structure and agency (112), rather than seeing them as always-already implicated in each other. The next section describes some of the radical contributions by feminist geographies, particularly in relation to its questioning about the “mastering” of space and the gendering of space, both in practice and intellectual inquiry (125). Gregory also positions the assertion of “cultural politics”—via Stuart Hall—as an important bridge between previous critical social theories and postmodernism as well as postcolonialism.

“Whatever else postmodernism may be about, I propose to argue, it represents an attempt to come to terms with—to find the terms for—this bewilderment of the contemporary; what might be called, with apologies to Edward Said, the dis-orientation of Occidentalism” (139). And making this dis-orientation intelligible are the joint “cognitive mappings” of textualities and spatialities. Textualities, by which he means, beyond the page in terms of how the landscape is itself culturally inscribed through practice.

After an interesting discussion of Haraway’s work, Gregory writes about the relations between post-structuralist thought and postcolonial critique via the works of Edward Said, Timothy Mitchell, and Paul Carter. While acknowledging that these authors convincingly “seek to understand, in displaced form, the time-space disorientations [i.e. postmodernity] of the Western political imaginary” (181) through discussions of colonialism, he also claims that they tend to fight this battle on the metaphysical terrain of the West. Even in many accounts, these colonial spaces are seen only through the eyes of the colonizers. (In a way, reminiscent of the blocked master-slave dialectic in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.)

Finally, the chapter ends with a discussion of some of Michael Watts’ work. (I have to admit that about ¾ of the way through the chapter, I sort of forgot why I was being led through a very long, though brilliant interpretive literature review; I kept asking, “OK, interesting, but what’s the main point again? This might be due to the very long lunch I had.) Nonetheless, in applauding Watts’ work Gregory sums up why he thinks it’s so exemplary:

His project seeks to break open a particular ‘knotting’ within the local-global dialectic: to show how difference and identity are produced within constellations of power earthed (so to speak) in interconnected spaces and wired together by political and economic relations; how difference and identity are contested, negotiated, and shaped through cultural struggles; and how ‘identity which rests on difference’ can produce a common ground for politics. (203)

Chapter Six is a long essay on the production of space, beginning with Harvey and Lefebvre, and particularly the former’s The Condition of Postmodernity (was it supposed to sound clinical-disease-like? I suspect it was). This book is posed as a polemic against Jean-François Lyotard, particularly his aversion of any attempt to engage totalities in social thought.

The chapter really beings to pick up steam in the treatment of Lefebvre, showing how space was a long-time concern even before the publication of The Production of Space. Gregory highlights Lefebvre’s critique of the structuralists’ use of spatial metaphors (level, regions, continents) as “basic sophistry whereby the philosophico-epistemological notion of space is fetishized and the mental realm comes to envelop the social and physical one” (355). Lefebvre called for a “turbulent spatiality” combining material and ideal dimensions of space that would allow a conceptual and practical combination of history, geography and human agency. Gregory offers a concise revision of Althusser’s critique of Hegelian Marxism that revolves around essentialism, historicism, and humanism.

Interesting quote on Harvey’s take on concrete-abstractions:

By ‘concrete abstractions’ Harvey means concepts that are available to us in everyday speech and drawn upon in the conduct of everyday life. Their identification—and the elucidation of their taken-for granted ‘embeddedness’ in social practices—is an essential moment in the process of theory construction that, according to Harvey, involves representing and integrating concrete abstractions within a coherent system of thought. (361)

The rest of the chapter is a really interesting review of Lefebvre’s work on space, mainly in terms of the Everyday Life books, Production of Space and Urban Revolution. I’m not going to review it all here, but just try to bring out some of the more salient (for me) points. He notes how Everyday Life had a double meaning for Lefebvre that was understood through Marx’s notion of alienation; everyday life was double-edge: both the source of our numbness and monotony, but also the few remaining reservoirs of an alternative. He had much the same feeling about space; it’s being pregnant with an alternative—that is, abstract space being pregnant with differential space. Both space and everyday life had been colonized by the commodity.

Grgeory sees Lefebvre’s call for a history of space in terms of a spatial genealogy. I’m inclined to agree that his theoretical project calls for an empirical history of present spaces, and Lefebvre might describe this in his own words as the regressive-progressive model.

The Urban Revolution is discussed at great length: “A new symbiosis was forged in which local ecologies were knit together in extra-local and supra-personal webs of exchange. These new spatial divisions of labor were articulated by the market economy, mediated by the institutions of the state and often codified in a new imaginary” (373). Lefebvre talks about how successive modes of economic organization led to different urbanization formation (relations between town and country) that were also deeply determined by writing and military-diplomatic relations. These intensive and extensive forms of economic exchange and accumulation increasingly led to spiraling abstractions of space.

It’s pretty amazing to see how much Lefebvre was foreshadowing Harvey’s work, and perhaps the degree of this debt has not been given due credit. Look at Gregory’s following statements and Lefebvre’s work on circuits of capital, urbanization, and crisis resolution:

Lefebvre draws attention to the existence of a second circuit of “speculative capital,” directed toward investment in the built environment, which he claims assumes a particular importance in the twentieth century. His argument is that during a crisis there is a pervasive tendency for capital to switch from the first circuit into the second:


“As the proportion of global surplus value formed and realized in industry diminishes, so the proportion formed and realized in speculation and in the construction of the built environment grows. The second circuit supplants the first. From being incidental, it becomes essential” (UR, 212). (377)

Harvey of course worked out the mechanisms through which this process is actually operationalized and a series of other related (and very important) points, which Gregory proceeds to detail. An interesting explanation by Gregory that I haven’t seen treated in great detail is how Lefebvre sees the role of the body in space (I should read that Simonsen piece). He describes how the abstraction of space intensified to the nth degree by capitalist modernity requires the decorporealization of space—that is, the making of spaces that are somehow disembodied.

He mentions perspectival space developed in the Rennaissance as well as geometric space, which all help lead mapping, surveying, property delineation, canon projections, and war-making. The visual is hegemonic in this spatial regime, as a technology of power. Gregory writes: “But it also marks the erasure of the living body itself this is a space dominated by the eye and the gaze. The final victory of decorporealization was the installation of the abstract space of twentieth-century capitalism” (392). And quoting Lefebvre: “By the time this process is complete, space has no social existence independently of an intense, aggressive and repressive visualization. It is thus – not symbolically but in fact – a purely visual space. The rise of the visual realm entails a series of substitutions and displacements by means of which it overwhelms the whole body and usurps its role” (POS, 286). One of the better summaries of Lefebvre’s main theses on the production of space are presented on pages 401-404.

For my own work, this hegemony of the eye raises the question: What about that which we know is there, but is not visible? I suppose space makes this invisibility impossible.

This entry was posted in David Harvey, Gender, Henri Lefebvre, Historical Materialism, Post-Colonial, Race & Ethnicity, Spatiality, The Body. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Geographical Imaginations

  1. Pingback: Spatiality and Power | Territorial Masquerades

Comments are closed.