Postcolonial Geography Research Paper

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Historically speaking, a special relationship existed between geography and the making of empires. Pragmatic geographies of orienteering, surveying, mapping and description were the frontier technologies of the operations that brought distant territories under the control of metropolitan centers. As historian Edward Said famously noted in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993, p. 271), imperialism is ‘an act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control.’ At no time was the relationship between geography and colonialism more intimate than during the span of modern European expansion. Such worldly colonizations might be understood simply as metropolitan appropriations of the resources of other peoples and lands. Yet this material self-interest was motorized by a complex set of values that made these often audacious and violent appropriations make perfect moral sense to those whose interests were being served. Not least, deeply embedded assumptions about racial superiority and apportions of civility, gave legitimacy to these territorializations. The end of the nineteenth century marked the close of an era in which the discipline of geography was intoxicatingly enlivened.



The modern discipline of geography lives with this past. For a dwindling few it remains a source of nostalgic pride. For many it is source of considerable ambivalence. It is, in part, out of this ambivalence that some of the work that might claim the title ‘postcolonial geography’ emerges. The global authority assumed by imperial geographical knowledges was laid to rest finally by the self-reflexive shock wave that passed through the discipline in the mid-1980s. Geographers who had traditionally marauded across class, gender, race, and other divides began to interrogate the politics of representation associated with such reportage (see special issue of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 1992). This was a symptom of a discipline that was hurriedly retreating from its own past.

To understand what postcolonial geographies are it is essential to understand what is meant by the term postcolonial. As the prefix suggests, postcolonialism refers to the state that comes after colonialism. Most simply, this is the political condition that arrives when a colony is granted independence from its colonial rulers. Many have questioned the ‘post’ of such postcolonialism. The movement from colony to independent nation–state is not a sharp break with the past. Postcolonial states remain complexly entangled in their colonial pasts, just as they are constantly negotiating various kinds of neocolonialism, be it in the form of geopolitical influence, cultural effect, or economic leverage. The persistence of various kinds of colonialism has led various scholars to note that the term postcolonialism is prematurely celebratory. Others are similarly skeptical, suggesting that the term does nothing more than describe a condition of a newly diasporic intelligentsia.

Those geographies to claim the term ‘postcolonial’ reflect a use common to the social sciences and humanities more generally. Here the term refers to an ongoing set of relationships and processes inaugurated by the experience of colonization. Postcolonialism is not then a state that arrives once colonialism ends, but a struggle that comes into being because of, and alongside, the fact of colonization. In this sense, colonial and postcolonial formations are cohabitors. For example, colonial authorities were always dealing with postcolonial effects produced by this cohabitation. This might have included certain subtle, but nonetheless unsettling hybridizations. More starkly, it might have included counter-colonial formations through which the colonized sought to reinstate their authority.

Not surprisingly, many different kinds of formations, periods, and circumstances have come to be described as postcolonial. Such elasticity in the term postcolonial compromises both its descriptive and analytical worth. Yet postcolonialism is still a useful term to apply to a particular intellectual (and political) stance. Indeed, postcolonial studies are defined as much by their theoretical field of influence as they are their empirical concerns. Nowhere is this more evident than in the discipline of geography. Postcolonial geographies are varied in their subject matter, but may be drawn together as a loosely unified set of geographies intent on bringing into view a set of phenomena that work against colonial authority. This might include evident ruptures in the apparent coherence of colonial occupation, it might include the hybrid outcomes of cohabitation, the so-called ‘minor’ knowledges and alternative terrains of the colonized, and postcolonial formations that aim to wrest back control of territories.

Much of the current work within postcolonial geography, as with postcolonial studies more generally, is based on revisiting the site of colonialism in order that the silences that exist in the colonial record may be uncovered. This recovery project, it is assumed, will lead to a radical rethinking of the forms of knowledge and social identities authorized under colonialism. Historical geography has been much enlivened by this critical return to the imaginaries, logics, and practices of colonialism. In 1993 Livingstone (1993) published his elegant account of the geographical tradition, within which he paid particular attention to the relationship between European geography, race, and empire. In the same year Driver (1992) published an important article that ‘unmasked’ modern geography’s relationship to European colonization. By demonstrating the way geographical knowledges framed other worlds, his paper drew the analytic terms set by Edward Said’s landmark contribution, Orientalism (1978), into the heart of a rapidly postcolonizing discipline.

Critical appraisals of geographers and the knowledges they produced have continued as an important theme within the discipline. Harley’s (1988) work on the relationship between cartographic knowledges and power, is exemplary in this regard. His re-appraisal of cartographic practices and colonialism contributed to an on-going scholarship (both within the discipline and outside) on cartographies and colonial power. The spatial emphasis in geography’s critical engagement with the colonial archive is also evident in accounts of other, more populist, visual representational fields. Photography, for example, played an important role in bringing home the experiences, peoples and lands of those faraway new worlds (Ryan 1997).

Geographical practitioners, institutions, knowledge systems, and pedagogies of various kinds have succumbed to the scrutiny of this autocritique. Particular attention has been given to the systems of knowledge used to understand, order and benefit from the often exotic nature found in the new worlds. These knowl- edge systems made meaningful peoples and lands that, from a eurocentric worldview, were so radically different they could at first only be understood as ‘savages’ or ‘wastelands.’ Two showcase collections of studies detailing diverse examples of geography’s relationship to various imperialisms (old and new, European, and other) appeared in the mid-1990s (Godlewska and Smith 1994, Bell et al. 1995).

Delivering a gender sensitive perspective to the geographical critique of imperialism has shown that this is seemingly masculinist project, is one in which women (colonial and colonized) are complexly embedded, both as fellow adventurers and as objects of desire. The letters and journals of women who traveled to colonized lands have been an important source of information for rich scholarship on the women in the colonial project.

The global scale expansions of imperialism ground themselves in micro-geographies of occupation and domestication. As Jacobs (1996, p. 19) notes, the pure idea of imperialism ‘tumbled into the fractured and erratic everyday practices of the personalities … who were forced together in the making of colonies.’ One of the key collective contributions of the now vast body of critical colonial geographies has been to point to the contingencies of colonialism as a located, placespecific practice. For some time a key concern of this work has been the way relations of differentiation and domination have been enacted in and through space, and how colonized subjects subvert or negotiate those spatial controls.

A significant subset of critical colonial and postcolonial geographies concerns the city. Although not a geographer, the work of Anthony King has been highly influential in shaping the direction of this inquiry within the discipline. His theory of colonial urban development outlined the economic, political, and cultural processes that gave rise to and defined the form of the cities of colonial territories. Colonial cities were important sites in the transfer of modern capitalist values to new worlds and functioned as important centers of power for administering indigenous people and resources. In these cities, town-planning ordinances about cleanliness and sanitation became the mechanism through which colonial assumptions about racial difference were translated into on-the-ground technologies of segregation and exclusion. Jacobs (1996) extends this urban postcolonial scholarship by documenting the ways in which imperial pasts and postcolonial struggles continue to shape contemporary cities. More recent scholarship has turned its attention to the way imperial geographies impacted upon the townscapes and spatial arrangements of the metropolitan cities that stood at the heart of empires. Driver and Gilbert (1999) offer an exemplary collection on the history of cross-mappings between empire and modern European cities.

The geographies accounted for thus far largely confine their attention to the archive or to historic landscapes and territorializations. The intellectual project of making a critical return to the scene of colonialism is undertaken in the belief that it contributes to a decolonization of the discipline. Such a return can and does have its postcolonizing value, but there remains a certain ambiguity around just how postcolonial these modern adventures in critical colonial geography might be. Not least there is a tendency in these geographies for the colonized subject (the ‘other’) to be brought into view simply by way of the colonial discourses that framed them. Can attending to the colonial scene with a postcolonial lens dislodge the effects of that history? Or does it simply re-inscribe the colonial moment as the master referent of all that follows? Colonial constructs, practices, and landscape transformations have significant after effects, they flow into present times both sustaining vectors of domination and exploitation and providing the site against which alternate identities, places, and ways of being in the world are asserted. It is to the geographies that attend to the contemporary scene of postcolonialism that we now turn.

Racism and racialized difference rightly dominate the critical analysis of imperialism and the making of colonies, for it was on the basis of this register of difference that many of the most audacious imperial appropriations have been made. Despite this, there is an intellectual distance between the radical geographical tradition of studies of race and racism and geographies that describe themselves as ‘postcolonial.’ Some recent work has begun to converge around contemporary notions of whiteness, the postcolonial politics of antiracism and the emergence of new forms of postcolonial racism.

With geographical knowledges and technologies playing such a central role in the making of colonial territories, they have come to play an important part in the unmaking of these territories. There is, for example, a growing literature within geography on the use of cartographic technologies, place renaming, and alternative geographical knowledges, in various forms of postcolonial nationalism and indigenous rights movements, as well as newly commodified forms of conquest. Similarly, geographers have begun to show how modern environmentalisms are complexly entangled with colonialist assumptions about nature and race: bringing forth new kinds of (romantic) racisms and exclusions alongside of new possibilities for political alliance.

An exemplary body of self-consciously decolonizing geographical writing is the scholarship that has emerged around the racist spatial logic of settlement in Southern Africa. That lingering colonial construct of apartheid gave rise to stark geographies of differentiation and disadvantage based on racially defined ‘group areas.’ These racist spatialities called into being many passionately political geographies of reform. Similarly postcolonial geographies are emerging in the local scholarship other former colonial territories and settler states. Some of these geographies continue to remind us of the tenacity of colonial and neocolonial constructs and the way in which they are embedded in the physical and ideological landscapes of places and nations. This might include the ways in which the landscapes and identities of those once colonized are now being absorbed into new touristic circuits or commodity markets. Other postcolonial geographies genuinely reorient the concerns and subject matter of the discipline. They may install radically alternative evaluations of land and resources, that are directed away from dominant models of use and in so doing give legitimacy to previously marginalized ways of being in the world. They may chart hopeful examples of resistance to domination, be it in the form of minor subversions or stark oppositions. They may even be so optimistic as to speculate about new models of coexistence. What all of these emerging geographies of postcolonialism reveal is how specific historical and geographical contexts have delivered a peculiar political and moral imperative to the project of decolonizing the disciplinary gaze.


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