Ch. 6: Geographies of difference

AC Adam Cooper Public Seen by 143

Although mapping is often presented to us as something which is purely descriptive, like many academic disciplines, it is ideologically charged:

"Through this projection of discovery and conquest, the world was gradually outlined, filled in, and renamed in imperialism’s image".

"The increasing precision and subtlety of the map” helped geographers to present themselves as objective ‘scientists’, "Yet the increasingly sophisticated maps of new and distant worlds did remarkably little to disrupt what for the European mind was the oldest of global divisions."

There are clear conceptual geographies which, like racialisation, bare little to now resemblance to material realities: "Children in England, Canada, and New Zealand, as it turns out, imagine that to dig right through the earth is to end up in China, an idea that the China Syndrome, relating to nuclear meltdown, scientifically encoded”

In Britain, the formalised study of geography grew from imperial expansion: "In
Great Britain, the Royal Geographical Society, which took shape in the 1830s, grew out of the Association for the Exploration of the Interior Part of Africa that had been founded in 1788.”

Thomas Holdich of the RGS said, in 1916: "The indolent sun-loving people of the Southern latitudes have everywhere proved more easy to dominate than those nurtured in a colder atmosphere"

One of the big geographical questions of the time was related to the reproduction of whiteness: "the expansion of the white race,” as Holdich put it, but also the amelioration of class antagonisms in Europe, through the search for suitable “dumping grounds” for the "excess” and the restless working class of Europe (1916, P:245).

Whatever problems this would pose, as Holdich envisioned in a deeply disturbing image, would “find a partial solution in the extermination of many of the dark-skinned races” (p. 245).

There was some resistance, nonetheless:

The anarchist Peter Kropotkin addressed a Teachers Guild conference in Oxford in 1893 with the admonition that geography “must teach us, from our earliest childhood, that we are all brethren, whatever our nationality” (cited by D. Livingstone, 1992, p. 254)


"Although some of us in those Commonwealth classrooms were part of the “curious jumble of people,” that is, not Englishmen, we were still encouraged to survey this former empire and newfound Commonwealth as our own. We were to offer up thanks to the bravery of those indefatigable explorers Cabot, Drake, Cook, Vancouver, and Livingstone, no less than to the fruitfulness of the colonial plantations that brought to our doorstep rubber, cocoa, silk, tea, and coffee."

But where are you REALLY from?:

"Geography fixes people to a given place in the world. We learn to read a people through their time and place within the modern and premodern matrix of the world. People outside their assigned landscape evoke a sense of dislocation, with the lingering connection with their. ”land of origin” signified by racial qualities.”

—> Notice how white people from Australasia or North America are not asked this question. Geography is, by its very nature, racialised. Or to be more precise, race is, by the manner in which it has been constructed, spatialised.

National Geographic saw the dawn of the modern liberal imperialism, that we associate with NGOs and cultural appropriation, which soothes what Gilroy terms ‘Imperial melancholia’ with a nostalgia which employs soft power to reproduce colonial relations:

“It was a packaging of the educational fantasy of colonialism, or, as Howard Abramson recalls of the National Geographic experience, it was “always perceived as a nice homespun organisation that publishes that distinctive yellow-bordered magazine that features … those trademark harmless photographs of all those memorable brown breasts” (1987, p. 5)”

Gendered nature of the colonial gaze:

"The magazine’s treatment of native populations, which Rothenberg cites from those years, is dismal, with descriptions on the order of “innocent nudity decked with barbaric ornaments”-this in spite of a commitment to print “only what is of a kindly nature” (p. 165).9 The sexual regard for native women was rendered inoffensive by playing on the assumption that they were “a breed apart” from white women, as Rothenberg puts it (p. 172)” p149


Mira Vogel Wed 27 May 2015 11:00AM

My book has been dispatched but I still haven't received it - does anybody have a (link to the) PDF? Otherwise I'll come and listen anyway.

Thanks :)


Sareh Wed 3 Jun 2015 5:34PM

I just came across a Facebook page called 'Decolonial Atlas' and the following map was posted on the page - South Asia Without Borders, by Jordan Engel.

"South Asia is home to about a quarter of the world’s population and more than 2,000 ethnic groups. The subcontinent is, perhaps more than any other region, is a land beset by territorial disputes and border conflicts – from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. In this map, we’ve erased the borders which divide people (Indian Punjabis from Pakistani Punjabis, Pashtuns on either side of the Durand Line, Bangladeshi Bengalis from Indian Bengalis), and labelled major places in their native languages."

south asia decolonised map

Source: https://www.facebook.com/decolonialatlas/photos/a.371499946350416.1073741828.371492386351172/451684744998602/?type=1&theater / https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/south-asia-without-borders/