Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Imaginative Geographies

Imaginative geographies may be defined as "the ideological practice of every social formation that becomes aware of the existence of more or less remote lands and neighboring peoples" (Porter 1991, 20-21). As Edward Said defined them in Orientalism (1979), imaginative geographies are techniques of representation, ways of othering spaces and places through recourse to specific images, codes, and conventions, that both reflect and enable relations of power. Imaginative geography may serve as an expression of social anxieties or a means of diffusing a perceived threat (e.g., through the construction of "pure" and "polluted" spaces), or as a means of preparing spaces for colonization or other forms of appropriation (e.g., by identifying "uncivilized," "savage," or "backward" lands and peoples, or "empty" spaces devoid of their actual inhabitants) (Said 1979, Gregory 1995, Watkins 2015, Fields 2011, Sibley 1995). Conversely, imaginative geographies provide a shared sense of place and identity to those who participate, knowingly or unconsciously, in these modes of representation and subjectification. By (re)defining and (re)situating places, figures/bodies, and cultures, these techniques of representation enable or buttress specific spatial orders while subverting or transforming others.

Imaginative geographies may also provoke contestations over place and power. Chinese representations of the Mongolian frontier, for example, were contingent upon and contended with those produced by Japanese and Russian/Soviet imperial agencies, with all of these being located within shifting discourses of global imperial competition and national territoriality. The imperial Japanese construction of naichi and gaichi produced alternative imaginings of the landscape of citizenship and subjecthood. Mitsukoshi's wartime magazine balanced the contradictory and complementary tasks of imagining an Asia unified through the provision of goods and labor for consumption by the middle classes of the multiplying core urban zones, and reassuring bourgeois audiences of their continuing connections to cosmopolitan “civilization” even as Japan waged war against its geopolitical core. Meanwhile, we as scholars must reflect on the imaginative geographies that we bring to bear on the task of writing (spatial) histories: for example, the concept of the Sinosphere as counter-map to that of the imperial nation-state (Ambaras 2018).

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