About therhizomecowboy

I work for the Student Wellbeing Service at the University of Derby by day; by night I am a Masters student and advocate of critical regionalism!

Running Off the Edge of the Imagination: Becoming-Alaska in John McPhee’s ‘Coming into the Country’.

Coming in to the Country (1977)

What follows is a (very!) early draft of a chapter concerned with the representation of Alaska in John McPhee’s excellent book ‘Coming into the Country’. My primary aim here is to attempt to position the work as minor literature – a key concept for the expanded critical regionalism sought here. These are some very preliminary observations and weaving together of existing ideas on McPhee’s output. The title – hopefully – hints at the Deleuzeoguattarian thought I aim to explore and employ here, alongside their idea of a minor literature Continue reading

Architecture & Cultural Studies

Image courtesy of Worradmu

Aside from the appropriation of critical regionalism, what else might cultural studies take from architecture? Kenneth Frampton’s work provides a useful starting point for a re-invigorated approach to culture and an accompanying analysis of its manifestations, but how else can recourse to architecture itself, in both its physical and theoretical forms, assist in an analysis which has notions of negotiation and fluidity at its core? We are faced once more with a paradox. Continue reading

Introducing Psychogeography

 

We are indebted to Emma Smith – Masters student at the University of Derby – for this excellent interpretation of the term ‘psychogeography’

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‘Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’[1]

Guy Debord "Psychogeographique"

[2] The term psychogeography is traced back to the Situationist International group headed by Guy-Ernest Debord in the 1950’s.  It seems that whichever pathway one undertakes to find a fixed meaning, Debord’s quote materialises.  This definition is fundamental to the concept of psychogeography as a framework for theoretical approaches, and provides researchers from multi-disciplinary fields  a variety of directions to explore.  As theories concerning identity are constantly developing, this particular connection between the individual and an environment is crucial.  It is impossible to have a subject removed from an environment, therefore be it urban, rural, or even suburban, familiar or newly discovered; an individual responds to the surrounding landscape and consequently develops new characteristics to their identity.  Notions of conflicts and relationships in general between a person and the environment are apparent in much earlier texts such as Mary Wollestonecraft’s  A Short Residence in Sweden whose travel writing genre combines personal reflection with a critique of society and industry in a geographical context.  Her letters relay this connection, ‘The view of this wild coast, as we sailed along it, afforded me to a continual subject for meditation.’[3] Here it is clear that the landscape not only performed the role of muse, but also prompted the possibility of self-reflection for an individual.  Writers on psychogeography such as Merlin Coverley also claim that this understanding of psychogeography is apparent in many earlier writers such as Thomas deQuincey  which is entirely plausible due to the theoretical connection of identity and environment, and in particular the notions of the dérive.  Debord and his fellow psychogeographers embraced the practical and conscious act of the dérive through the cities, to explore unusual, less aesthetically pleasing areas of Paris in a less systematic way. Debord himself writes, ‘The dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.  Dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.  In a dérive one or more persons … let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’[4]  This playful experimentation and display of pushing boundaries is placed within the contextual period of the avant-garde movement which enabled the individual to engage with innovative and artistic ways of expressing themselves and ultimately reflecting on their society which includes their environment.

Self & Steadman "Psychogeography"

Although psychogeography has never left the field of theoretical practice per se, it has continuously blended into the background.  Will Self and Ralph Steadman have brought the concept of psychogeography firmly into the 21st Century with their articles in TheIndependent combining in publication to produce the texts Psychogeography and Psycho Too.  Here Self introduces psychogeography as a concept with his detailed account of his purposeful and deliberate walk from Stockwell in south London to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Self provides the reader with his reasons for the walk, and subsequently what separates his notions of psychogeography from earlier examples such as J.G.Ballard and Iain Sinclair.  Self asserts his reason for walking to New York was, ‘because I had business there, to explore; and, also, because in so doing, I hoped to suture up the wounds in my own, divided psyche: to sew together my American and my English flesh.’[6] Here it is clear that Self believed that this journey as a physical and psychological exploration would result in a clearer, more unified sense of self.   Ralph Steadman’s artwork [5] which accompanies Self’s writing not only enhances Self’s deeply reflexive prose but can also be considered as a text entire.  He visually and aesthetically represents the complexity of relationships between individuals and their locality through a modern form which displays his immediately recognisable cartoon style. By creatively representing countries, buildings, monuments and the natural landscape of cliff edges, deserts and coastlines (to name a few) emphasises how the environment delivers an  enormous impact on the individual, moulds their experiences and the tensions and fluidity that envelopes both land and person resulting in a sensual and spiritual relationship.

It is not only aesthetically pleasing settings which can capture our senses of self, or spark a connection between person and place; psychogeography can be seen to relate to many types of exploration and representation.  Urban explorers generally prefer to find disused sites, and to visit places the general public would not normally like to go, this is not only to seek and capture the heritage of a particular place but could also be a way of coping with a sense of nostalgia and the degeneration of a cultural site.  There are many web sites which display photographs taken of derelict buildings, factories, hospitals and even asylums which provoke many critiques of historical, social and political structures.  It is through the tangible connectivity of these spaces that it becomes more apparent that not only is there the effect an environment has on an individual but also the effect an individual can have on a place.  A text which poignantly represents some of England’s disregarded landscapes is Edgelands written by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.  This book celebrates a ‘debateable zone’ which they argue we do not even acknowledge in our everyday lives.   As they explain, ‘edgelands, by and large, are not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or as a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities.  Edgelands are part of the gravitational field of all our larger urban areas, a texture we build up speed to escape…The smaller identities of things in the edgelands have remained largely invisible to most of us.’[7]  The reader learns this is potentially a true loss in terms of life experience.  The reference made to ‘so-called psychogeographers’ has a negative implication in terms of a general consensus that these in-between spaces ‘are merely a backdrop for bleak observations on the mess we humans have made of our lives, landscapes, politics and each other.’[8] This can be seen in some approaches to psychogeography, however, it is equally apparent that groups of psychogeographers also place an importance on visiting, experiencing and exhibiting their responses to edgelands.  It could be argued that any exploration and subsequent representation of experiences will create ripples in the fluidity between person and place, and furthermore becomes a firm foundation when considering a variety of theoretical critiques.

Alvar Aalto - tactile architecture

By exploring the notions of psychogeography it is possible to investigate many theoretical practices with the environment and the psyche as a subject.  Urban, identity and architectural theories are clear approaches where psychogeography could aid debate.  Architectural theory is a key example of this dual relationship and how considerations are given to the sensual rapport between architecture, environment and the body when designing buildings and even urban planning.  Kenneth Frampton exhibits this consideration in his essay, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’.   When concluding his essay, Frampton touches on significant examples of psychogeographical traces.  He asserts, ‘The tactile resilience of the place-form and the capacity of the body to read the environment in terms other than those of sight alone suggests a potential strategy for resisting the domination of universal technology.’[9] This is further elaborated by Frampton’s description of, ‘ [T]he kinetic impetus of the body in climbing the stair is thus checked by the friction of the steps, which are “read” soon after in contrast to the timber floor.’[10]  When acknowledging that senses other than sight are as important for a person to connect with a place-form this emphasises the possibilities of responding to any environment on a multitude of levels, particularly psychologically.  By ascending stairs and ‘reading’ them emphasises not only physical connection and movement to the stairs but also a necessity to engage with the setting on a much more complex level. 

Juhani Pallasmaa also appreciates and expresses the importance of a person’s perception in context with the environment, in his text The Eyes of the Skin he considers the importance of architectural phenomenology and how experiences of architecture have been suppressed and limited by the importance placed on the sense of sight.  Consequently, he calls for the necessity to combine the senses and embrace the knowledge of how a body, a person responds to their environment.  He argues,

‘All the senses, including vision, are extensions of the tactile sense; the senses are specialisations of skin tissue, and all sensory experiences are modes of touching and thus related to tactility.  Our contact with the world takes place at the boundary line of the self through specialised parts of our enveloping membrane’.[11]

This is a clear example of psychogeography, the psychological and physical experience of an individual and their surroundings through sensory perception.  Pallasmaa further develops this notion,

‘Touch is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves.  Even visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body remembers who I am and where I am located in the world.  My body is truly the navel of my world, not in the sense of the viewing point of the central perspective, but as the very locus of reference, memory, imagination and integration. … The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our sense of self and being’.

It could be argued that this theoretical concept is not limited to architecture in terms of buildings and cities, these sensory principles can be applied to any given environmental landscape.

The possibilities the concept of psychogeography provides are unlimited.   It can provide a framework for literary critiques in terms of identity, and space and place, journeys of a physical or metaphorical nature and most importantly the development of identity and characteristics in synch with a static or changing environment.  Theoretically psychology travels with the rhizomatic metaphor associated with an unveiling perception of critical regionalism; these ideas are not solely fixed in contemporary literary works, but can meander and transgress a plethora of disciplines and eras with virility and the excitement of interesting discoveries.


[1] Debord, Guy-Ernest, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2 Accessed 3/3/2011, 10:13.

[2] http://imaginarymuseum.org/LPG/debordpsychogeo.jpg Accessed 3/3/2011, 9:37.

[3] Wollestonecraft, Mary, A Short Residence in Sweden, London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987, p 130.

[4] Debord, Guy-Ernest, Theory of the Dérive., http://library.nothingness.org/articles/all/all/display/314 Acessed 3/3/2011, 14:50

[5] Steadman, Ralph, Psychogeography, front cover.

[6] Self, Will, Psychogeography, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007, p 13-14.

[7] Farley, Paul and Symmons Roberts, Michael, Edgelands, London: Jonathan Cape, 2011, p5.

[8] Farley, Paul and Symmons Roberts, Michael, Edgelands, p 9.

[9] Frampton, Kenneth, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’, in Foster, Hal,(ed), Postmodern Culture, Verso, 1990, p28.

[10] Frampton, Kenneth, ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’, p 28.

[11] Pallasmaa, Juhani, The Eyes of the Skin, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2005, p 10-11

John Sayles’ ‘Limbo’: Analysing the opening sequence

Limbo © Columbia Tristar

The subject of this piece (the opening scenes of John Sayles’ film, Limbo (1999)) has been chosen as it affords the opportunity to both continue an ongoing theme of my research (representations of the American state of Alaska) and to continue to expand and explore the methodological approach of critical regionalism. For the purpose of this analysis, I take only one aspect of this emergent transdisciplinary approach – the restructuring of binary oppositions and dialogisms ignored in regionalist accounts of landscapes and their attendant cultures. Through an examination of the homonyms real and reel, I attempt to demonstrate how these terms can be theorised as binary oppositions and how an engagement with both allows for the goals of critical regionalist practice to be uncovered and examined in the subject of this case study. In order to reposition real/reel as a binary, other binaries must also be introduced and the opening sequence of Sayles’ twelfth feature film provide an ideal vehicle through which to do this.

After footage of a shoal of salmon swimming underwater over which the titles play, Limbo employs a montage of footage of the Alaskan landscape and culture which plays as a promotional film for the state. As a disemobodied narration praises “America’s last frontier” with its “azure skies … the hearty souls of men who have gone to sea … its siren call to the bold and adventurous … [and] the promise of untold fortune”, the audience sees a blend of images of glaciers, mountains, forests and their wildlife, cruise liners and fishing vessels, kitsch tourist goods such as Eskimo dolls and traditional native totem poles. As the narration and promotional film fades out, the director transports us to a garden party attended by the great and the good of Port Henry, Alaska. In attendance is Albright, “a major figure in the tourist industry” (Bould, 2009:153), who speaks of his vision for Alaska, a vision which is built on “themes for each area up here: The Whales’ Causeway, Island of the Raven People, Kingdom of the Salmon, Lumberland”.

Limbo continues a theme prevalent across Sayles’ entire output. Its Alaskan setting presents “a textured and authentic place that is alive with the genuine diversity of the modern United States” (Armstrong, 2004) and builds upon a widely accepted notion amongst critics that the director’s oeuvre is “about America, its peoples, landscapes, histories and languages” (Bould, 2009:1). Earlier Sayles works such as Baby It’s You (1983), Passion Fish (1992) and Lone Star (1996), set in New Jersey, Louisiana and the Texas-Mexico border respectively, all demonstrate an intensity of emplacement at odds with the tendency towards homogeneity of place often seen in cinematic landscapes. Herein, Sayles’ films work against not only the conventions of cinema but also the denial of the heterogeneity of specific places in regionalist representations. This tendency is, according to Lukinbeal (2005), at its most dominant in the classical paradigm wherein narration becomes a commodity “because it elides the social differences of local scale and attempts to move the consumption of a product to a larger scale” (12). This elision of difference is consistently challenged by Sayles and has lead to critics positioning the director as coming from the naturalist tradition as his work “suggest[s] a social totality” (Bould, 2009:6). It is within this social totality that “practices, institutions and relationships exist not in isolation from one another, but in actual, dramatic, mutual and dynamic interaction” (Wayne, 2002:225). These last two observations hint at possible intersections within Sayles’ work, with the emergent discipline of critical regionalism as will be explored throughout this case study.

Limbo © Columbia Tristar

Regionalist versions of region tend towards the monologic. Critical regionalism critiques these reductionist representations, such as those of an Alaska codified as simply reminiscent of the frontier conquered in the westward expansion of America. This national narrative – the conquering of the West – in itself demonstrates how a complex landscape is ideologically redefined through the eradication of difference in its representation: white, male and individual, rather than multi-ethnic, bi-gendered and communal. Through inserting the binary opposites back in to these imaginings of region, critical regionalism seeks a dialogical revision of these representations. I would argue that a key dialogism to engage with in criticism of cinemas representations of regions, such as the Alaska of Sayles’ film, is that of space/place.

Developments in traditional geography – as theorists attempt to define an approach to a geography of and in film – hint at an intersection with the goals of critical regionalism and provide the root of this study’s suggestion that real/reel can be redefined as a binary of use to this approach. Hopkins (1994) and Lukinbeal (2005) draw attention to the privileging of the material landscape (the real) in traditional geography and echo Aitken and Zonn’s (1994) observation of that discipline as one in which “representation is subsidiary to physical reality” (5). Film, particularly in the classical paradigm, inverts this relationship by privileging the representative elements (the reel) of landscape, resulting in this landscape becoming a space within which the narrative events can unfold, rather than as a place which can impact upon these events. This places the real (the geographical place) and the reel (the representational cinematic space) into a distinctive and interdependent relationship and one which is examined by Sayles’ film. This is an important distinction if we wish to view Limbo as a critically regionalist text for, as Lukinbeal (2005) again notes, the real and the reel intersect in “how we narrate our identities … and how we define the extent of ourselves within a global cinematic community” (17-18).

Lukinbeal’s insight continues: “sense of place … refers to the location where the narrative is supposedly set (whether real or imagined [reel])” (ibid:6). Critical regionalism would seek to take this final statement out of parentheses and make it the central point of any critique of regional representations: all landscapes are real and reel. Film, therefore, undoubtedly offers up a multitude of texts to be subjected to the gaze of the critical regionalist. The regional and the cinematic are both ‘heterotopic’ (Hopkins, 1994) and their own collision on screen (the nature of which will be explored shortly) offers the potential for a re-alignment of Frampton’s (1983) original critical regionalist clarion call – to counteract “the bulldozing of an irregular topography … [which] aspires to a condition of absolute placelessness” (26) – to the realm of cinema. This ‘placelessness’ is counteracted in Limbo through the deconstruction of cinema’s traditional convention of homogenising place to facilitate narrative space.

Whilst the title of the film and its tag-line – “a condition of unknowable outcome” – acknowledge the texts most obvious defying of cinematic convention (Sayles denies his audience narrative resolution), other elements demonstrate a more complex, often subtle, reconfiguring of filmic convention within that same conventional framework. The establishment of place at the outset of Limbo takes the form of seemingly archival footage of Alaska presented as a tourism promotion film. The icons and stereotypes within this help to construct what Jameson (1991) would refer to as a ‘cognitive map’ of the landscape which the narrative occupies: “enabl[ing] a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole” (?). To this extent, Sayles naturalist approach with its attempted presentation of this social totality, could be seen to be following an accepted convention of the classical paradigm which was introduced earlier. Lukinbeal (2005) argues that within this paradigm landscape as place is often established in the master shot … [which] occurs at, or near, the beginning of the film … [and] may simply be archive footage of locations” (8). However, when noting Bould’s (2009) observation that the footage Sayles employs is “actually a kinescope of specially-shot videotape” (150), the montage which it creates – and which both constructs and deconstructs Alaska – is opened up to critical examination.

Limbo © Columbia Tristar

Such an examination can usefully begin by turning to the work of filmmaker-theorist Sergei Eisenstein (1949) whom Aitken and Zonn (1994) invoke in their discussion of the pastiche of place which, for them, inevitably takes place when the homonyms of real and reel (imagined) are brought together in cinematic representations of place. For Eisenstein, montage allowed for the “collision of ideas” (in, Aitken & Zonn, 1994:18) which, as Aitken and Zonn, note “suggests a dialectic whereby an image-event colliding with another … [creates] a third image-event” (ibid:18). ‘Collisions’ abound in Limbo’s opening montage: wilderness/civilisation, utopia/dystopia, inside/outside, local/global and, most importantly real/reel.

The links here to critical regionalism can be drawn by further expanding the space/place dialogism which hinders not only cinema but many representations of region. Reichert-Powell (2007) notes that regions are formed not solely around landscape nor informed exclusively by topology, rather “they are ongoing debates and discourses that coalesce around particular geographical spaces” (14). The tendency of regionalism to denude the topology of individual regions, as Reichert-Powell criticises, is seen at work in the “constriction and artificiality” (Maier, 1994, in Lukinbeal, 2005:12) associated with many representations of place on film. Sayles’ self-constructed mock tourism montage provides the audience with a cognitive map of Alaska which acknowledges the ‘constriction’ and ‘artificiality’ of popular imaginings of that region.

The artifice of regional representations of Alaska as a tourist destination are revealed by Sayles when the audience sees native American handicrafts manufactured by migrant labour, salmon fishermen’s catches sent to automated canneries and the logging industry’s clear-cutting sites re-envisioned as ‘Lumberland’: a “turn-of-the-century sawmill with a water-powered generator and a gift shop” according to the character of Albright – himself a re-imagined twentieth century frontier booster. Campbell (2008), in discussing the ‘post-tourist’ experience which Limbo‘s montage can be seen to epitomise, suggests that films such as Sayles’ demonstrate “the potential for contestation and transformation, blending the actual and the virtual” (117). In this ‘blending’ of actual and virtual (or real and reel as I position this dialogism in this study) we can see proof of Lukinbeal’s (2004) suggestion that the terrain of cinema is “Baudrillardian … [it] precedes the cultural territory” (248). Certainly there are elements of simulacra in Albright’s vision for the state of Alaska which follow the deliberately simulacral elements present in the tourist montage. Both segments challenge preconceived ideas of the region of Alaska and do so through disrupting either the ontology of the cinematic form (the reel) or the epistemology of prior, received knowledge of the region (the real).

Therefore, the ontological stability of the audience’s epistemological understanding of the two film forms which they are viewing in conjunction as Limbo begins (a narrative film and a tourism promotion film), are disrupted by this reinsertion of the viewer/tourists “actual local conjunctural situatedness” (Bould, 2009:151) into Sayles’ imagining of Alaska. In adopting this tactic, the director confronts the audience with the “interconnectivity and multiple interpellations” (ibid:11) of the physical and cultural landscape of Alaska: of the real and the reel Alaska. In doing so, Limbo clearly demonstrates its critical regionalist credentials through this montage which “mediat[es] between the fascination with lost, rural, residual” culture and the simultaneous interest in emergent ones” (Campbell, 2008:43).

Jameson (1994, in Bould, 2009) refers to this act of mediation as “neoregionalism” (7), a “form of reterritorialization” (ibid) and a reaction to the eradication of distinctive regions through homogenisation, reduction, standardisation, commodification, atomisation and rationalisation. Sayles, through the juxtaposition of the images and narration in the montage which opens the events of Limbo, highlights the presence of all of these effects of regionalism – the reel aspects of representation and the real aspects of the material reality – in popular conceptions of Alaska. Neither version is dismissed but the possible incompatibility of the reel and the real are highlighted through the heterotopic qualities of both, resulting in a “contradictory, composite place of the real and the imagined of other times and spaces” (Hopkins, 1994:57) (emphasis added).

If, as I have suggested within this analysis, the real and the reel were redrawn as binary opposites alongside their related dialogic counterparts of place and space, an interrogation leading to mediation of these seemingly contradictory concepts can take place in readings of cinematic texts. This is in line with the aims of a critically regionalist approach to culture: to “disrupt … [regionalism’s] oft-discussed, conventional sheltering role and to fold outward, engaging with its own assumptions and defining principles” (Campbell, 2008:44). Limbo exemplifies John Sayles’ own attempts to engage with and mediate between, prior, reductionist and simplified versions of region and new, complex and dynamic reconfigurations of these same regions. Whether this is the region of Alaska as in Limbo, or in the Texas-Mexico border which Lone Star occupies (several critics have begun to explore this, perhaps most-celebrated of Sayles’ films, in what could be interpreted as critically regionalist ways. Cf. Arreola (2005), Etulain (2004), & Nichols (2009)) Sayles’ films focus on liminal territories and landscapes reflect another key element of critical regionalism: the transgression of boundaries. These boundaries may take physical form in national or regional borders or landscapes (the real), or the ideologically-inflected borders of representations of nations, landscapes and regions (the reel). In both cases, the dynamics of culture inside those boundaries must take into account elements from the outside.

The regional, national & transnational imagination of Bruce Springsteen

Image © Danny Clinch

Finally watched the excellent Thom Zimmny documentary The Promise which accompanies the re-release of Bruce Springsteen’s seminal 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. There aren’t many artists as inextricably linked to a specific region as Springsteen is; New Jersey provided him with, not only a stomping ground on which to hone his particular brand of rock ‘n’ roll, but also a cast of characters and endless, evocative settings in which to place them. Yet, the Boss’ ouevre has always had wider concerns than those of Madame Marie, Sandy, Rosalita, The Cosmic Kid and their lives on provincial Asbury Park’s boardwalk. Nor has Springsteen’s music been wholly situated within the United States (anyone whose only image of Springsteen is the tub-thumping, flag-waving, America-championing, beefed-up ‘Born in the USA’, really needs to read this excellent cartoon primer on the far more ambiguous nature of the man and that song in particular).

Darkness marked a departure for Springsteen: gone were the lyrically dense,

Springsteen's regional imagination

freewheeling fairytales of the Jersey shoreline which made up his first two albums; gone too was the kaleidoscopic kineticism of Born to Run’s urban landscapes. Where these previous albums had spoken of escape from the boundaries of Asbury Park, Darkness considered what the protaganists did once they had transgressed that ‘Jersey state line’.

What really intrigued me about the Boss’ own observations in the documentary was the agonising over the sonic positioning of Clarence ‘Big Man’ Clemons’ saxophone. For Bruce it was an urban instrument; how could it be made to speak in the rural settings of that Darkness on the Edge of Town?

Mediated Positions: Understanding the ‘critical’ of critical regionalism

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev

Regionalism, Lothar Honnighausen (1996) suggests, emerges, culturally, in Europe at the time of the Industrial Revolution: a stabilising force to deal with the psychic frailty engendered in individuals by the move from an agrarian society to an industrialised one; the physical and psychical dislocation brought about by experiencing a “loss of an assured sense of space” (3), as the familiar – and familial – rural space was replaced by the alienation of the urban landscape. In seeking to embody permanence, stability and continuity – which we can argue in reality, have diminished increasingly since the advent of industrialisation – regionalism is, at base, pure nostalgia. On another level, and as scholars have increasingly observed, it also acts as an ideological tool. In its attempts to normalise places and spaces and people’s actions within them, regionalism elides the heterogeneous nature of the individual – occasionally disparately collective – understandings, uses and experiences of these regions. Such interpretations of place and space, as presented to us in all manner of cultural forms, homologise through the monoglossia of normative narratives, presenting a ‘striated space’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988) which is ordered, gridded and geometric: which is hierarchical and, like many ideologies, is imposed from above, thereby eliding multiplicity in its pursuit of unity.

In architecture, regionalism manifests in similar ways. As Kenneth Frampton (1983) suggests, in vernacular and populist aesthetics, architecture presents “a compensatory facade” (17); an illusion of stability designed to root society in a culture that “has become eroded by the rapacity of development” (ibid) and an intrinsic element of attempts “to nurture national revendication” (Ricoeur, 1965:277). How then might architecture, which represents fixity, and whose appeal, according to Schwarzer (2004), “lies in [its] stillness and sculptural depth, in implied resistance to the world of speed, surface and image” (13), be mobilised to become once again “progressive [and] liberative” (Frampton, 1983:18) as Frampton suggests the Gothic Revival and Arts-and-Crafts movements once were in the face of modernisation? Frampton proposes a critical regionalism in architecture, “remov[ing] itself from both the optimization of advanced technology and the ever-present tendency to regress into nostalgic historicism” (20). In such an architecture, “[t]he fundamental strategy … is to mediate [this] impact of universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the peculiarities of a particular place” (21) (emphasis in original). Therefore, the guiding principle of critical regionalism is dialogue, in direct opposition to the monologic manifestations of regionalism. It proposes a structure built upon a local site but which is open to the global, seeking to mediate between the dialectical positions of universal civilisation, as a singularity, and local culture, as a multiplicity.

Increasingly, as the social, the political, the economic, and the cultural, move through, around and beyond the arbitrary symbols and boundaries of regionalist thinking – whether physically, through migration; psychically, through a globalised culture; spectrally, through communication technologies and world economic markets – permeating and transgressing geographical borders and topological territories through these same means. Regionalism, one would imagine, edges ever closer to a state of crisis as opportunities for dialogue and exchange are increased. But, such is the power – and simplicity – of this ideology, its influence remains.

The paradoxical nature of a framework such as critical regionalism and the complex range of material it demands an engagement with, leads to my own research process also employing a guiding principle to facilitate a more rigorous application of the methodology; one which can accommodate and “even foster, transversal, alogical, connections between heterogeneous events” (O’Sullivan, 2002:84). In Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome – “ceaselessly establish[ing] connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relevant to the arts, sciences and social struggles” (1988:7) – we have a characterisation and justification of the interdisciplinary nature of the research. The wide variety of theories and methods which critical regionalism employs – cultural geography, postcolonial and literary theory, to name but a few – means that approaching it rhizomatically suits the purposes of the project as well as epitomising the goals of critical regionalism itself in allowing a more nomadic and territorially unbounded version of region to emerge.

We must always be wary, when following such deterritorialisations – of regions as well as theories – that it does not become “a wild destratification” (O’Sullivan, 2002:89); it must “always proceed from a consolidated territory” (ibid). Critical regionalism, in its engagement with the principles and assumptions of regions and regionalism has as an inherent feature just such ‘consolidated territories’ (though it does, of course, question these arbitrary ‘consolidations’).

What is regionalism?

Image courtesy of Neil Campbell

Just as Campbell (2008) points out, when defining critical regionalism, “the marked emphasis on the critical is vital” (50), of equal importance to the methodology is its suffix. Dwelling on the meanings and uses of ‘region’ and ‘regionalism’, its connotations and associations will be central to the trajectory of this project.

In Arjun Appadurai’s words, “as relatively immobile aggregates of traits, with more or less durable historical boundaries and with a unity composed of more or less enduring properties” [regions] are tested, expanded, and even disrupted by rhizomatic, travelling approaches whereby ideas and concepts spill out and spread, making connections and disconnections, hinting and interrupting as much as concluding and closing. This project is about ‘regionalism’ and about how considerations of region might be mobilized in different ways in the postmodern, global age.

The reframed region/regionalism we intend to extend here is an international, living mix of voices, uncontained, problematic, contradictory – a series of ‘border discourses’ that, articulates region as it ‘works’ inward and outward. This is a re-definition of regionalism that refuses to get to the border (of region or nation) and turn back, to simply close up on itself in some homely and familiar act of territorialization as if protecting itself from the wider world beyond, but one that also ‘deterritorializes’ and directs us simultaneously outside itself to the ‘post-regional’. The capacity we envisage here is for regionalism to disrupt its oft-discussed, conventional sheltering role and to fold outwards, engaging with its own assumptions and defining principles, becoming a re-invigorated ‘critical (cultural) regionalism’ that enables us to comprehend region as a complex process, akin to Massey’s or Appadurai’s sense of the global local, continually being constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed in multiple spaces.

Arjun Appadurai’s project ‘Regional Worlds’ suggests a productive tension between ‘region’ and ‘world’ in its determination to create a new approach to area studies de-emphasising the durable ‘traits’ of coherence and stability whilst stressing ‘process geographies’ defined by travel, trade, diaspora, pilgrimage, warfare, colonization, and exile. The Regional Worlds Project argues for process geographies which allow a conceptualisation of the world ‘not as an aggregation of fixed, historically stable, geographically bounded civilizations, but rather as a cross-cutting map of diasporic identities, translocal interactions and large-scale resource flows’.