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


The Haunting West: The American West and the Global Imagination

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev

This lecture is much more than about critical regionalism, but it is always ‘shadowed’ by it. The haunting I discuss here is the presence of the ‘critical’ within ‘regionalism’. Continue reading

Particular Points of Loss or Hope: Ecologies of the Road

American Fence, Prescott 2010 (Neil Campbell)

A whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers… – from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat …  It is surprising how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historico-political problem.  Space used to be either dismissed as belonging to “nature” – that is, the given, the basic conditions, “physical geography”, in other words a sort of “prehistoric” stratum; or else it was conceived as the residential site or field of expansion of peoples, of a culture, a language or a State. Continue reading

Michael Ormerod as critical regionalist

‘Drugs’ © Michael Ormerod

Some time ago I wrote a long (unpublished) essay on the work of Michael Ormerod for a number of exhibitions of his work in the UK and one in Omaha, Nebraska. I write about him in my book The Rhizomatic West (2008) alongside Nick Waplington and Andrew Cross as UK photographers whose works investigate and interrogate the American West.  Certainly in my earliest essays on Michael’s work I had no sense of critical regionalism as a method or approach to the kinds of interests his work articulates.  With hindsight it works very well to explore the local/global, rural/urban, inside/outside.  Some of this comes out in the 2008 book. But I publish here the raw original essay – full of ‘leaks’ and lines of flight.  One day I’d like to return to the artist and do something with all this.  For now I offer it as a tribute to Ormerod’s immense achievement as a photographer.  Continue reading

Minor Cinema, Critical Regionalism, and the post-Western – Neil Campbell

‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)

“What I call Ideas are images that make one think.” -1-

According to Jacques Derrida, “cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms, it’s the art of letting ghosts come back”, a progressive art since, “ghosts are part of the future and … the modern technology of images like cinematography … enhances the power of ghosts and their ability to haunt us”. For Derrida, we must “learn to live with ghosts … To live otherwise and better … more justly. But with them … [as] a politics of memory, of inheritance, and of generations” (Derrida 2000: xvii-xviii). These latter words indicate the reach of this idea and the responsibility to past, present and future; towards what Gilles Deleuze called the formation of “the people to come”; a definition of community and region unscripted or fixed by the past or by systematic representations. Given the history of the American West, its expansionism and legacy of conquest, we might see post-Westerns (that is films of the modern West) as potential sites where such a “politics” might be traced, back into the past and forward to the future, functioning in between such poles and yet responsible to both, interested in, as yet unformed, peoples and communities. Continue reading

critical regionalism and photography

Photography and place are intimately connected.  The regional is crucial to so much photographic practice, particularly in relation to the American West (my concern here). Thinking about photography and place, about the regional within the image is a dimension easily overlooked:

‘Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ (Barthes 1993.:38)

Bakhtin shared with another key thinker, Roland Barthes, a dislike of the reductive and an interest in the plural and the multiple.  Barthes wrote of ‘a desperate resistance to any reductive system’ (Barthes  1993:8). He is troubled by photography’s contradictions and attempts to work through them in Camera Lucida (1980), which recognizes that, for example, photographs are ‘the absolute Particular’ and ‘the sovereign Contingency’, with every image  ‘ballasted by the contingency of which it is the weightless, transparent envelope’ (ibid.:5).  They purport to show the world as it is, to point the finger, as he puts it, at ‘this’ or ‘that’, and yet there is more, for ‘photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does.  Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’ (ibid.:6).  Every image ‘curdles’, to pursue Barthes’ image, goes off into something else, something different and ‘beyond’ the immediate reference point of the first sight, and something ‘invisible’ is implied. 

The ‘particular’ nature of the photograph can suggest ‘contingency’ too, since ‘the object speaks, it induces us, vaguely, to think … reflect, suggest [..] a meaning – a different meaning from the literal one. Ultimately, Photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’ (ibid.:38).  Thus, out of and through the apparently fixed (reduced) frame of the motionless photographic image that only shows what is in front of the lens, comes other voices (‘the object speaks’) that encourage reflection, suggestion and thought.

Homage to Robert Frank, 2011 (Neil Campbell)

Barthes implies, however, that photography was often unthinking or ‘unary’ when it ‘transforms “reality” without doubling it, without making it vacillate … [with] no duality, no indirection, no disturbance’ (Barthes 1993:41).  Thus the ‘unary’ image is an image without disturbance, with ‘no punctum’ and so no shock, only able to ‘shout’ not to ‘wound’, and thus tending to the ‘banal’ with an emphasis upon ‘unity of composition’ (ibid.).  For Barthes, the ‘punctum’ was in the ‘detail’ whose ‘presence changes my reading’ by interruption, puncturing the system of representation, skewing the ‘frame’ until the image is no longer ‘docile’ (ibid.:49), but active in the mind of the viewer, shifting the ‘unary’ towards the ‘dialogical’ (or ‘doubling’, as Barthes has called it) through the ‘power of expansion’ (ibid.:45). As an anti-reductive element, the effect of the punctum is to represent the ‘second sight’ of the photographer – the actual fact of ‘being there’ to take the image and to set in train the dynamic relations between viewer and viewed (ibid.:47). As Barthes states, ‘the reading of the punctum … is at once brief and active’ and yet in the photograph ‘everything is given, without provoking the desire for or even the possibility of a rhetorical expansion’, suggesting that the image is always a closed field, contained within its frame.  Of course, in a material sense it is, since the image is single, hemmed in by the edges of the frame, capturing an event, moment, person or object in time, in space, and so the ‘rhetorical expansion’ cannot take place within the actual image itself, as with the written page that simply moves on and adds more words for the reader to follow.  But Barthes’ argument suggests that despite the photograph’s apparent ‘intense immobility’ (ibid.:49), it has the capacity nonetheless to ‘move’ the viewer in a number of ways.  Firstly, because the image, he writes, ‘worked within me’ ‘when the photograph is no longer in front of me and I think back on it’ (ibid.: 53), touching the viewer as ‘affective consciousness’ (ibid.:55), and secondly, because the punctum ‘is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there’ (ibid.).  This ‘work’, ‘affectiveness’ and ‘addition’ combine to create what Barthes terms ‘the presence (the dynamics) of this blind field’, where the ‘blind field’ is that which exists in an image once the punctum engages our senses, and ‘constantly doubles our partial vision’, shattering the apparent motionlessness of the photograph, unfreezing it by suggesting all that exists in relation to and beyond the singular, first (partial) sight.  Barthes argues that the punctum ‘takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that it animates me’ as a ‘subtle beyond’, a space in which the ‘dynamics’ of the image, which by its very material, physical nature is static, are created from the interaction and dialogue of the spectator and the photograph (ibid.:57-9).

Barthes’ term punctum relates very closely to an earlier essay ‘The Third Meaning’ (1970) in which he explains beyond the levels of ‘information/communication’ and ‘symbolic/signification’ there exists a ‘third meaning – evident, erratic, obstinate’ which ‘cannot be conflated’ and ‘exceeds’ the ‘referential motif’ of the image itself and ‘compels an interrogative reading’ (Barthes 1979:53).  He also calls this ‘third meaning’ ‘obtuse’, ‘the one “too many”, the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive’ (ibid.:54).  As Ann Jefferson writes, it ‘bursts out of the frame’ (in Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989:172) thereby aligning Barthes punctum with Bakhtin’s carnival:

It has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure.  Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival (Barthes 1979:55).

Suddenly, the photographic text over-flows the ‘real’ frame becoming more than its ‘obvious meaning’: ‘It sets the reader in motion, casts him loose; in short, it launches him into carnival’ (Jefferson in Hirschkop and Shepherd 1989: 173). Photographic ‘thirding’, as we might term it, to borrow a word from Edward Soja (1996), can be seen ‘as an accent, the very form of an emergence, of a fold (a crease even)’ acting as ‘a counter-narrative’ (Barthes 1979:62-3) ‘to counter the doxa and open up representations’ (Jefferson 173).

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?