Tom M Johnson – The Lakewood Project

SuburbsAnother interesting critical regionalist photographer is Tom M Johnson, whose suburban images of Lakewood work really well against the writings of D J Waldie (a big favourite of this website). Continue reading


Cultural poesis, critical regionalism and suburbia © Neil Campbell

Cultural poesis, critical regionalism and suburbia © Neil Campbell

American anthropologist Kathleen Stewart describes her practice as “cultural poesis”, a phrase that may have some use as a preface to what follows in this conclusion. She defines it as: “an experiment that writes from the intensities in things. It asks what potential modes of knowing, relating or attending to things are already being lived in ordinary rhythms, labors, and the sensory materiality of forms, of attunement to worlds.” (Stewart webpage: n.p.) We need to notice, feel, acknowledge, and value all that is around us and that we already experience but often forget or disregard or diminish. The grand sweep of landscape from which myths of nation, region and self have so often been formed do not tell the whole story or even a fraction of it. It is through the “intensities in things” close at hand that we might become more “attuned” to the world all around us, connecting the local to the global not through abstraction and distance, but rather through inter-relation and specificity. For Stewart this necessitates an attention to the ordinary: “things that are necessarily shifting, opportunistic, polymorphous, indiscriminate, aggressive, dreamy, unsteady, practical, unfinished, and radically particular”. (Stewart 2005: 1028) In order to record such flighty, generative things she recommends new forms of writing, “as if the writing were itself a form of life” – responsive, affective, mobile and poetic: It follows leads, sidesteps, and delays, and it piles things up, creating layers on layers, in an effort to drag things into view, to follow trajectories in motion, and to scope out the shape and shadows and traces of assemblages that solidify and grow entrenched, perhaps doing real damage or holding real hope, and then dissipate, morph, rot, or give way to something new. (ibid.) As we will develop below, perhaps this attention to what Stewart calls “Ordinary Affects”, is emerging across different fields of land and identity studies, ranging from new travel literatures, ficto-criticism, new ethnography, radical cultural geographies, and psychogeography. These human interactions with land might be re-thought and re-felt as a “patterning of desire and routine”, as “orchestrations and intensities … as much characterised by confusion as clarity” since, as Highmore argues, “the ordinary con-fuses thought and feeling as ideas and sensation, remembrances and hope, and myriad somatic perceptions”. (Highmore 2011: 2) As we have seen throughout this collection, these are the very spaces that writing occupies, traverses, and folds. D.J. Waldie is a writer Stewart admires and refers to directly as “surreally realist” in his approach to the suburban landscapes of Lakewood, California. (Stewart 2007: 7) It is with his work that this section begins. Speculation 1: D.J. Waldie’s Affective Suburban Landscape The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me. (Pallasmaa 2005: 40) Laura U. Marks writes disparagingly in The Skin of the Film (2000) of “the sensuous nonplace of a North American suburb” dominated by the “commodification and genericization of sense experience” where the world has become increasingly optical and symbolic, dominated by the “abstraction and symbolization of all sense modalities”. (Marks 2000: 244) Such generic bland landscapes, she claims, can only be countered by “pools of local sensuous experience” created by the people who actually live there, achieved through “practices like cooking, music, and religious ritual”, around which are “created new, small sensuous geographies whose monuments are grocery stores, places of worship, coffee and tea shops, and kitchens” as well as through “their very bodies, in the organization of their sensoria”. (ibid.: 245) Suddenly, Marks’ judgmental and generalist attack on suburbia is modified by a different perspective, at once more complex and multiple than the initial one; a haptic and affective landscape of the everyday explored and enhanced by the likes of D.J. Waldie for whom suburbia is his flawed home, yet always a rich and varied space of becoming. Waldie challenges representations of suburbia as a type of region unworthy of serious, close attention, proving that regionalist study can be critical too, interrogating the local and proximate precisely in order to demonstrate its universality, its connectedness and its differences with the wider world. As Lucy Lippard puts it, “Good regional art has both roots and reach”. (Lippard 1997: 37) In this sense, and following from Stewart’s ideas, Waldie’s Holy Land is both rooted in a deep, intense “ordinariness” of Lakewood whilst never losing sight of the relatedness of suburbia to the ‘reach’ of national and global forces. (Stewart 2007: 7) Waldie, who, until 2010, worked as a public official for the Lakewood authority, claims suburbia is a “landscape people rarely notice” and his writing presents a mosaic of episodes made up of memoirs, gathered stories, observations and other fragments that demonstrate precisely why it is worth noticing and how its multiple narratives, when looked at from the ground up, enmesh us into not just local, but national and international histories (Waldie 1996: 154). To this end, I would argue, Waldie stands at the forefront of an expanded or reframed critical regionalism that builds upon a definition provided by Douglas Reichert Powell who sees it as a “strategy for cultural critique” that links individual moments of cultural struggle to larger patterns of history, politics, and culture, by understanding how they are linked not only in time and in the nebulous networks of discourse, but also in space, through relationships of power that can be material and cultural. (Powell 2007: 20-21) Critical Regionalism originates in architectural theory to describe the relationship between the universal and the local in architectural styles. It asserts the need to be critical of the local and regional to avoid a tendency toward naïve inwardness and nostalgia, whilst at the same time, being critical of an overly prescriptive “universalism” that sweeps away the significant contributions of the local and the regional in favour of standardization. It emerged in 1980 with an unpublished piece by University of Texas architecture scholar Anthony Alofsin, “Constructive Regionalism”, in which he identifies an understanding of regionalism through the work of Lewis Mumford in his admiration for architect H.H. Richardson and later the San Francisco Bay Region School. Key to Alofsin’s article is his idea that out of Mumford’s concern for balance and reconciliation between the local and universal styles might emerge “both criteria for criticism as well as a direction for the production of architecture, in essence a constructive regionalism” (Alofsin in Canizaro 2007: 372): “It would embrace traditions and transform tradition; it would be wed to its setting … it would foster craft and push the limits of technology; it would speak to the individual search for the universal”. (ibid.: 372) Wrestling with its paradoxes, Alofsin saw “human use”, “local life”, and the “bonding of people” as intrinsic to this constructive, critical regionalism, whilst refuting “imposition of style or visual hegemony” and “cultural hedonism”. (ibid.: 373, 372) This idea, like the term Critical Regionalism itself, is borrowed from Lefaivre and Tzonis who coined it in 1981 and traced it first in the works of Lewis Mumford and John Brinckerhoff Jackson. (Lefaivre and Tzonis 1981) It was, however, Kenneth Frampton’s influential essay “Towards a Critical Regionalism” that gave a wider audience to these debates, noting the fundamental, and often productive, tension between “universalization” (closely allied to what we might now term globalization) and the “local / regional” (often viewed as limited, inward, provincial). As noted above, since regionalism is often seen as naïve localism as opposed to a more fluid and postmodern cosmopolitanism, Critical Regionalism attempts a negotiation between these two poles to avoid the excesses or limitations of each. Lefaivre and Tzonis write of the need for critical self-consciousness to avoid reviving any form of nostalgic vernacular with its echoes of compensatory idealism, and instead echo Frampton’s call for a “double mediation” – “to ‘deconstruct’ the overall spectrum of world culture which it inevitably inherits” and “to achieve through synthetic contradiction, a manifest critique of universal civilization.” (Lefaivre and Tzonis 2003; Frampton in Foster 1983: 20, 21, 22, 23, 25). Frampton desires “the dialectical interplay between [universal] civilization and [local] culture” and asserts that this might happen through “double mediation” and “interaction” whereby modern, universalization is constantly interrupted and unsettled by what he usefully terms “a revealed conjunction between” (Frampton ibid.:17, 21, 22 – emphasis added). The “conjunctural” denies the assertion of hierarchical order, of the dominant, universal form over the regional, and instead finds effective ways to “mediate” between and across forms. This conjunctural process Frampton calls “in-laying” or “layering” whereby the site “has many levels of significance … the prehistory of the place, its archaeological past and its subsequent cultivation and transformation across time,” displaying all the “idiosyncrasies of place … without falling into sentimentality” (ibid.: 21, 26). In these points, Frampton presents a radical vision of “critical regional” space as complex, layered, and multiple, a palimpsest comprising past, present and future that opposes any effort to reduce or limit its capacity through narrow definition or “rootedness.” As I will suggest briefly here, D.J. Waldie’s approach to the suburban landscape of Lakewood, California has just such a layered, “conjunctural” emphasis, interested in the past and the community dreams of post-war culture, without becoming nostalgic or reductive in his attitude to its continuation and evolution as urban space. As Waldie constructs this critical region on the page nothing simply snaps into place “to support a well-known picture of the world” (Stewart 2005: 1027), for he tests us, surprises us, shifts his tone and style as if to imitate the variant, mutable world he describes. It is never a represented world, but an emergent, immanent, and poetic one – characterised by what Stewart calls the “jump or surge of affect” seeing the “affective as a state of potential, intensity, and vitality”. (ibid.: 1027-8) Indeed, as the opening of Waldie’s Holy Land suggests, his intention was to present a more human, affective relationship to the soulless appearance and reputation of the grid: “That evening he thought he was becoming his habits, or – even more – he thought he was becoming the grid he knew” (Waldie 1996: 1). The author, here referred to as “he,” absorbs the grid into himself, just as the book itself metaphorically embodies the shape of the grid with its 316 sections (some long, some short, some poetic, some mundane) intersecting and juxtaposing across its pages; fragments and layers that together, like the lives within the gridded streets he investigates, create a story to challenge the normative mythology with its “necessary illusion [of] predictability” (ibid.: 2). As he writes, “The grid limited our choices, exactly as urban planners said it would. But the limits weren’t paralyzing” (ibid.: 116). One might learn to live within such apparent restrictions, structure a whole life within and through such maligned patterns. Echoing the new forms of writing Stewart wrote of earlier, Waldie’s suburban palimpsest demands a different type of text; photographic, prosaic, and poetic, its many layers of form and content present, investigate and circulate around the structures of deep feeling, “active relations”, and histories that delineate his Lakewood. (Williams 1965: 62, 64) To capture these patterns Holy Land shifts self-reflexively from third to first person, interweaving historical and affective elements across the landscape Waldie knows so well. “What more can you expect of me than the stories I am now telling?” he writes, and it is through these stories that he unravels a critical regionalist methodology (Waldie 1996: 13); an approach that echoes that of Michel Foucault’s notion of genealogy: “the union of erudite knowledge and local memories” (Foucault 1980: 3). Waldie has lived in Lakewood all his life, occupying the same house his parents bought in the 1940s and, with failing eyesight due to glaucoma and keratoconus, he walks its streets like a flâneur noting its details and quirks, its lines of demarcation and celebration, hearing the voices of the dead and the living echoing through what Foucault terms its “insurrection of knowledges” (ibid.: 84). Holy Land juxtaposes psychogeographic tales of land and identity, cross-cutting, like the suburban grid it examines, between historical figures and Waldie’s neighbours, childhood memories and religious rituals, his real father, the city Fathers, and the Holy Father. Thus Waldie moves seamlessly between stories of Mr H and the fallout shelter built under his garage or Mrs R’s dead baby baptized by Waldie’s mother in the street, to the implications of geological shifts and water politics in LA, to the racial restrictions on home ownership in the post-war USA. To some extent Waldie’s approach mixes Will Self’s description of the ideal psychogeographer, as a “local historian with an attitude problem” (Self 2007: 12) with Michel De Certeau’s sense of historians as “prowlers”. For he works the suburban “zones of silence” (De Certeau 1988: 79), constructing a version of place akin to De Certeau’s – “composed by a series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers”; a space of memories, “haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence … [since] Haunted places are the only ones people can live in …”. (De Certeau 1988a: 108) Lakewood’s voices, its personal and public ghosts, echo across Waldie’s fragments: his dead parents summoned up through the stories he recalls of their lives and his living with them; his neighbours across the years from the primarily white demographic of the post-war years to its increasingly multicultural make-up in the twenty-first century; the founding boosters, and further back, the Spanish gentry who founded Los Angeles; and even the dead soldiers memorialized on the plaque Waldie replaces in Lakewood. These voices pattern the book, like “the ghosts of repetition that haunt … with ever greater frequency,” as Sebald puts in The Rings of Saturn (Sebald 1998: 187), all filtered through Waldie’s “Catholic imagination.” His poetic technique layers the fragments and traces before the reader, providing “a meditation on the fate of ordinary things – the things we touch and the lingering effects of their touch on us”. (Waldie 2007: 61) Waldie contrasts this “touch” of suburban life, of really working close to the ground, with the stereotypical judgements of suburbia derived from aerial photography presenting the hideous sameness and grid-like rigidity of this distanced view. As Waldie writes, “you can’t see the intersection of character and place from an altitude of five hundred feet, and Garnett [the photographer] never came back to experience everyday life on the ground” (Waldie 2009:3). Architectural theorist Juhani Pallasmaa also claims the city has been overburdened by the visual, created by “rapid motorised movement,” and “through the overall aerial grasp from an airplane.” For him, as for Waldie, this enforces “the idealising and disembodied Cartesian eye of control and detachment … le regard surplombant (the look from above) …” (Pallasmaa 2005: 29). Just like contemporary British psychogeographers such as Will Self and Iain Sinclair, what matters more is proximity and a felt connection to the overlooked landscapes of the everyday through which one might counter what J.G. Ballard famously called the “death of affect”. (Ballard 1984: 96) For Waldie, it is this proximate spatiality that concerns him, seeing beyond the aerial view and its gridded imagery that literally and metaphorically “looks down” on suburbia, to a view made up of the human and the material landscape and their “joining of interests” (Waldie 1996: 6). For only then will you experience its vital details: “house frames precise as cells in a hive and stucco walls fragile as an unearthed bone”. (ibid.: 5) Through these organic, breathing images of cells, hives, and bones Waldie creates his phenomenological, affective landscape vision “like the illustration of a fold of skin in a high school biology book” (ibid.:125), never static or dead but always already engaged in the multiple processes of embodied living in the world. As he has written elsewhere, “It’s only the skin I won’t slough off, the story I want to hear told, my carnal house and the body into which I welcome myself”. (Waldie 2004: 108) If the gridded space of the suburbs has become its defining image, Waldie’s writing gets inside the grid seeing complex lives and affects implicated within it and “which it cannot contain, which spills out from it, linking it to the outside”. (Rajchman 1997: 20) “The critics of suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives”, writes Waldie, “I agree. My life is narrow. From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow. Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger”. (Waldie 1996: 94) As we read Holy Land from section to section, across time and perspective, this is the experience gained; of lives and stories juxtaposed, side by side within the grid, building layer upon layer within the intersecting streets of a community constantly evolving and yet, in some important ways, remaining constant and eternal. At one point he uses the word “interleaving” to express this (Waldie 1996: 3), as if to deliberately invoke once again both the organic process of overlapping growth and the bookish metaphor that reminds us of how these suburban streets, for all their apparent ordinariness, are like the text itself with each section a new “leaf” combining with others new and old forming a complex, spectral document. Through this interleaving process, Holy Land reaches beyond localism showing instead these deep histories of the grid as regional yet always simultaneously connected to national, and international histories: the consequences of wars (both the Second World War and Vietnam), the Atomic Age, the processes of migrational, racial, and demographic shifts into and out of the American West; the development of a military-industrial complex as the life-blood of the Sun Belt economies (Lakewood is an aerospace suburb in part built to service the workers at South Bay and Long Beach); and the dramatic ecological changes written on the very landscape of suburbia. Through these examples, Waldie locates Lakewood within a matrix of environmental and political change like the work of Mike Davis, a writer he admires, and yet whose work is apocalyptic in portraying LA’s decline, whereas Waldie prefers his “skeptical optimism” born of a mixture of civics and Catholicism. (Waldie 2004: 27) “My ‘sense of place’ is based”, he writes, “on the belief that each of us has an imaginative, inner landscape compounded of memory and longing that seeks to be connected to an outer landscape of people, circumstances, and things” (Waldie 2007: 62). Thus self for Waldie is spatial, social and spiritual, all channeled through sense which “enmeshes the ghostly and the definite,” as he puts it, drawing in from his experience of the suburbs, “like the Word being made flesh,” all its material and immaterial elements and stories, until what emerges is, as he writes, a “dialog, a continuous narrative within and without, that I understand to be prayer. Because my imagination inclines to being analogical, habitual, communitarian, and commonplace, I assume that’s Catholic”. (Waldie 2007: 63) In a corresponding and beautiful moment in Holy Land, he writes, “When I walk to work, thinking of these stories, they seem insignificant. At Mass on Sunday, I remember them as prayers”. (Waldie 1996: 111) Waldie’s identity as social, spatial, and spiritual emerges through his relationship to place, just as place forms from its dialogical relations with people. To reflect and interrogate this, he creates a unique form of critical regionalist text involving a hybridization of materiality and sensibility, yet one always already entwined with spirituality, since, as he writes, “The everyday isn’t perfect. It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but it saves others. I live where I live in California because the weight of my everyday life here is a burden I want to carry”. (Waldie: 2009: n.p.) Through recognising and recording this “burden,” like the image of crucifixion that haunts Holy Land from beginning to end, he constructs an expanded critical regionalism in the spirit of Frampton’s mediated “conjuncturalism”; appreciating the local in the context of the wider world, the inner with the outer, the material with the immaterial, the “Christic” with the civic; seeing how even in the most disregarded and ordinary landscapes love, care, and redemption might still be possible both individually and collectively. In the words of Kathleen Stewart, “Potentiality is a thing immanent to fragments of sensory experience and dreams of presence. A layer, or layering to the ordinary, it engenders attachments or systems of investment in the unfolding of things”. (Stewart 2007: 21) How appropriate it is then, that Holy Land concludes at Easter, juxtaposing religious rituals of sacrifice and atonement with the civic and community care that Waldie espouses, clearly linking the obligations and responsibilities of faith with his view of properly sustained suburban duties. “There was,” he writes, “no distinction about who could participate in the veneration of the cross,” and in his memory the Easter Mass merges with the secular gathering of suburbia until the words of the hymn Pange Lingua take on another meaning as relevant to the struggles and trials of suburban family life in Lakewood as to the death and resurrection of Christ: “Sweet the wood / Sweet the nails / Sweet the weight you bear”. (Waldie 1996: 178-79) Curiously, Waldie claimed in 1999, when answering an LA Times round-robin on the question “L.A. Lit (Does it Exist?),” that, “The literature to come isn’t here yet”. (Waldie 2004: 123) However, he is too modest, for his own writings, scattered across books, articles, interviews and blogs suggest that his affective memoirs of person and place with their passionate breadth and emotive depth point towards new and exciting forms of expanded critical regionalism resonant with a complex and mysterious “compass of possibilities” (Waldie 1996: 4) derived from an intense relationship to the everyday and an “investment in the unfolding of things.” In the words used by Kathleen Stewart to define her own book Ordinary Affects, Waldie creates a new form of writing “about how moving forces are immanent in scenes, subjects, and encounters, or in blocked opportunities or the banality of built environments”. (2007: 128) Holy Land works rhizomatically outward from the everyday and the disregarded – the “landscape people rarely notice” (1996:154) – to build a complex, ambiguous, and always moving (in every sense of the word) vision of suburbia, rather like the process defined by Stewart, as a sense of force and texture and the sure knowledge that every scene I can spy has tendrils stretching into things I can barely, or not quite, imagine. But I already knew that. The world is still tentative, charged, overwhelming, and alive. This is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is not my view that things are going well but that they are going. (Stewart 2007: 128) As Waldie has written elsewhere, in similar terms, of his relationship to place, “To be a citizen of Los Angeles means, in this hour, not to dream but to pick up the burden and gift of bearing witness to this place”. (Waldie 2009: 6) Through such powerfully affected and affective terms, Waldie expresses something of the poetic purpose and political drive defined by the great French chronicler of everyday life, Michel de Certeau, who lived out his own life in California, and who wrote that: One must awaken the stories that sleep in the streets and that sometimes lie within a simple name, folded up inside this thimble like the silk dress of a fairy. (De Certeau, Girard, Mayol 1998: 142)

Suburban Regionalism

Where do we live? Look around you. In the neighbourhood we grew up or the place where we now live, what is out there?  Who is out there? In many cases it is a suburban world of patterned culture played out in the streets and alleys of a certain life we’d rather not admit – a secret world – hidden and repressed in the pretence of significance and status in which most of us live. Let’s break the spell … the familiar of our hidden lives should indeed become the unfamiliar:

 ‘Everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret & hidden but has come to light’ [Freud, The uncanny, 345] …  ‘for this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar & and old-established in the mind & which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression …  [363-4]


‘the grid of identical houses on identical lots, the smoking barbecues,the swimming pool – loaded signifiers that, taken together, connote both the middle-class “American Dream” … and that dream’s inverse: the vision of a homogenized, soulless, plastic landscape of tepid conformity, an alienating “noplace”.’ (Beuka, 4)
So often photographed aerially and empty of life suburbs are represented as remote and unconnected to the lives of those who actually live there.  As a consequence it has been easy to dismiss and disregard the significance of suburbia to the study of American culture. More than hideous images of Sprawl, social breakdown, or the debilitating effects of its perceived uniformity and cultural containment, suburbia is worthy  of study as a critical space within the modern USA. 
See Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies   Documents and Settings\Fedu555\My Documents\Suburbia.htm
 For Michel Foucault:  Heterotopias are places that mirror the culture at large – sites where ‘all the other sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’. Perhaps the Suburb is a ‘a place that reflects both an idealized image of middle-class life and specific cultural anxieties about the very elements of society that threaten this image’ (7, Beuka). Rather than the obviously ‘standardized’ space of the orchestrated life, it might be in fact a layered and complex space where the lives of people actually shape, coalesce and find some shape within the flows of the everyday … 

Yardage, LA - Neil Campbell