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  • Groundwork:American Studies in Place—Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 4, 2005
  • Karen Halttunen (bio)

A rising chorus of modern-day Jeremiahs proclaims the death of place in American life. "It is commonplace in Western societies in the twenty-first century," observes geographer Tim Cresswell, "to bemoan a loss of a sense of place as the forces of globalization have eroded local cultures and produced homogenized global spaces."1 Mass communication and mass consumerism, the hypermobility of capital and labor, tourism and environmental devastation—all are seen to have homogenized American space. Books with titles such as The Geography of Nowhere and The Destruction of Place in American Life lament the ongoing expansion of what J. B. Jackson called "the vast landscape of the temporary," and echo Josiah Royce's complaint, in 1908, that "nobody is at home." New arrivals rush in, speaking languages and practicing religions unknown to "us," transforming neighborhoods into foreign enclaves, disrupting shared cultural memory, and widening income and wealth gaps, creating "a country of exiles." The power of place has been undermined by a disparate array of factors, including intermodal highways and corporate mergers, big-box retailerships and urban sprawl, extended-stay hotels and Indian casinos, and, within the academy, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, and "the cult of the border." The destruction of place makes strange bedfellows of everyone from Sam Walton to Dipesh Chakrabarty.2

Few among us, I suspect, are entirely immune to laments for lost place: most of us have lost some structure, landscape, or neighborhood to decay, environmental depredation, or the centrifugal forces of relocation and displacement. The critique of excessive American mobility, in particular, is nearly as old as the nation itself: as Dolores Hayden has pointed out, "despair about placelessness is as much a part of the American experience as pleasure in the sense of place."3 But there are serious flaws in these contemporary jeremiads [End Page 1] about American place. They speak from a narrowly privileged position—most obviously, in the case of James Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere, from nostalgia for the nucleated New England town (itself an invented tradition dating to the early nineteenth century).4 They assume an exclusionary treatment of who belongs, and who does not, within our national space. They mistake change for destruction: as Lucy Lippard has observed, "'placelessness' may simply be place ignored, unseen, or unknown."5 And they rest on a deeply conservative, essentialist understanding of place as a static location for a rooted sense of identity that is inescapably threatened by movement and flux. Their worldview, to quote anthropologist Liisa Malkki, is "sedentarist," privileging roots, place, and order over movement.6

This conservative understanding of place responds to globalization with denial, a refusal to acknowledge the postmodern breakdown of the isomorphism of space, place, and culture. Some critical cultural geographers, by contrast, have called for a new conceptualization of place, best expressed by Doreen Massey in her essay "A Global Sense of Place."7 A global sense of place, she argues, is not closed but open, not essentialist but hybrid, not reactionary but progressive, not static but dynamic. It is a place much like her own London neighborhood of Kilburn, which is distinctive precisely for its multicultural character and constant flux. As with Kilburn, a global sense of place is not given, but is always in process, and always contested. "Places," to quote Lippard again, "bear the records of hybrid culture, hybrid histories that must be woven into a new mainstream."8

Certainly, space and place have never been more analytically important than they have recently become in the humanities and social sciences, demonstrating that globalization—with its acceleration of border crossings—has actually made place more important, not less. While geographers were steering their way through the cultural turn, finding new insights in cultural studies, scholars from a wide range of disciplines were guiding our wheels through the spatial turn, discovering the rich possibilities of geography and spatial analysis.9 Initially, for many of us, spatial analysis tended to the metaphorical, as we adopted the idiom of borders and boundaries, frontiers and crossroads, centers and margins. But increasingly, scholars in a wide range of disciplines beyond...