- Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape
Critical Regionalism is a title that is bound to attract geographers. Originally an architectural term, “critical regionalism” contains not only a negative response to the awful, mass-produced buildings of post-WWII American sprawl, but hopefully the seed of establishing more socially uplifting landscapes in the future. It is a [End Page 133] reaction against the soul-destroying “crudscapes” we have built, and a philosophical framework for making rural places and regions and their landscapes not only livable, but connected to and appreciated by adjacent regions.
These subjects have been considered for decades by geographers too numerous to mention, and by non-geographers such as Andres Duany, a landscape architect who spoke volumes to geographers and planners in his book Suburban Nation (2000), and by journalist James Howard Kunstler who gave us The Geography of Nowhere (1993) and Home From Nowhere (1996). These books explain the way American society has been undermined since WWII by our general failure to produce a built environment worth caring about. Further-more, they suggested concrete solutions to rectify the situation locally and nationally by creating landscapes that recreate and support community cohesion.
However, and this is a big however, Douglas Reichert Powell is not really discussing geographical regionalism or cultural landscapes in their classical sense. He is trying to explain something much more complex: the decidedly postmodern concept of “what regions are, how they are made, and what they are for” (p. 4), while moving beyond the time-honored, if simple, definition of region that geographers have engraved on their hearts: a region is a medium-sized area in which the physical, cultural and/or functional characteristics are identifiable to those within, and to many outside, the area.
Powell seems to accept this, for he affectionately uses his home region of southern Appalachia near Johnson City, Tennessee as an anchor, rather than the theme for the monograph. While he describes the region in pure geographical detail, he also relates and makes much of what is claimed to be the story, that members of this particular region tell themselves and others to provide “local color” for, and regional understanding of, the southern Appalachian region of north-eastern Tennessee.
The lynching of “Murderous Mary,” a circus elephant that was publicly hanged (from a railroad crane) in Erwin, Tennessee in 1909 after she killed her handler is baffling in and of itself, but for it to have remained a point of local pride is stupefying. Apparently, however, this is so (although it is difficult to contemplate the lynching of an elephant anywhere at any time), and it is difficult to accept the argument that this particular incident and the retelling of it somehow define the place as eccentric and modernizing. William Faulkner could not have made this up! The shock of the haunting saga of the death of Murderous Mary is not blunted by Powell’s explanation of the historical/geographical context of the region and the era, the coming of the railroad to Appalachia, the phenomena of the traveling circus, the inexperience of the dead handler and so on. Alas, Erwin’s history and geography seem ancillary to the terrible tale. Although other stories from and about other regions are considered, Murderous Mary is Critical Regionalism’s idée fixe.
Critical Regionalism is less about cultural landscapes than it is about academic writing about them. It is more informed by literary criticism than by culture or history, and as such it is a difficult read. Michel Foucault’s “heterotopia,” Michel de Certeau’s “walking rhetorics” and Lewis Mumford’s regional planning prescriptions (mercifully) are summoned to aid in this [End Page 134] explanation. Mumford described “region” in 1917 as an area “that is governed by an impulse not to segment and control human activity on the landscape but to allow for the emergence of a more democratic culture that affords collective, productive relationships among...