The keyword “region” may seem self-evidently place based, both culturally and economically. But this commonplace understanding of regions as natural effects of a stable geography misses a central paradox: historical processes of modernization have created “places” that then appear to preexist or be peripheral to the modern. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a region as “a large segment of a surface or space, especially on the earth, or a specified district or territory.” It thus registers that regions are relational—a region is part of something beyond itself—but only implicitly. Only the fourth definition, “an area of interest or activity, a sphere,” recognizes human involvement in regions’ creation and thereby suggests that regions are not simple effects of natural geography. Considered historically, regions have been created and re-created in conjunction with the unfolding of global capitalism, the ceaseless movement of populations, and the consolidation of nation-states as well as uneven economic and cultural development. At the same time, individual regions’ particularities distinguish them from one another, and regions may set conditions on or otherwise complicate the large-scale forces that generate them.
To engage this paradox requires an explanation of how regions’ obscurity has been institutionalized. That regions are place defined and fixed is a pervasive assumption in the United States, embedded in the local historical societies sponsored by innumerable villages, towns, and cities throughout the nation; in the promotion of regional cuisines and lifestyles (Southern Living); and in the heritage tourism that is so widely embraced as a source of income that the website of the Vermont Arts Council advertises a “Cultural Heritage Toolkit.” The assumption also informs the centers for regional studies that have proliferated in recent decades, including the 1999 National Endowment for the Humanities initiative to launch ten regional humanities centers devoted to developing a “sense of place” that would underwrite the study of regional “history, people, [and] cultures.” For over a century, scholarship on U.S. culture, too, presumed place as a given and viewed it as the most important component of various regionalisms. In canonical accounts, “regions” emerged when areas that had been “sections” of the federated nation—rural New England, the South, the West, and the Midwest—were integrated into a unified postbellum, industrial-capitalist, democratic nation. While history and political economy informed these accounts, regions are conceived in accordance with a spatial metaphor—as physically, culturally, and economically distant from a presumed national center.
Much work in American studies has illuminated the paradoxes that constitute regions. Research on regions’ first national construction, postbellum regionalism, has articulated persisting factors. Feminist critics and others have established regionalist literature’s complicated engagement with identity in the context of late nineteenth-century global developments—massive movement of populations, changes in gender and the family, urbanization, industrialization—and African American emancipation. Taken as a whole, the work of scholars such as Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse (2003), Stephanie Foote (2001, 2003), Kate McCullough (1999), Amy Kaplan (1991), and Carrie Tirado Bramen (2001) highlights many paradoxical features of postbellum regionalism. Among these are the celebration of differences in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality; the unsettling of white dominance; the nostalgic casting of certain regions as preserves of a racially and culturally homogeneous national heritage; and the accommodation of resistance to forces of economic consolidation. Focusing on the same cultural movement, Richard Brodhead (1993) and June Howard (1994) have clarified the roles played by the converging forces of corporate production, expanded consumption, and the consolidation of class distinctions. Brodhead has shown the relationships among regionalism, capitalism, and class, emphasizing the interarticulation between the publishing and tourist industries and stressing the social distinction that urban readers affirmed through regionalism’s consumption. Howard counterbalances this uninflected cosmopolitanism by emphasizing regionalism’s immersion in local cultures and traditions as well.
American studies has also been instrumental to conceptualizing the paradoxical relationships between the local and the large scale that shape specific regions and their cultural representations. Dona Brown’s Inventing New England (1995) and the visually focused Picturing New England, edited by William H. Truettner and Roger B. Stein (1999), consider the history of that region’s place in the nation’s culture and politics as an ongoing process that involved frequent retoolings of its historical foundation, evinced by production of cultural commodities—mementos, works of visual art and literature, furniture, decorative objects. Audrey Goodman’s Translating the Southwest (2002) takes a similar approach to the Southwest, considering it as a region brought into being by industrial advances such as railroads, even as it was figured in photographs, literature, and ethnographic writing as a nonmodern environment with nonmodern inhabitants.
Cultural production has been especially successful at representing specific regions’ transformations and paradoxical character. Jane Smiley’s Iowa-based Thousand Acres (1991) explores the intersection of Reagan-era economics and environmental degradation with cherished traditions of landownership and farming and the often injurious dynamics of the patriarchal family. Southwestern fiction and film make apparent that the Southwest, though commonly regarded only as a region of the United States, has never ceased to be part of larger transnational networks of peoples, cultures, and economies. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991) meditates fiercely on the complicated movements of and alliances among various racial and ethnic populations across the U.S. Southwest and into Central and South America. Films such as Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983), John Sayles’s Lone Star (1996), and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) explore the tangled genealogies, migrating populations, and legal and illegal economies that make the border that separates the southwestern United States from countries to the south at once an intensely policed national divide and a porous boundary that continues to reshape regions across nations.
All of this work suggests that regions are changing rapidly. Continuing population shifts, the extraordinary national and international mobility underwritten by automobiles and air travel, the reconstitution of cities and suburbs, the growth of exurbia, the continuing depredation of rural areas, the omnipresence of franchises, electronic media, and wireless communication: these effects of modernization are altering not only particular places but the role of place in creating regions. Subnational regions exist alongside supranational economic and political alliances, including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, which are further cutting across nations and transforming economies and populations. These macroforces, in turn, encourage new forms of regional activity, cultural, creative, and political. For instance, the individual and collaborative performances of the artist-activist Guillermo Gómez-Peña (1990) mix installation art, radio, poetry, journalism, performance, and video as they explode presumptions about the discreteness of the United States and of the Southwest as a region within it.
In response to these shifts, American studies and cultural studies scholars have reconceived regions within global contexts. Kirsten Silva Gruesz (2002), Rodrigo Lazo (2005), and Jesse Alemán (2006) are among the many researchers who have mapped the hemispheric networks of colonialism, production, commerce, political contestation, and creative expression within which the U.S. South, Southwest, and all other regions are enmeshed. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana (1992) was particularly instrumental in transforming southern studies from an insular field to one that considers both the far-reaching effects that Africans have had on the South and the persisting hemispheric and transatlantic immersion of the U.S. South and its diverse cultures. As American studies and cultural studies engage in the work of understanding regions and regionalism in the past as well as ongoing changes in regions and their cultures in the present, both fields face the heady and daunting challenge of addressing the paradoxes that constitute region and regionalism, while also pursuing the overlaps, tensions, and incongruities among national, hemispheric, and diasporic geographies of culture and affiliation.