The keyword “west” typically has two referents. On the one hand, it refers to the western United States or the area west of the ninety-eighth meridian where arid country begins; on the other hand, it invokes a global geographic division between the “west” as a center of global colonial powers in Europe and North America and the non-West. The two referents—the “American West” and Western colonialism—intersect in a system of stories and images popularized in US literature, cinema, visual culture, and video games. The search by Columbus for a trade route from Spain to the East Indies sets the keyword in motion as a tale of colonial ambition. Landmarks like Monument Valley and the Oregon Trail, and iconic figures like cowboys, Indians, and pioneers, become generic players in stories about Anglo-American nationalist hopes, character, and history. Mainstream understandings of these narratives and images position the “Old West” or “Wild West” of the nineteenth-century frontier as the West, a space where the colonial values of expansion and settlement meet with national identity as “American.” Critical approaches to the same archive reposition these artifacts as belonging to a larger history of colonial thought, relinking the national and global genealogies of “west.”
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “west” occurred in Old English as an adverb, indicating directional movement or an area on a map. By the early modern period, “west” denoted the Americas or the New World. Two additional figurative senses of the word are significant. One is to die, to disappear, or to be destroyed. This figuration recurs in concluding moments of film and literary Westerns, as protagonists as different as Alan Ladd of Shane (1953) and John Grady Cole of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses (1992) fade into the sunset. The other sense, gaining currency over the past two centuries, conflates the noun “West,” now capitalized, with colonial projects headquartered in western Europe and North America. It is this conflation that Raymond Williams ( 1983, 333–34) characterizes as Eurocentric and mythical. “The West” or the “Western World” is posited against some presumed non-West, a world of Others (Sakai and Morris 2005). The category “westerners” conceives a unity of peoples who share residential origins, racial heritage, and civilization. “Westernization” maps a specific geographical referent onto notions of progress, modernity, scientific achievement, and processes of capitalist development. The non-West, by definitional contrast, lacks these things; it is presumed to need colonization and to benefit from the imperial force of civilization. The keywords “west” and “civilization” go hand in hand as mutual projects of empire.
During the major period of US imperial expansion westward (loosely 1830–90), the meanings of “west” slipped and slid between those associated with the “civilizing” processes of European colonialism and new meanings emerging with US nationalism and joined to the “frontier.” The injunction “Go West, young man, go West,” often attributed to the journalist Horace Greeley, merged Old World claustrophobia and the utopianism of colonial ventures with an ideal of rugged masculine individualism now driven by specifically settler-colonial logics. Opportunity belonged to the man who pursued it, and its location was west, at the frontier, where the colonial settler and his civilizing family encountered “savagery.” Such urgings were crucial to expansionist nation-building efforts, since the frontier regions were opportunist war zones where other political destinies and colonial futures remained possible (LeMenager 2004; DeLay 2009; Blackhawk 2006; Dunbar-Ortiz 2015).
Making explicit the ideological links between the westering experience and processes of Americanization, historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 “frontier thesis” argued that the challenge of settling “the wilderness” had created a society of men of action who embraced populist government and rejected class hierarchies and religious and aristocratic authority. The closing of the frontier endangered the nation because it signaled the end of the epoch of “free land” (Turner dismissed Indigenous occupancy). Turner looked back on the frontier period with imperial nostalgia and found hope in the vision that “American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise” ( 1920, 26). Turner’s approach informed early twentieth-century usages of the term by incorporating older meanings of “west” (the “West” of “Western Civilization”) and bending them toward US national and imperial designs. “West” is understood to fall west of the Mississippi but also, when politically expedient, to exceed it by expanding across new frontiers—think of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn famously “lighting out” for the territories, Teddy Roosevelt using the west to fashion his manly political image and imperial military ventures (Bederman 1995), or President Kennedy’s “new frontiers” of space exploration.
The origins of the scholarly field of American studies were shaped by critical engagements with these types of representations. Early American studies scholars such as Henry Nash Smith (1950) pointed to the popular misconceptions that Turner’s frontier myth fostered about democracy and offered to the new field a methodology focused on the importance to political culture of myths and symbols. Feminist scholars, in turn, critiqued both Turner and Smith, noting the masculinist legacies of the frontiersman figure as a national archetype, the gendered implications of the “virgin land,” and the unconscious masculinity of American studies scholarship in general (Kolodny 1984; Baym 1985).
To be sure, conventional notions of the west have so conditioned the keyword’s global reception that powerful counternarratives get overlooked in scholarly circles and by the public. Scholarship advancing counternarratives in the United States has come most visibly from historians, with occasional support from major museum exhibitions (Smithsonian in 1991; de Young and Legion of Honor in 2016). The burst of activity in the late 1980s from the New Western History was an overnight media sensation, bringing multiracial, feminist, environmentalist, urban-embracing, class-conscious, and anti-imperial Wests to the public (Limerick 1991). New Western historians argued against Turner’s frontier thesis, claiming the West as a real, material place and redefining the analytic practices clustering around the keyword such that conquest, empire, and realism overtook discovery, frontier, and myth as organizing terms. Historians, again with occasional support from art exhibitions, have legitimized counternarratives, thereby raising consciousness about intertwinings of national and global Wests.
Literary, film, and cultural studies scholarship since the 1990s has contributed conceptual sophistication to this shift. Early versions of this scholarship faced the need to interpret an explosion of cultural production in the contemporary period, much stemming from civil rights, feminist, environment, and Indigenous sovereignty movements. Key literary figures included N. Scott Momaday, Joan Didion, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gloria Anzaldúa, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Cormac McCarthy. Informed by critical race theory, feminist geography, and Continental philosophy, critics engaged with these writers by fashioning “New Western” literary paradigms in which white nationalist masculinity and regional insularity were no longer taken for granted (Comer 1999; N. Campbell 2000). By emphasizing poststructural poetics and raising questions of literary and cinematic or photographic form, critics brought new textual reading practices to a field considered overly historicist (L. Mitchell 1996; Tatum 1997; Goodman 2002; N. Lewis 2003). Literature itself was shown to be more important to history making than historians had acknowledged (F. Robinson 1997).
“West” also developed as a significant category for studies of displacement, racial exclusion, and border culture (Paredes 1958; M. Davis 1990; Lowe 1996; Limón 1999; Brady 2002). Groundbreaking work addressed the relation of west to Indigenous intellectualism, textuality, and activism, bringing the keyword “sovereignty” to the fore (Vizenor and Lee 1999; C. Allen 2002; Bernardin and Comer 2007). Given that the majority of American Indian reservations intersect with western geopolitical spaces, conflicts between tribal treaty rights and US federal jurisdictions have been inevitable. The resulting conflicts, including the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests led by Standing Rock tribal people and their allies, have generated awareness of competing knowledges and claims upon place.
Current usages of the keyword are diverse and in transition. In a globalized political economy best characterized as postregional, national borders are porous, and regions function less as feeder economies for national centers than as autonomous units redirected toward “suprastate regionalisms” (EEC and NAFTA) and “city-region states” (Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and Houston; Tatum 2007). This greater mobility of regions has given rise to hemispheric and transnational versions of American studies, critical regional political theory, and concepts of the postwestern. Postwestern work takes up issues of memory, space, and representation, highlighting the dynamism of the keyword west and arguing that its meanings cannot be known in advance (Kollin 2007, 2018; K. Klein 1996; N. Campbell 2011). Scholarship oriented toward transnational Wests has made it nearly commonplace to observe that the keyword “west” has always been mapped as much by “routes” (of commerce, culture, ideas, and people) as by “roots” (of communities with competing claims for land occupancy; N. Campbell 2008; Allen 2012; Kollin 2015a; Aranda 2016). The importance of the Western film genre to directors and audiences all over the world shows that Western film aesthetics and thematics do not exclusively belong to a particular population.
Political questions related to the keyword “west” as it travels across transnational borders including the borders of Indigenous tribal sovereignties point generally to a new critical regionalism. The term “critical regionalism” is used in architectural theory to describe the productive tension between local/regional factors and universalization (Frampton 1983). In social theory, it characterizes cultural formations that move between borders and beyond the nation-state (Spivak and Butler 2007; Campbell 2008). In feminist uses, critical regionalism focused on settler states, women’s bodies, gender-aware literary archives, and Indigenous sovereignties raises concerns about who moves when, which texts move, and under what circumstances (Comer 2010b; 2015). Which of these genealogies will constitute the “critical” of critical regionalism, however, is an ongoing question.
While older keywords like “frontier” continue to orbit around the term “west,” others like “sovereignty” and “settler” have gathered critical presence and significance (A. T. Young 2018). In Indigenous studies, “sovereignty” signals the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, the “radical choice,” as Kirby Brown puts it, paraphrasing N. Scott Momaday, “to conceive a good idea of ourselves” (2018, 84). “Settler” names the agent of the usurpation of that sovereignty, the imposition of a “Western” notion of national sovereignty on Indigenous lands and peoples. The presence of Indigenous nations within the borders of the US nation thus makes for fundamental problems in exercising such control of territories within state boundaries.
Going forward, key issues for critical thought will have to do with which places—and which understandings of place—are in play. Joanna Hearne (2013) demonstrates that US cinema is fundamentally constituted by image-making about Indigenous people at the same time that, in acts of cultural sovereignty, Indigenous filmmakers repurpose genre Westerns in films such as Smoke Signals to create unvanished Native peoples. Such mixtures of Westerns and “rezterns” reflect the continuing status of “west” as a keyword that operates in complex and varying ways in discussions of settler colonialism and tribal sovereignties, regionalism, critical regionalism, regionality, and competing conceptions of land and place.