Critical Regionalisms and States of Emergence: ASA 2018

Critical Regionalisms and States of Emergence

This panel will demonstrate the ways a critical regionalist approach to American Studies makes visible “emergences” that are systemically buried or ignored. Despite, and perhaps because of, the elusive natures of geographic and spatial categories—for example, the post-western, transnational, and hemispheric—regionalism continues to be used as a framework for understanding how space and place are constituted imaginatively, politically, and economically. This panel reveals another facet of critical regionalism’s usefulness, one that emerges in our current moment of ongoing socio-political and environmental crises. Panelists draw on the insights of critical regionalism—in particular, its mediation of the local and the global, as well as settler colonialism’s emphasis on region as a site of displacement—to construct methodologies that provide new ways to use “region” as a theoretical tool for analysis. Taken together, the presentations in this session create productive avenues for thinking about spaces that are at times violently contingent as states of emergence.

Each presentation in “Critical Regionalisms and States of Emergence” will introduce a critical regionalist framework through which new methods of inquiry can emerge. These frameworks demystify the region-making discourses and practices that are often mistakenly viewed as a space or place with firm cultural or geographical boundaries. Opening with an analysis of public responses to literature of the American West in the nineteenth century, the panel examines the emergences of critical regionalism through the political stakes of the hyper-localism in Constance Goddard Du Bois’s A Soul in Bronze (1898). The discussion then will move from imaginative and political constructions of the American West to the genealogy of imaginative constructions of “Greater Appalachia” by examining JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) as part of a series of “rediscoveries” resulting from the paradox of a continuous state of emerging crisis. Panelists will also introduce the potential of critical regionalism as an aesthetic practice by introducing contemporary Chicana/o artists and demonstrating the ways a visual vocabulary can inform and add nuance to earlier forms of southwestern regionalism and borderlands studies. Extending this notion of a visual vocabulary, the panel will conclude with a consideration of the visual emergences resulting from populations displaced by economic, environmental, and political crises. By applying a critical regionalist lens to the current state of refugee housing, the panel will conclude by revealing the ways that notions of “solutions” or “security” mask the enduring marginalization of refugee populations.

For this session, we have selected the “talk” format to encourage informality, audience participation, and conversation among our panelists. The chair/respondent will highlight threads running through the presentations, point to keywords and questions that emerge, and initiate and facilitate conversation.


Sigrid Anderson Cordell, U of Michigan
Reforming Regionalism in Constance Goddard Du Bois’s A Soul in Bronze

When the ethnographer, novelist, and Indian rights activist Constance Goddard Du Bois published her California novel A Soul in Bronze (1898), she drew an explicit comparison with Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1888), in particular its goal of achieving the sentimental power and influence of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) on behalf of the Indian. Aware that Ramona’s political impact had been diluted as audiences were more drawn to the love story and the romance of Spanish California than to the tragedy of Native American dispossession, Du Bois hoped that she would succeed where Jackson had failed. This presentation takes up a critical regionalist framework to take seriously Du Bois’s deployment of regionalism to rally the reading public around Native American rights. While Du Bois’s work did not achieve either the acclaim of Jackson’s novel or the influence that she had hoped, A Soul in Bronze uses regionalism to make a largely overlooked argument about cooperative resource sharing that was revolutionary for its moment in the Indian reform movement. To this end, Du Bois both emphasizes the local and particular as it pertained to the hardships of Native Americans dispossessed of their lands in Southern California and engages with broader debates about reform, philanthropy, and settler colonialist formulations of the “Indian problem.” A critical regionalist approach makes visible the political stakes of A Soul in Bronze’s hyper-localism and Du Bois’s attempt to imaginatively test out political solutions to the threats to Native American communities posed by white land encroachment.

Douglas Reichert Powell, Columbia College Chicago
Making Appalachia Greater Again (and Again): JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy Rediscovers a Region

JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has led a large and diverse readership to discover a place they could only vaguely imagine: “Trump Country,” generally, and its apotheosis, the region Vance terms “Greater Appalachia,” in particular. People who actually study the Appalachian mountains, their residents, history, and culture, read the “Trump Country” discovery narratives by Vance and his contemporaries with a familiar sense of dismay: “Here we go again.” Many writers have addressed the errors, omissions, and ideological tendencies of Vance’s “Greater Appalachia,” but my purpose in this talk will be to examine this particular region-making moment as part of a larger cultural syndrome, in which we might see “Greater Appalachia” as including the genealogy of inventions of Appalachia over US cultural history.

The place of Appalachia in the geographical imagination can be seen as a chain of rediscoveries, often in the form of moral panic over the state of mountain life that reveals as much about the discoverers as it does about the discovered. This talk maps out this ongoing process of rediscovery, moving from Vance to the late 90’s of Cold Mountain and Eric Rudolph, to the Great Society and progressively farther back in time, seeing how a familiar process nonetheless responds to specific historical circumstances. Greater Appalachia is less a place than what scholar Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling,” in which cultural and political forces shape competing versions of the meaning of a place for different reasons, and JD Vance is an individual voice in a historic, diverse chorus.

Melina Vizcaíno-Alemán, University of New Mexico
“Always Emergent: Carlota d.R. EspinoZa and Chicana/o Critical Regionalism”

This talk introduces the artwork of Denver-based Chicana artist Carlota d.R. EspinoZa and the concept of Chicana/o critical regionalism. EspinoZa’s artwork has been coloring the walls, windows, and corridors of the greater Denver area for several decades, though little is known of the artist’s work outside of her home state. In addition to presenting several of EspinoZa’s murals and posters, the talk will also familiarize the audience with Chicana/o art and the borderlands through four key, overlapping terms: gender, geography, space, and place. These terms inform Chicana/o cultural studies and critical studies of regionalism, and EspinoZa’s work is relevant to both, but her work has received very little attention in either circle. The idea of Aztlán as the Chicano homeland came into being at the first Chicano Youth Conference in Denver in 1969, a context that undoubtedly shaped EspinoZa’s visual vocabulary, but her work also falls somewhere between the socio-political and ideological vision of Chicana/o art and the deeply-rooted sense of people and place that characterizes earlier forms of southwestern regionalism. EspinoZa moved through the various stages of Chicana/o art, and she continues to work as an active artist in the Denver area, producing work that matters to the discussion of regionalism and place in our current state of local and global emergency. The talk highlights its four key terms through a cross-section of EspinoZa’s work to show the emergence of Chicana/o critical regionalism as an aesthetic practice and a critical tool.

Katrina Powell, Virginia Tech
“Tent Cities and Rhetorical Constructions of Home: The Emergence of Corporate Stakes in Refugee Places”

The metaphor of “warehousing” has been broadly discussed in a variety of fields as a way to understand the implications of placing persons seeking refuge (PSR) in long-term yet impermanent camps or resettlements. In her article, “Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, a Waste of Humanity,” Merrill Smith says that warehousing keeps people “in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency–their lives on indefinite hold–in violation of their basic rights under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.” The current state of refugee housing, and the neoliberal response to this “crisis” by building rows and rows of tents or semi-permanent structure highlights the ways that place, and movements from place to place, is at work in what counts as a home. In this paper, I examine rhetorical constructions of home, specifically within the recent surge of semi-permanent “housing” structures constructed by large corporations and marketed to donors. Using the lens of critical regionalism by examining home interiors in specific places together with the wide-view lens of rows of tents in the refugee camp, I suggest that these literal and figurative constructions, while claiming to be “durable solutions,” are actually a continuance of warehousing PSR. As such, they become the visible emergences of places that have no “place” and subsequently become ways to control, manage, and efficiently “deal with” the millions of people displaced due to natural disaster, civil unrest, and government-sponsored development. Combining critical regionalism with transnational feminist rhetorical approaches, I analyze visual and linguistic representations of home to reveal that the so-called “security” of these in between spaces serve to further marginalize vulnerable populations and mask their precarity.”

Carrie Johnston, Wake Forest University

Taken together, these papers urge us to see what emerges from the impression of a lack of immediate or apparent solutions to national and global problems, and how region as an idea intervenes in, resists, and sometimes stimulates fears that arise due to a lack of solutions.

Sigrid Anderson Cordell’s presentation on DuBois’s late 19th-century novel, A Soul in Bronze, and Katrina Powell’s discussion of tent cities and rhetorical constructions of home, urge us to consider the ethics of philanthropy. From the 19th-century benefactress or patroness to the present-day donor providing refugee housing, the patronizing rhetoric/logic underlying these efforts has material effects. While solving an immediate problem, these charitable acts are not sustainable solutions, ultimately leading to the impression that there is no solution. This possibly makes these supposedly endless situations attractive to corporate interests, as they seem endlessly profitable—the lucrative federal contract held by the Southwest Key Programs to build and maintain refugee warehouses, an example that Katrina points to in her presentation.

Doug Reichert Powell’s discussion of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy brings our attention to another result of this feeling of “no solution” and helplessness, the rediscovery of a region under the organizing logic of a leader who promises quick fixes to complex, systemic problems. Rather than corporations directly profiting from this moral panic, the region emerges as a way to justify and advocate for corporate logic, big business, and corporate personhood as ways to govern the country. I’m remembering the early days of the president’s campaign, when supporters said, “He’s a good businessman, it’s what we need!” and today’s refrain from the right that under his leadership the economy is thriving.

As we think about what’s at stake, immediately and in the long run, the importance of narratives of home as a corrective is apparent, especially narratives that are constantly evolving and considering lived experiences, rather than adhering to nostalgic and limited constructions of home, belonging, and region. Melina Vizcaíno-Alemán’s presentation offers an important avenue for the process of constructive these narratives, urging us to look at visual representations that exceed the boundaries of language-based communication. In her presentation, Vizcaíno-Alemán shows how Carlota DR EspinoZa’s murals resist narratives of “self-assertive masculine rhetoric” (Jose E. Limon’s reading of Rodolfo Gonzales’s poem “I am Joaquin”) in the context of Mexican nationalism. EspinoZa’s murals create an aesthetic that attends to the geography of gender and the gender of geography, illustrating the emergence of a Chicano/a critical regionalism.

Overall, critical regionalism as a framework helps us to penetrate the surface—a surface that at first glance seems determined, decided, impenetrable—to see the negotiations, constructions, the process of deciding what the façade, the master narrative will be.

Under our rubric of states of emergence, and considering that regionalism is traditionally thought of as a literary genre or movement, one growing out realism and focusing on local color depictions specific to a town or region, I’d like to think about the ways that critical regionalism allows us to not only see what’s at stake and to understand the long-term effects of narratives about place and belonging, but also to think about the ways that it urges us toward multimodal and interdisciplinary regionalisms.

(Panel organized by Sigrid Anderson Cordell and Carrie Johnston)