Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Larry Brown's 'Joe' and the Uses and Abuses of the "Region" Concept

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Larry Brown's 'Joe' and the Uses and Abuses of the "Region" Concept

Article excerpt

What we are seeking is what is different about us now; and

within the spectacle of this difference the sudden flash of

an unfindable identity. No longer a genesis, but the deciphering

of what we are in the light of what we are no longer.

--Pierre Nora

The problem of "regionalism" goes to the heart of U.S. cultural politics today, and has become a key "site" for theorizing the effects of global culture and postmodernity on contemporary subjectivities. Until recently a derogatory term in the mainstream academy, where it was reserved for "country cousins," "regionalism" has come to be considered by many as "a more appropriate frame within which to read literature than . . . nationalism."(1) At the same time, the tendency among cultural theorists to describe every ec-centric challenge to a posited centric mainstream as "regional" has transfigured the once stable place-term into an unbounded space "within" which to imagine or contest communities. Mutatus mutundi, what were "regional" texts seem to have lost their purchase in contemporary discussions of "regionalism," in part because of their perceived hostility to multiculturalism. To what (if not to where), one might ask today, might "regionalism" refer?

In this sense, Philip Fisher's account of American Studies tracks developments of the term "region" as much as it does a shift within American Studies from (nationalist) myth to contending (regionalist) rhetorics.(2) Applying the logic of a long line of regional sociologists--who have considered region as an ethnicity--Fisher argues that the first part of the twentieth-century saw the rise of "regionalism that was not geographic but ethnic" (p. 241).(3) The later part of the century, Fisher continues, has seen "a further episode of regionalism" centered around gender, race, queerness, and any other group that "sets out its claims against" the "central technological culture" and "the older forces of education and mass representation" (p. 242). In an elegant critique of this "metaphoric translation" of identity-politics into "regionalism," Roberto Mario Dainotto questions whether "regionalism's goal is different from . . . a centralized notion of nationalism?"(4) and finds that regionalism and nationalism "speak the same language" and "foster the same desires, menacing and childish, of purity and authenticity" (p. 505). However, Dainotto's deconstruction of the region/nation binary seems to accept, as Fisher's account of the trajectory of American Studies does, the collapse point between metaphoric uses of region and uses of the term connected to specific narratives about land, many of which have always emphatically considered themselves sub-nationalisms: "not qute a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it," as W. J. Cash said of the South. Neither Fisher nor Dainotto suggests that there are meaningful distinctions to be made among understandings of regionalism, whether in terms of U.S. cultural politics, or in terms of attempts to view historic regions as critical sites of social resistance, reactionary or progressive. Thus Fisher can write of "the full spectrum of regionalized culture" as including "Native American, Chicano, gay, black, lesbian, female" regionalisms, as if "Native Americans" did not have over 500 distinct and federally recognized "nations" (p. 242). Dainotto's cautionary overview of the region concept likewise loses sight of the underviews and histories of struggle of peoples committed to place in specific locations, and unhistorically considers the identification of Americans with region as a recent phenomenon. In a similarly unhistorical manner, "postmodern geographers" often imply that the "turn" to "localism" is largely to be understood as a reflexive resistance to economic encroachment. Such readings charge (or credit) transnational corporatism with forcing the local to the surface of consciousness, as if place-bound identities had somehow previously been repressed. …

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