Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Theorizing Violence and the Dialectics of Landscape Memorialization: A Case Study of Greensboro, North Carolina

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Theorizing Violence and the Dialectics of Landscape Memorialization: A Case Study of Greensboro, North Carolina

Article excerpt

Abstract. The study of the memorialization of landscapes of violence is a vibrant field both within and beyond geography. Previous scholarship has highlighted the contestation that surrounds the memorialization of landscapes of violence as well as the politics of memory that are manifest on the landscape. To date, however, little work has explicitly theorized 'violence'; this has a tremendous bearing on the understanding of how, or if, certain 'violent' acts are remembered or memorialized. This paper constitutes an attempt to denaturalize violence through a foregrounding of 'abstract' and 'concrete' violence. Through a case study of racialized violence in Greensboro, North Carolina, we argue that geographers and other social scientists must articulate more clearly how violence, as a theoretical construct, is abstracted from the concrete realities of lived experience and represented discursively and materially on the landscape. We conclude that the potential for, and actual realized memorialization of landscapes of, violence is always and already a dialectical process of abstraction.

Keywords: violence, memory, landscape, dialectics


The geographic study of landscapes of violence is a vibrant field of study. Scholars are increasingly interested in how violence is remembered, both at private and collective levels, and the role that place and landscape play in the memorialization process (Schramm, 2011). On the one hand, it is recognized that the landscape serves as a conduit for marking and materializing certain memories of violence; on the other hand, the landscape, because of its own traumatic histories, becomes the very subject of what is remembered or forgotten. Combined, these approaches to landscape illustrate what Jones and Garde-Hansen (2012) refer to as the 'geographies of memories' and the 'memories of geographies'.

There are ongoing efforts to retheorize the epistemological foundations of landscape and memory studies (Autry, 2012; Cherry, 2013; Dwyer and Alderman, 2008; Forest et al, 2004; Gough, 2004; Hoelscher and Alderman, 2004; Nora, 1989; Riley, 1997; Schein, 1997; Till, 2006; 2012). And while much of this work has examined the landscape memorialization of violence as an arena for social conflict and reconciliation (eg, Bosco, 2004; Foote, 2003; Graham and Whelan, 2007; Hoelscher, 2008; Johnson, 1999; 2012; Muzaini and Yeoh, 2007; Werbner, 2009), for the most part the ontological foundation of violence has been exceptionally limited. Many studies, for example, have examined instances of direct violence: that which is immediate, concrete, and visible; that which is (often) linked to identifiable perpetrators and victims. This is seen, for example, in the voluminous work on the memorialization of wars, military campaigns, assassinations, and terrorist acts (cf Azaryahu, 2003; Charlesworth, 1994; Falah, 1996; Foote, 2003; Hughes, 2003; 2006; 2008; Marshall, 2004; Mayo, 1988; Post, 2009; Sion, 2011; Tyner et al, 2012; Williams, 2004). Less examined are other 'forms' of violence--such as disease and famine (though see Blair and Michel, 2007; Crowley, 2007; Kelleher, 2002; Marschall, 2010). Regardless, much existing scholarship tends to perpetuate the uncritical presumption that violence is readily knowable; and that violence simply happens or appears on the landscape and is thus subject to memorialization. This relates to our principal concern, namely the lack of theoretical engagement with violence as a concept.

Violence has an outwardly enduring quality; it is presumed to both 'exist' and have an existence that transcends time and space. As Mitchell (1996a, page 156) writes, "on the surface, violence appears to be a simple concept: it is the act of doing harm, injury, or desecration through physical force." Thus, if an individual is stabbed by a knife it seemingly matters little whether the act was conducted in 15th-century England or 19th-century China; in either case violence is said to have happened. …

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