Regionalism

Census Regions and Divisions of the United States (Source: US Census Bureau)
In this contribution to our Reading and Resource Lists section, Adam Ochonicky selects key texts and materials on regionalism.

This list focuses on the study of region, which is a spatial designation that may refer to intra-national and cross-national territories. Although the following list is generally (but not exclusively) concerned with the former category, there are some commonalities for critical engagement with both types of regional formation. Among others, one task of regional scholars involves simply identifying points of distinction between and, crucially, within regional spaces. The latter practice is of added pertinence for Mediapolis, given that urban and rural spaces may vie with one another as the default identity or image for what is actually a multifaceted region.

“Region” is a deceptively straightforward term that generates intense debate about topics such as cultural identity and even geographic parameters. In the case of the American Midwest (which is the primary case study in my book on regionalism and nostalgia), highly variable understandings of the region appear in popular and scholarly sources alike. For instance, in 1989, cultural geographer James R. Shortridge noted a historical tendency for cities like Detroit and Chicago to be excluded from the Midwestern label in media coverage.1James R. Shortridge, The Middle West: Its Meanings in American Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 9–10, 55–57. Such popular narratives invent a peculiar regional landscape that contains extra-regional urban islands. More recently, a 2023 study by Middle West Review (University of Nebraska Press) and Emerson College Polling examined self-perceptions of Midwestern identity among residents of various American states.2“Middle West Review and Emerson College Polling Launch Largest-ever Study on Midwestern Identity,” Middle West Review: An interdisciplinary journal about the American Midwest, last modified October 18, 2023. While mostly confirming the U.S. Census Bureau’s historic twelve-state definition of the Midwest, this study also highlighted the blurriness of regional borders; more than half of the respondents in neighboring states like Oklahoma and Wyoming expressed an affiliation with a Midwestern identity.3U.S. Census Bureau, Census Regions and Divisions of the United States, last modified October 8, 2021.

Map of Midwestern self-perceptions (Source: Middle West Review and Emerson College Polling)

Clearly, the Midwest exemplifies the challenges of regionalism. Because the central object of analysis — a particular region — may be resistant to singular definitions, utilizing multi-disciplinary approaches and materials is essential. This list highlights a sampling of models for recognizing and analyzing regional narratives wherever they might be found — including across discipline, medium, genre, and era. What qualities, locations, experiences, demographics, and so on have been included in or excluded from a regional term? In a broader sense, what’s the significance of attempting to define a regional space? To address such matters, regionalist scholars necessarily alternate between granular views of the local and broader perspectives on a constellation of sites.

Reichert Powell, Douglas. Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007
Source: The University of North Carolina Press

While using Appalachia as a central case study, Douglas Reichert Powell provides several foundational ideas for engaging in regional study. Among his many insights, I’ve been particularly influenced by Reichert Powell’s emphasis on the importance of engaging with competing regional definitions, understanding regions within relational frameworks, and recognizing the innate arguments contained in any regional commentary. Regarding these topics, Reichert Powell contends, “A region is . . . a way of describing the relationship among a broad set of places for a particular purpose; the larger identity of a region is not defined by any single definition but emerges from the dynamic, historical relationship of these acts of definition.”4Douglas Reichert Powell, Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 65. He also argues that “‘region’ is always at some level an attempt to persuade as much as it is to describe. . . . all versions of region are necessarily partial, and hence an attempt to persuade, at the very least, of the validity of their own particular definitions.”5Reichert Powell, Critical Regionalism, 21. Due to the simultaneously incomplete yet assertive nature of singular regional commentaries, Reichert Powell stresses that scholars must survey a broad array of definitions, narratives, and representations in order to acquire a more nuanced vision of a given region.

Mahoney, Timothy R., and Wendy J. Katz. Regionalism and the Humanities. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008
Source: University of Nebraska Press

Co-edited by historian Timothy R. Mahoney and art historian Wendy J. Katz, this edited collection complements and builds upon Reichert Powell’s work. In the introductory chapter, Mahoney and Katz relate how “discussions of region are almost always implicitly also discussions of ethnicity, race, and the possibility of pluralism: of who ‘naturally’ belongs.”6Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz, “Introduction: Regionalism and the Humanities: Decline or Revival?”, in Regionalism and the Humanities, ed. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), xvii. Here, Mahoney and Katz echo Reichert Powell’s sentiments about the inherently argumentative and ideological nature of regional definitions. They also suggest that both “scholarly and perhaps even popular interest in regionalism” — and the attendant focus on local sites, objects, and practices — may be something of a nostalgic reaction to larger cultural, technological, and global changes.7Mahoney and Katz, “Introduction,” xxiii–xxiv. Of particular note is Mahoney and Katz’s claim that regionalist perspectives are often expressed by departed insiders or visiting outsiders — in other words, individuals who have left a community and are looking back or those who have travelled to a new locale perhaps in search of perceived authenticity.8Mahoney and Katz, “Introduction,” xv. Both positions seem to indicate that there is a fundamentally nostalgic component to regionalism. Other chapters in the volume address regionalism within an array of contexts, including literature, cartography, and architecture.

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001
Source: Hachette Book Group

There are strong conceptual affiliations between nostalgia and region, which both are oriented around unstable and shifting objects. Just as regional definitions and narratives express arguments — whether implicit or explicit — about a particular space, so too does nostalgia for whatever is desired, such as a place and/or time from which one is separated. Within the multidisciplinary field of nostalgia studies, Svetlana Boym is a central figure whose work has correspondences with the study of region. In The Future of Nostalgia, Boym theorizes two forms of nostalgia: “reflective nostalgia” and “restorative nostalgia.” These influential and widely-cited concepts stake out two poles along the ideological spectrum of nostalgia: the former is a contemplative rumination on the past, while the latter is a paranoid and reactionary attempt to construct a mythic version of the past.9Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 41–43. In relation to her commentary on nostalgia, Boym regularly draws attention to issues of place-identity and cultural/technological change. By doing so, Boym herself inhabits something of a regionalist position, particularly via her recurring discussion of Eastern Europe (including specific locales and the cross-national region as a whole). As with the regional scholars discussed above, Boym asserts the relational nature of nostalgia, which she frames as “a result of an interaction between subjects and objects, between actual landscapes and the landscapes of the mind.”10Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 354.

Lim, Bliss Cua. Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009
Source: Duke University Press

Although Bliss Cua Lim is concerned with questions of temporality and genre in this book, there are many ways in which her project offers valuable insights for regional scholars. When detailing her methodology, Lim contrasts traditional studies of national cinemas with her own “organizing logic,” which involves a boundary-crossing approach.11Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 34. Rather than reinforcing “the imagined unity of a national cinema,” Lim instead analyzes a selection of films from multiple Asian nations.12Lim, Translating Time, 34. By doing so, Lim produces what may be described as cross-national regional scholarship within a film studies framework. Multi-regional interactions are also emphasized in a late chapter on “global Hollywood remakes of genre films that originate in Asian film industries and are marketed in a regionalist-globalist vein.”13Lim, Translating Time, 193. Through her work on such topics, Lim provides a fascinating example of a cross-national regional study that connects temporal dynamics, genre-specific elements, and place-identity. Even with its focus on a very different spatial context, Lim’s book influenced my own consideration of ways in which nostalgia’s abstract spatiotemporal elements have been projected onto the American Midwest across eras, media, and genres.

Cramer, Katherine J. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016
Source: University of Chicago Press

When comparing the electoral maps of the 1896 and 2000 American presidential elections, journalist Thomas Frank notes how the red and blue color coding of such images may distort understandings of individual states and even regions.14Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Owl Books, 2004/2005), 13–27. Political scientist Katherine J. Cramer’s book offers a corrective to such limited perspectives on state identity via her nearly-decade-long study of Wisconsin (which began around 2007 and was published in 2016). Here, Cramer argues that cultural and political fractures within states reveal what she frames is “a significant rural-versus-urban divide.”15Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 5. Along with identifying such intra-state spatial and cultural divisions, Cramer further posits that “resentment” is central to “rural consciousness” in the twenty-first century.16Cramer, The Politics of Resentment, 5-7. She asserts, “Rural consciousness signals an identification with rural people and rural places and denotes a multifaceted resentment against cities.”17Cramer, The Politics of Resentment, 6. Following the timely publication of Cramer’s book just before the 2016 presidential election, she’s written a variety of shorter pieces for popular publications such as The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Vox. Despite the highly specific use of Wisconsin as a case study, Cramer’s findings have valuable applications for understanding an important spatial dynamic within contemporary American politics and culture.

The Black Midwest Initiative (website)
Source: Belt Publishing

For scholars working in the area of American regionalism, the Black Midwest Initiative (BMI) provides a valuable collection of resources. Founded in 2017, the BMI’s goals include addressing the “dearth of academic scholarship and popular writing about both the historic and contemporaneous experiences of Black Midwesterners.”18The Black Midwest Initiative, “Why the Black Midwest?”, Black Midwest Initiative, accessed March 10, 2024. In response to reductive media representations and/or to elisions of Black Midwesterners from regional narratives, the BMI “is a progressive collection of scholars, students, activists, organizers, and community-minded people who are committed to advocating for the lives of peoples of African descent as they are situated throughout the Midwest and Rust Belt regions of the United States.”19The Black Midwest Initiative, “Mission, Vision, Values,” Black Midwest Initiative, accessed March 10, 2024. Such corrective work manifests via an array of activities, including a biennial symposium and Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest (Belt Publishing, 2020), which was edited by BMI director Terrion L. Williamson. Along with these projects, the BMI site features a well-curated collection of links to relevant essays, books, and films; these materials are helpful for research and teaching purposes. Finally, as a brief aside, the Black in the Middle anthology is one of many excellent region-oriented texts released by the Cleveland-based Belt Publishing, which — as indicated by its name — “was originally founded . . . to promote voices from the Rust Belt.”20Belt Publishing, “About,” Belt Publishing, last modified 2024.

Frontline (PBS, 1983-present)
Promotional image for Two American Families (Source: PBS)

This long-running documentary series features standalone and multipart episodes that provide in-depth coverage of topics across expansive global contexts and within highly local environments. Of note for regional scholars is Frontline’s recurring attentiveness to the latter category; regarding my own research and teaching interests, many episodes have reported on an array of issues and subject matter in Midwestern communities. For example, Two American Families (2013) shows the urban Midwest being transformed over the latter decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. While tracking the fortunes of two Milwaukee families during this period, journalist Bill Moyers crafts a broader portrait of the detrimental impacts of deindustrialization and other economic changes within the region. Other Midwest-focused episodes of Frontline include: The Interrupters (2012), which details the activities of “violence interrupters” within a Chicago neighborhood (this is one of filmmaker Steve James’s many documentaries about Midwestern subjects); Left Behind America (2018), which examines economic decline and poverty in Dayton, Ohio, among other issues that impact such Rust Belt cities; Flint’s Deadly Water (2019), which — as the title specifies — addresses the water crisis in Flint, Michigan from the second decade of the twenty-first century. Many Frontline episodes are available to stream via the main PBS site.

Oler, Andy, ed. Literary Landscapes. The New Territory
Source: The New Territory

Since my own research and teaching areas include literary studies, I’m drawn to scholarship that considers film and literature in tandem. To mention just one notable work, for instance, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart uses Midwest-set novels by Toni Morrison and Richard Wright to theorize Black film spectatorship in relation to (among other topics) the larger history of the Great Migration—which, of course, involved cross-regional movement in the United States.21Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 93–113. This type of scholarship illustrates how analyzing multiple media collectively may create richer understandings of culture and history. Beyond traditional academic publishing, the Literary Landscapes essay series—edited by Andy Oler and featured on The New Territory magazine’s website—demonstrates the importance of literary knowledge across contexts. This open access initiative highlights a broad array of Midwestern environments and experiences via a focus on locales where major American writers once lived (Wright is among the authors featured in the first twelve volumes). These personal essays are rich with site-specific details and biographical information, as well as broader reflections on the relationships between place and identity. The precision, brevity, and personal anecdotes of the contributors make this series both a compelling read and a useful classroom resource. Taken as a whole, Literary Landscapes is an excellent primer on the ways in which actual locations shape lived experiences and materialize in textual representations.

Notes

Notes
1 James R. Shortridge, The Middle West: Its Meanings in American Culture (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 9–10, 55–57.
2 “Middle West Review and Emerson College Polling Launch Largest-ever Study on Midwestern Identity,” Middle West Review: An interdisciplinary journal about the American Midwest, last modified October 18, 2023.
3 U.S. Census Bureau, Census Regions and Divisions of the United States, last modified October 8, 2021.
4 Douglas Reichert Powell, Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 65.
5 Reichert Powell, Critical Regionalism, 21.
6 Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz, “Introduction: Regionalism and the Humanities: Decline or Revival?”, in Regionalism and the Humanities, ed. Timothy R. Mahoney and Wendy J. Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), xvii.
7 Mahoney and Katz, “Introduction,” xxiii–xxiv.
8 Mahoney and Katz, “Introduction,” xv.
9 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 41–43.
10 Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, 354.
11 Bliss Cua Lim, Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 34.
12 Lim, Translating Time, 34.
13 Lim, Translating Time, 193.
14 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Owl Books, 2004/2005), 13–27.
15 Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 5.
16 Cramer, The Politics of Resentment, 5-7.
17 Cramer, The Politics of Resentment, 6.
18 The Black Midwest Initiative, “Why the Black Midwest?”, Black Midwest Initiative, accessed March 10, 2024.
19 The Black Midwest Initiative, “Mission, Vision, Values,” Black Midwest Initiative, accessed March 10, 2024.
20 Belt Publishing, “About,” Belt Publishing, last modified 2024.
21 Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 93–113.
Ochonick, Adam. "Regionalism." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 1 (April 2024)
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