Critical Regionalisms: Repositioning Politics and Culture in American Studies 

Originally, an architectural term, “critical regionalism” first called for modernist architecture that was also connected to its geographical and cultural context, thereby actively participating in modernism’s universalization while critiquing this universalization’s erasure of difference. As Kenneth Frampton argues, “only an arrière-garde has the capacity to cultivate a resistant, identity-giving culture while at the same time having discreet recourse to universal technique” (20).

The concept is the logical progression from earlier American studies, including Lauren Berlant’s National Symbolic and Donald Pease’s postnational. As Berlant explains,, the former names “the political space of the nation, which is not merely juridical, territorial (jus soli), genetic (jus sanguinis), linguistic, or experiential, but some tangled cluster of these” (4-5). “Postnational” refers to those people who resist their integration into national meta-narratives and thereby “expose national identity as an artifact rather than a tacit assumption, a purely contingent social construction rather than a meta-social universal” (Pease 5). Berlant’s tangled cluster is in part an assemblage of regional cultures, some of which fight against the interpellation necessary for a national narrative to flourish.

Regionalism might seem too narrow for the MLA conference, its attendees representing various national and genre studies. Moreover, a panel on regionalism with three different regions foregoes what might appear to be such a focus’s biggest advantage: the appeal to experts in one particular area. However, critical regionalism is concerned not simply with the study of regions but with connecting specific locales with larger cultural and political issues present in a neoliberal, globalized world. As Douglas Reichert Powell notes in Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape, “regionalism, despite traditionally being used to describe, define, and isolate networks of place and spaces, can provide a rhetorical basis for making claims about how spaces and places are connected to spatially and conceptually broader patterns of meaning” (4). Critical regionalism, then, provides a means of arguing what connections we should build between the politics and culture of disparate regions.

Lately, the concept of “critical regionalism” has re-emerged as a geopolitical concept largely concerned with how critical regionalism might translate into a coherent political project and how critical regionalism might become the foundation for an anti-capitalist program.  In the work of certain feminist theorists—for example, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler, and Silvia Federici—critical regionalism re-maps critiques of neoliberal globalization, specifically responding to cultural problems of postmodernism and to the social, political, and economic conditions of globalization and neoliberalism.  In their collective work, we can see the way in which global processes are structured by local constraints, and perhaps how critical regionalism allows us to think outside of these local/global categories toward new possibilities for art, literature, work, life, and community. 

This panel’s ultimate goal will be to create these relations in order to mediate political form and content in a world of neoliberal globalization by focusing on texts immersed in the specifics of a particular city.   

Works Cited 

Berlant, Lauren. The Anatomy of National Fantasy. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1991. Print.

Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983. 16-30.

Pease, Donald. “National Identities, Postmodern Artifacts and Postnational Narratives.” National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives. Ed. Donald E. Pease. Durham: Duke, 1994. 1-13. Print.

Reichert Powell, Douglas. Critical Regionalism: Connecting Politics and Culture in the American Landscape. Chapel Hill: UNC, 2007. Print.

Panel in Brief

Eric Doise’s “Rogue Waves: Democracy in Treme’s Opening Credits” opens the panel by exploring the various opposite, and sometimes oppositional, cultural and political forces in the television show’s beginning sequence, including but not limited to deaths from Katrina with the freedom of Mardi Gras celebrations , the planning and spontaneity as seen in a second line, and the importance of the community and individual in jazz parades. In fact, the opening relationship to the show is itself an example of the simultaneous presence of conflicting concepts in that it could not exist without the larger series but contains no footage from the actual show. This presentation argues that the presence of such dichotomies fits the city of New Orleans itself, a city known for its distinctive culture as evidenced by its culinary traditions, Mardi Gras celebrations, and jazz tradition but also provincialism as evidenced by its extreme poverty, woeful educational system, and unrefined Dixieland jazz. However, Doise argues that it is precisely this push-and-pull between the universal and local that sets the stage for democracy to emerge. 

Melina Vizcaíno-Alemán shifts the regionalism to California in “Architecture of the Closet: Rethinking Richard Rodriguez from the Perspective of Critical Regionalism.” Discussion of Rodriguez's work ranges from the negative to the positive and includes both the ethnic left and the mainstream media, with the former most critical of his ethnic politics and the latter most impressed by his writing style. Little to no attention has been given to the dynamics of place in Rodriguez’s construction of the autobiographical subject, but re-reading his work from the perspective of critical regionalism means also rethinking the place of California in his constructions of self. Vizcaíno-Alemán argues that Rodriguez’s work belongs to a different kind of Mexican American literary tradition than the post-Chicana/o Renaissance, and critical regionalism offers the opportunity to explore more fully his intersections of architecture, sexuality, and place. This paper uses critical regionalism to analyze the urban landscape in Rodriguez’s essay “Late Victorians,” which originally appeared in Harper’s Weekly (1990) and is included in his collection Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father (1992). In Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez becomes a “public man” by writing himself into the closet, but in “Late Victorians,” he stages a coming out story that refashions San Francisco’s urban landscape from the inside, out.

Christina Van Houten concludes the panel with a paper “Critical Regionalism, Civic Engagement, and Detroit Summer,” which discusses Grace Lee Boggs's 1990s efforts to organize Detroit Summer, a multicultural intergenerational youth program.  Boggs’s vision for this program was that it would create a new model of community activism—collective work that responded to the challenges posed by the conditions of life in the postindustrial city.  By 2014, her critical pedagogy as community activism had expanded to include: the Detroit Summer Collective, the International Center for Urban Ecology (ICUE), and the Boggs Center for Education.  In this paper, Van Houten will discuss the ICUE emphasis on Detroit cultural studies as a model “architecture of resistance,” suggesting that this example models the potential for the future of the humanities as necessarily academic and public.  She argues that work of Boggs and the Detroit Summer provides a different kind of example for the future of humanities, one that both complements and critiques ideas like “the new public humanists,” DIY activism, critical making, and service learning: a theory and practice of “critical regionalism,” a project that is necessarily academic and activist in its orientation, and which refuses the “two culture” distinction between academic and public work. 

Panelists’ Bios

Eric Doise is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. Focusing on contemporary American literature and culture, his book manuscript argues that testimonial fiction better illustrates the conditions and contingencies of testimony than the latter can due primarily to genre expectations. His current research extends this argument through an examination of the literary and cultural production of New Orleans as a case study of the relationship between testimonial fiction and place. His work has appeared in publications such as Film Criticism and Extrapolation.

Melina Vizcaíno-Alemán is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of New Mexico.  Her work has appeared in Southwestern American Literature, Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, and Southern Literary Journal, and she is currently working on a book manuscript, which focuses on Chicana/o literature and culture of the twentieth-century from the perspective of critical regionalism.  Her teaching pedagogy is interdisciplinary and focuses on twentieth-century American literature, regionalism, and Chicano/a cultural studies, with attention to identity formation and the politics of representation.  

Christina Van Houten is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  Her work tracks the concept of “critical regionalism” across a range of scholarly disciplines, aesthetic practices, and political movements in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—a period that saw the concept used for projects with diverse outcomes including stylistic formalisms, geopolitical critique, and cultural studies.  Her current project examines the theory and intellectual history of critical regionalism, tracing the development of the term in feminist theory and practice from the period of late modernism to the contemporary moment.  Her work has appeared in Politics and Culture, Rhizomes, and Women’s Studies.