Category Archives: culture

136: Richard Schein’s Landscape and Race

With the edited collection Landscape and Race in the United States, Richard Schein aims to get the reader thinking about the relationship between race and the cultural landscape of everyday places; following Toni Morrison, he argues that “all American landscapes can be seen through a lens of race, all American landscapes are racialized.  For Schein and his contributors, cultural landscape is material, visual, and epistemological, and landscape itself is a process: we shape it to reflect our cultural values, and then the cultural “framings” it contains come back to shape culture, so that whether material or symbolic, “cultural landscapes are constitutive of the processes that created them in the first place.”  Further, following Cornel West, Schein argues that race is an anti-essential, social, and political construct that “matters” as if it were ontological.  Examining race in the landscape allows us to understand, in Omi & Winant’s worlds, “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”  In other words, studying racialized landscapes can help us understand the process of racialization.

Schein prescribed a pretty specific research agenda for his contributors, which means the book is tightly argued even if not all the essays are directly comparable.  Topics and authors include: Michael Crutcher on generational differences and segregated landscapes in New Orleans; Steve Hoelscher on Natchez, Mississippi and the erasure of “Forks in the Road;” Samuel Dennis on the reconstruction of a South Carolina plantation as a tourist site, from the points of view of the planter, slaves, and free blacks on the land; Gareth Hoskins on Angel Island and Chinese Immigration; Daniel Arroya on racial stereotyping in turn-of-the-century picture postcards of impoverished Mexican families; James & Nancy Duncan on aesthetics and the battle between white and Central American residents of Mount Kisco, New York; James Rojas and “Latinoization” in the creation of  the East LA vernacular landscape; Jonathan Lieb and the attempt to put Arthur Ashe on Richmond, VA’s Monument Ave; Derek Alderman on MLK streets; and Heidi Nast on the relationship between race and the location of dog parks in Chicago.

This collection is valuable both for its wide variety of geographic locations and its work in opening up discussions of race beyond the black/white binary.  It’s also wonderfully readable.

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134: Carl Sauer’s Morphology of Landscape

Carl Sauer’s “The Morphology of Landscape” argues unambiguously that geography is the morphological study of cultural landscapes; it is the systematic study of both the ways in which humans have manipulated the physical landscape, and the ways in which physical landscape shapes the cultural landscape.  This article is one of the foundational articles for the Berkeley School, human geography, and cultural geography; Sauer wrote it partly to get the environmental determinists off his back, and partly to stake out some territory for geography.  Here are a few highlights:

  • the “morphological method” involves describing the hell out of physical and cultural landscapes, and then looking for formal patterns across landscapes to determine the connections between culture and the landscape.  The goal is to create composite types, so that you can measure future landscapes against them.  

  • landscape, like area, is an organic whole; unlike area, its boundaries and composition are subjectively determined by the geographer based on experience with other landscapes
  • Geography is not an abstract, rational science; it accepts the subjectivity of the geographer, as long as that subjectivity is made somewhat objective by long experience with reading and writing patterns in the landscape.
  • the cultural landscape is the combination of humans and nature, where the natural landscape provides the materials, culture provides the shaping force, and the “mind of man” creates culture; however, it is “man’s record upon the landscape,” not “the energy, customs, or beliefs of man.”
  • history of the landscape is important, but it’s mostly just included as a “descriptive convenience”
I realize that there was a pretty fierce debate in the 1990s over whether Sauer’s theory of culture was “superorganic,” or a force independent of humans.  There is one paragraph in this whole essay that alludes to a superorganic theory of culture in here, but I think that the problem is more that cultural theory was a lot more complex in the 1990s than it was in the 1920s than that Sauer thought culture was an autonomous force.  He was trying to shift the geographical paradigm away from environmental determinism, not invent a spatially-informed theory of culture in the process.

129: Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place

Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History is a reflection on 8 years of work at her Boston nonprofit The Power of Place, which she started in 1984 to “to situate women’s history and ethnic history in downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists.”  Written for academics, fellow practitioners, and the general public, The Power of Place shows how collaboratively-produced public art can bring together urban space and urban history in new, generative ways, while also identifying and preserving significant public places from changes in the configurations of capital.  With the increasing interconnectedness of cities and the rise of placelessness, Hayden argues, an urban landscape history that accesses and generates “place memory” is the surest route to recovering both a sense of place and the historical agency/ capacity for social change that comes with it. 


Preserving and marking a city’s cultural sites, in ways that incorporate members of the community into the design process and that give both insiders and outsiders access to the multiple meanings and histories of those sites, uses the power of place to recover both historical memory and historical energy.  In other words, place can make struggles from the past feel real and accessible to people today – if it’s done right.  For Hayden, doing it right includes involving multiple community stakeholders; incorporating vernacular, rather than heroic, structures wherever possible, so that the social and political significance of a building trumps its aesthetic appeal; inscribing the experiences of immigrants, women, and people on the landscape; and developing a network of preserved places to “reconnect social memory on an urban scale.”  Throughout, she discusses various examples of this kind of preservation work: tenement buildings in New York that people can visit to get a sense of turn-of-the-century working class life; Cincinnati’s flying pigs; Kevin Lynch’s cognitive maps; the invisible angelinos in LA; Remembering Little Tokyo, an African American Homestead, and workers’ landscapes in LA; and the casitas in New York, which she reads as critiques of tenement space.

Throughout, Hayden looks for creative ways that ordinary people can connect history with cultural landscapes, so that place and memory can help generate progressive social change.  While I suspect increased urban mobility might make it hard to find the long-term community participation many of her Boston projects needed, and I’m not sure how much a particular place is going to spur someone to political action, her emphasis on making memory more multiple and more visible on the landscape could go a long way toward opening up history to more diverse, and more embodied, perspectives.

120: Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia

Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values argues that because humans are the “ecological dominant,” understanding the environment requires first understanding human behavior in depth, so that we can see how our attitudes, beliefs, passions and values shape and are shaped by the environment.  This claim that human perception and experience is an important component of the environment and a valid geographical topic is in direct response to the scientific reductionism of post-WWII geography; it seeks to bring human culture back into the “practical” study of the environment by putting “topophilia,” or “the affective bond between people and place or setting,” at the center of geographic research.

Although Topophilia intentionally does not have a stated method, it does have a theoretical framework.  Tuan sets out to examine environmental perception and values at the levels of the species, group, and individual; to hold culture (or topophilia) distinct from the environment to show how

they mutually constitute values; to examine the effect on environmental attitudes of replacing the medieval world view with a scientific model; to use a dialectical perspective to examine the search for environment in the city, suburb, countryside, and wilderness; and to separate out different types of environmental experience.  Further, Tuan is also careful to argue that his is an empirical humanism, where individual human interactions with the environment combine with those of other people into a “world-view” that is partly personal, partly social; lived experience, combined with culture and the environment, to creates topophilia.  Throughout the book, which includes studies on sense perception, psychology, ego/ethno (self/collective) centrism, and the relationship between culture and personal experience, he balances the uniqueness of individual topophilia with the construction of ideal types, so that each person’s affective bond for place is at once intensely personal and profoundly universal.

Tuan concludes his study with a brief study of his findings.  He argues that

  • a person is at once “a biological organism, a social being, and a unique individual,” and that each person’s perceptions, attitudes, and values reflect all three of these levels
  • we have surprisingly little information about the “quality and range of experience in different types of physical setting under different conditions,” though we do know that certain types of natural landscapes – forest, seashore, valley, island – with their excesses removed, often serve as dreamworlds
  • literacy, science, and technology have a huge impact on a society’s worldview: “primitive and traditional peoples” lived in a “vertical, rotary, and richly symbolical world,” while “modern man’s world tends to be broad of surface, low of ceiling, nonrotary, aesthetic, and profane.” (Is he mushing together PoMo and the Enlightenment here??)
  • All cities contain “public symbols of some kind that concentrate and enforce (through high visibility) the ideals of power and glory” of humans.  However, big cities also function just like any other environment, as “a given fact irreducible to particular human needs.” Further, studying everyday activities in cities can help us learn how people interact with the urban environment.
  • “Attitudes toward wilderness and the countryside, insofar as they are verbalized and known, are sophisticated responses to environment that have their origins in the city.  They presuppose the existence and recognition of environmental types and a degree of freedom to choose among them.”  All three – wilderness, countryside, city – have been ambivalently interpreted as good or evil, with the suburb occupying an even more ambivalent position.
  • human constructions of the environment change over time, but two recurring oppositional images are the garden of innocence and the cosmos – security versus grandeur.  We move back and forth from these two poles, seeking “a point of equilibrium that is not of this world.”
While Tuan’s search for common or universal types that transcend time and space is a little frustrating, the ways he puts human beings at the center of geographic study – by privileging human experience, representation, imagination, attitudes, memories, etc – as well as his emphasis on empirical study, has had profound influence on cultural geography.  A lot of what he says feels directly connected to Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School, but his theory of the relationship between individuals and culture is far more complex, as is his understanding of the importance of the particular within the universal.

100: James Duncan’s Superorganic

In “The Superorganic in American Cultural Geography,” James Duncan calls out cultural geography for laboring under an outdated and undertheorized concept of culture, and argues that cultural geographers and social geographers would both benefit from interconnections between their disciplines.

According to Duncan, cultural geographers in the 1970s (the essay was published in 1980) were largely still working from Carl Sauer’s “superorganic” theory of culture in his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape.”  Building on the work of Berkeley anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, Sauer theorized culture to be both autonomous and the determinant of individual human action.  This separation of the individual from culture causes several problems for cultural geographers because

  • it separates humans from the cultural symbols and meanings they themselves create, so it can’t explain how culture came to take a particular form
  • it reifies culture, which is problematic because it suggests that an abstraction can somehow be a causal agent
  • it assumes internal homogeneity within a culture, as if everyone participating in a culture thinks and acts alike
  • it characterizes culture as a configuration of modal personality types and idealized values, which too easily slides into “All Americans are outgoing” or “All Mexicans are hardworking”
  • it implies Pavlovian conditioning theory, where individuals grow up in a culture and absorb its norms and values, and then these guide us forever
  • it suggests that humans have no agency outside of culture

While this static view of the relationship between humans and culture has obvious implications for cultural studies, namely that it cannot explain diversity within a culture, human agency, cultural change over time, or even the relationship between this cultural superstructure and its economic base, it causes even more difficulties for cultural geographers, at the very least because it cannot explain individual variations in the relationship between humans and the landscape.  Duncan suggests that a better way to approach the relationship between culture and individuals is to follow post-1940 anthropologists, who see individuals as “strategists who manipulate the contexts in which they find themselves” and emphasize “how individuals, interacting with other individuals through institutions, create, maintain, and are in turn modified by their environment.”  In this far less static model,

  • culture is a context for, not a determinant of, individual choices
  • If culture dictates people’s behavior, it’s because they allow those norms in, not because culture is an autonomous, agentive force
  • Following Geertz’s emphasis on empiricism, “‘culture’ can be reduced to the interaction between people.  An individual’s interactions with others shapes the nature of his self.  The individual is thus in part a product of this context as well as a producer and sustainer of the context.”
  • Different individuals and groups, “depending on how much access to power and other resources they have, are differentially able to arrange and modify these different contexts.”  Power determines the scale of geographic influence
  • “culture” can also be seen as “a set of traditions and beliefs that may guide action especially when they are defined by the actors themselves as ‘natural’ or ‘correct’ modes of behavior.”

However, despite his emphasis on individual agency, Duncan is careful to couch that agency in the kinds of social, psychological, and political divisions and struggles studied by social geographers, so that his final recommendation is not to study geography as the product of atomistic individuals but as the product of “individuals and groups of individuals in relation to particular socio-historical landscapes.”

While I think Duncan oversimplifies Sauer’s theory of culture – Sauer was very interested in both empirical data of individuals’ interactions with the landscape AND the subjective interpretation of those data – his argument for human agency is a welcome antidote to the structural determinism that was still hanging around in the 1970s.

81: Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light

Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age seeks to understand how the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 affected American culture, thought, and worldview in the first 5 years of the new “atomic age.”  Accordingly, the book uses a wide range of contemporary articles, books, editorials, letters to editors, radio broadcasts, movies, popular music, opinion polls, and the personal papers of prominent political figures to reconstruct both the history of nuclear energy and the new atomic culture.  Boyer argues that the culture industry was able to channel multiple fears and reactions to the bomb immediately after the blast into an understanding that “the dread destroyer of 1945 had become the shield of the Republic” by 1950.

According to Boyer, reactions to the bomb followed a rough trajectory from multiple viewpoints to a single viewpoint in less than five years.  Right after Hiroshima, Boyer found multiple expressions of a “primal fear of extinction,” which led to support for international control of atomic energy.  However, this movement failed because the atomic scientists and other proponents of atomic energy exploited widespread anxiety about a nuclear war between capitalist and communist states… which led not to international regulation but to anticommunist hysteria.  American attempts to quell the hysteria by searching for a silver lining in peaceful applications of nuclear energy also backfired as early as 1947, when writers began suspecting that nuclear energy’s positive impact had been “badly oversold.”  The strategy that ended up working was the one taken by the federal government and allied groups, which emphasized future peaceful applications of nuclear energy combined with arguments for the feasibility of nuclear civil defense and the need for supremacy in the arms race.

Boyer finds in this story the roots of 1980s nuclear policy.  I think it also provides a compelling cultural-technological explanation for the beginning of the Cold War, as well as a strangely anachronistic interpretation of post-war culture.  Perhaps the 1940s and 50s really were as top-down as the Culture Industry would have us believe?  After all, Boyer did get much of his cultural information from contemporary pop-culture stories…

80: Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town

In Wide Open Town, Nan Boyd argues that San Francisco’s bar-based queer culture was just as important to the development of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement there as were the city’s more mainstream activist groups.  The book relies primarily on some 40 oral histories with San Francisco bargoers, owners, and LGBT rights activists, as well as tourist guides, periodicals, clippings, photographs, and public records to construct (in often meticulous detail) a narrative of how the development of San Francisco’s gay scene swelled into a fight for civil rights.  Although the writing style is a bit heavy-handed at times, Boyd’s innovative research and methodology create a narrative that is anything but closed or canonical.  Rather, by limiting her scope to San Francisco before 1965 and structuring the book in terms of community formation rather than strict chronology, Boyd is able to open up the development of San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement and analyze (or characterize) it in terms of a variety of local contextual factors.  As she moves through topics as diverse as the gay male community, tourism, and female impersonation; the lesbian community, prostitution, and the female body; policing and the construction of homosexuality as behavior- versus desire-based; homophile activism and class-based differences over separatism and assimilation; and coalition-building, she explores the relationships between economics, use of space, police and media oppression, and the development of a community into a class-for-itself.  The result is a narrative that characterizes San Francisco’s gay civil rights movement as a multi-class, space- and place-dependent grassroots movement.  Boyd’s work thus argues that, for this movement in this place and time, “the politics of everyday life were every bit as important as the politics of organized social movement activism.” (242)

While Wide Open Town’s main argument effectively breaks down any “great man” narratives that might plague this particular social movement, the more fascinating elements of the book (by far) are the methodological tools and sub-arguments it uses to achieve its purpose.  Methodologically, Boyd’s emphasis on space and economics allow for an incredibly thorough analysis of the development of bar-based (grassroots) activism.  Her emphasis on space affects her argument in two ways: first, because she limits her analysis (and her conclusions) to a single city, she is able to include city-specific factors like the Gold Rush, local resistance to anti-prostitution and anti-liquor laws, the presence of the military (and the AFDCB) during WWII, and local politicians and court cases in her analysis.  She can thus investigate relationships between local factors that would be invisible at a national level but that would arguably (and demonstrably) have affected the character of local communities more than national or Federal laws and events might have.  Emphasizing space also allows her to consider particular spaces within the city, especially gay bars and clubs, and to show how the physical construction and concentration of these spaces (and their relationship to non-queer spaces) helped build community.  Her emphasis on economics also has profound effects on her analysis: by constructing bars and prostitution in terms of economics (as well as in spatial and moral terms) she is able to explain queer culture in San Francisco as persecuted socially but necessary economically – and thus, eventually, powerful politically.  The sub-arguments that develop from Boyd’s creative use of these methodological tools are, accordingly, powerful arguments in themselves.  She argues, for instance, that sex and race tourism protected gay spaces and gay economies even as they exploited them; that military targeting of gay bars in the 1950s actually fostered the development of separate gay spaces (and thus gay communities) rather than eliminating them; and that the development of lesbian social and geographic spaces was intimately bound up with prostitution and thus with  the policing of the female body (which explains, at least somewhat, the myth that lesbians do not concentrate geographically.)  Thus, Boyd’s innovative methodology and sub-arguments work to open up the narrative of the movement to a multitude of possible causes and implications.

While Boyd’s extensive research and innovative methodology definitely construct a new narrative of the beginnings of San Francisco’s gay rights movement, the book does face some organizational and methodological challenges.  Although Boyd clearly portrays a grassroots movement that does not rely on top-down activist groups, her writing style often paints a different picture.  She begins each chapter with an oral history that touches on some of the main themes of the chapter – thus indicating that her chapters are, in fact, organized around her data and not around her own theories – but the strong organizational tools and clear statements of thesis and conclusion at times seem to indicate a mistrust of the reader.  I can’t remember the last time that I complained about strong thesis sentences and conclusions, but sometimes Boyd seems to be so focused on driving home her point that the vast primary research on which that point is based takes a back seat to exposition.  Often, I found myself paying more attention to the structure of the book than to its content, which I think does Boyd a great disservice.  In addition, while Boyd’s decision to bound her study geographically and temporally really allows her to hone in on local bars, politicians, drag queens, regulatory bodies and activist groups, in some ways this boundedness does her a disservice as well.   Although she is able to pinpoint local factors affecting a movement, these boundaries keep her from providing much information about the movement in other cities or about its interaction with other civil rights movements.  The lack of this wider context is particularly evident with respect to the homophile movement’s emphasis on representation and assimilation.  I realize that the national stage is not the focus of her book, but stronger emphasis on connections to national movements (or even national media) could help the reader understand both the wider context her subjects would have had access to and the importance of investigating San Francisco’s bar-based culture.  

Despite these issues, Wide Open Town reads as a well-researched, well-thought-out book, and I really enjoyed Boyd’s analysis of a movement I previously knew little about.  And despite its relative disconnect from other social movements, the book does relate to several other works.  In its organization and methodological complexity, it bears a strong resemblance to Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, which is not surprising as both authors had Mari Jo Buhle as their dissertation advisor.  In its carefully bounded scope and focus on letting the sources develop the narrative – not to mention its emphasis on the grassroots element of a social movement – it aligns closely with works like Clay Carson’s In Struggle.  And in political theory, it likely relates to many works, but the one book it consistently reminds me of is Chantal Mouffe’s The Democratic Paradox – not because Boyd advocates some abstract utopian political project, but because the tension Boyd sets up and resolves between bar-based and homophile cultures, where the bar-based communities want to be left alone to develop their own communities-in-themselves while the homophile societies speak in the assimilative language of individual civil rights, resonates so clearly with Mouffe’s concept of liberal democracy.  This book is an interesting contribution to the study of social movements, both in its subject matter and in its construction.