Critical Cultural Landscapes of North America

This course examines the cultural landscapes of North America in two critically different ways
1) critical as in pivotal or significant cultural places, and
2) critical as a critique of the dominant ideologies of conformity and control which results in tensions and contradictions between groups within and between places.

This course explores the various (conflicting and, indeed, contradictory) meanings of democracy, individualism, and liberty as played out in North American cultures. Jazz is a good metaphor for U.S. democracy -- individualism in collaboration with others. "Culture develops through dialog [or the absence of it] distributed spatially." -- Philip L. Wagner (Showing Off: The Geltung Hypothesis. Austin: University of Texas, 1996)

Cultural landscape elements are markers that announce and display the presence of a cultural group's most cherished ideals to their own members and to outsiders. Dialectically, we will examine the lie of the land, physically and culturally: what the cultural landscapes look like and what they say about power relationship between dominant and minority groups.

This course deals with what is called Material Culture: the concrete manifestations of cultural beliefs and practices, which of course also has behavioral and intellectual expressions.

Explanatory Frameworks
Theories describe and explain human behavior and their associated manifestations. These theories, reflecting different assumptions about the nature of humans and critical societal forces, are grouped into three kinds: individualist, holist, and socio-dialectical.

v     Individualist or conservative theories are based on the assumption that individuals are atomistic and thus independent of one another. The study of "great" individuals (historically, essentially only white men) of all sorts -- monarchs, presidents, generals, dictators, religious leaders, civil right leaders, architects, capitalists, labor leaders, etc. -- are studied because individuals shape the course of human development.

v     In contrast to the individualists, the holists, or liberals, argue that large-scale events such as the decline of nations are autonomous and largely independent of the individuals who participate in them. Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist, represents the holist perspective when he says: "The concrete effect of each individual upon civilization is determined by civilization itself."

v     With a socio-spatial dialectical approach, societies have not a single context but a series of contexts at a variety of spatial scales which allow different individuals and groups, depending upon how much access to power and other resources they have, to differentially arrange and modify these different contexts. The poor and less affluent have an impact upon the immediate context of their neighborhoods while the rich and powerful may leave their mark at the national, or even international, scale. The meaning of elite is the power to choose. The implementation of choice is more limited for the powerless than the powerful, for the poor than the affluent. Regardless of the power of different cultural groups, they all create some or all of cultural landscapes and interpret them from their own perspectives. This gives rise to tensions and contradictions between ethnic, religious, political, and economic classes.

  A socio-spatial dialectical approach is used in this course to understand the cultural landscapes of North America. Such adjectives as "social," "political," "economic," and even "historical," suggest a link to human actions -- individual and group. Yet the term "spatial" or "landscape" typically evokes the image of something physical and external to a social context. Traditionally, space is a context for society -- a container -- rather than a structure created by society. Nevertheless, human ideas are expressed in behaviors which then create cultural landscapes. These landscapes, in turn, affect behavior and ideas in endless causal loops: cultural landscapes dialectically show cause and effect.

    Social and spatial relationships are dialectically inter-reactive and interdependent. Cultural landscapes reflect social relations and institutions, and they shape subsequent social relations. Geographical unevenness is the result of all social processes, but the past and current U.S. capitalist economy and its sympathetic national and local governments actively create, intensify, and seek to maintain regional or spatial inequalities (e.g., Indian reservations, internment camps for Japanese, Black and Hispanic ghettos). At the same time, the continuing expansion, spatially and non-spatially, of capitalism is accompanied by countervailing tendencies toward increasing homogenization and the reduction of geographical differences (e.g., placelessness, shopping malls, Disneyland). While elites create spatial inequalities and homogeneity simultaneously through their hegemony, non-elites create counter-hegemonic landscapes that reflect their own values. Behavioral resistance to the dominant culture leads to distinctive cultural landscapes: for example, Indian reservations, communal and utopian communities, cultural resistance by French Canadians, and murals and graffiti in inner cities.

Indeed, the dominant ideologies -- religious, political, economic, ethnic, racial, etc. -- continually (re)define "deviance" or "otherness" to maintain their power and landscapes of dominance. Space and place are key factors in the definition of power, order, deviance, and propriety. As Tim Cresswell (In Place/Out of Place. University of Minnesota Press.1996) puts it: "the 'out-of-place' serves to highlight and define the 'in-place'." Peter Jackson and Stuart Hall argue for a "New Cultural Geography" of inclusiveness, particularly of marginalized groups.

In this course, we examine many "deviant" groups (defined, of course, by elite ideologies), in the past and present, that provide(d) alternative visions and cultural landscapes to the dominant visions and landscapes. These dialectical processes transform the very meanings that are being imposed. Tim Cresswell provides the example of graffiti. On the street, graffiti is reviled by authorities as dirt or pollution, and a challenge to public order. Just as dirt becomes dirty according to its context, graffiti's displacement to art galleries changes its meaning. When appropriated and commodified (bought and sold for money) by the art world, graffiti changes to art: "Crime becomes creativity, madness becomes insight, dirt becomes something to hang over the fireplace" (Cresswell, p.49). The former major of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, said that graffiti defaced walls and revealed the proto-criminal disposition of these writers. Of course, he did not object to company advertisements with their boldfaced lies plastering the city's walls (Source: The Progressive, September 2001, p. 17).

In summary then, the dynamic and complex nature of cultural landscapes allows geographers to conceptualize landscape as text (a postmodern way of saying it), which, like a book, is written and read by individuals and groups for very different purposes and with many different interpretations. The messages embedded in the landscape can be read as signs about values, beliefs, and practices from various perspectives, e.g., European colonizers and Native peoples; the white middle class in the suburbs and the black underclass in the ghetto; Midwestern main streets and Disneyland's Main Street; and so on. Landscapes both produce and communicate meanings which we attempt to read and understand in all their complexity and contradictions.

UW-Eau Claire Seal


Created by Ingolf Vogeler on 1 February 1996; last revised on 18 May 2011.