chapter  5
36 Pages

Approaches to regionalism: the West and the South

Michel Foucault has argued that history has excluded too readily ‘particular, local, regional knowledge…incapable of unanimity’, in favour of ‘systematising thought’, or the official version (Foucault 1980:82). He calls for the ‘subjugated knowledges’ which have been ‘buried’ below myths to be rediscovered and injected into our perceptions of culture. He calls for a ‘genealogy’—a ‘painstaking rediscovery of struggles together with the rude memory of their conflicts’—which would combine erudite knowledge and ‘local memories’ (ibid.: 83) in the understanding of the cultural process. Rather than assume a ‘unitary’ version of the American West or South, this method insists upon the inclusion of multiple stories of local and regional significance. Such a method takes note of the struggles f or power which have marked the burial of certain stories and the elevation of others and builds them into the analysis. It questions the notion that a particular place or region has a unique or settled set of qualities, and instead argues that stories which have been written about such places have often been written from a perspective which is partial and selective and may even downgrade or omit groups or interests whose experiences or values do not fit with the received version. This is a reminder that we need to take care when we examine the way in which the supposed identity of a place interacts with its history. Generalisations about the character of the South or West may depend upon assumptions about their ‘past’ which themselves contain untested judgements. As Doreen Massey has recently argued, ‘the identity of places is very much bound up with the histories which are told of them, how those histories are told, and which history turns out to be dominant’ (Massey 1995:186). Exploring regional identity in this manner may provide a method through which to counter the urge to present a common, unified story about America, what Fisher calls its ‘unitary myth’ (Fisher 1991:viii). This might be the Puritan ‘mission’ or the Turner thesis (examined in this chapter) which both attempt to understand America through an all-encompassing story of beginning-a metanarrative which explains the nation to its people. The recognition of alternative stories in the form of regional variety and difference asserts diversity and pluralism against this totalising impulse. Regionalism in this sense may not be merely geographical, but might also include such concepts as race, gender and ethnicity, as each balks against the assumption of some common identity, and prefers

instead the assertion of difference. From this perspective, this chapter will argue that ‘regionalism is always, in America, part of a civil war within representation’ (ibid.: xiv) and that by examining texts of region we can uncover both the value of ‘subjugated knowledges’ and what they reveal about the groups that created them, and their place within the larger frame of the nation. Rooted in the actual varied landscapes of America, one can see regionalism as the critical interrogation of the centre, with its official histories and definitions, and the celebration of local multiplicity as well as national diversity.