politics of space in Chicano/a writing – Mermann-Jozwiak


A decade on again, I find my notes on an article by Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak that connected with my interest in (Mexican/American) place in Cisnero’s House on Mango Street. It still catches my eye. She wrote:

“In the preface to her edited collection Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo caras Gloria Anzaldúa uses the metaphor haciendo caras (making faces) for the construction of Chicana identity. This identity, she claims, exists in the interfaces, the spaces “between the masks we’ve internalized, one on top of another….[I]t is the place – the interface – between the masks that provides the space from which we can thrust out and crack the masks” (xv-xvi). Like Anzaldúa, other Chicano/a writers and critics situate Mexican-American women through various and recurring spatial metaphors of nepantla, borderlands, brinks, and interstices. Chicanas speak from the “cracked spaces” (xxii), which, according to Anzaldúa, are simultaneously the spaces of revolutionary potential (“gestos subversivos” [xv]). [end p.469]
Two decades have passed since Anzaldúa’s articulation of a spatial poetics of resistance and, I might add, since Sandra Cisnero’s famous departures from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in her House on Mango Street (1984).” (pp.469-470)

Reviewing Mary Pat Brady’s Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space (2002, Durham: Duke UP), Mermann-Jozwiak observes that the “book’s focus […] is on processes that shape our understanding of places, as well as on the effects of space on subject formation.” (p.472)She notes that Brady “examines border discourses and the simultaneous aestheticization, militarization, and representation of the border as abjection machine.” (p.471) Indeed, Mermann-Jozwiak felt that “In her conclusion, […] she reiterates the now common insight of “the border’s centrality to the field of Chicana/o critical analysis”” (p.473)

Going on to review Monika Kaup’s Rewriting North American Borders in Chicano and Chicana Narrative (2001, New York: Peter Lang), Mermann-Jozwiak writes that “Like Brady, Kaup is interested in tracing Chicano/a interventions in spatial politics. Her discussion of writers’ rearticulations of the spatial ordr derives from Michel de Certeau’s analysis of spatial practices that have the potential to subvert relations of power. The migration narratives she examines, for example, challenge the construction of nation-spaces and its concomitant rhetoric of alterity. Women, she shows, effectively employ the discourses of architecture to renovate male-authored narratives’ construction of domestic spaces. As the interstitial gaps are the “locations [where] oppositional, subaltern histories can be found” (Pérez 5), and as the interface is the place of revolutionary potential (Anzaldúa xv), Kaup and Brady both convincingly demonstrate the “urgency of space” in Chicano/a literature, as the writers they discuss engage in discursive constructions and reconstructions of spaces important to Chicano/a history and culture.” (pp.475-476)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Elisabeth Mermann-Jozwiak (2004) Cartographies of resistance: poetics and politics of space in Chicano/a writing. Modern Fiction Studies, 50(2)Summer; pp.469-476

More urban change questions


More interesting questions about humans and cities and nature…

“What is the relationship between humans and nature? How does this question play out in the specific micro-environments of cities?” (p.71)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

urban change questions


These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Heroes of spy fiction – some comments on Ambler and Greene


According to Cawelti and Rosenberg, “Eric Ambler and Graham Greene transformed the spy novel irretrievably. In tone, in characterization, in theme as well as in the episodes and plots used to express all of these features, the genre changed from the naive to the sinister, from a story of adventure to one of treachery and betrayal. These important novelists, whose writing careers span World War II, were themselves altered by that cataclysm, but also helped bring about those changes that now characterize the genre. Ambler’s early novels, those written before England’s active entry into World War II, are modeled on the plots and for the most part  the characters of his predecessors.” (p.101)

Writing of Ambler’s politics – and particularly the novels, Passage of Arms (1960); Doctor Frigo (1974); The Levanter (1972); State of Siege (1956); Dirty Story (1967); The Light of Day [aka Topkapi] (1963) – Cawelti and Rosenberg observe: “The partisan politics of the real world are absent from all of these novels; Ambler has always placed his character in the borderlands of danger, the natural habitat of the spy and international intrigue. In these marginal areas the law is weak and order is shaky. Everything is in flux, and nearly everything is possible. This vision of liminal regions owes its debt, ultimately, to Cooper’s The Spy. Before World War II the Balkans was the area of greatest intrigue, the Mediterranean in general a close second. After the war, the non-man’s-land fraught with danger and the lawlessness that inspired intrigue and duplicity had shifted: for Ambler, as for so many other spy novelists, it was the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.” (p.110)

Ambler’s postwar phase makes few concessions to the directions taken by other spy story writers. He lacks le Carré’s deep questioning of clandestine agencies per se, Len Deighton’s [-p.124] glibness and fast-moving action, Trevanian’s sadistic cruelty, and Fleming’s and Hall’s fascination with technology. Ambler and Greene brought the spy novel a long way toward respectability. Ambler has disciplined himself in telling an engaging story of intrigue and suspense. …Greene has from the first seen the deeper implications raised by the existence of spies and their trade in an open society. He has explored the role of clandestinity in our world and has, perhaps deepest of all, scrutinized the values of loyalty and patriotism, obligation and commitment. More than any spy novelist (in his case especially, a writer who has written spy novels), Greene has returned the spy novel to the mainstream of contemporary fiction. It began as a story of adventure, moved to become a genre in its own right, and by the excellence of some of its most accomplished practitioners is moving back into the main currents of what is simply good fiction.” (pp.123-124)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London

Dracula, East and West


Proposing a method for helping students make sense of the politics behind regional geography (using popular culture), Jason Dittmer writes:

The continued survival of regional geography classes within geography curricula reflects several factors. First, despite the general disdain for regional classes by geographers who favour systematic courses (Brunt, 1995), the classes continue to have tremendous appeal for students, who still associate geography with the study of specific regions and desire intimate knowledge of a region (Halseth & Fondahl, 1998). Second, the resurgence of place in recent theoretical debates has re-established the importance of local understandings, leading to an increased need for regional specialization within the discipline. Many geographers have illustrated the importance of place and region to social theory (Pred, 1986; Gregory, 1989; Massey, 1993).
Nevertheless, these regional courses pose a dilemma. The very scope and definition of the courses is contrary to much of geography’s current body of theory because it accepts the region as an object to be studied rather than a social process, constantly in the act of reconstruction. To engage in the act of teaching a region is, to a certain extent, to endorse a certain set of boundaries and characteristics of that region. For instance, to teach a course on the Geography of Europe is to select some geographic extent for Europe, and to base [-p.50] that decision on some cultural or other criteria. Often, this is dictated to some extent by the choice of textbook, although it is always possible to add to or subtract from the scope of the text. However, the alternative to fixing the boundaries is not palatable either; the goal is not to descend into an endless deconstruction of the metageography of place….” (pp.49-50)

How, then, do we give life to these theoretical and abstract thoughts in the classroom? How can we teach regional geography while still emphasizing the economic and political motivations behind the regions we discuss? The key is to provide the material and discursive bases through which regions are constructed, allowing the class to witness the process of region and identity construction that is so critical to the new regional geography (Warf, 1990; Paasi, 1996).” (p.50)

“…it is important to discuss the processes by which regions are produced as dominant constructions of reality.
In my Geography of Europe class I accomplished this by connecting the metageography of Europe to popular culture in a way that can be replicated elsewhere. In particular, I used the novel Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker as a lens through which to discuss the social construction of Eastern Europe. To do this, the class viewed Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). The movie differs from the book in a few plot points (notably, it includes a back-story for Dracula and a love story between the Count and Mina Murray) but is useful for class discussion because the students connect to the medium perhaps better than to a novel written in 1897 and also because Coppola uses dramatic [-p.51] visual clues to help constitute the difference between Eastern and Western Europe. Following the viewing, a discussion ensued in which the instructor’s role was to provide a summary of the geographic literature on the construction of Eastern Europe as well as a geographic interpretation of the novel. This paper begins with a history of the division of Europe between East and West, highlighting the role of travel literature and other writings in the development of an informal system of regions. Furthermore, the political and economic incentives and consequences for the perpetuation of these regions are discussed. In the next section, a geographic interpretation of Dracula is outlined, identical to the one used in the classroom discussion. This geographic interpretation outlines the dichotomies used to portray the fundamental differences between East and West. Finally, survey and test data are used to assess the success of this lesson in teaching students about the social construction of regions.” (pp.50-51)

Larry Wolff (1994) attributes the construction of an Eastern Europe that is separate from the civilized portions of Western Europe to Enlightenment philosophers (in particular, Voltaire and Rousseau) who perpetuated and mythologized each other’s accounts of a backward and barbaric homogenous region (despite some of these writers never actually
going there). For example, Voltaire’s History of Charles XII (1731) was critical in mapping Eastern Europe in the popular imagination by describing Charles’s march through Eastern Europe. This book was written in the first person and instilled a fantasy-filled image of Eastern Europe that later travellers would take with them, inserting a lens of preconceptions in their imagination. We know that the book was influential because it had several printings and translations, and its effect was far-reaching and long lasting.” (p.51)

“In addition to this representation from philosophers who may or may not actually have
been to Eastern Europe there were similar depictions available to the public from completely fictional travellers, such as those of Baron Munchausen (Wolff, 1994). While
there was a real Baron Munchausen who did travel through Eastern Europe, the stories
published about his namesake were tall tales written by Rudolf Raspe (1785) that portrayed Eastern Europe as a ridiculous and fantastic place. This representation became fashionable just as travel to the region increased…. At the same time, Southwest Asia and East Asia received a much more romantic image, perhaps because of its inaccessibility for most Europeans. The connection between inaccessibility and romance is reiterated by Goldsworthy (1998, p. 75), who notes: “the Gothic plot [as of Dracula] requires a setting which is sufficiently close to the reader to appear threatening, while nevertheless being alien enough to house all the exotic paraphernalia—the castles, the convents, the caverns, the dark forests at midnight, the mysterious villains and the howling specters”.” (p.51)

In Dracula, as in other literature of the time, Western Europe and Eastern Europe are portrayed as opposing spaces, which together embody a series of dichotomous relationships. As mentioned previously, this process of othering was enabled by Western [-p.55] Europe’s hegemonic economic and cultural power. Senf (1998, pp. 24, 37) alludes to some of these dichotomies, but the importance of them to the constitution of Eastern Europe is not fully recognized. The first of these dichotomies is Western Europe’s civilization versus Eastern Europe’s barbarism. This opposition is one of historic importance, as ‘civilization’ is a value-laden word that originally meant simply a settled, non-nomadic existence (Davies, 1996) but has since come to be associated with good manners, ethical decision-making, distinguished culture and other normative goods. Barbarian, in its original formulation (by the ancient Greeks—see McNeill, 1997), simply meant one who does not speak Greek, but has since become associated with all that is uncivilized: poor hygiene and appearance, cruelty to enemies, a lack of distinguished culture and a lack of attachment to place. This normative geography is inscribed in Dracula’s text, as Transylvania and the Count himself are both portrayed as barbarian. For instance, Jonathan Harker writes this in his journal on the way to Transylvania (Stoker, 1897, p. 3): [‘]The strangest figures we saw were the Slovaks, who were more barbarian than the rest, with their big cow-boy hats, great baggy dirty-white trousers, white linen shirts, and enormous heavy leather belts, nearly a foot wide, all studded over with brass nails. . .. On the stage they would be set down at once as some old Oriental band of brigands.[‘]” (pp.54-55)

Dracula partakes in a longstanding tradition of representing Eastern Europe as a place of sexualized violence.” (p.56)

“In a similar manner to the distinction made between Western mind and Eastern body, Stoker’s novel maintains a historical distinction between Western science and Eastern magic.” (p.56)

“That Eastern Europe is a place of fantasy and magic is a long-held truism in travel literature. This is a fundamental theme of Baron Munchausen’s travelogue. (p.57)

“Eastern Europe is portrayed as a place eternally of the past, with London (and all of Western Europe) portrayed as the dynamic source of change and innovation.” (p.57)

Dracula must be seen in its full literary and historical context. The Count must be
from Eastern Europe for the story to have its maximum cultural resonance; the story is as horrifying as it is because Dracula is this emblem of Eastern European danger threatening the West.
Dracula is not the only novel to take advantage of this geographic imaginary— Goldsworthy (1998, p. 76) notes that: “Typically, because of the need for a dichotomy between the familiar and the exotic, Gothic locations are on the edges of a particular geographical area, in its remote corners and on its borderlands.” Indeed, the entire Gothic genre helped construct difference between Eastern and Western Europe, even if that was never its specific intention. Stoker wrote the novel for the same reasons as most authors: to profit. Therefore, he exploited the already-existent division of Europe as the geographic framework of his novel, and through that hugely successful novel he inadvertently perpetuated that division, perhaps contributing more to it than any previous author or philosopher. The success of Dracula and books like it has vast political and cultural ramifications, as that success helps to structure the geographic imagination of its many millions of readers.” (p.58)

Dracula is particularly important within the genre because of its literary longevity and its role as the inspiration for an entire genre of books and movies, as well as a sub-culture, each of which reconstructs the division of Europe into east and west and makes it more of a taken-for-granted fact of life.” (p.58)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Jason Dittmer (2006): Teaching the Social Construction of Regions in Regional Geography Courses; or, Why Do Vampires Come from Eastern Europe?, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 30:1, 49-61

ABSTRACT “This article describes the difficulty of teaching about the construction of regions in regional geography courses, which are themselves built on a metageography that often goes unquestioned. The author advocates the use of popular culture to make this very complex issue palpable for undergraduates. Thus, the construction of Eastern Europe within a larger European framework is clear through a study of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the movies that the book has spawned. Included in this article is an analysis of the geography presented through the Dracula narrative, and the contents of the classroom experience created by the author to teach that analysis. The article concludes with survey data that illustrate the reaction of the students to the lesson as well as evidence that the lesson improved student learning.”

Studying place


I’m still working on Kim Dovey‘s Framing Places. He writes:

“Place experience is infused with a range of dialectic tensions – vertical/horizontal; inside/outside; local/global; and appropriation/expropriation. And understandings of place require that we reconcile theories of action and representation, program and text.” (p.4)

“The design of built form is intrinsically hinged to issues of power precisely because it is the imagination and negotiation of future worlds. The invention of the future will always be contentious and places will always mediate power relations.” (p.6)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Kim Dovey (1999) Framing Places: Mediating power in built form. Routledge: London and New York.

the meanings and mysteries of places – Dovey


Declaring himself to be “fascinated by the meanings and mysteries of places – rooms, buildings, streets and cities…” (p.xii), Kim Dovey wrote a book, Framing Places, in which he “investigates how the built forms of architecture and urban design act as mediators of social practices of power.” (book blurb) It’s one of those really interesting reads which is written in simple language but manages at the same time to share complex and interesting ideas. He introduces Framing Places with some of the following provocative statements:

What do justice, democracy or liberation mean with regard  to built form?” (p.xii)

Architects and urban designers engage with the articulation of dreams – imagining and constructing a ‘better’ future in someone’s interest. This optimistic sense of creative innovation largely defines the design professions which are all identified with constant change. Yet architecture is also the most conservative of practices. This conservatism stems from the fundamental inertia of built form as it ‘fixes’ and ‘stabilizes’ the world – space is deployed to stabilize time. It is this antinomous quality – coupling imaginative innovation with a stabilizing conservatism – that makes the interpretation of place so interesting yet problematic.” (p.xii)

“Social theory has turned its attention towards spatial issues in a major way since the 1980s and scholars such as Foucault, Derrida, Eagleton, Giddens, Lefebvre, Habermas, Bourdieu and Harvey are widely cited in architectural discourse. Yet these theorists rarely write about the specifics of built form and the ways in which their work is applied to design practice, and public debate is generally superficial. Theory can be used as a form of insulation from the world as easily as a tool of engagement. How does such theory help us to engage in the invention of the future? How does one articulate the ‘public interest’ or decode the meaning of the latest grand project for a public audience? What, if anything, is wrong with another shopping mall, suburban enclave, theme park or corporate tower? The bridge between theory and built forms, between academic dialect and public debate, is crucial to the task of changing the world.” (p.xiii)

“As human interests are more clearly articulated so are the possibilities for new forms of design and discourse.” (p.xiii)

Architecture and urban design ‘frames’ space, both literally and discursively. In the literal sense everyday life ‘takes place’ within the clusters of rooms, buildings, streets and cities that we inhabit. Action is structured and shaped by walls, doors and windows, framed by the decision of designers. As a form of discourse, built form constructs and frames meanings. Places tell us stories; we read them as spatial text. The idea of ‘framing’ contains this ambiguity. Used as a verb, to ‘frame’ means to ‘shape’ things, and also to ‘enclose’ them in a border – like a mirror or picture. As a noun, a ‘frame’ is an established ‘order’ and a ‘border’. ‘Framing’ implies both the construction of a world and of a way of seeing ourselves in it – at once picture and mirror. In each of these senses, the design of built form is the practice of ‘framing’ the places of everyday life. A frame is also a ‘context’ which we relegate to the taken for granted. Built form can ‘frame’ its subject in a place where not all is what it seems – as in a ‘frame-up’. Through both these literal and discursive framings, the built environment mediates, constructs and reproduces power relations. The ambiguities of ‘framing’ reflect those of the nexus between place and practices of power.” (p.1)

“The nexus of built form with power is, at one level, a tautological truth – place creation is determined by those in control of resources. Placemaking is an inherently elite practice. This does not suggest that built form is inherently oppressive. However, it does suggest that places are necessarily programmed and designed in accord with certain interests – primarily the pursuit of amenity, profit, status and political power. The built environment reflects identities, differences and struggles of gender, class, race, culture and age. It shows the interests of people in empowerment and freedom, the interests of the state in social order, and the private corporate interest in stimulating consumption.” (p.1)

“The relations of architecture to social behaviour are [-p.2] complex and culturally embedded interactions. Like the frame of a painting or the binding of a book, architecture is often cast as necessary yet neutral to the life within. Most people, most of the time, take the built environment for granted. This relegation of built form to the unquestioned frame is the key to its relations to power. The more that the structures and representations of power can be embedded in the framework of everyday life, the less questionable they become and the more effectively they can work. This is what lends built form a prime role as ideology. It is what Bourdieu calls the ‘complicitous silence’ of place as a framework to life that is the source of its deepest associations with power.” (pp.1-2)

Ref: Kim Dovey (1999) Framing Places: Mediating power in built form. Routledge: London and New York.