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regions and regional geography

  In most conventional usages a region is defined as a more or less bounded area possessing some sort of unity or organizing principle(s) that distinguish it from other regions. This view can be traced back at least as far as the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome (see chorology), but in its modern form it has been circulated through two general, sometimes overlapping and sometimes antagonistic discourses.

In the eighteenth century a European geographical imaginary placed a particular construction of \'Europe\' at the centre of its grid and installed \'Africa\', \'Asia\' and \'America\' in distinctive positions within this matrix of difference and deferral (Gregory, 1998). These cardinal orientations then structured the production of regional stereotypes: these were in the main the products of European projects of exploration whose results were circulated to a wider public through exhibitions, illustrations and accounts of travel. In fact, travel writing has been a vital source for the discursive production of regions as bounded spaces. Within this genre, regions are typically represented as distinctive zones set off from other regions, whose essential nature — at once a matter of \'identity\' and \'authenticity\' — is to be conveyed through both a narrativization of space (plotting the author\'s tracks) and an aestheticization of landscape (the author\'s word-pictures). Their imaginative geographies became deeply sedimented over time, so much so that many late twentieth-century travel writings by European and North American authors continue to sustain an elaborate textualization of regions as zones that re-inscribe eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stereotypes: \'the tropics\' as a zone of excess, of primeval nature and human abjection; \'the Orient\' as a liminal zone of eroticism, seduction and even transgression (cf. Orientalism); \'the South Seas\' as a zone of allure, plenitude and freedom; and \'the Arctic\' as a limit-zone of solitude, silence and extremity (Holland and Huggan, 1999, ch. 2; see also Lutz and Collins, 1993). These are not (and never were) innocent representations, and similar ways of dividing up the world into regions and identifying their supposedly characteristic natures are activated within other public discourses: think, for example, of the images that have been associated with \'India\' or \'Japan\', \'the Middle East\' or \'Central America\', or the partitional vocabularies of \'Balkanization\', \'enclaves\' and \'dominoes\' mobilized within contemporary geopolitics and reports from global media organizations.

In the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the academic discipline of Geography was drawn to the region as its central object. \'Object\' is exactly the word: the region was widely seen as one of the basic \'building-blocks\' of geographical inquiry. This metaphor clearly conveys the common sense of regionalization as both partitional (the world can be exhaustively divided into bounded spaces) and aggregative (these spaces can be fitted together to form a larger totality). This sensibility applied both to traditional regional geography and to the successor projects of spatial science. In the regional monographs written by French geographer Paul Vidal de la Blache at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, the regions (pays) of France owed their identity (or \'personality\') to the local cultures that impressed themselves on the local landscapes (\'differentiation\') and to their connections with other places within the larger system of the French nation (\'circulation\': see also areal differentiation). In the austere lexicon of locational analysis regions were seen as cells within spatial grids. Thus Grigg (1965) argued that \'regionalization is similar to classification\', and his account of the logic of regional taxonomy provided the basis for a series of formal region-building algorithms in which regions were treated as combinatorial, assignment and districting problems: in effect as the product of purely technical procedures. To Haggett, Cliff and Frey (1977), therefore, the region was simply \'one of the most logical and satisfactory ways of organizing geographical information\' (see also classification and regionalization).

The most important entanglements and disassociations between these two discourses concerned the description of regions. In the first place, and in contradistinction to spatial science, both travel writing and traditional regional geography placed a premium on field experience as the ground for evocative prose, so much so that Hart (1982) hailed regional geography as \'the highest form of the geographer\'s art\'. How many regional monographs ever reached those commanding heights remains an open question, but Lewis (1985) observed that even if few academic geographers were trained as painters or poets there was no reason to boast about it. Spatial science found its own aesthetic in the elegance of formal analytical methods and models, and represented regions as little more than convenient ordering devices within an overwhelmingly abstract space. In the second place, both travel writing and traditional regional geography sought to convey descriptions of physical and cultural landscapes. To return to Vidal de la Blache, he assumed an intimacy between culture, landscape and region — in particular between paysan, paysage and pays in rural France — that placed great demands on the sensibilities and skills of the geographer. In contrast, spatial science was largely preoccupied with functional regions or regional systems in which the central organizing principle was to be found within a society largely severed from its physical landscape (see nodal region). Immediately after the Second World War, for example, R.E. Dickinson (1947) had proposed a focus on the city region as \'an area of interrelated activities, kindred interests and common organizations, brought into being through the medium of the routes which bind it to urban centres\', and ten years later A.K. Philbrick (1957) argued that \'the functional organization of human occupance in area\' should be analysed \'independent of the natural environment\' (emphasis added) through a series of intrinsically spatial concepts: focality, localization, interconnection and discontinuity. These proposals formed a springboard for the subsequent leap towards the formal spatial analysis of regions as \'open systems\' (Haggett, 1965, pp. 18-19).

Running in the depths of these different literatures and transgressing the boundaries they drew around regions was a sub-text that threatened to interrupt and prise open the compartments and closures of such discourses. The journeys of explorers and traveller-writers, the capillary circulations that coursed through regions, and the thematization of regions as \'open systems\' all spoke to the porosity of regional formations (the networks of connection between places) and to the poetics of regional description (the conventional nature of boundary delimitation). These twin issues have since received explicit and substantial critical attention.

Even at its height regional geography was criticized for its closures. Vidal de la Blache\'s celebrated Tableau de la géographie de la France was a portrait — some commentators have said a painting — of the individual regions of pre-revolutionary France produced through a style and a method that critics claimed had little purchase on the post-revolutionary world. \'The region is an eighteenth-century concept\', declared G.H.T. Kimble (1951), whereas in the modern world \'it is the links in landscapes … rather than the breaks\' that matter. Similarly, E.A. Wrigley (1965) argued that the intimacy of the bonds between \'culture\' and \'nature\' celebrated by regional geography was \'admirably suited to the historical geography of Europe before the Industrial Revolution\' but \'with the final disappearance of the old, local, rural, largely self-sufficient way of life the centrality of regional work to geography has been permanently affected\'. These twin objections were marked by their common origins (see Eurocentrism), and by an unusually superficial understanding of industrialization and of the dynamics of the capitalist space-economy more generally (which in fact produces regional differentiations rather than erases them: see Langton, 1984; more generally, Storper and Walker, 1989).

Recent attempts to situate regional formations and transformations as constellations or condensations within more extensive networks have been far more attentive to such concerns (for example, Agnew, 1987; Dixon, 1991; Becker and Egler, 1992). These projects have been distinguished by a much greater sense of historicity — of place and region as historically contingent process (Pred, 1984; see also Gilbert, 1988) — which has in turn made the \'bounded spaces\' and \'building blocks\' of conventional regional genres seem much less solid. To talk in this way is not merely to invoke Marx\'s description of capitalist modernity as a world in which \'all that is solid melts into air\', important though that is, because the tensions between \'fixity\' and \'motion\' that spasmodically interrupt and restructure regional formations are not the exclusive preserve of capitalism and hence are not contained by its history alone. Our present understanding of regions suggests that they have never been closed, cellular, bounded spaces: indeed, much of \'traditional\' regional geography may turn out to have been about inventing a \'traditional\' world of supposedly immobile, introspective and irredeemably localized cultures. Many anthropologists, geographers, historians and others now accept that non-capitalist worlds have also always been actively engaged in other worlds, and that they have also always been constituted through their involvement in trans-local and trans-regional \'power-geometries\'.

In order to develop historical geographies of regional formation that are open to these possibilities it is not enough to locate regions within progressively larger global frameworks or to identify the \'regional\' as one level within an interlocking system of scalar coordinates. One of the persistent difficulties of such approaches is that regions become products of processes that are located \'on the outside\' — in the absolute spaces of the containing frameworks and coordinate systems — so that regions become surfaces that can only register the impacts of globalization, of successive rounds of the division of labour, or of time-space compression that are seen as enframing them. Against these ways of figuring the world, many scholars now argue that such processes are also \'on the inside\' — indeed, that the demarcations between \'outside\' and \'inside\' are deeply problematic and that, if they are to be drawn at all, they cannot be plotted in absolute space (see space, human geography and). There is presently an emerging consensus within human geography that regional formations are more or less impermanent condensations of institutions and objects, people and practices that are intimately involved in the operation and outcome of local, trans-local and trans-regional processes. For much the same reason, even though the \'regional\' has constantly been hypostatized as the quintessential scale of geographical analysis, many writers have become much more attentive to the ways in which these scalar distinctions have been historically produced and hence enmeshed in constellations of power, knowledge and spatiality (see Brenner, 1998). It is through these productions, at once material and discursive, that regional structures have become sedimented in imaginative geographies, in physical landscapes, and in public policy.

The theorization of regional formations as partial, porous and hybrid condensations of entangled networks of social relations, each of different spans and with inconstant geometries, raises difficult questions of representation. How are these ideas and concepts to be redeemed in the fabrication of regional accounts? Part of the problem concerns the need to find ways of conveying these theoretical constructs in empirical solution: as Pudup (1988) observed, \'Anyone trying to mesh theory with empirical description [in regional geography] soon learns that the movement among abstract concepts and empirical description is like performing ballet on a bed of quicksand\' (see also Sayer, 1989). To Thrift (1998) the metaphor of dance is peculiarly appropriate: one implication of his presentation of nonrepresentational theory is that all human geographies need to become much more physically sensuous, much more expressive in their poetics. In the specific case of regional geography, there is clearly much to learn from careful, critical readings of imaginative literature and from contemporary travel writings that have tried to come to terms with — to find the terms for — the complex interpenetrations of cultures: what Pico Iyer (1989) epigrammatically described as \'Video night in Kathmandu\' (cf. transculturation). In doing so, novelists and travel-writers have wrestled with some of the same demons that haunted traditional regional geography, and above all with a sense of belatedness — a sort of elegy for \'the worlds we have lost\' — that, on occasion, too readily modulates into what Rosaldo (1993) calls \'imperial nostalgia\' whereby \'people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed\' (cf. colonialism; imperialism).

These issues are thus not confined to regional geography, and they admit of no easy solution. They also indicate the importance of developing an ethics of regional description capable of addressing both the subjects and the audiences of such accounts. The authors of regional geographies have an obligation to respond to questions of adequacy, accountability and authorization: what are their responsibilities to the people whose lives they write about? And they also have an obligation to convey places, regions and landscapes as something more than the lifeless parade of categories and the endless tabulations of statistics that loom so large in many textbooks in regional geography. There is a genuine need to represent places and their inhabitants in ways that compel their audiences to care about them: which is why the \'openness\' of regions — the sense of trans-local and trans-regional engagement and interconnection — is important not only intellectually but also politically. Whatever else contemporary regional geography is about, it ought surely to be about disclosing our involvement with what Michael Ignatieff (1984) called \'the needs of strangers\'. (DG)

References Agnew, J. 1987: The United States in the world-economy: a regional geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Becker, B.K. and Egler, C. 1992: Brazil: a new regional power in the world-economy: a regional geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brenner, N. 1998: Between fixity and motion: accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16: 459-81. Dickinson, R.E. 1947: City region and regionalism: a geographical contribution to human ecology. London: Kegan Paul, Trench Trübner. Dixon, C. 1991: South-East Asia in the world-economy: a regional geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Gilbert, A. 1988: The new regional geography in English and French speaking countries. Progress in Human Geography 12: 208-28. Gregory, D. 1998: Power, knowledge and geography. In Explorations in critical human geography. Heidelberg: Department of Geography, Karl-Ruprechts Universität, 9-40. Grigg, D. 1965: The logic of regional systems. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 55: 465-91. Haggett, P. 1965: Locational analysis in human geography. London: Edward Arnold. Haggett, P., Cliff, A. and Frey, A. 1977: Locational analysis in human geography, 2nd edn. London: Edward Arnold. Hart, J.F. 1982: The highest form of the geographer\'s art. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 1-29. Holland, P. and Huggan, G. 1999: Tourists with typewriters: critical reflections on contemporary travel writing. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Ignatieff, M. 1984: The needs of strangers. London: Chatto and Windus. Iyer, P. 1989: Video nights in Kathmandu. London: Abacus. Kimble, G.H.T. 1951: The inadequacy of the regional concept. In L.D. Stamp and S.W. Wooldridge, eds, London essays in geography. London: Longman. Langton, J. 1984: The industrial revolution and the regional geography of England. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 9: 145-67. Lewis, P. 1985: Beyond description. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75: 465-78. Lutz, C.A. and Collins, J.L. 1993: Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Philbrick, A.K. 1957: Principles of areal functional organization in regional human geography. Economic Geography 33: 299-336. Pred, A. 1984: Place as historically contingent process: structuration and the time-geography of becoming places. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74: 279-97. Pudup, M.-B. 1988: Arguments within regional geography. Progress in Human Geography 12: 369-90. Sayer, R.A. 1989: The \'new\' regional geography and problems of narrative. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 7: 253-76. Storper, M. and Walker, R. 1989: The capitalist imperative: territory, technology and industrial growth. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Thrift, N. 1998: The still point: resistance, expressive embodiment and dance. In S. Pile and M. Keith, eds, Geographies of resistance. London: Routledge, 124-51. Wrigley, E.A. 1965: Changes in the philosophy of geography. In R.J. Chorley and P. Haggett, eds, Frontiers in geographical teaching. London: Methuen, 3-24.

Suggested Reading Gilbert (1988). Pudup (1988). Thrift, N.J. 1994: Taking aim at the heart of the region. In D. Gregory, R. Martin and G. Smith, eds, Human geography: society, space and social science. London: Macmillan, 200-31.



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