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  • Samantha Hoch

An Identity-Specific Analysis of Cultural Geography Concepts, Part II

This week's readings included chapter 3 in our text, Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities, as well as "Process" by Wilbur Zelinsky, a student of Carl Sauer, and "Culture" from Keywords: A vocabulary of society and culture revised edition by Raymond Williams. As I read through the theoretical explanations of landscape and culture and recognized both the flaws and validity of each, I continued to think about how humankind has grown,

I thought about how we can consider global issues by considering the systems they are a part of, and approaching each of those systems with equal energy. I thought about the power dynamics that exist in every human relationship and why we have such a drive for perceived power, however, it acts in that particular relationship. I thought more deeply about identity politics and how much of it is completely performative, changeable, and incompatible with an equitable future for all. I thought about my own choices in performative identity and how much my culture and my landscape shaped who I am presenting to the world today. Mostly I thought deeply about human nature and humanity's role in the universe as I read this week. My thoughts seem to keep reaching back to the philosophy class we took with Professor Sun, causing me to question our positionality (if it even truly exists) and relevance in relation to all other life forms as we slowly learn and grow and make intellectual strides for humanity.

Chapter 3 gave me a greater appreciation for the development of cultural geography, the history of its foundational principles, and their modifications as culture itself has shifted. I thought it was interesting that Marxism examined societies as "modes of production" and that the book's examples of societies were feudalism, slavery, capitalism, and socialism (64). I'd never studied Marxism and hadn't heard the economics of societies factored into the conversation of culture and social structure in such a centered way. I thought Marxism was an interesting foundational way to begin understanding the role of economics in culture and society today, something I've wanted to learn more about. I was then happy to learn that humanism refined the approach by centering on modern systems of oppression, identity politics, and individual experiences, which are so closely tied to those modes of production. As a social justice activist, it's encouraging to see the world of academia moving toward a more inclusive analysis of reality in so many fields of study today. The feminist critiques and challenges to geography are important, and as a female leader in the community and the military, I am encouraged when I read about women and feminists who have done the work for feminism in their respective fields that I have been doing for the Army throughout my entire adult life. I also truly believe that recognizing most parts of identity as fluid, non-binary (again, our tendency has been to compartmentalize and polarize everything to understand it), and performative, will help us reassess many of our societal issues. Trying to understand how heavily the economic systems of a society influence that performative behavior makes me question the ethics of another one of my jobs, as the lead copywriter and editor for a marketing agency.

Wilbur Zelinsky's superorganic concept appealed to me in the sense that it ambiguously yet neatly categorized culture, which reminded me again of Professor Sun's class, in which we studied philosophy of mind. I specifically thought about whether consciousness was a product of material existence and action, or an individual entity able to be separated from the physical being if only we could determine the science behind the connection. One of the things I find most interesting about public discourse on abstract topics like consciousness and culture is that we repeatedly fail to acknowledge a both/and perspective. Humans always seem to want to compartmentalize and categorize everything in order to understand it, but only end up with a representation of things and concepts instead of the entire picture of their natures. Humans themselves want to feel separate from, superior to, and centered in everything they study, and it amuses me that we've thus far been unable to "have our cake and eat it too" when it comes to both culture and consciousness. As a student, I'm excited to see the scholarship reflecting a change in the way we understand the world around us, by paying closer attention to the intersectional roles of place, space, identity, and culture. As an activist and a leader, I feel like we need to better examine the systems of things and not the symbols of things, and that includes examining the flaws of language.

Language flaws are a pet peeve of mine as a writer, and more importantly, as a reader. As a scholar, knowing that of the many possibilities for interpreting a single sentence, a reader will settle on a version according to their primary language, very specific intersectional identity, perspective of reality, and culture is agonizing. I can't help but think about the limitations of the written and spoken word apart from one another, and how we fail pretty miserably at communicating complex ideas a lot of the time. I think it's telling that a school of fish or flock of birds can change direction in unison in a fraction of a second, without the "language" and "culture" that both Zelinsky and the text assert separate humans from all other beings. In short, I think we're poor communicators, and it leads to a lot of complications for humanity and academia. We've commodified education in the same way we've previously commodified people and cultural elements that are not our own. In helping our academic format evolve toward better efficiency, we've lost some important elements of communication in education, and I think these problems will continue to worsen as we become more and more technology-dependent. In "Culture," the editor writes, "Williams insists that language does not simply reflect social change and historical process, but that these changes and processes themselves occur within language." I would agree that the role of language is far more influential on culture and social change than we typically give credit for, but would argue one step further that in reducing "language" to the written word, we're losing even more of the social and cultural value of human communication. Williams’ example of the variety in the translation of simple nouns in American English demonstrates just how inadequate the language is, and how inadequate most language is, especially outside of the context of face-to-face interaction. I also find as a writer that we tend to transpose our own perspectives onto the page, whether consciously or not, and that communication through reading and writing alone is not enough to explain such abstract and complex concepts as culture, consciousness, personal experience, or even language.

As I continue reading through weeks 4 and 5, I am encouraged and humbled to read through the adaptations and changes we've made in the perspectives we've brought to the field of human geography. I am interested to see whether the subfields that have since sprouted from different foundational understandings of cultural geography will merge into other academic fields, or whether they already have. Before this class, I had very little hope for humanity's ignorance to fade before our ozone layer does. But being able to read and reason through critical thinking that has helped advance problem-solving attempts and efforts for equity in cultural geography gives me greater hope for the future. I recognize the flaws of language in both cultural geography scholarship and life, and I wonder about the depth of cultural context I'm missing in reading about the changes in methodology and perspective throughout the last century. One thing that was interesting and revelatory to me in the Massey reading (week 1) was to see the ways science was approaching the study of the physical world while social sciences similarly began to approach the study of the human mind and collective consciousness (psychology and sociology). It's interesting to see we've grown to accept more personal, individual, and researcher-immersive approaches to the way we study culture, and I hope we begin applying the same type of approach to all fields in order to deconstruct the often patriarchal world views that have shaped academic discourse throughout modern history.


"Process" from The Cultural Geography of the United States (1973) Wilbur Zelinsky

"Culture" from Keywords: A vocabulary of society and culture revised edition (1983) Raymond Williams

Norton, WIlliam & Roberts, Margaret Walton. Cultural Geography: Environments, Landscapes, Identities, Inequalities, 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press, 2014. Chapter 3.

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