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Place and the Paradox of Modernity

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The concept of place has, over the past decade, been invigorated theoretically by geographers emphasizing the unboundedness, historical dynamism, and multiple identities inherent in places. This work is often characterized as a new way of conceiving place, enabled in part by the rise of postmodern cultural and social theory and the related demise of modernism in academia. Modernism, it has been claimed, devalued place as a relevant vehicle for understanding social change. This paper, however, contends that in fact place has been a particularly significant terrain for representing the experience of modernity, and that the conception of place envisioned in contemporary cultural geography has important humanistic roots in much nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. The paper examines the intersections between this literary tradition of place representation and academic geography, examining the work of Goethe and Hardy, and the fiction of Raymond Williams. These writers articulated a vision of place not as the site of by-gone traditions and knowable communities, but as the landscape of modernity's paradoxes and contradictions. While there have been echoes of this distinctly modern approach to place in cultural geography, it is often obscured by a focus on the oppositional geopolitics of resistance. I argue that the vision of place derived from the literature discussed can serve as a template for examining the contemporary cultural dynamics of socioeconomic transformation and restructuring, and is advocated here as a basis for evaluating the cultural politics of place in terms of the contradiction and paradox—as opposed to a narrower conception of progressive politics—with which people continue to engage the changes swirling around them.
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Keywords: Place; cultural geography; literature

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Colorado

Publication date: 01 January 1997

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