17 May 2009

Imaginary Geography

I grew up below the Mason Dixon line in Frederick, MD. Maryland is located in a tricky place geographically. But I don't think I would be on too shaky ground if I were to say I grew up in the South. Summers did get hot there sometimes, I recall, and our state song proudly--disturbingly--proclaims "Maryland! / She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb- / Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!" [1] and was a hit in certain Confederate circles back in the early 1860's.

Yet here in Alabama my accent betrays me: here I'm a yankee. No getting around it.

But all this brings up the question: where does the South begin? Or, to put it in negative terms, where does yankee territory begin?

I found something helpful in a book by Slavoj Žižek, where he wonders the same thing about the Balkans:
It seems as if there is no definitive answer to the question 'Where do the Balkans begin?' -- the Balkans are always somewhere else, a little bit more towards the southeast... Is not this identification of continental Europe itself with the Balkans, its barbarian Other, the secret truth of the entire movement of the displaced delimitation between the two? This enigmatic multiple displacement of the frontier clearly demonstrates that in the case of the Balkans we are dealing not with real geography but with an imaginary cartography which projects on to the real landscape its own shadowy, often disavowed, ideological antagonisms, just as Freud claimed that the localization of the hysteric's conversion symptoms project on to the physical body the map of another, imaginary anatomy.[2]

Similarly the Yankee is always from somewhere else, a little bit more north. I smiled when I read in To Kill a Mockingbird how a pair of sisters from northern Alabama were considered yankees.

Misses Tutti and Frutti Barber were maiden ladies, sisters, who lived together in the only Maycomb residence boasting a cellar. The Barber ladies were rumored to be Republicans, having migrated from Clanton, Alabama, in 1911. Their ways were strange to us, and why they wanted a cellar nobody knew, but they wanted one, and they dug one, and they spent the rest of their lives chasing generations of children out of it.

Misses Tutti and Frutti (their names were Sarah and Frances), aside from their Yankee ways, were both deaf.[3]

What all this means is that to really explore the South it is not enough to journey through the physical landscape, one must also travel about the imaginary landscape. The cotton fields and bayous, the gulf coast and red dirt roads are necessary, but not sufficient. Ideas and Art, Dreams and Nightmare must also be on our itinerary. Luckily, just as in the South there is no shortage of compelling scenery, I think, the imaginary geography is equally compelling.

[1] Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maryland,_My_Maryland
[2] Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.
[3] Žižek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute.

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