Place and Placelessness in California Deserts

Authors: Michal Kohout*, California State University, San Bernardino
Topics: Cultural Geography, Arid Regions, United States
Keywords: place, cultural geography, California, desert
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Zulu, Sheraton, 8th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The deserts in California foreground and background people’s increasing presence and interest in the region. When in the foreground the desert is essential to people; it is present in everyday lives and consciousness of residents and visitors in their work, recreation, and imagination. When the desert is in the background it fades in and out of people’s lives and consciousness. It becomes a space where people can build new places, lives, economies, and environments detached from the natural context. I use the concepts of place and placelessness from cultural geography to analyze the material and symbolic landscapes produced by the tense interplay between foregrounding and backgrounding of California deserts. Place represents environmentally aware and rooted ideas and actions that make locations unique fostering a strong local identity and an enduring sense of community. Placelessness represents ideas and actions that push the desert into the background in building communities that are more vulnerable to social and economic instability because they lack awareness of the desert's unique ecology. I examine the role of deserts in place-making by analyzing selected academic, policy and artistic work from the last two decades, since the passing of the California Desert Protection Act. I find that despite small efforts to make the desert a place its historical legacy and dominant outsider control make it a predominantly placeless commodity.

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