Monday, May 14, 2012

From Memphis, with Love

Wanda Rushing is in love with Memphis, and thank God for that. A city that has been “typically marginalized by scholars and underestimated by its own residents” is actually, as her 2009 book, Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization in the American South, argues, a dynamic, innovative, and creative place, a place that has given the world not only some of its most popular and influential music, but Federal Express, Holiday Inn, and a host of nationally known products. Coppertone sunscreen, St. Joseph’s aspirin, Maybelline cosmetics, Cleo giftwrap, Di-Gel tablets—these are among the many “innovations” that originated in the Bluff City. What’s more, Memphis is an important node in the global transportation system and home to the world’s largest pediatric cancer research center. Whereas most who have written about Memphis have focused on the city’s problems, Dr. Rushing, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Memphis, is determined to show instead what should be evident to anybody who bothers to examine the city in the way she has chosen to do so: Memphis is a complex and interesting place with global and local significance.

The way she has chosen to examine her subject is no less important than her subject itself. As Dr. Rushing explains, most sociological studies today rely on abstraction and measurement, often “losing touch with real people in real places.” In contrast, Dr. Rushing uses an “interdisciplinary narrative case-study approach,” one that she believes is suited to identifying and understanding the multivalent and multifaceted dimensions of a complicated city such as Memphis. Drawing on sociological theory, historical sociology, and even literature, as well as her own “immersion in the richly textured life of Memphis,” Dr. Rushing examines a number of case studies—just to give one example, the history, destruction, and subsequent renovation and development of Beale Street and the surrounding area—and attempts to show how they are affected by, and in turn affect, the global and the local.

As the title of her book indicates, Memphis is a place of paradox, and both place and paradox are themes that run throughout the book. The subtitles of her chapters, for example, refer to paradoxes of place, of identity, of power, of development, of innovation, of tradition. But far more than paradox, it is place that receives the most systematic and sustained treatment. Place is much more than just “geographic location and material form,” she tells us; place is defined by “networks of social relations, collections of cultural symbols and historical memories, and investment with cultural meaning and value.” Place is “uniquely situated in networks of global relations and cultural flows, as well as embedded in accumulated local history and culture. Hence, place mediates the impact of global and local processes.” Place, she warns, should not be confused with space—which is exactly what transportation officials did when they proposed to route I-40 through Overton Park. As a space, Overton Park was the logical path that I-40 should have taken; as a place, it was anything but.

Another prominent theme in Dr. Rushing’s book is the interplay between the global and the local. Of public spaces such as Forrest Park and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, for instance, she writes, “Local and global changes”—and here she means our evolving attitudes toward race and community—“continue to shape understandings about the use of public spaces and the commemorative objects installed in them.” Of Overton Park and Shelby Farms, she writes that “place still matters and mediates the impact of global, national, and local processes on urban landscapes.” And Memphis music, which, as she rightly points out, was acclaimed globally long before it was celebrated locally, “shows that cultural innovation . . . can lead to an affirmation of the local significance of place and contribute to the transformation of global culture.” Similar statements can be found throughout the book.

I cannot say how successful Memphis and the Paradox of Place is as a work of sociology; I also do not know if Dr. Rushing succeeded in achieving what she set out to achieve (her claim, for instance, to use literature to illuminate her case studies is perhaps exaggerated). I can say that Memphis and the Paradox of Place is an excellent introduction to many of the events, developments, and issues that are important in the city. Race and poverty, labor and education, tourism and music; Forrest Park, the National Civil Rights Museum, and the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library; Overton Park and Shelby Farms; transportation, the cotton trade, and entrepreneurship; St. Jude and UT-Baptist Research Park; Beale Street, urban renewal, and downtown renovation and development; the Cotton Carnival and the Cotton Maker’s Jubilee—those are among the subjects that Dr. Rushing takes up in her stimulating book.

Dr. Rushing would argue that Memphis, as a place, has been formed, and is informed, by history. Not surprisingly, then, a chief merit of the book is the way in which it situates the present in the past. Just to take one example, in the chapter on Memphis music, titled “Globalization and Popular Culture: Memphis and the Paradox of Innovation,” Dr. Rushing traces a line extending from the beginning of Beale Street in the nineteenth century to director Craig Brewer’s 2005 Memphis-centric film Hustle and Flow and its signature song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which won an Academy Award. The early blues songs that used to be heard on Beale were met with an ambivalent reaction by both white and black Memphians, as was, one hundred years later, the success of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”  

Memphis and the Paradox of Place is one of my favorite books about Memphis. Yet in some respects I find it hard get a handle on. There are numerous themes to digest—place, paradox, the local, the global, race, power, the “production of locality” (a concept devised by Arjun Appadurai, a cultural anthropologist at NYU) and the “disruptions” to that production. What’s more, not all of them are clearly articulated; I’m still not entirely sure, for example, what Dr. Rushing means by the “paradox of place.” The book’s organization is occasionally slack: in the introduction the author lists two purposes of the book, then in chapter 1, she announces that her project has five goals, only to state in the final chapter that the book has had a single “overarching concern” (“to show that place matters”). Speaking of the introduction and the first chapter, the former reads like a preface rather than an introduction, and the latter, like an introduction.

Still, the overall point of the book, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press, is clear. The devil may be in the details, but so is the delight, and those delightful details create a place, one that is idiosyncratic and persists despite the designs of globalization to homogenize or erase it. In short, as Dr. Rushing states succinctly and elegantly, place matters—and so does Memphis.

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