Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy

Humans love to impress themselves on the landscape. Monuments have been built dedicated to great people, great events, and themes that can unite populations. But just as triumph is memorialized so is tragedy. Memorials to tragedies can offer lessons, unite people in common cause, or even offer regret for past sins. There is no one way to mark tragedy. Some wish to “make a big deal about it” with monuments ala Flight 93’s crash site while other times people just want to move on. Author and geographer Kenneth Foote describes in detail the four main ways something is marked on the landscape in Shadowed Ground: America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy.

The first style is sanctification. These sites have a form of ceremony which makes them a national, secular scared site. Christening is critical to have a sanctified site. The effort to create and celebrate a sanctified site is part of the monument itself. These sites are considered part of the public domain and meant to be a messenger of a civil religion. The effort and building combined reinforces the values which the culture chooses to value. Sanctified sites are separated from the rest of the landscape. Memorial parks, statues, or buildings in which the purpose has been change to become part of the message, like Ford’s Theater in Washington D.C., are just some examples of sanctified sites.

The second style of memorialization on the landscape according to Foote is designation. Designated sites are deemed important to the culture but are not sanctified. These sites lack a heroic figure or extraordinary event which makes sanctified sites so unique. Like sanctified sites, designated sites tell of past happenings but are less likely to extol virtues of the past. Also, unlike sanctified sties, designated places are still part of the ordinary landscape. Typical examples of designated sites include roadside signs and plaques on side of buildings.

Both sanctification and designation create something on the landscape. Foote’s next two categories feature inaction or negative action. The third style is rectification. Rectification is when a site is put back to its previous use. With rectification there is no marker to tell of past events. The place is simply absorbed into the landscape with nothing to identify it. Rectification is the most common fate for sites of tragedy.

The fourth and final style of memorialization is obliteration. Obliteration is the opposite of sanctification. An intense, group effort is made to destroy a site because it represents the antithesis of what a culture values. Obliterated sites are marked on the landscape as noticeable gaps without official interpretation. When a culture chooses to forget an event by obliterating the site, it ironically keeps the memory alive on the landscape by doing such a rash and noticeable action.

Tragedy is a hard thing to deal with. Like the stages of death of a love one, emotions run high and are varied. Dr. Foote does an excellent job in his easy read yet academic book on how traedgy is marked on the landscape.


Dan tdaxp said...


What are the classic examples of the four styles in the United States?

Catholicgauze said...

Thought I should have added those:

Santification: Flight 93's crash site

Designation: Think roadside fatality markers. The road is still usable but the site marked and a lesson is given.

Rectification: Hardest to know because they are unmarked. Tragic sites along the Oregon Trail are unmarked and the land has gone on to regular use as if nothing happened.

Obliteration: John Wayne Gacey's home site. That empty lot still remains.

Bookworm said...

I read this book some years ago and found it interesting.

I thought of it again a few months ago after the shootings at Northern Illinois University prompted a rather heated debate about what to do with the building where the shootings took place.

Initially there was a push to tear it down and replace it and add a nearby memorial (a combination of obliteration and designation, I suppose). However, many alumni and students vehemently opposed that proposal, and eventually the decision was made to keep the building but renovate it, add some kind of memorial and change its use from a lecture hall to something else. (Would that constitute rectification plus designation?)

Virginia Tech and Columbine took similar actions with their buildings -- they changed the actual shooting sites to be unrecognizable but kept the buildings themselves. The arguments made in all three cases came down to cost factors plus a sense that destroying the buildings would mean the killers had "won" some kind of victory.