Chevy Novas and Toyota Toyolettes:
Defending the Region from the
Generalized Elsewhere



It is the conventional wisdom, thanks to McLuhan, that the world has shrunk to the size of a medieval village. The electronic media of communication have, with their instantaneous reach, overcome the tyranny of distance; indeed, some might assume that we are witnessing the progressive destruction of geography.1 Joshua Meyrowitz has argued recently that these media are "of no place"; they reflect a world of shopping malls and ersatz food whose only characteristics are their very universality. In consequence of their flattening impact, we find that places are increasingly commodified, and that the singularity of, and thus the importance of the locality, is consequently diminished.
In this paper I wish to argue that Meyrowitz is misguided in the emphasis that he gives to universality in his interpretations.2 While it makes good sense to apply his analysis to interpersonal relations within the spaces of the home, it is not legitimate to extend this logic to the region or locality. Below, I shall continue my dialogue with Meyrowitz, emphasizing that his behavioralist interpretations are poorly suited to the task of understanding social issues in general, and the "becoming of places" in particular. I examine why spatial diversity slips from sight within American life, a process which has obvious implications for our understanding of a region such as the Southwest.


In his book No Sense of Place, Meyrowitz indicates how the electronic media have increased greatly the influence that they exert. This leverage is to be understood via Grofman's concepts of front, middle, and back regions. In essence, the media, and most noticeably television, have brought regional behavior back out into the open. Actions which were once manifested only in closed spaces, such as the bedroom or the locker room, are now in the public domain. Consequently, many of the spatial structures that have permitted both individuals and groups to maintain exclusivity have been eroded. Prisons, mental hospitals, operating and delivery rooms, even the British Houses of Parliament, have all experienced the glare of the video camera.
No Sense of Place makes important points with respect to social interaction; there remain however lingering problems with the way that the argument is extended from individual spaces–such as the locker room–out towards regions in their totality. On several occasions, Meyrowitz states that the singularity of place is disappearing due to the media: there exist "fewer distinctions among places" (182), or "different places are still different, but they are not as different as they once were" (145). It is hard not to see the force of Meyrowitz's argument, for both radio and TV transmit mundane messages which are emphatically placeless. Don DeLillo captures this rather well in his book White Noise; the narrative is peppered with advertisements and the language of consumerism: significant phrases muttered during sleep turn out to be recitations like "Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida"; as DeLillo observes, these are "supranational names, computer generated, more or less universally pronounceable." This recognition of the power of modernity to overcome the practices of different people in different places does not, though, necessitate our acceptance of all Meyrowitz's implications. It is plausible to argue that television has collapsed the internal Organization of the home: it is not correct to argue the same for the locality.3
Meyrowitz suggests that there is a close link between communication and territoriality. As we share a common message, such as capitalism, the symbols of territoriality collapse: the disappearance of the Berlin Wall comes readily to mind.4 We must, however, be cautious when making sweeping statements. While nations within the European Community, to take a salient example, may progressively lose their sovereignty, the physical segregation within countries is actually increasing. In the United States, there is a proliferation of exclusive residential spaces that take significant precautions to exclude those who do not belong: guards, gates, and guns all emphasize territoriality.5 On a less exclusive note, the growth of adult or retirement communities, residential resorts based typically around a golf course, and gay neighborhoods all testify to a need to create explicit and exclusionary living spaces. Communication has an enabling role here as electronic devices such as facsimile machines, modems, and cellular phones allow instantaneous transmission for both business and personal purposes, which makes face-to-face contact often irrelevant. However, the motivations are linked much more closely to the ties between the economics of real estate and exclusivity: as David Harvey observes, "the qualities of place stand thereby to be emphasized in the midst of the increasing abstractions of space." 6
This argument can be extended to include the locality. Meyrowitz argues that TV is "of no place," while I would argue that it exhibits explicit frictions: that is to say, a tension between national uniformity in terms of program planning and production on the one hand, and localist tendencies on the other. The network, then, is national, placeless, generic. Local affiliated stations maintain their profitability by commodifying the locality. They do this in several ways: via local news programs, via selling cheap videotaped advertisement slots to local dealers, and via offering the reruns that viewers want to see. The local TV or radio station sells the locality back to itself, using the identification of place as a bond between consumer and producer.
The content of programs, too, has implications for our understanding of place and image. Even the most mundane soap opera is based typically in some specific locality, because places carry a powerful implication of social relations. In both "Dallas" and "Miami Vice," the locality functions as an additional character; it is much more than a backdrop, it is a shorthand for a complicated set of social and political relations.7 The use of Miami, for example, avoided the need to spell out the details of the drug cartels; it was enough to sketch the powerful Central American connections that exist in the city. So, too, in "LA Law," there is little coincidence in the use of the title and the detailed panoramic shots of the Los Angeles skyline. The city is a symbol of materialism, yuppie values, and postmodern architecture.8
Advertising, the most persuasive dimension of the electronic media, is only superficially of no place. National corporations are growing more cognizant of regional tastes and offer product variations that will connect with different styles of life. A New York advertising agency offers demographic data on eight regions in the United States, and the Campbell Soup Company recognizes twenty-two smaller regions; these are known to have differences in terms of food tastes.9 Chevrolet's award-winning "Heartbeat" series of advertisements in 1987 included annotations directed to road and driving conditions in individual states. In all these instances, manufacturers increase profit via an identification of place-specific behavior, and in doing so, they reify that behavior. The reinforcement of an image via television is an extremely effective way of selling the locality back to its residents.10


It would be remiss of me to overlook the responses that Meyrowitz has made to my arguments. He writes:
Kirby's strongest arguments for the enduring significance of locality are (1) the locality remains the locus of competition over resources (housing, education and other public services), and (2) there are subtle and complex differences between life in different places in terms of weather, terrain and . . . "local knowledge." Locality, in terms of these two elements, comes close to being a clear, objective, observable fact. But the definition is also so broad, ahistorical and safe that is capable of masking significant changes in human organization and perceptions of place.11

Meyrowitz suggests, in a number of contexts, just why this author's arguments are ill-founded. He submits that the profound ignorance displayed by Americans about the world does not mean that they have a localist sense; rather, that they cannot read maps. He rejects the notion that organizations are coalitions of local units; instead, he favors the more common interpretation that national structures exist and are, in reality, of growing importance. He disagrees strongly with the assertion that distant events are mediated through the locality; satellite broadcasts beam fund raisers directly into the home, he cites. He disagrees with the notion that there is anything local about local TV. And he dismisses the relegation of categories such as race and gender to the status of ideal types, arguing instead in favor of nationally constructed images of racial or sexual discrimination that are molded by television. In terms of the aims of this paper, Meyrowitz's reasoned replies to my interpretations are very useful, for they show just how a behavioralist discipline, such as communication, sees the world as glued together through the repetition of human action, whereas geography is much more conscious of it constantly breaking apart and reforming. Let me explore this contrast in greater detail.

Geographic Knowledge and Map Reading

I argued that Americans have a profound ignorance about the globe, which has extended to muddled and incoherent foreign policy debates.12 One small aspect of this is the way in which Americans are poor map users. There is a literature on the ways in which cartographic images are structured, which shows that individual cognition is dictated in large part by the collective discourse; for example, many individuals in Southeast Asia would use a Sino-centric projection when sketching a world map. In suggesting why Americans are geographically illiterate, Meyrowitz suggests that the electronic media present gestaltlike images of battles, which undermine our place-consciousness. While it has become logical in recent years to equate foreign policy with warfare, this, too, is a social construction; and more important, we have to ask just why American television presents war in such a manner. It has all to do with the way in which the United States' world image is constructed; Vietnam, Panama, or Angola have no geopolitical reality for most Americans, in government or otherwise.13 Consequently, armed conflict takes on an existential dimension in which the bloodshed becomes little more than theater. TV transmits this; it does not create this existential sensation.

Rusty Machine Politics

I noted that what we treat as monoliths–the legal system, the political parties–are little more than uneasy coalitions: it is not coincidental that unions are organized via locals, which have always responded to local labor and wage conditions. As Meyrowitz notes, union membership has declined rapidly in most industrial nations, but this hardly negates my observation. Rather, it offers up a germane hypothesis. Simply, unions have declined precisely because of their fragmented bases, which cannot compete with the more powerful organizational structures of global corporations. The collapse of the miners' strike in the U.K. in 1984-85 showed how different parts of the union had very different levels of commitment to the strike, which reflected the varying fortunes of the coal industry in the various regions and the diverse production relations that had evolved within the various components of the industry.14
As for Meyrowitz's claims concerning the increasing nationalization of American politics, this does not stand critical scrutiny. First, we have seen a major and very public shift in the balance of power within the party coalitions from east coast to west coast, and from north to south. The choice of vice presidential running mates is but one instance of the ways in which the national parties must pay much more than lip service to regional attitudes. Indeed, it is becoming quite clear that the national political coalitions are breaking down; one key indicator here is the way in which citizen initiatives, recalls, and propositions are proliferating throughout the states. This reflects a dissatisfaction with the way in which the major parties have no room for local and regional issues, such as "English only" in Arizona and Colorado or the cost of auto insurance in California.
In both these instances, we can see a tension between local needs and national organizational structures. In the union case, labor is indeed losing ground; contrary to Meyrowitz's assertions concerning neighborhoods, they are becoming much more powerful in many American cities: he is, though, hardly the first to misread this issue.15

The Local and the International Conscience

Meyrowitz is on stronger ground when he writes about the links between voluntarism, donation, and television. There is little to gain say his observation that famine in Ethiopia is brought to us (albeit, again, in a gestaltlike manner) via TV and financed via toll-free telephone numbers. There is much more to say though concerning the way in which distant events are evaluated and interpreted. By Meyrowitz's logic, famine displaces our ability to comprehend problems, such as homelessness, that exist around us. However, the facts are not consistent with these arguments: individuals are much less prepared to give via a television fund raiser than they are to recognize the claims of the homeless within their own community, fund public television, or donate their labor to hospitals and hospices.16 It is not plausible to suggest that images of the dead and dying arrive in our homes in a non-problematic way: Meyrowitz skates over the fact that people do not switch on to watch corpses; they switch on to see rock stars and film stars do their stuff. The audience (presumably a limited one in terms of age) enters into a simple trade-off transaction: see this spectacle, pay a price. This really has little to do with the broader range of people who make wider choices about how they give to those in need; from my standpoint, the needs of those in Africa are filtered through a pre-existing tens that includes the needs of family, neighbors, and those visible on the street. As Meyrowitz notes, it is ludicrous to suggest that "Live Aid" reinforces a sense of place: rather, it competes with, but may reinforce, such a relation.

Is Local Television Local?

Meyrowitz argues that places are commodified in generic ways. That is not a major insight: capitalism is a wave of homogenization with regard to process, even though that wave breaks in many different ways (as was argued above with respect to advertising). Aspen, Santa Fe, and Reno are all tourist towns; they attract visitors for identical purposes (their dollars), but they market themselves as unique entities. Part of their style is visual and visible; the timbered chalet architecture of Vail or Apsen, Colo., could not be confused with the adobes of Santa Fe or Taos, N.M. Part is in the activities that go on there; do not go to Reno if you want to purchase authentic turquoise and silver.17
Now, no one in is his right mind visits a town for its television, but it plays a role nonetheless. As Meyrowitz points out, advertisements do not define everyday life, but they do play a part in the definition of the parameters of style. When Phoenix Cardinals coach Gene Stallings was fired in the fall of 1989, a local bank that had featured him in advertisements immediately rushed out a new message from the ex-coach: now I really need a good return on my investments, and I'm getting it with the First Mountain Bank. Doubtless, Meyrowitz would argue that this is only one commercial, to be weighed against a dozen generic potato chip adverts. This is true quantitatively, but the latter succeed, if at all, on a subliminal level, whereas local advertisements operate through the collective discourse. This, in turn, brings us back to local news, which revolves around, and adds to, that common sense. Meyrowitz downplays the importance of the latter; starting from the opposite direction, we might ask the innocent question: if it is unimportant, why do local stations spend so much to generate their own news programs and employ their own staff, when they could manage well enough by just relaying the network efforts? The answer is clear: stations need to display local allegiances in order to differentiate themselves, and competitive news broadcasting is currently one currency in this strategic game.

Member of Aggregates

Meyrowitz agrees that there exist geographic differences in the understanding of the stereotypes of man, woman, caucasian, black, hispanic, and so on. He suggests, though, that the media, in offering a view from no place, are in fact creating ideal types. This is, in my view, the most provocative of Meyrowitz's observations, with the most important implications for our understanding of the world.
There is much to agree with in the assertion that television has created new norms of behavior, notably with respect to the way in which nontraditional views of women have reverberated within our society. Roseanne Barr, Nancy Reagan, Leona Helmsley, and Madonna may, in their public personae, be media creations, but they, nonetheless offer alternatives to women who would perhaps encounter only one of these ideal types in their neighborhood. This notwithstanding, it is still not the case that homogeneity is at our feet. I do not accept that the smokers at the next table are part of a national struggle between my side and theirs. In Tucson, smoking is accepted in certain part of restaurants. In Hollywood, it is banned from public places. In Chicago, the concept of a no-smoking section is still novel. The collective discourse on the risks of smoking vary markedly from place to place.18 The same logic applies more crucially in the case of race relations. I would agree that race is now understood as an embracing factor: indeed, the urge to replace the terms hispanic, black, and Asian, by Mexican American, African American, and Asian American indicates just such a sense of relatedness. Nonetheless, there is little question that the terms of racial struggle are mediated via local political practices, local employment opportunities, local educational experiences, and the longstanding cultural forms that contribute to local knowledge. Blacks may well have their expectations defined in part by the quarterbacks, talk show hosts, and comedians who invade their living rooms; but they must still translate those expectations through the reality of the streets, the courts, and the personnel department.
This is the point at which Meyrowitz's argument drifts away. He concludes his analysis with a vision that echoes the postmodern descriptions that have become so familiar. All is change, all is choice. We can reconstruct ourselves in new locations, reconstruct ourselves as a one-person household, and yet these choices are illusionary. Most single parents enter into serial monogamy; the form of the household is constant, only the individuals are different. People may move to small towns, but these very rapidly turn right back into big cities within a decade. However much the existential media may offer us dazzling alternatives in the living room, they in the end do nothing more than offer ideas. They can do nothing to empower individuals or collectivities in their struggles: these are generated in situ.
Meyrowitz's ideas are useful to us here because they represent a common interpretation of the power of modernity. The intellectual willingness to jettison the variations that exist within civil society from location to location is not restricted to some within the communication discipline; it is a general tendency, and an instructive one. As Berger and Luckmann observed, "The world of everyday life is structured both spatially and temporally. The spatial structure is quite peripheral to our present considerations." A glance at their writing shows, of course, that it is anything but peripheral.19 This confusion draws upon the myths of a totalizing discourse in offering up a placeless world, a dystopia which does not–mercifully–exist.


I have argued that regions and localities can still possess individuality, however much the processes of capitalism serve to smooth out such distinctions. This defense of the region, however, depends upon resistance against "the generalized elsewhere." This resistance must take several forms; what is prized must be protected and preserved, even at high cost; new residential and industrial developments must be evaluated against a broad set of criteria, and the future must be approached via some systems of community planning. These steps will guarantee that the locality will retain control of its growth and change, although two caveats are in order. First, it is much harder to plan for an entire region, as a multiplicity of governments typically will disagree. And second, there may be a literal price to pay for a defense of the locality. The examples of Boulder and Santa Barbara show just what is possible in terms of controlling the terms of development and creating a community aesthetic. Such communities, however, are also likely to limit growth, tear down low-income homes, and rapidly create very expensive localities that lack cultural and class diversity.
Nor is a defense against the processes of capitalism all that is necessary. The community may also attempt to define its own quality of life, a process that reflects its sense of historical and geographical development. It may find, however, that this brings it into conflict with the state apparatus, which exerts enormous control over local governments. While communities have, for instance, declared themselves as nuclear-free zones, there are costs to be borne by such actions, and the costs are in direct proportion to the effectiveness of the act. For example, large numbers of municipalities have registered their opposition to nuclear weapons strategies and/or the transport of nuclear products through their environs by a declaration of various types of ordinance. The federal government has overturned such controls, arguing for the necessity for pre-emption in the national interest. A parallel example can be seen with environmental legislation generated at the local level. In two decisions rendered in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Los Angeles County ordinance and a provision of the 1972 California Coastal Zoning Management Act, both of which had been appealed by development interests. Powerful lobbies, such as the NRA, have also used the political process to attact local governments' efforts to generate gun control within the community.20
This does not indicate that the locality is a relict form of organization, soon to disappear under the tidal waves of capital appropriation and big government. It does, however, show that a defense of the region is a complex task, that it is a political task, and that it must rest upon a broad basis of support. Without this, the generalized elsewhere will triumph, and the death of geography can be proclaimed.


  1. J. Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. The tendency has a long pedigree; Evelyn Waugh observed that "science annihilates distance" over fifty years ago.
  2. For a full discussion of this argument, see A. M. Kirby, "Context, Common Sense and the Reality of Place: A Critical Reading of Meyrowitz" Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 18, 2 (1988): 239-50; and "A Sense of Place' Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6(3):322-6 see also commentary by J. Meyrowitz, "The Generalized Elsewhere" Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6, 3 (1989): 326-33.
  3. For instance, Meyrowitz submits that in medieval European society, communication–which was essentially conversation–necessitated continual face-to-face interaction. The result was that there was little social segregation. This is certainly true with respect to the home, which did function as shop, factory, hospital, schoolroom and occasional mortuary. This logic cannot, however, be extended to the medieval town as a whole. Residential segregation was in fact quite marked: families of the elite occupied the city center, close to the spaces that contained the symbols of power, such as the courthouse and the cathedral. Beyond this core, poorer families dwelt in inferior homes; beyond them, in turn, were the indigent, who lived beyond the city walls. In short, it is possible to argue that communication needs contributed to the lack of differentiation and segregation within the home; it is not possible to extend that argument to embrace the entire city.
  4. In retrospect, it seems futile to have attempted to exclude the capitalist message, coded in records, cassettes, and even clothes, from the DDR using blocks of concrete.
  5. The complexities of this process are explored by Paul Knox in his unpublished paper "The Restless Urban Landscape: Capital, Commodity Aesthetics and the New Bourgeoisie." Center for Urban and Regional Studies, Virginia Polytechnic, Blacksburg.
  6. D. W Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989, 295.
  7. A process which is of course not restricted to television. A short story such as Barbara Kingsolver's "Why I Am a Danger to the Public" draws its, impact ineluctably from its setting in New Mexico.
  8. A contrast can be made with the situation comedy Roseanne, which exhibits more of the tendencies noted by Meyrowitz. The family is determinedly of no place: the opening credits show simply a tract house that can be found anywhere in the country. It is only through circumstantial evidence (debates over the use of chains versus snow tires) and occasional references to Chicago that we can guess that they inhabit some faceless town in Illinois.
  9. A. Freedman, "National Firms Find that Selling to Local Tastes is Costly, Complex." Wall Street Journal February 9, 1987, 21.
  10. The reverse is also true. The title of this paper alludes to two apocryphal stories in which manufacturers erred in their assumptions about the universality of words. In Spanish, a car named 'Nova" would not be expected to move; one of the first suggestions for a Toyota compact to be distributed in the U.S. was the unintentional double entendre of the "toyolette."
  11. Meyrowitz, "Generalized Elsewhere," 327.
  12. As a consequence of this confusion, we may note the case with which one individual could shape postwar attitudes, as is revealed in George Keenan's many writings.
  13. This has been argued at great length by G. R. Sloan in his 1988 book Geopolitics in United States Strategic Policy 1890-1987. New York: St. Martin's Press. He contrasts the complexity of German geopolitical thought with the vacuity of American geopolitics.
  14. British sociologist Rees writes, "Only in a limited sense was the miner's strike a national one at all ... not only was the form of the strike in each of the areas of the British coalfield substantially shaped by local characteristics ... but also this differentiation was contributory to its overall outcome." G. Rees, "Regional Restructuring, Class Change and Political Action." Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 3, 4 (1985): 389-406.
  15. Readers with a strong stomach should read the exchange between Susan Clarke and Andrew Kirby on the one hand, and Mark Gottdiener on the other over the "death of local politics": see Urban Affairs Quarterly 25(3), 1990.
  16. See, for instance, J. Wolpert, Annals of the Association of American Geographer, 1989.
  17. Gitlin has argued that this commodification process is nothing more than an expression of the postmodern condition: "Postmodernist literature cultivates place names in the same way consumers flock to the latest ethnic cuisine–in the spirit of the collector, because the uniqueness of real places is actually waning." Leaving aside the presumption that there are "real" and "unreal' social relations in "real" and "unreal" places, Gitlin might need to contrast his remarks with very similar insights offered by Sinclair Lewis, writing about Main Street several decades ago; this would certainly undermine, too, his assumptions about a postmodern connection.
  18. See, for instance, A. M. Kirby, "Things Fall Apart: Risks and Hazards in their Social Context." In Nothing to Fear: Risks and Hazards in American Society, edited by Andrew M. Kirby. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990.
  19. P. Berger and T. Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday, 1967,26.
  20. A.M. Kirby, "Law and Disorder: Morton Grove and the Community Control of Handguns" Urban Geography, 1990, in press.