Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Kearney, A. (2017). Violence in place, cultural and environmental wounding. New York, NY: Routledge

Violence in Place, Cultural and Environmental Wounding takes on a specific type of human-generated trauma: cultural wounding. Cultural wounding is the intentional harm and violence (physical and symbolic) against members of a culture, as well as their way of life. It is enacted from a motivation to destroy or damage beyond repair the past, present, and future of a culture. In this volume, Kearney specifically locates cultural wounding in place, where place is a “relational co-presence envisioned as a vital shaping element in human life” (p. 1). Using this definition, place is imbued with its own agency and even sentience. In moments of trauma and cultural wounding, place is not just the setting; it is witness, participant, and victim. Indigenous epistemologies of place are said to demonstrate this hyper-relativist perspective, and Kearney sets out to argue that, in the wake of colonialism and neo-liberalism, a return to a kincentric ecology of place is necessary rectify the Western dualism of nature and humanity.

Generally, Kearney’s goal is to present a conception of cultural trauma that relies on the actions and interactions of humans and place. More specifically, Kearney provides accounts of 15 years of ethnographic study with an indigenous group in Australia, Yanyuwa, to show how colonization destroyed the kinship between people and place. She uses these observations to develop a phenomenological approach to diagnosing “patterns of place harm” in order to “recognize their presence in contexts all over the world and track back from this awareness to examine the axiologies that support not only cultural wounding, but also its greater effects as violence and trauma in place” (p. 95). To avoid criticisms of romanticism or anthropomorphizing, Kearney sets out to develop a methodology informed by indigenous epistemologies and decolonizing principles, acknowledging our inability to ‘listen’ outside of its relationship to humanity. Place has its own emotional geography that humans within place can relate to and read, and Kearney claims that trauma narratives told in place carry more weight and offer more opportunities for understanding across culture because of this emotional geography.

Cultural wounding is physically and/or symbolically violent, and this violence requires an axiological retreat “invoking principles of disregard and moral disengagement at a level so profoundly normalized that the question of care passes into oblivion” (p. 6). When that cultural wounding destroys a kincentric or nested ecology of place, where place is a sentient agent, what is lost is the moral obligation to place, to maintain and honor it through what Yanyuwa call Law. For Yanyuwa, place is not a static backdrop for human activity, “places are kin and are relationally bound to one another through the journeying of ancestral beings” (p. 79). This kin relationship with the place world is observable in the Yanyuwa practice of ‘calling out to country,’ or orally announcing arrival to ancestors and place to ensure welcome and safe passage.

Cultural wounding involves the displacement, designification, or disordering of place. In the case of indigenous populations across the world, all three of acts were present in the trauma. Displacement often involves violent acts of forced relocation, ethnic cleansing, genocide, or ecocide. Surviving cultural members are physically removed from place (if that place even still exists), inhibiting relations with it. Designification follows displacement, “obliterating the vacated places” (p. 106) by physically damaging place beyond repair, destroying or hiding past indicators of cultural significance, and otherwise altering the cultural landscape. Disorder is a more symbolic violence, but it is no less wounding, in many ways acting as the final erasure of place by introducing a new order (and therefore throwing place into disorder) by eliminating toponymic distinctiveness, or renaming.

The idea that place could have agency is not a wild stretch by any means. Kenneth Burke conceptualizes something similar in his idea of dramatism, in terms of scene (Payne, 1990). Scene, rather than being a static setting, has agency and influence within the greater drama of actions taking place. The ‘mobilities turn’ in cultural geography takes an agential approach to place as well, place is actually a dynamic orchestration of observable, symbolic, and embodied movements in and through environments including humans, non-human material agents, and immaterial social structures (Cresswell, 2006; Sheller & Urry, 2006). Kearney, however, extends this argument to a more spiritual level, giving place sentience and consciousness.

Coming from a language and social interaction perspective within communication studies, this argument of consciousness is at best a way of doing the very romanticizing Kearney seeks to avoid, and at worst is continuing a tradition of ownership and oppression begun with colonialism. The language of consciousness that Kearney invokes is a metaphor, and like all metaphors exists to do particular work within social contexts. The metaphor of consciousness is problematic for a discussion of place for a few reasons. First, consciousness is a social construct that seeks to locate social interactions spatially within individuals, usually in a place called ‘mind’ (Jaynes, 2000). Giving place a mind, would imply that it can operate independently of human interaction, which counters Kearney’s stated argument. Second, consciousness and mind, as metaphors, are ultimately a battle for ownership of authority, and thus of personhood. Whatever has a mind can author; whatever authors the narrative, owns it; whatever owns the narrative owns the bodies within it. In this way, place is given authority over indigenous bodies, perpetuating a history of colonialism.

Further, Kearney’s argument for a “return” to indigenous epistemologies is an overgeneralization of the start point of place, and an overgeneralization of indigenous cultures. Her account of kincentric and nested ecologies comes dangerously close to invoking the cultural trope of the ‘ecological Indian,’ which dates back to early encounters with indigenous populations during the European colonization of North America (Smithers, 2015). The myth that all indigenous cultures are more in tune and have a kinship relationship with nature greatly oversimplifies indigenous history and culture, and works to prevent meaningful conversation about the environment since it confines discourse to a racialized stereotype that only exists in relation to the Western human/nature dualism. The prioritizing of indigenous epistemologies also limits the transferability of Kearney’s conception of cultural wounding and place since not all cultures begin from such a dynamic, and therefore not all cultures can enact the axiological return Kearney outlines. All of this is not to devalue Kearney’s work. Fifteen years of ethnographic study has given her insight into the relationship between humanity, place, and trauma.

Kearney’s use of the consciousness metaphor and idealization of indigenous cultures may be troubling, but her argument of a relational dynamic between humans and place is compelling and useful. Place is integral to the collective performance of identity, and cultural wounding captures the trauma that works to divorce a culture and its bodies from the place in which it was once situated. Acknowledging the agential nature of place requires any analysis of such a cultural trauma to account for interaction with place, and as Kearney argues, physically (re)locate bodies within that place in order to feel the full emotional geography of the altered remains of place. In a time of climate refugees, climate change and irreversible environmental degradation, eco-trauma will only be more common, affecting diverse cultures, places, and bodies. An ecological approach to trauma that accounts for interactions between human and non-human agents is necessary now more than ever.

Leanna Smithberger (University of South Florida)


Cresswell, T. (2006). On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Jaynes, J. (2000). The Origin of Consciousness in the Break Down of the Bicameral Mind. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Payne, D. (1990). Dramatic Criticism. In R. P. Hart (Ed.), Modern Rhetorical Criticism (1 ed., pp. 259-283). New York, NY: Scott, Foresman/Little, Brown Higher Education.

Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2006). The New Mobilities Paradigm. Environment and Planning A, 38, 207-226. doi:10.1068/a37268

Smithers, G. D. (2015). Beyond the “Ecological Indian”: Environmental Politics and Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Modern North America. Environmental History, 20(1), 83-111. doi:10.1093/envhis/emu125