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Progress in Human Geography 34(4) (2010) pp.


Geographies of toponymic inscription: new

directions in critical place-name studies
Reuben Rose-Redwood,1* Derek Alderman2 and
Maoz Azaryahu3
Department of Geography, University of Victoria, B203 Social Sciences and
Mathematics Building, 3800 Finnerty Road, Victoria, BC V8P 5C2, Canada
Department of Geography, East Carolina University, A-227 Brewster Building,
Greenville, NC 27858, USA
Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Haifa,
Haifa 31905, Israel

Abstract: The study of place naming, or toponymy, has recently undergone a critical reformulation
as scholars have moved beyond the traditional focus on etymology and taxonomy by examining the
politics of place-naming practices. In this article, we provide a selective genealogy of the ‘critical turn’
in place-name studies and consider three complementary approaches to analyzing spatial inscription
as a toponymic practice: political semiotics, governmentality studies, and normative theories of
social justice and symbolic resistance. We conclude by proposing that future scholarship should
explore the political economy of toponymic practices as a step toward expanding the conceptual
horizon of critical place-name studies.

Key words: critical place-name studies, governmentality, politics of calculation, semiotics, social
justice, symbolic resistance, toponymy.

I Introduction Dean Thurmond of the US Army’s Combined

Joint Task Force Seven … Main, Cigar, and
You won’t find Canal Road, California or South streets were scribbled [on maps] over the
Coors Street on the commercial street maps names more familiar to Baghdadis … ‘These
of Baghdad, but this is the new Iraq, where boys are far from home and they tend to use
US soldiers are redrawing the city one English names that remind them of home,’ said one
name at a time … Oklahoma and Pennsylvania special forces sergeant in the town of Fallujah,
replaced street names in the industrial section west of Baghdad, dismissing suggestions that
of the old city framed by historic Al-Rashid and the practice carried an air of imperialism.
Khulafa streets. In the world of the occupier, ‘There’s nothing magical or sinister about it.’
name familiarity breeds security, said Major (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2003)

*Author for correspondence. Email:

© The Author(s), 2009. Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/0309132509351042
454 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

In early April 2003, a mere two weeks after The Americans were not the only ones to
the initial invasion of Iraq, US troops com- remake Iraq’s toponymy after the fall of
mandeered Saddam International Airport, the former regime. Shi’a communities in
and the US Central Command swiftly re- Baghdad renamed streets, squares, bridges,
named the complex ‘Baghdad International mosques, hospitals, universities, and entire
Airport’ (Woznicki, 2003; USA Today, 2003; neighborhoods in an attempt to rid them-
Hunt, 2005; Pike, 2007a). The renaming of selves of Saddam’s legacy. While many
Baghdad’s airport marked the opening salvo were eager to replace the city’s Saddam-era
of the US occupation, which continues to place names, some Shi’a themselves raised
reshape Iraq’s toponymic landscape today. concerns that this might result in additional
New US military camps and bases were given ‘frictions’ with Sunnis. The renaming of
names that resonated with righteousness, Baghdad’s streets opened a space of rec-
such as ‘Camp Freedom’, ‘Camp Liberty’, and ognition for the Shi’a, which they had long
‘Camp Justice’, and other toponyms were been denied, yet it also produced a symbolic
taken straight out of the American geograph- arena that held the potential to further divide
ical lexicon, including ‘Camp Arkansas’ and the city along sectarian lines at a time of
‘Forward Operating Base Manhattan’ (Pike, rising social tensions (Fox News, 2003; Price,
2007b). 2003; Slevin, 2003).
In an attempt to render the unfamiliar As the case of Iraq’s toponymic reconfigur-
more manageable, US forces also devised a ation during the US occupation powerfully
system of American-inspired street names illustrates, the renaming of streets and other
that they overlaid upon maps of Baghdad, landmarks often plays a crucial role in the
dotted with names like ‘California Street’, social production of ‘place’. The discursive
‘Virginia Avenue’, and ‘Main Street’ (The act of assigning a name to a given location
Sydney Morning Herald, 2003). The principal does much more than merely denote an
highway to the Baghdad Airport was re- already-existing ‘place’. Rather, as scholars
christened as ‘Route Irish’, with a nod to the from various fields have suggested, the act
‘Fighting Irish’ of Notre Dame, and various of naming is itself a performative practice
other supply routes across the country that calls forth the ‘place’ to which it refers
were also named for American sports teams by attempting to stabilize the unwieldy con-
(Baggio, 2006). With a more familiar set of tradictions of sociospatial processes into the
toponyms at their disposal, US soldiers were seemingly more ‘managable’ order of textual
better able to navigate throughout Iraq and inscription (Palonen, 1993; Yurchak, 2000;
‘pinpoint locations’ of potential interest. At Kearns and Berg, 2002; Rose-Redwood,
the onset of the occupation, US Army Major 2008c). While Massey (2005: 54) rightly
Dean Thurmond explained the purpose of warns us against embracing ‘the longstanding
such place-naming practices by noting that tendency to tame the spatial into the textual’,
‘[i]t’s for the sake of communication and this need not imply a wholesale dismissal of
security and making sure everyone is on the the interrelations of space, place, and text-
same sheet of music’ (The Sydney Morning uality. On the contrary, a critical analysis
Herald, 2003). From the vantage point of of the politics of spatial inscription remains
the occupier, Baghdad’s landscape was seen one of the most effective strategies for chal-
as an unwieldy symphony that could only lenging essentialist claims to affixing stable
be understood – and hence secured – if identities to particular spaces. Moreover,
its melodies were clearly demarcated and the naming of places is one of the primary
inscribed on a single ‘sheet of music’, thereby means of attempting to construct clearly de-
producing a toponymic text to serve as a marcated spatial identities. Therefore, if we
map of calculable territory. are to call into question the ‘taming’ of the
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 455

spatial-into-the-textual, as Massey (2005) become one of the central concerns of

insists, this nevertheless still requires a critical critical approaches to place-name studies.
analysis of the social and political struggles This so-called ‘critical turn’ in toponymic
over spatial inscription and related toponymic scholarship has produced an exciting new
practices. body of research, which situates the study of
We recognize that our call for a renewed toponymy within the context of broader
focus on the geography of place naming may debates in critical human geography.
initially be received with a certain degree of We begin by providing a selective
suspicion. After all, haven’t most geographers genealogy of contemporary place-name
attempted to distance themselves as much studies in the next section. The aim of this
as possible from the public perception that genealogical investigation is not to propose
geography is about nothing more than memor- some sort of teleological progression from
izing place names and state capitals? Such the ‘traditional’ to the ‘critical’ in toponymic
skepticism is understandable considering the scholarship. Such a characterization would
largely esoteric and encyclopedic nature of surely be an oversimplification, since it ob-
much of the traditional scholarship on place scures the diversity of approaches currently
names. This goes a long way toward ex- being employed in the multidisciplinary field
plaining why place-name research has carved of toponymy, which includes everything
out such a marginal existence within the dis- from the unapologetic empiricism of applied
cipline of geography and is commonly con- toponymy to the theoretical formulations of
ceived of as ‘the old and largely discredited poststructuralist critique. We would like to
field of toponymy’ (Goodchild, 2004: 712). argue, however, that the level of explicit and
Even the long-time geographic proselytizer self-reflexive engagement with critical the-
for place-name studies, Wilbur Zelinsky ories of space and place over the past two
(2002: 243), laments that, after many years decades has marked an important turning
of scholarship, ‘[t]he theoretical scene in point in toponymic research, and it is this
the study of names leaves everything to shift toward theorizing the politics of place-
be desired’. Yet, despite this association of naming practices that we seek to highlight
place-name studies with antiquarian empiri- in our admittedly ‘selective’ genealogy. We
cism, there are signs that a sea-change is see in this work the potential to overturn
currently under way in toponymic research. the long-standing perception that toponymy
A growing number of scholars have emphas- is reducible to the encyclopedic search for
ized the importance of understanding place the authentic origins of names while also
naming as a contested spatial practice rather challenging the notion that a ‘definitive’
than viewing place names as transparent classification system can be constructed to
signifiers that designate places as ‘objects’ or impose order on the bewildering multiplicity
‘artifacts’ within a predefined geographical of place names.
space (Berg and Vuolteenaho, 2009). There are many different directions that
In this article, we trace the recent shift critical place-name studies might take in the
in place-name studies away from its trad- future. We have chosen to emphasize three
itional focus on etymological and taxonomic distinct approaches to examining toponymic
concerns and toward a critical interrogation practices. First, we consider place naming
of the politics of place naming. If it could be from the standpoint of semiotics. Next, we
argued in the mid-1990s that a ‘critical ap- draw upon governmentality studies to
preciation of power and ideology is often theorize the making of regimes of spatial
far from the center of concern in toponymic inscription as an integral strategy in the pro-
studies’ (Myers, 1996: 237), this is no longer duction of calculable spaces. Lastly, we focus
the case today since the ‘political’ has now our attention on issues of social justice as
456 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

they relate to conceptualizing place-naming By the mid-1980s, however, there were

systems as ‘cultural arenas’. These three already various scholars at work seeking to
approaches to place-name studies are by no challenge such traditional approaches to
means mutually exclusive nor do they ex- toponymic research (Cohen and Kliot, 1981;
haust the realm of theoretical approaches Azaryahu, 1986; 1988; Carter, 1987; Ferguson,
at our disposal. Rather, they are highlighted 1988; Stump, 1988). Maoz Azaryahu’s
here to illustrate the multiple perspectives (1986; 1988; 1990; 1992; 1996) early work on
that can inform a critical politics of place street naming and political identity laid the
naming, and we hope that future scholarship groundwork for a critical interrogation of
will expand the epistemological, ontological, urban toponymic practices and the politics of
and methodological horizon of critical place- commemoration. Moreover, the publication
name studies. of Paul Carter’s now-classic study, The road
to Botany Bay (1987), also drew attention to
II Towards a genealogy of the ‘critical the constitutive role of naming in the pro-
turn’ in contemporary place-name duction of ‘places’ that were invested with
studies cultural meaning and social power. Focusing
For much of the twentieth century, the particularly on the ways in which naming
study of place names was preoccupied with practices literally ‘invented’ new spaces of
accumulating and cataloguing the names of colonial possession, Carter demonstrates
places rather than analyzing the sociospatial how the act of naming brought specific places
practice of toponymic inscription itself. into the realm of ‘cultural circulation’, thereby
Wright (1929: 140) long ago argued that this ‘transforming space into an object of know-
approach to place-name studies could be ledge, something that could be explored and
likened to that of ‘the botanical collector, read’ (Carter, 1987: 28, 67). Whatmore
whose first interest is in gathering and ticket- (2002: 68), however, questions Carter’s
ing specimens’. Similarly, he suggested that ‘insistence on the primacy of language and
the ‘toponym collector draws up lists of place his preoccupation with naming as a defin-
names and garners details regarding the itive spatial practice’. She contends that the
origin and meaning of each’. By focusing so focus on imperial naming strategies – while
intently on the origins of individual place important – often results in the conceptual
names, such studies have tended to neglect erasure of those indigenous spaces that
the political struggles over the processes were not subject to the intentional gaze of
of place naming (Kearns and Berg, 2002). imperial inscription (see also Ryan, 1996;
As Withers (2000: 533) incisively argues, Clayton, 2000).
‘Attention to the name alone, either on the For the most part, these criticisms are
ground or on an historical map, runs the generally well founded, yet many of the issues
risk of concerning itself with ends and not raised concerning Carter’s approach have
with means; of ignoring, or, at best, under- been remedied by other scholars who have
playing the social processes intrinsic to the explored the social struggles over competing
authoritative act of naming’. At the close of systems of spatial signification (eg, Yeoh,
the twentieth century, Zelinsky (1997: 465) 1992). Other studies have also explored how
soberly observed that the study of geograph- colonial powers frequently erased, mar-
ical names amounted to little more than ginalized, or appropriated the languages
‘collecting, classifying, and seeking origins for and place-name systems of colonized, indi-
names, with only occasional probes of the genous groups (Bassett, 1994; Herman, 1999;
connections to the encompassing totality of Withers, 2000; Grounds, 2001). Not sur-
human phenomena’. risingly, a reclaiming of language, memory,
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 457

and identity has accompanied postcolonial indicative of the power that street-naming
independence, and, as revealed in place- systems have in constituting the taken-for-
renaming efforts, this reclamation has been granted spaces of everyday life, especially
anything but straightforward politically (Berg when ‘everybody uses them [street names]
and Kearns, 1996; Yeoh, 1996; Nash, 1999). but hardly anyone pays attention to their
In critical place-name studies, the emphasis specific historical meaning and to the fact
has been placed not so much on the name that they belong to the structures of power’
itself but rather on the cultural politics of (Azaryahu, 1996: 321). It is precisely this
naming – that is, how people seek to control, process of using street naming as a mec-
negotiate, and contest the naming process as hanism for naturalizing hegemonic power
they engage in wider struggles for legitimacy structures that critical place-name scholars
and visibility. have sought to challenge by demonstrating
By the mid-1990s, a significant reorien- the historical instability and contingency of
tation in place-name studies was evident as place-naming regimes.
a growing number of scholars began ‘recon- While the majority of studies on the politics
necting place-name analysis to the study of of place naming have emphasized questions
power’ (Myers, 1996: 237). Many of these of nationalism and ideology, there is also a
studies drew upon Cohen and Kliot’s (1992) growing recognition that the naming of places
seminal analysis of place naming as a strat- is implicated in the production of racialized,
egy of nation-building and state formation, gendered, and commodified landscapes
and a heavy emphasis was therefore placed (Berg and Kearns, 1996; Boyd, 2000; Yurchak,
on how governmental authorities have con- 2000; Kearns and Berg, 2002; Hagen,
structed new regimes of toponymic inscrip- 2007; Mitchelson et al., 2007; Alderman,
tion to promote particular conceptions of 2008; Rose-Redwood, 2008b). The image-
history and national identity. Subsequent generating power of toponyms has long
work has chronicled the toponymic changes played a role in the political economy of place
accompanying major ideological struggles promotion; from the intentional misnaming
and power shifts within different countries of Greenland to the more current practice
(Azaryahu, 1992; 1997; Faraco and Murphy, of giving subdivisions, businesses, casinos,
1997; Azaryahu and Golan, 2001; Robinson and even hospitals marketable monikers
et al., 2001; Azaryahu and Kook, 2002; Light, (Zelinsky, 1989; Kearns and Barnett, 1999;
2004; Gill, 2005). As Whelan (2005: 62) main- Raento and Douglass, 2001). Place-naming
tains, these name changes ‘act as a spatializa- rights are increasingly bought and sold like
tion of memory and power, making tangible commodities, used to project the power of
specific narratives of nationhood and reducing corporations and privatize public space and
otherwise fluid histories into sanitized, con- memory (Boyd, 2000; Yurchak, 2000).
cretized myths that anchor the projection of Drawing from the work of Pierre Bourdieu,
national identity onto physical territory’. recent studies have suggested that topo-
As this research shows, the renaming of nyms function as a form of ‘symbolic capital’,
streets has proven to be an especially popular or a means of creating social distinction and
strategy for removing signs of earlier regimes status for both elite and marginalized groups
and honoring a new set of heroes, campaigns, as well as individual actors (Hagen, 2007;
and causes (Ferguson, 1988; Palonen, 1993; Alderman, 2008; Rose-Redwood, 2008b).
Azaryahu, 1996; Yeoh, 1996; Faraco and Of course, symbolic capital can be converted
Murphy, 1997; Alderman, 2000; Light et al., into economic capital, but it often holds even
2002; Pinchevski and Torgovnik, 2002; Light, greater currency as people vie for prestige
2004; Rose-Redwood, 2008b). This focus in and influence within the larger social and pol-
the literature on the naming of streets is itical order (Forest and Johnson, 2002).
458 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

The socially contested nature of place Semiotics, or the study of signs, explores the
names comes from the fact that they are cultural communication of meaning and
powerful semiotic texts embedded in larger how messages that are disseminated in the
systems of meaning and discourse that are sphere of social communication are encoded
read, interpreted, and acted upon socially and decoded. Since the pioneering work of
by people in different ways (Duncan, 1990; Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders
Pinchevski and Torgovnik, 2002). Toponyms, Peirce, a number of semiotic traditions have
according to Thornton (1997: 221), ‘evoke a developed as a means of examining sign
wide range of poignant associations, mental systems of various kinds (Chandler, 2007).
and physical, illustrating how people learn Applying a semiotic approach appears
to “think” with the landscape and not just to be especially rewarding for the study of
“about it”’. Place names are also import- commemorative toponyms. The semiotic
ant in creating and maintaining emotional association between place naming and pol-
attachments to places, even in the face of itical power can be traced back throughout
physical alienation from these very same the course of history. Naming places after
places (Kearney and Bradley, 2009; see also their founders, for instance, is an ancient trad-
Davidson et al., 2005). Associated inter- ition. Following the example of Alexander
textually with larger cultural narratives and the Great, new cities in the Hellenistic and
stories, toponymic inscriptions serve as a the Roman Empire were named after em-
‘means of situating people in places’ and as- perors. Similarly, new settlements founded
sisting the public in making moral and ethical in the American West were often named to
judgments about themselves and others commemorate political leaders and prom-
(Carbaugh and Rudnick, 2006: 167). inent citizens. Moreover, cities in the former
As this selective overview of critical place- Soviet Union were also named after members
name studies shows, the field of toponymy of the Soviet pantheon. In 1924, for example,
has experienced a major transformation over Petrograd was renamed Leningrad. Stalin’s
the course of the last 20 years. A variety of cult of personality was also evident in nam-
new thematic concerns have been explored, ing cities after him in each of the 16 Soviet
and there is now a far greater recognition Republics. During the second half of the
that toponymic research should be firmly twentieth century, in the era of mass travel,
grounded in an explicit engagement with airports have similarly been named after
critical theories of space, place, and land- national heroes.
scape. In the remainder of this article, we con- In previous studies, one of the present
sider three distinct theoretical frameworks authors has drawn upon the work of Umberto
that can be employed to critically analyze Eco to analyze the political semiotics of com-
toponymic practices: political semiotics, memorative street naming, which involves
governmentality studies, and normative the interplay between primary, utilitarian
theories of social justice and symbolic resist- functions that are ‘denoted’ and a complex
ance. This discussion is meant to be a sug- set of secondary, symbolic functions, which
gestive, rather than comprehensive, account are ‘connoted’ (Azaryahu, 1996). The latter
of possible approaches to critical place- involve cultural values, social norms, and pol-
name studies. itical ideologies that are associated with the
symbolic message of the sign (Eco, 1986).
III Political semiotics and the cultural The utilitarian function of toponyms is to
economy of commemorative place naming designate different ‘places’ as part of a gen-
Names and the nomenclatures they belong to eral system of spatial orientation. However,
occupy a central place in any cultural system. the official naming of places by authorities
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 459

opens up the possibility of instituting names After a commemorative name is given to

that, in their commemorative capacity, con- a place, it increasingly becomes associated
form to and accord with the ideological with its geographic location: history becomes
premises underlying the ruling sociopolitical geography. Kennedy, Bismarck, Martin
order. This commemorative dimension in- Luther King, and Ben Gurion come to answer
vests place names with ideological meaning the question ‘where’ rather than the ques-
and political significance (Palonen, 1993; tion ‘who’. As a result of the conversion of
Azaryahu, 1996). historical names into place names, the geo-
When commemoration is prioritized over graphic denotation takes over while the
orientation, the commemorative function existence of a historical referent becomes
can interfere with and even undermine increasingly obscure to most users of the
the utilitarian function of a toponym. One city: ‘When I hear the name Friedrichstrasse
example of such a situation is when geo- or similar street names, I don’t think in this
graphically continuous thoroughfares are minute at all that the street is named after
divided into smaller units to accommodate Friedrich I or anyone else’ (Loewy, 1927: 303).
multiple commemorative names, each of Notwithstanding the ideological perspec-
which is assigned to a particular consecutive tives that underlie commemorative place
segment of a thoroughfare between neigh- naming, the meaning individuals ascribe to
boring intersections. From the perspective and associate with place names is to a sub-
of those in charge of bestowing these com- stantial extent also a function of how per-
memorative names, the aim is to maximize sonal experiences frame their semiotic
the number of commemorations in a given engagement with the landscape.
area. For many who are attempting to navi- The version of history that commemor-
gate through a city, however, such a practice ative place naming introduces into social
defies ‘common-sense’ assumptions that a communication is experienced as obvious,
continuous thoroughfare is one and the same part of the ‘natural order’. In this sense, the
urban unit and should be designated as such. apparent weakness of the historical referent
The use of place names for commemor- actually augments the power of commem-
ative purposes is based on a long-standing orative place names to render a certain
cross-cultural convention, which maintains version of history not only familiar, but also
that pronouncing the proper names of the self-evident. The merit of a place name as a
dead facilitates remembrance. From a semi- commemorative vehicle is that it transforms
otic perspective, the commemoration of an official discourse of history into a shared
Stalingrad is illuminating since it entails a cultural experience that is embedded into
cluster of explicit and implicit commemor- practices of everyday life.
ations. Avenue de Stalingrad in Paris was In their commemorative capacity, place
named after the Soviet city that, following names offer a mapping of space and historical
the decisive victory of the Red Army in 1943, time that figures as a cartographic text.
became a metaphor for the heroic and vic- Street names, for example, are embedded
torious stand. On another commemorative into the cityscape to form a particular ‘city-
level, the name of the city commemorated text’ displayed on street signs and maps
Stalin. A prominent symbol of the Stalinist (Azaryahu, 1996). Notably, such a city-text
cult of personality, the city was renamed represents the priorities of former municipal
Volgagrad in the course of de-Stalinization, administrations and political regimes.
yet the commemoration of Stalin is pre- Written over prolonged periods of time and
served in the name Avenue de Stalingrad in eventually re- and over-inscribed, a city-
Paris. The name also appears in various other text at any given time is the sum of former
European cities, such as Lyon and Brussels. additions and erasures, and in this capacity is
460 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

a palimpsest (Ferguson, 1988; Crang, 1998). ‘renaming the landscape’ is directed to weld the
The writers of a city-text are mostly lesser- national language to the national territory by
known members of committees and officials excluding ‘foreign’ place names (Azaryahu
put in charge of naming streets and other and Golan, 2001). The ‘nationalization’ of
public places. Their choices represent urban toponymies as a symbolic homeland-building
contingencies but also the ideological com- measure has belonged to periods of nation-
mitments and political concerns of local elites building and state-formation in Europe since
in charge of the semiotic make-up of the city. it was first practiced in a newly independent
As a particular geography of public memory, Greece after 1830, when Turkish, Slavic, and
a city-text represents not only a version of Italian place names were Hellenized. The
history but also commemorative priorities toponymic cleansing of colonial place names
and hegemonic discourses of former periods. is also a common feature in postcolonial
The association of commemorative topo- contexts (Yeoh, 1996).
nyms with specific social, cultural, and polit- Based on the premise that the political
ical systems makes them vulnerable to shifts economy of signs and social formations are
in political ideologies and discourses of his- interrelated, political semiotics explores
tory. A pertinent issue is the impact a change ideology as a cultural form and investigates
of local administration has on a city-text. the sociopolitical dimension of signs. The
This is of special relevance when the new ad- political semiotics of place naming offers
ministration champions a commemorative important insights into the study of the rela-
agenda that differs from those of its pre- tions between toponymy and the politics of
decessors. When continuity is desired, a pos- cultural signification. In doing so, it sheds light
sible solution is the commemorative naming on how commemorative measures of place
of public spaces in newly built neighbor- naming are embedded within the political
hoods to compensate for alleged or real past geographies of public memory.
commemorative deficiencies.
Another option is to rename existing IV Governmentality, regimes of spatial
landmarks, streets, and other places. This inscription, and the production of
phenomenon figures prominently in periods calculable spaces
of regime change and revolutionary trans- Most accounts of the semiotics of place nam-
formation, when ‘renaming the past’ is a ing devote considerable attention to the
measure of officially promoted historical ways in which toponyms constitute the land-
revision. Together with pulling down monu- scape as a ‘text’ through which the commem-
ments, an ideologically motivated rewriting orative priorities of a people can be read. As
of city-texts belongs to a ‘semiotic revolu- noted above, the utilitarian function of a
tion’ that signifies discontinuities in polit- sign is often contrasted with its commemo-
ical history. Aimed at the reconstruction rative dimensions, whereby the former is
of the symbolic infrastructure of society, reduced to the commonsense notion of the
renaming places introduces the political need for spatial orientation (denotation) and
change and the ideology of the political order the latter consists of the more complicated
into mundane spheres of human experi- world of symbolic associations (connotation).
ence. When conducted in the context of a This neat distinction between denotation
regime change, the renaming of places is a and connotation has not gone unchallenged
powerful message in its own right about the (eg, Baudrillard, 1981; Davis, 2005), yet
new regime’s control over a community’s the logic of utilitarian denotation too often
symbolic infrastructure. goes unquestioned while much of the atten-
‘Toponymic cleansing’ has figured prom- tion is concentrated on the politics of cul-
inently in nationalist contexts, where tural signification that plays an admittedly
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 461

important role in the place-naming process. It 2004; Crampton and Elden, 2006; 2007;
is high time, however, that we apply the same Huxley, 2007; Mayhew, 2009). Much of this
level of critical scrutiny to the seemingly self- work draws upon Michel Foucault’s (1991;
evident rationalities of spatial calculation 2007) discussions of governmentality, or
and geographical orientation as place-name governmental rationality, particularly his
scholarship has devoted to the social mean- emphasis on the key role that statistics has
ings of commemoration and cultural iden- historically played in the formation of govern-
tity. To put it more concisely, we need to mental knowledges of ‘populations’. Foucault
develop the theoretical tools necessary to pry was interested in understanding how power
open the ‘blackbox’ of spatial denotation is exercised through an assemblage of pol-
much as has already been done with the itical technologies enabling the production
symbolic realm of connotation. of knowledge, which is targeted both at the
A useful point of departure to initiate individual subject and at the population as
such an encounter between critical place- a whole.
name studies and an analysis of the politics Geographers who have engaged with the
of calculation is to recognize that place literature on ‘governmentality studies’ have
naming is part of a broader history of spatial generally focused on the history of popu-
identification. A genealogy of the latter lation censuses, mapping, and the partition-
requires not only a consideration of place ing of geographical spaces. Yet the use of
naming itself but also how it relates to a numerical ‘addressing’ as a political techno-
whole series of spatial practices such as street logy has received far less attention among
and house numbering, the establishment those interested in the relations of space,
of signage systems, cadastral mapping for knowledge, and power (Rose-Redwood,
the purposes of property management, the 2006; 2008a). At the same time, very few
creation of postal codes, and other related place-name scholars have engaged with the
techniques of spatial inscription (geo-coding). literature on governmentality and the pol-
The naming of places, then, is not an isolated itics of calculation. We would like to suggest
semiotic activity but rather a form of spatial here that it is at the intersection of these
inscription that has considerable material im- two emerging literatures that considerable
plications as one among many ‘apparatuses insights can be achieved concerning topo-
of identification’ (Caplan and Torpey, 2001). nymic inscription, systems of governmental
Since the eighteenth century, the con- identification, and the spaces of calculation.
struction of regimes of spatial inscription When linked to a coordinated system of
has become a key strategy for ordering geo- house numbers and postal codes, a city’s
graphical spaces, which is intimately linked to street names become elements of a geo-
the production of governmental knowledges locational regime that enables governmental
and the spatial identification of individuals authorities to more easily tax, police, and
that constitute a population (Curry et al., provide services to their populations, allows
2004; Curry, 2005; Farvacque-Vitkovic companies to spatially target potential con-
et al., 2005; Rose-Redwood, 2006; 2008a; sumers using various geodemographic infor-
Thale, 2007). The history of governmental mation systems; and becomes incorporated
rationalities, the governance of populations, into the taken-for-granted infrastructure of
and the construction of calculable spaces daily life. While the practice of numerically
has become an important focus of critical addressing geographical spaces can certainly
geographic scholarship over the past decade serve the repressive ends of social control, a
(Braun, 2000; Hannah, 2000; 2009; Elden, Foucauldian analysis of political technologies
2001; 2005; 2007; Blomley, 2003; Pickles, is also concerned with how such techniques
462 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

produce new modes of subjectivity as geo- addressing is far too messy and piecemeal to
coded spaces become the condition of pos- accommodate such grand theorizations on
sibility for locating the place of the ‘self’ and a global scale.
‘others’ in both social and spatial terms. Regardless of the scale of analysis, it is
Crampton and Elden (2006) highlight the critical that a genealogy of calculable space
need to critically examine how techniques should not merely superimpose a precon-
of numerical calculation have reshaped the ceived theoretical lens upon its ‘object’ of
politics of space since the seventeenth analysis but rather remain open to reformu-
century. More specifically, they seek to lation, contradiction, and fundamental chal-
reconsider the interrelations of calculative lenges to the theoretical frameworks that
thought and political action by exploring inform genealogical investigations. What is
the ‘geographies of mathematization and called for here, then, is not a strict adher-
calculation’ (Crampton and Elden, 2006: ence to the Foucauldian perspective on
681). If the history of place naming is reformu- governmentality – if such a thing even exists.
lated as part of a genealogy of geographical Instead, Foucault’s work on governmental
addressing and geo-coding, then its rele- rationalities and political technologies should
vance to the project of a spatial history of inspire further inquiry into the relationship
calculation becomes increasingly evident. between toponymic inscription and the pro-
This is particularly the case when considering duction of calculable spaces as opposed to
the spatial organization of most American constructing a rigid conceptual cage with all
cities, where street numbering systems are the trappings of a theoretical straitjacket.
utilized as a primary geo-locational strategy
of spatial ordering (Baldwin and Grimaud, V Social justice, symbolic resistance,
1989; Hamlin, 1999; Rose-Redwood, 2008a). and place naming as a cultural arena
In large cities and small towns alike, the Discussions of how place naming is involved
numbering of streets is unquestionably one in the semiotics of political regime change
of the most visible indications that ‘number’ and the creation of governable spaces tend to
and ‘calculation’ have been embedded into focus our attention on issues of social and
the very spaces of everyday life. political control. No doubt, the naming pro-
A genealogy of the techniques of spatial cess sheds light on power relations – how
calculation must be attentive to the speci- some social groups have the authority to
ficity of their emergence in different his- name while others do not – and the selective
torical and geographical contexts, including way in which such relations reproduce the
the virtual realm of cyberspace (eg, McDowell dominance of certain ideologies and iden-
et al., 2008). While all such projects have tities over others. Yet, in emphasizing the
had the common goal of producing spaces of control behind toponymic inscription, we
‘legibility’ (Scott, 1998), this need not suggest must also recognize the extent to which this
that we should envision a universal process of control can be challenged. The metaphor of
state-driven spatial ‘rationalization’ encom- ‘cultural arena’ focuses on the capacity of
passing the entire globe from the Age of place names to serve as sites of contest, de-
Enlightenment to the present. As Foucault bate, and negotiation as social groups com-
rightly argues, ‘the word rationalization is pete for the right to name and, in the words
dangerous. What we have to do is analyze of Don Mitchell (2008: 43), ‘the power to
specific rationalities rather than always define the meanings that are to be read into
invoking the progress of rationalization in and out of the landscape’. The results of
general’ (Foucault, 1983: 210, emphasis these naming struggles have a direct bearing
in original). The spatial history of numerical on whose vision of ‘reality’ will appear to
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 463

matter socially, since landscapes are not just ‘London’ on road signs to Londonderry
the products of social power but also tools (Doherty, 2007). When Chicago officials re-
or resources for achieving it. buffed a proposal to rename Monroe Street
While theories of hegemony recognize for Fred Hampton, a Black Panther leader
that dominant groups or classes control the who had been killed on that street by city
production of cultural space, they also insist police in 1969, members of the Illinois Black
that this dominance is never complete and Panther Party marched to the 2300 block of
is challenged by counter-hegemonic ideo- Monroe and posted their own home-made
logies of subordinate groups. Resistance street signs with Hampton’s name written
is sometimes confrontational, but often on them (Grossman and Avila, 2006).
symbolic. Symbolic resistance involves the The aforementioned cases of people
‘appropriation of certain artifacts and signifi- claiming and reinscribing the landscape
cations from the dominant culture and their through place-naming practices of var-
transformation into symbolic forms that ious kinds are evocative and contribute to
take on new meaning and significance’ for bringing visibility, albeit often temporarily, to
subaltern groups (Cosgrove and Jackson, their cause. However, the use of place nam-
1987: 99). Place naming can be interpreted ing as resistance is often done more subtly,
as a conduit for challenging dominant ideo- such as when a subordinate population em-
logies as well as a means of introducing ploys a competing, informal system of geo-
alternative cultural meanings and narrations graphical nomenclature rather than the
of identity. Kadmon (2004) goes as far as to authorized system of naming (Yeoh, 1992;
use the notion of ‘toponymic warfare’ to de- Bigon, 2009). The very choice not to use the
scribe the extent to which marginalized official place-name system is a practice of
nationalities and linguistic cultures within self-determination. In addition, place-name
countries have appropriated and rewritten resistance can involve the ‘use of alternative
place names on maps as part of their cam- pronunciations for established names’, as
paigns of resistance. Maps are more than Kearns and Berg (2002: 286) suggest in
simply innocent repositories of name data. examining the postcolonial politics of rec-
They work – through their textual authority ognizing the cultural rights of indigenous
and repeated use – to normalize certain ways people within Aotearoa/New Zealand.
of knowing and naming the landscape over Pronunciation of a place name, whether sym-
others (Melville, 2006). pathetic or not to the Maori, is a social act
The material landscape itself can also be of narrating identity, a way of ‘constructing
an important site of toponymic resistance as and positioning the Self in relation to Others’
social actors and groups engage in the (Kearns and Berg, 2002: 298).
‘counternaming’ of places (Zeidel, 2006: 201). While toponymic resistance is often
As Raento and Watson (2000) illustrate, carried out through everyday practices and
radical Basque groups have carried out some performances, marginalized groups can and
of their territorially based political protest by do use formal, political means to challenge
painting over Spanish place names on public established naming practices. The contested
signs. ‘This linguistic redesign’, they argue, and negotiated nature of naming is especially
‘constitutes a direct challenge to the authority evident in the use of toponymic inscriptions
of both the Spanish state and the moderate to serve the ends of public commemoration
nationalist concept of Basque society, as people struggle to decide who has the
politics, and culture’ (Raento and Watson, right to determine what is remembered (and
2000: 727). A similar type of resistance has forgotten) publicly and officially. Racial and
long occurred in Northern Ireland with Irish ethnic minorities in the United States, for
nationalists spray-painting through the word example, are increasingly turning to place
464 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

naming as a political strategy for addressing slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King,
their exclusion and misrepresentation within Jr (Dart, 1997).
traditional, white-dominated constructions The renaming of streets for Martin Luther
of heritage. This strategy has led to the re- King is the most widespread example of
moval of racially and ethnically derogatory African American efforts to contest the
place names as well as the renaming of places hegemonic place-name landscape. Street
in ways that recognize the historical import- naming is an especially potent form of cul-
ance of minorities (Monmonier, 2006). tural resistance and redefinition because of
In Phoenix, Arizona, for example, Native its potential to touch and connect disparate
American leaders and sympathetic state groups – some of which may not identify with
officials successfully pushed to have Squaw King. Yet, the road-naming process is fre-
Peak renamed in honor of Lori Ann Piestewa. quently characterized by intense public
Piestewa was the first Native American debate about King’s legacy and questions of
female soldier to die in combat, a 2003 race and racism (Alderman, 2002b; 2006).
casualty of the Iraq War. The National For many activists, finding the most
Congress of American Indians very much appropriate street to identify with King
interpreted the issue in terms of identity comes with the difficulty of convincing the
politics, stating that the use of squaw as a white establishment that his name belongs
toponym is ‘an example of the disrespect for on major roads, that his legacy has relevance
and racism toward native women, who are and resonance to everyone’s lives. In prac-
often political and social leaders of our com- tice, public opposition has frequently led to
munities’ (quoted in Kelleher, 2004: 121). the segregation of his name on minor streets
The reidentification of Squaw Peak was or portions of larger roads located entirely in
envisioned as a way of challenging sexism as the African American community, in effect
well as racial/ethnic stereotypes, prompting reinforcing traditional racial and economic
us to consider the multiple layers and axes boundaries and reproducing the very same
of identity and contestation at work in white control of public space that the civil
place naming. rights leader fought to correct.
African Americans have been particularly Attempts to limit and control public con-
active in using place names to challenge sumption of King’s memory are not confined
racist commemorations of the past in cul- to the naming of physical, material places.
tural landscapes. Schools have a long and The internet domain name martlutherking.
embattled history within US race relations org is controlled by a white supremacist
and the renaming of these institutions is organization that uses the URL to host a
increasingly seen as a means of contesting website that defames King (Alderman, 2009).
normative definitions of cultural and his- Thus, protest through naming can be wielded
torical identity (Alderman, 2002a). In the for reactionary objectives as well as pro-
early 1990s, the Orleans Parish school board in gressive ones. Toponymic resistance, as
Louisiana implemented a highly controversial Kearns and Berg (2002: 286) rightly suggest,
policy that prohibited school names honoring can be ‘thought of not only in terms of the
slave owners and others who did not respect politics of recognition invoked by marginal
racial equality. The names of many white groups, but also in terms of the resistances
historical figures (including the slave-holding enacted by members of hegemonic groups
first president of the United States, George in response to such politics’.
Washington) were removed from schools As we think about where the metaphor
and replaced with names commemorating of a ‘cultural arena’ might take place-name
prominent African-Americans, including research in the future, the controversies
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 465

surrounding King’s commemoration point to of urban citizenship and (dis)enfranchise-

the usefulness of analyzing toponymy from a ment (Purcell, 2002).
social justice perspective and understanding A consideration of distributive justice
how the naming of places, as a product of prompts us to consider how the toponymic
uneven social relations, is used to advance or landscape should be reconstructed in ways
obstruct opportunities for greater equity. that reflect and give voice to previously sup-
Mitchell (2003; 2008) has been especially pressed histories and identities. Exactly
vocal in placing social justice at the center of how many of our schools, streets, bridges,
cultural landscape analysis. As he contends, stadiums, and parks are named for minor-
being seen and heard publicly is critical in ities? A concern with distribution also draws
establishing who has a right to the city and attention to an analysis of the intra-urban
its public spaces (Mitchell, 2003). In asses- spatial context and the degree to which
sing the degree to which marginalized toponyms work, depending on their location,
groups are being seen and heard through the to marginalize or raise the perceived public
toponymic process, it is possible to apply the legitimacy of subordinate groups. What is
well-established concepts of procedural and the ‘place’ of certain named public spaces in
distributive justice. relation to a city’s array of race-, gender-, and
Renaming particular places involves class-based spatial distributions? Without
decision-making procedures in addition to serious consideration of this question, places
ideological considerations (Azaryahu, 1997), named for marginalized groups could actu-
and it is worth thinking about what specific ally work to alienate and further segregate
legal or extra-legal factors impede or facili- these groups (Alderman, 2002a). As Raento
tate the participation of subaltern groups in and Watson (2000: 728) recognize, ‘Naming
place naming. Even when the landscape is re- and re-naming are strategies of power, and
named to make associations with previously location matters, because this power is only
marginalized populations, this can still work truly exercised when it is “seen” in the appro-
to exclude if these populations have no priate place’.
actual voice in how their identities will be At the heart of minority efforts to be rec-
used in the naming process (Herman, 1999; ognized publicly through naming is a social
Cowell, 2004). Greater procedural justice reconstruction of the scale of commem-
for minority groups will inevitable require oration and identity that challenges conven-
analyzing the growing commodification and tional geographic and social boundaries
privatization of place naming and breaking (Alderman, 2003). In this regard, scholars of
the stranglehold that class and economic place naming might consider examining how
power have over the construction of public naming, rather than a mere symbolic act,
space (Mitchell, 2003). Indeed, in the case of takes place within, and perhaps contributes
the USA, those who own property along to, the larger geographies of social opportunity
potentially renamed streets often play a and disparity (Bullard and Johnson, 1997).
deciding role in name changes, taking pre- Finally, to investigate the capacity of place
cedence over the pleas of other legitimate naming to be used as a tool for advancing or
stakeholders such as those who rent, work, hindering social justice, we must expand our
or simply travel on the road in question. In understanding of the nature of the symbolic
exploring the procedural (in)justices of place resistance and struggle that underlies the
naming, scholars might benefit from making naming process. The vision of the past that is
greater connections to research on the made socially important through place naming
injustices of neoliberal governance (Macleod, is not simply a matter of ‘political correctness’,
2002), the ‘consequential geographies’ of as suggested by many opponents, but vital
property (Blomley, 2005), and the politics to achieving fairness in cultural and political
466 Progress in Human Geography 34(4)

representation and preventing the symbolic renaming the town itself – for corporate
annihilation of marginalized social groups sponsors.
and their historical identities. This raises a whole series of questions for
critical place-name studies, but what is most
VI Expanding the horizon of critical intriguing is how far people may actually be
place-name studies willing to take this process of commodifying
The field of toponymy is currently under- place names, particularly when it comes to
going a critical reformulation, and we have the naming of public spaces, such as parks,
attempted to convey some of the exciting schools, subway stations, and streets. Such
new directions in place-name studies as it a proposal may appear to make short-term
has developed over the last two decades. economic sense for cash-strapped local gov-
No longer is most toponymic research blind ernments seeking new streams of revenue
to the power structures that underpin the and property owners in search of untapped
naming process nor to the possibilities of spheres of profit-making. However, it also
symbolic resistance. If anything, the issues poses serious risks to the very notion of
of ‘power’ and ‘politics’ have taken center public space as a site of social life beyond the
stage, and critical place-name scholarship commercialized world of corporate culture.
risks becoming a bit too predictable and Given such a trend, it is critical to consider
formulaic in its repetitious invocations of the social costs of indiscriminately allowing
toponymic domination and resistance (for the exchange-value of a name to triumph
a similar critique of critical geography, see over its use-value in the public sphere. As place
Blomley, 2006). The point here is not to deny names are increasingly being commodified, it
the importance of political struggles over is worth thinking more critically about the
naming, but rather to insist that we must importance of the use-value of place naming
broaden our analysis by considering how the as an integral part of the social production
‘political’ is related to other relatively un- of public space. This will also redirect our
explored questions in place-name studies. attention to the ways in which such names
One recent trend, for instance, that has are performatively enacted through their
received surprisingly little attention among use in everyday speech, which offers the
critical geographers and place-name scholars potential for resisting an officially sanctioned
is the commodification of place-naming rights place name that has been sold to the highest
(yet see Boyd, 2000; Yurchak, 2000). While bidder. If enough people refuse to recognize
the association between property owner- a commodified name, the official toponym
ship and place naming can be traced back itself may actually lose some of its own per-
quite far in history, it was only within the formative force (Rose-Redwood, 2008c).
past few decades that a number of signifi- Another important set of issues involves
cant steps have been taken toward the the question of methodology. There is a
wholesale commodification of place names, growing recognition that the traditional
whereby the right to name a place is literally reliance on maps and gazetteers to study
sold for a monetary value like any other com- place names is inadequate and should be
modity. Since the 1970s, sports stadiums supplemented with some combination of
around the world have been renamed by archival research, participant observation,
large corporations that have acquired nam- interviews, and ethnographic methods
ing rights for considerable sums of money. (Myers, 1996). Such a mixed-methods ap-
In recent years, this has led some cities and proach lends itself more to a consideration
towns to consider renaming various public of toponymic space not only as a ‘text’ but
spaces – and in a few rare cases, such as also as resulting from a set of ‘performative’, Oregon, and DISH, Texas, even practices. The aim of such a theoretical
Reuben Rose-Redwood et al.: New directions in critical place-name studies 467

reframing of toponymic analysis is not to Howard, P., editors, The Ashgate research com-
replace the textual metaphor with the notion panion to heritage and identity, Aldershot: Ashgate,
of performance, but rather to examine the Alderman, D. 2009: Virtual place-naming, internet
performativity of the landscape-as-text as domains, and the politics of misdirection: the
well as the textuality of toponymic per- case of In Berg, L.
formance. In the future, we hope that the and Vuolteenaho, J., editors, Critical toponymies:
ongoing process of rethinking the concep- contested politics of place naming, Aldershot: Ashgate,
tual and methodological foundations Azaryahu, M. 1986: Street names and political identity:
employed in critical place-name studies will the case of East Berlin. Journal of Contemporary
lead to a richer appreciation of the role of History 21, 581–604.
toponymic practices in constructing the geo- Azaryahu, M. 1988: What is to be remembered: the
graphical spaces of everyday life. struggle over street names in Berlin, 1921–1947. Tel
Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte 17, 241–58.
Azaryahu, M. 1990: Renaming the past: changes
Acknowledgements in ‘city-text’ in German and Austria, 1945–1947.
We would like to thank the journal’s editors History and Memory 22, 32–53.
as well as the three anonymous reviewers Azaryahu, M. 1992: The purge of Bismarck and
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Haifa, a comparative study in culture-planning.
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emerged out of discussions at the ‘Naming Azaryahu, M. 1996: The power of commemorative
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organized at East Carolina University in and Space 14, 311–30.
October 2007. The workshop was funded, Azaryahu, M. 1997: German reunification and the
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in part, by East Carolina University, Texas
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Center at the University of Alabama. We Israel 1949–1960. Journal of Historical Geography 27,
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attended the workshop for their efforts
nation: street names and Arab-Palestinian identity:
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