Vers Une Pioneer

–Andrew Wasson

For about seven years, Dairy River and Co. have wantonly employed the concept of New Pioneers. [1]  Under the slanted blue roof of an IHOP on a cold winter morning. During the mid-course clear-the-table break of a family dinner. As a red herring to throw a Nation of Ulysses square onto the wrong path. It is whispered. It is shouted. But not easily defined or understood. This essay seeks to shed some light on what we mean by New Pioneer and lend some rigor to our rough usage.

First and foremost, New Pioneers are explorers of our environment – not the “natural” environment, but the built environment, especially the suburban built environment: strip malls and Walmart parking lots, mall atriums and hotel lobbies, post offices and gas station service stores. [2]  As a matter of background, the term “new pioneer” entered our mythology almost seven years ago in the Ardmore Style (House) film “30 West.” In 30 West, our unnamed protagonists sojourn westward on U.S. Route 30 in the Philadelphia suburbs, stopping every third mile to survey and rediscover their surroundings. By the twelve miles, our heroes, exhausted, turn back. Since then, we have explored variations on a theme. Tracking satellites. Mapping cell phone towers. Drawing (and breaching) arbitrary municipal boundaries.

There is also an aspect of New Pioneering that is not strictly spatially-derived. It is the analysis of the information generated by our post-industrial revolution society to aid in a different sort of navigation, more like a temporal navigation through society. Learning to read bar-codes without a scanner. The monetary value of coupons. The literary value of real estate brochures. Other forms of mail. Telephone wires as a power source. New forms of public utilities. Each concept also subsumed and roughly placed under the subheading New Pioneers without much outright ontological analysis.

The goal of this project, then, is to provide some analytical rigor to the concept of New Pioneers. What is a New Pioneer? What sort of activities fall under the category of New Pioneering? What activities don’t? Can we satisfactorily objectively define a territory that we can call the New Frontier?

It turns out that there is a sizeable academic literature on the meaning of frontier, so it makes sense to start there. Frontier is a concept with several stages of evolution. Historian Fulmer Mood dredged through a mountain of ancient dictionaries to outline the contours of its early usage. [3]  Mood traces the word all the way back to the Latin, frontis (and then in Late Latin, fronteria), which means forehead, brow or front. [4]  People started using it to refer to the front of anything – a house, a battalion – you see where this is going. [5]  By the time that it was adopted by Old French, it referred to land as well. [6] In a 1623 English dictionary, the entry for frontiere recited, “the bounds or limits of a country.” [7]  This definition still resounds in Europe – the Davy Crockett Tom Sawyer Island theme doesn’t make much sense to Europeans except as seen through the lens of American Experience – why would it? In Europe, the frontier is just the area where two populated countries meet.

Initially, it was also used in the same way in America. [8] Slowly, however, a new meaning evolved particular to the United States. [9]  Webster’s 1806 dictionary included “further settlements” in its frontier definition. [10] In a more clearly familiar definition, a dictionary from the late 1880s provided the following: “That part of a country which forms the border of its settled or inhabited regions: as (before the settlement of the Pacific coast), the western frontier of the United States.” [11]

Enter Frederick Jackson Turner and the “frontier thesis.” Turner presented his paper titled, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and then later recorded it as the first chapter of his 1921 “The Frontier in American History.” The general gist of the thesis is that the “frontier” was a dominant force in shaping the American character. Turner wrote:

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.

Turner never precisely defines the frontier, acknowledging that it is an “elastic” term that does not need sharp definition for his purposes. Turner seemed quite impressed by the official census definition at the time though – a geographical designation based on density. Turner’s rough definition: the “outer edge of the wave– the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” [12]

As you can imagine, this definition raised many a hackle. In the 1960s, academics tried to recast the definition of frontier into more palatable terms – for example, ones that avoided terms like “savagery” and “primitive society.” Lamar and Thompson hypothesized that frontier was a “territory or zone of interpenetration between two previously distinct societies.” [13] According to Lamar and Thompson, the frontier “opens” so to speak, when “the first representatives of the intrusive society appear” and “closes” when “a single political authority has established hegemony.” This definition, it seems, has only fanned the flames of academic debate, spawning volumes of literature and argument by professors and whole cohorts of graduate students.

So, do New Pioneers explore territory that is a zone of interpenetration between two previously distinct societies? Are New Pioneers struggling for hegemony with an opposing society? The Lamar and Thompson formulation presents several appealing aspects. In a way, New Pioneers, by looking at the old built environment afresh pretend like we are a distinct society, uncontaminated by the paradigms and tropes of habit and conformity. Our aim is to look at the world with the same wonder that a person may experience the first time he or she is confronted with a strange and foreign society. Perhaps, there is also some form of struggle for hegemony involved with New Pioneering. We do struggle to stake a claim in a society in which we feel alienated or unfulfilled. The cultural interaction model is also useful because it is less directly tied to land – we can more easily employ it to understand the more abstract branch of New Pioneers. We should note that the cultural interaction model obviously is not a complete explanation or square with the New Pioneer endeavor entirely. Two truly distinct societies in reality do not exist.   And if there is a struggle for hegemony it is a rather sad one for the New Pioneer: as if New Pioneers could somehow really (or even really want to) prevail.

It would be to put on airs though to seriously suggest that the idea of New Pioneers was originally derived from any sort of cultural interaction model. Truth be told, the idea takes its cues from the stylized Turnerian frontierism codified by Hollywood and Disney World more than any high-falutin’ academic theorizing. It is about exploration – the old-fashioned kind. Even Professor Patricia Nelson Limerick, a major figure in revisionist frontier literature, admits that despite volumes produced by scholars, the popular culture concept of frontier based on Turner’s thinking abides: “When writers of headlines in newspapers and magazines used the word frontier, they gave clear evidence that they were not thinking of a zone of complex cultural interaction and struggle over hegemony.” [15] To these writers, frontier remained (in the Turnerian sense) a place of “undeveloped resources, open possibilities, opportunity, adventure and profit” and that pioneers connoted, “innovation and achievement, spunk and pluck.”[16]

And in the same way, the frontier contemplated by New Pioneers in the first instance is more Oregon Trail and less “interpenetration.” In our original thought, the “new” modifier does most of the work. Instead of the “old” frontier, New Pioneers explore the “new” frontier, Putt-Putt courses and subdivisions – which in a sarcastic way, aren’t really new at all. It has been hundreds of years since frontiersmen (and women) in the popular sense were settlers in those parts. Such exploration is “new,” however, in the sense that it has been so long since these regions were traditionally explored the first time around, that any critical re-evaluation and exploration is “new.” In a world where almost everything has been explored by someone at somepoint, why not apply an algorithm to map the shortest route between all of the Blockbusters in the county? Why not take note of what is along the way? Why not take a census of U.S. Route 1, Maine to Florida to survey motel architecture. The history of our country through motel architects – their lives and their context? Why not? Why is that a less viable History than the one traced inauguration to inauguration?

Let us turn back to our original purpose. What is a New Pioneer? A New Pioneer is an explorer of the built environment: its physical aspects, its infrastructure, and all the information that it generates or that is used therein. New Pioneers themselves create a zone of interpenetration between the dominant society of their built environment and a “new” distinct society that lacks all preconceived ideas about the dominant society. A New Pioneer stakes a claim in the frontier by understanding the deep structures of the environment, understanding the concepts used by the society that predominates, but malleably employing the these concepts in whatever way suits the New Pioneer, or adding new ones, to finally create an amalgam that is uniquely owned by the New Pioneer.

How does this “definition” fit the activities we described earlier? In 30 West, our original New Pioneers explored the built environment but subverted traditional concepts of exploration, producing an amalgam that was uniquely their own: a record of events every third mile on Route 30. This “definition” also fits the less spatially-oriented New Pioneer activities. A New Pioneer explores the use of barcode (information used within the built environment), surveys current conceptions of appropriate usage, and then modifies them to exclude an electronic reader as a necessity.

Can we objectively define a New Frontier?  Probably not. Since, as we have learned, exploration can really take place any place (and is not even limited to geographic exploration), the term frontier really depends on the New Pioneer. There is not one New Frontier, there are many frontiers. The New Pioneer creates the frontier by imposing themselves in juxtaposition to the traditional landscape.

[1] The concept, in our usage, predates Dairy River by several years.

[2] Now, I’d be lying (or at least disingenuous) if I were to leave the impression that the New Pioneers: 30 West are the only individuals critically evaluating our everyday built environment. It is not the case. There are quite a few insightful authors who have come before us. We are assuredly indebted to them in unconscious and conscious ways: Grady Clay, J.B. Brinkerhoff, John Stilgoe, Dolores Hayden, Joel Garreau and Philip Langdon, to name only a few.

[3] Fulmer Mood, Notes on the History of the Word “Frontier”, 22(2) Agricultural History 78 (Apr. 1948).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] John T. Juricek, American Usage of the Word “Frontier” from Colonial Times to Frederick Jackson Turner, 110(1) Proc. Am. Phil. Soc. 10 (1966) for the detailed evolution of American usage.
[9] See generally id.

[10] Mood at 79.

[11] 80.

[12] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, Chapter 1.

[13] Lamar and Thompson, The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared (1981) quoted in Patricia Nelson Limerick’s “frontier” entry in A Companion to American Thought 257 (Wightman and Fox eds. 1995).

[14] Id.

[15] 258.

[16] Id.

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