Month's Theme TITLE

During our group discussion it occurred to me that the subjects essentially came down to – or circled around the implications of – the question of whether landscape is an experience of a concept or an object to be interacted with.

To begin with the latter, Escobar (2001) emphasises how, historically, Western thinkers worked to dissociate space (and therefore place) from the bodies that occupy it, thus framing it as an object to be interacted with rather than something formed and experienced by people (p143). Along the same lines, Ashmore (2006) points out the gendered element of such an approach, with Western analysts historically objectifying the surrounding world, thus dominating and feminising the landscape (p200). Both writers frame these approaches as historical, something academics have now moved beyond for a more nuanced perspective. However, the objectification of landscape can be a good starting point. In our mentoring session (16/09/2020) Tobias raised the example of graffiti and how as an interaction with landscape it is a way of creating a reality through materiality in a space, one that problematizes narratives of private property. Such an interaction could be viewed in gendered terms – is the act of graffiti an attempt at patriarchal domination over a place? Or, as Francis suggested, a subversion of power structures by claiming a building with activist messages? Either way, this (potentially gendered) interaction with the object (i.e. wall) becomes an experience for future passers-by, whereby the materiality of the graffiti and the message of its artistry, captures a concept.

When considering Timothy Morton’s proposal of the ‘hyperobject’ (2010, 2013), such fluidity between landscape as an interactive object or experienced concept becomes even more apparent. Morton declares the worldwide phenomenon of global warming as an example of a hyperobject (p130, 2010) – a physical object so large that it breaks our usual way of thinking about time, an object that we can only interact with on a partial basis as it saturates everything in our lives to the point that we are inside the object. What led humanity to cause the climate crisis was thinking of the environment as something separate to ourselves, as something to be exploited – again thinking of Escobar and Ashmore’s elucidations on past analytical approaches. If, Morton proposes, we think of climate change as a hyperobject, we can recognise society and environment as two sides of the same coin. It is different terminology but the same idea that these writers are proposing: the interconnection between nature and culture in the (social) construction of landscape. What I find interesting here is the determination of these contemporary thinkers to transcend the idea that landscape is “just” an object, and instead nowadays perceive landscape and place more as a concept, or in the case of Morton, adapting and extending the term ‘object’.

These contemporary writers believe landscape is a concept to be experienced by the people that occupy or visit them. ‘Culture is carried into places by bodies’ Escobar states (p143), showing that the construction of landscape is a process (carrying) that is not locked to particular locations (in/outside places) and that people are the conduits (bodies). When compared to Ashmore’s text, new pathways of analysis are opened by the additional consideration of gender in these bodies. The bodies that do this carrying are inherently gendered, so landscapes are likewise perceived to embody elements of the sexes, which then in turn define, inform, or crystallise gender roles and relations (p201). Thus the bidirectional experience of gender and landscape is formed. However, though Ashmore makes brief mention of the need to move past structuralism’s reliance on binaries – which would simultaneously progress landscape analysis away from environmental objectification – she fails to explore this herself and instead focuses entirely on male/female constructions in landscape identification and interpretation. This, ironically, reinforces the very viewpoint that she so scathingly refers to as the historical Western male gaze in the opening of her article.

Wylie (2007) also considers the role of the body in the understanding of landscape as a concept to be experienced. He discusses phenomenological anthropologies focusing on the sensitivity of the body and post-humanist hybrid geographies that problematize the idea of a mono-methodological, objective geography. Place is so experiential that it is entirely constituted by a navigation of tensions, particularly between presence and subjectivity. Such approaches seem to be the most nuanced way of understanding the complex and interwoven relations of culture, history, space, but Wylie does not seem to consider the problems of such subjectivity – particularly with phenomenology – in academic analysis, neglecting to consider how gender and ability would significantly affect a body’s experience of a landscape.

Whether landscape is an object or a concept, it must be noted that landscape, place and space are complicated by globalisation and the modern world. Escobar raises and criticises the reliance upon the idea that contemporary people can be considered ‘migrants of identity’ through space and time (p146). I would argue that in Escobar’s efforts to create symmetry in the discussion of space and place he runs the risk of minimising the effects of globalisation. His purpose with the article is, explicitly, to combat the dominance of space-(global-)based academic landscape literature, which is laudable, yet his argument that there is a problem with the spatialisation of the story of modernity/globalisation (p165) sidesteps the fact these are very spatial issues that humanity faces. For example, take the astronomical CO2 emissions from redundant trade, such as the United States’ importation and exportation of 1.5 million tonnes of beef per year, that is pursued purely for the sake of profit, certainly not (spatial) practicality (Norberg-Hodge 2019, chap.3). Such an issue must be primarily understood on a global, spatial scale, especially since places – in this case nations – can avoid political accountability for carbon emissions due to segmentation by borders. To focus too much on nations/place would erase the globalism of this trade issue. Localisation and place-based issue campaigns in lieu of Escobar is undoubtedly vital, but I agree with Norberg-Hodge that there needs to be global ‘big picture activism’ (Chap.11) effort towards rethinking assumptions about individual responsibility and economic growth that considers inner and outer (spatial) dimensions. This is not to say we should ignore temporality either – Norberg-Hodge emphasises that the education should include how globalisation developed historically – but I think Escobar is wrong to de-prioritise capitalocentrism and global patterns, systems, analyses, in the face of a distinctly global problem. There is indeed great power in local democracy (p168), but the underlying cause of the phenomenon of the climate crisis is a spatially and temporally global one.

Something else that came to my mind in considering this balancing act was the global movement of indigenous rights. Indigenous groups worldwide have very individual experiences of oppression that are place-based and locally historical, but for significant political advances they have had to join forces and occupy a global political space (Niezen 2003 chap.1). It is a historically constituted space – formed with memories of genocide and erasure of cultural memories – that has come into existence by transcending place-based political alliances. The diverse culturally marked bodies of these indigenous groups carry in their defiantly non-homogenised place-based cultures into the United Nations conferences, yet navigate these events as a unified, global group. Therefore, I am not in any way diminishing the importance of place-based analysis, but I do believe that in this modern world (and I have not even begun to consider the effect of digital spaces) aiming for a ‘symmetry’ between place and space, as Escobar argues, runs the risk of ignoring the degree to which globalisation is forcing our navigation of nationality, economy, politics, identity, society, to be on a global, rather than local, stage.

To return more explicitly to whether landscape is a concept to be experienced or an object to be interacted with, it is worth noting that Wylie opts for both, stating that ‘landscape emerges as a matter of everyday life and an ideological vehicle’ (p216). Whether it is one, the other, a fluid shift, or simultaneously both, there is an anthropocentrism in all of these texts and their discussions of how humans construct meaning of a place – where is the agency of the landscape itself and non-humans? For all the varied approaches on different scales, it is still the everyday life of humans, the ideological vehicle of humans. I get the impression that Wylie, Escobar, and Ashmore would claim that they have transcended the (Western, colonial, patriarchal) understanding of landscape as an object, and in a sophisticated paradigm shift instead see it as a concept to be experienced that allows for diverse historical, spatial, political, phenomenological, geographical et al analyses of social and ecological relationships. Regardless of this, there is here still an – albeit permeable – divide between humans and nature in the way landscape is seen as something outside of ourselves, conceptually and/or materially, which limits our ability to move past anthropocentrism. In my opinion, it is more helpful to imagine that landscape sets a parameter or framework of study where humans are but one agent. It sets the analytical boundaries, but in everyday life our experience of and interaction with landscape must be problematized as something that has been too strictly defined by (Western) anthropocentric philosophical thought.

 

References

  • Ashmore, W. Gender and landscapes. In: Nelson, S. M. (eds) Handbook of Gender Archaeology. Altamira Press.

  • Escobar, A. 2001. Culture sits in places: reflections on globalism and subaltern strategies of localization. Political Geography 20(2): 139–174.

  • Niezen, R. 2003. The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

  • Norberg-Hodge, H. (2019) Local Is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness. Totnes: Local Futures.

  • Morton, T., 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

  • Morton, T. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. U of Minnesota P.

  • Wylie, J. 2007. Prospects for landscapes. Landscape (Key Ideas in Geography), 187–217. London: Routledge.

If you are interested in reading any of these texts but have trouble finding them because you don't have university access, don't even think about getting in touch with me. I couldn't possibly help you out by illegally sending you PDFs of knowledge that has been arbitrarily restricted to the privileged few. 

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Poem

Things​ always look

like poetry

if you have lots of line

breaks

and paragraph breaks.

You can make it look extra modern if you have particularly

long

lines followed by

single

words

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Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day. ​Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day. ​Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day. ​Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day.

Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day. ​Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day. ​Words about the art lots of wonderful words. Maybe an interview on a good day.

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