(Queer) Politics of Landscape
I would like to start by asking you to do something - please take a minute to imagine a landscape.
What did you see? Perhaps an idyllic pastoral valley broken only by scattered cottages and dots of sheep. Maybe a mountain range with insurmountable grey peaks and thick blankets of snow. Possibly you subverted expectations and imagined a bustling, glowing cityscape. But here’s some questions for you and your imagined place - who lives in the landscape? How do they affect what it looks or sounds like? What is its history? Where does the landscape officially begin and end? What would it feel like to walk through it? These are the questions that start to crack open our traditional idea that a landscape is a pretty rural view, something only to look at where nature lives without us. When you delve into what really defines a landscape, it isn’t an object, but an experience.
Historically, Western thinkers have worked to dissociate space from the bodies that occupy it by seeing it as universal, something that just is regardless of human perception. Therefore, space was understood as an object to be interacted with. But the reality is that space is formed into places and experienced by us, so historians and geographers have defined three types of landscape (West & Ndlovu 2010). Natural landscapes are areas of natural beauty and/or ecological importance, whereas cultural landscapes are areas of human significance spiritually or historically. Cognitive landscapes somewhat combine the two by acknowledging the role of collective social memory and the ongoing processes of dwelling in and defining a landscape.
These definitions have been useful for designating World Heritage sites, but there are problems in how it frames our relationship to nature. In the modern Western world there is a hypersensitivity to humans interfering with nature. The paradigm of national parks and nature reserves has created an obsession with so-called “untouched” natural landscapes and the concept of “wilderness”. A false dualism between “natural” and “cultural” landscapes has been embedded in the Western psyche, whereby humans are considered exogenous to certain environments and inherently damaging to the natural world. Importantly, this dualism has provided a convenient narrative for those in power. For example, the “wilderness” of US National Parks was created by evicting Indigenous peoples (Martin 2020) and many conservation and anti-deforestation projects continue the colonial legacy by taking control of land away from local people (Bartholdson et al 2019; SurvivalInternational.org).
Monuments are the clearest example of how the politics of collective memory are formed. When you erect a statue in honour of a person or event, it asserts a dominant cultural narrative upon the landscape. Anyone walking through the area knows who they are supposed to venerate and remember, while marginalised history is erased by omission. There is good reason the Black Lives Matter movement is so concerned with statues of slave traders – that these monuments remain is a political statement in itself. The monuments’ very existence say “we want to celebrate what these men did for our economy and ignore their evil atrocities, and you’re going to remember that every time you walk through this place.” Graffiti and street art are very interesting forms of resistance I don’t have time to explore now, but I would recommend Kimvall’s (2010) piece on the subject if this interests you.
It is clear that landscapes are not simply a rural view or a place we live - instead, ‘landscape emerges as a matter of everyday life and an ideological vehicle’ (Wylie 2007: 216). Place is not an object outside of ourselves, but is an experience of politics, social relations, and belief systems. Therefore, phenomenological anthropologies – the study of humanity through conscious sensation – have deconstructed objective geography and focus instead on subjectivity of the body. In other words, as we walk through/pass by/graffiti monuments in a landscape, our bodies are the conduit of our experience.
There are of course many aspects of the body that affect our experience of a landscape but I would like to focus on gender. Ashmore (2006) argues that gender is the most formative aspect in our relationship to the land, even suggesting that the traditional way of objectifying the landscape as I have discussed was Western analysts (meaning geographers, artists, business leaders and more) way of dominating and thereby feminising the landscape. We gender features of the landscape all the time without even noticing it. Ashmore raises multiple examples: for the Ancient Egyptians the male sky impregnates the female land; for the Aztecs the brother sun chases the sister moon; across cultures mountains are phallic while the flowing changeability of rivers and seas are feminine. These genderings may seem inconsequential, but they dictate how people experience landscape and crystallise gender roles – in some ancient societies these designations quite literally dictated where a gendered person was allowed to live and work.
One of the clearest impacts in our current society is the feminisation of Nature as a whole, particularly as “Mother” Nature. Some feminist scholars such as Ashmore and Carolyn Merchant argue that the environment has been so cruelly exploited because it is viewed as female by the Western world. Therefore, environmentalism often goes hand in hand with dismantling the patriarchy by revering Mother Nature and encouraging “feminine” virtues of nurture. However, this can backfire, as studies have shown that men often actively reject eco-friendly actions, even polluting on purpose so as not to be seen as unmanly (Brough & Wilkie 2019).
You’ll notice that all of these analyses are very male versus female. The gender binary that has been ascribed to the world around us and the biological essentialism that it creates - equating women/nature with mothers, for example - is so ingrained in our entire culture that at times it is difficult to even see. Which is why I want to ask: what do these gendered landscapes mean for queer people and our relationship to nature? It is important to try and deconstruct how binaries are framing our entire perception. Escobar’s article ‘Culture Sits in Places’ is game-changing as he calls for anthropologists, historians, geographers, economists and more, to remember that ‘culture is carried into places by bodies’ (p143), but even he, along with Wylie, thoroughly underestimate the individual subjectivity of the body. Let me explain with an example - imagine the experience of a black visibly-queer person walking through the countryside. They may feel free and safe away from judging eyes or fear of assault, but equally they may feel vulnerable out in the middle of nowhere away from the safety net of urban queer communities. Now compare how their queer body will relate to the nature around them to the experience of a white cishetero man. When we study the social and political formation of landscapes the latter is considered the default, universal perspective, which then forms the foundation of the culture that shapes our relationship to the environment.
What I would like us to explore for the coming month, therefore, is our process of connection to landscape. Not that I’m bias or anything, but I believe the queer perspective is particularly fruitful because of how queerness inherently dismantles binaries and dominant culture - and on this subject, I cannot recommend enough For The Wild’s podcast ‘Queer Natures: On Reclaiming Wild Safe Space’. Pinar and So go a long way in answering the questions I have raised here. That said, reimagining how we connect to the landscape around us is of course open to everyone, and de-colonial and anti-ableist work is also vital to deconstructing strict regimes of nature interactions. But whatever our subjective bodily experience is, there’s also a universalising factor for modern humanity - globalisation and the climate crisis.
Our sense of landscape has expanded far beyond what we can see, hear, and touch. Global political and/or digital spaces have forced our navigation of nationality, economy, identity, society, landscape onto a global rather than local stage. This has been of particular importance to marginalised groups - consider the cultural and emotional significance of online communities for LGBTQIA+ people, or the worldwide movement for Indigenous rights that has transcended place-based political alliances. And these somewhat unifying global experiences are only being exacerbated by climate change. Timothy Morton describes global heating as a ‘hyperobject’ - a physical thing so large that it breaks our usual way of thinking about time and space, saturating everything in our lives to the point that we are inside the object. We can no longer ignore that nature is as much a part of our political lives as society, which begs the question - with globalisation and climate change, how do we navigate the new frontiers of landscape?
Ashmore, W. (2006) ‘Gender and Landscapes’, in Nelson, S. M. (ed.) Handbook of gender in archaeology. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press (Gender and archaeology series).
Bartholdson, Ö. et al. (2019) ‘Is REDD+ More of an Institutional Affair than a Market Process? The Concealed Social and Cultural Consequences of an Ongoing REDD+ Project in Kolo Hills, Tanzania’, Forests, 10(8), p. 618. doi: 10.3390/f10080618.
Brough, A. R. and Wilkie, J. E. B. (2017) Men Resist Green Behavior as Unmanly - Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/men-resist-green-behavior-as-unmanly/ (Accessed: 2 December 2020).
Escobar, A. (2001) ‘Culture sits in places: reflections on globalism and subaltern strategies of localization’, Political Geography, 20(2), pp. 139–174. doi: 10.1016/S0962-6298(00)00064-0.
Kimvall, J. (2010) ‘The border fortification as symbol of freedom’, Ord&Bild, 1–2. Available at: https://www.eurozine.com/the-border-fortification-as-symbol-of-freedom/#
Martin, Kasidy (2020) ‘Recreating in Color: Promoting Ethnic Diversity in Public Lands’ Water Savvy, 10 November. Available at: https://watersavvysolutions.com/recreating-in-color/
SurvivalInternational.org. (Oct 2019) EXPOSED: WWF execs KNEW they were funding rights abuses in Africa, but kept report under wraps. Available at: https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/12247
West, S. and Ndlovu, S. (2010) ‘Heritage, Landscape and Memory’, in Benton, T. (ed.) Understaning Heritage and Memory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 202–237.
Wylie, J. (2007) ‘Prospects for Landscape’, in Landscape. Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203480168.
Young, A. (2018) ‘QUEER NATURE on Reclaiming Wild Safe Space’. (For The Wild). Available at: https://forthewild.world/listen/queer-nature-on-reclaiming-wild-safe-space
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.
Here's some questions to get you thinking about this topic on a personal level:
Do you or the culture you come from see gender in nature or certain landscape features? What does this mean for your interpretation of them?
How does your (gender) identity affect how you experience and navigate landscapes? How does that differ between natural and urban places?
What is globalisation and digital space to you?
When I commune with you my body carries with English and broken Swedish and half-forgotten German and a whirlpool of pronouns
It carries with it four attempted names and one unknown I know to be true
It carries with it a back sore from no bed and an itchy lump on my right eyelid
It carries with it essay deadlines and what-I-meant-to-say and choir songs and decisions about Christmas yet to be made and then you
And then you
You present the whole of yourself in a single pine tree
Meeting my communion with a reminder:
To you my body is a breeze
That, as of this moment, is carrying the scent of faraway war.
A breeze cannot be pinned down, cannot be bound
With fabric or linguistics
No one can cloak it, define it wind or zephyr or gale
A breeze knows itself only
As air to be felt and heard.
So when I speak to you
With thought that scatters with the beak of a woodpecker
With breath that twines with the rustle of a gnat’s wings and the flutter of falling bark
My body is all limbs and parts
Your body is all heart
Split like currents in a river
Your body is all heard
Like snippets of bird song in chorus
Between and through and as
More than one but less than two
That receive and pass on and forget and always know
Thoughts, comments, feedback welcome - you can leave them on my instagram post :)
Portable Monument // Madeleine Stack
Portable Monument is a performative essay-poem that asks what it means to be intimate across hemispheres and time zones, and how our understanding of intimacy is shaped by contemporary communications technology. With the advent of new information technologies, we have become adept at tuning in to the frequency of another time, place, body and weather. These differences are flattened by the timeless frame of the internet, allowing people to communicate regardless of their position on the globe. (ICA synopsis)
Stack’s skillfully rich tapestry of words and music explores our complex relationship between place and space in the modern, global world. “What follows is an attempt to exhaust a place that does not exist”, she says - can the internet be considered a place? We build it, shape it, occupy it daily, leave our marks and history on it. The places we build are “marked by desires for ends”; exclusion of certain ideas and people. What Stack’s depiction shows is that despite it overlapping and being multifarious and its boundaries simultaneously adhering to and smashing national borders, the internet could be defined as a landscape. But it also doesn’t quite exist as somewhere we can go. If an intangible everywhere “place” (space?) is a landscape, what does that mean for our relationship to nature?
The bleeding of nature and (digital)human weaves throughout Stack’s poem. Interesting weather or scenery gets replicated digitally and sent across the globe, while messages bombard us as we navigate the city. In this modern world, I can send you a photo of a place you’ve never been and now you have a connection to it. Local protests can become global with a single social media post. The interactions of surfaces - skin on glass, faces on screens, fluids on bodies - parallels and defines how we connect with other humans, with other places, with other living beings.
All framed within her relationship with another woman, the poem embodies the queer experience of digital lives - how so many of us have found community and even love from far across the world. As coronavirus lockdowns reappear and people are shut off from loved ones and loved places, yet we still strive to maintain connections across screens, these ideas feel more widely relevant than ever.
I have listened to Portable Monument several times and have always picked up on new imagery and feelings. It’s an expertly woven piece, and the ominous background music speaks to the larger implications of globalisation and digital spaces, taking the listener beyond the intimate-cum-international realm of Stack and her lover. Her other works often look at themes of spatial interaction and make use of natural materials too, but this poem in particular perfectly frames my final discussion point of this month - what is globalisation and digital space doing to our sense of connection to humans, to nature? As we find ourselves living, working, loving through zoom and social media - is it helping or hindering you to reach the world outside of yourself?
Find more of her work:
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