Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Plastic Eternities and the Mosaic of Landscape

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Plastic Eternities and the Mosaic of Landscape

Article excerpt

1 Introduction

Metaphorical language and theoretical constructs shape our views of the cultural landscape. Most geographers are familiar with Carl Sauer's observation that the cultural landscape bears the material imprint of human activity. Frequently overlooked, however, is his view of the landscape as a relational space that emerges through relational processes. Sauer argued that "a definition of landscape as singular, unorganized, or unrelated has no scientific value" ([1963] 1925, page 323, emphasis added). Accentuating this point, Sauer noted that "the objects which exist together in the landscape exist in interrelation" (page 321). Tim Ingold, writing seventy years later, seizes on a similar strategy of conceptualizing the dynamics of landscape: "in a landscape each component enfolds within its essence the totality of its relations with each and every other" (1993, page 154). A genealogy of cultural landscape studies reveals an abiding concern with relationality, yet interpretive practice has yet to fully draw out the implications of seeing landscapes as constituted foremost through their experiential and material relations (Crouch, 2010; Ingold, 1993; Macpherson, 2009; Meinig, 1979; Sauer, [1963] 1925; Schein, 1997; 2009). A revitalized approach to landscape studies, interestingly, takes us back to the relational thinking that appeared in nascent form in Sauer's work. In this paper I critically reflect on the state of landscape studies by thinking through the consequences of applying nonrepresentational theory to the interpretation of landscape. Over the past ten years there has been an uptick in the number of nonrepresentational landscape studies, but there has yet to be a thoroughgoing critique describing the methodological implications of adopting a nonrepresentational perspective. This paper attempts to fill that gap and provide suggestions for conceptualizing landscape in a historically grounded way.

In the first section of this paper I explore the shortcomings of nonrepresentational theory as applied to landscapes, using a close reading of the work of Mitch Rose and John Wylie as my foundation. In their writings, there is a tendency to read a landscape by projecting philosophical tropes onto it. During a later moment of interpretation, these tropes are then interpreted as embodied and reflected through the material form of the landscape (cf Rorty, 1979; 1981; 1999). Overburdening the landscape with philosophical and theoretical propositions extracts the landscape from its social, visual, and historical circumstances (Cosgrove, 2008). Landscapes are thus transformed into ahistorical, unrelated spaces. This is odd given that Rose, Wylie, and others often turn to Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, and other continental philosophers as a touchstone. But Derrida and Deleuze locate meaning in history, and through the movement of history--not in an escape from it (Gutting, 2011). The end result is singular readings of the landscape, which ignore the spatial and historical contingencies under which the landscape is produced. My objection is not to a particular philosophical vantage point, but to the deployment of philosophy in a way that resituates the meaning of the landscape primarily in the consciousness of the individual observer. This neglects the intersubjective construction of landscape.

Following up on this critique, I discuss alternative approaches to landscape that have so far remained underdeveloped. First, I explore the ontological resonances of landscape through Catherine Malabou's work on plasticity (2005; 2006; 2008; 2010). Plasticity conveys the capacity to give and receive form, but also simultaneously connotes ideas of resistance and fluidity. Once it is formed, plastic cannot return to an original or prior state, however it preserves the imprint of prior influences (Vahanian, 2007). Thus a landscape, conceived 'plastically', is pliant; it can be reworked through any number of influences, but it can also be resilient or resistant to change. …

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