Category Archives: history

154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.
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141: Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization

Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934) is a massive history of technological development in the Western world in three phases: the Eotechnic, from AD 1000 to the 18th century, which was characterized by diverse, unsystematized inventions and ideas; the Paleotechnic, from the late 18th century to the late 19th, which was “reckless to the point of barbarism” in its war, death, brute strength, and industrialization; and the Neotechnic, which began in the early 20th century and is hopeful that new alloys, electricity, communication technologies will lead to better, more organic social and technological projects.  Throughout, Mumford argues that “No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does not form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill.”   He advocates a more egalitarian technopolitics via an increased understanding and assimilation of the machine.


While the book is a history of countless technological developments spanning all of human time (itself revolutionary, since most accounts of technology before his had focused on the 19th century), the heart of it is Mumford’s program to create a “life-sustaining technological order” that would reorient the essential economic processes in which technology is employed from capitalism to basic communism: 

  • Conversion: turning the environment into energy.  Under capitalism, this process is inefficient; communal ownership of the means of production and agricultural fields, centralized planning, and economic regionalism could reduce the inefficiencies of market-managed, uncoordinated extraction and increase conversion.
  • Production: manufacturing goods.  Under capitalism, increased production means increased profits, which can be reinvested in more production facilities.  Automation without respect for the worker leads to strikes and absenteeism, not to mention dehumanization.  Communal ownership and centralized planning would coordinate production so that each region only produces what it needs, and re-developing manufacturing processes so they’re more interesting to humans would shift the focus from quantity to quality.  This combination would increase efficiency and reduce the average work week from 40 hours to 15-20.
  • Consumption: capitalism drives consumption by using style, fashion, and poor workmanship to manufacture wants and desires.  Mumford hates trendy clothes and thinks we should really just consume commodities (produced en masse) and a few luxuries (produced by smaller, specialized firms).  Reducing consumption would reduce production, which (again) would reduce work hours and make more time for culture.
  • Creation: This is the end goal of Mumford’s balanced, centralized system of production and consumption: enough surplus leisure time from work for people to develop the humane side of society: technical inventions, art, history, science, theory, communication.  The idea here is to socialize creation so that each individual adds to the collective pool of knowledge about the world we live in, that technology can be harnessed to sustain and better life rather than increase profits, and that everyone gets to guide future development.  
Mumford’s critique of technological development is thus also a critique of capitalism, and a call for a new social order that uses technology to communist/human, rather than capitalist/profit-driven, ends.

136: Richard Schein’s Landscape and Race

With the edited collection Landscape and Race in the United States, Richard Schein aims to get the reader thinking about the relationship between race and the cultural landscape of everyday places; following Toni Morrison, he argues that “all American landscapes can be seen through a lens of race, all American landscapes are racialized.  For Schein and his contributors, cultural landscape is material, visual, and epistemological, and landscape itself is a process: we shape it to reflect our cultural values, and then the cultural “framings” it contains come back to shape culture, so that whether material or symbolic, “cultural landscapes are constitutive of the processes that created them in the first place.”  Further, following Cornel West, Schein argues that race is an anti-essential, social, and political construct that “matters” as if it were ontological.  Examining race in the landscape allows us to understand, in Omi & Winant’s worlds, “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”  In other words, studying racialized landscapes can help us understand the process of racialization.

Schein prescribed a pretty specific research agenda for his contributors, which means the book is tightly argued even if not all the essays are directly comparable.  Topics and authors include: Michael Crutcher on generational differences and segregated landscapes in New Orleans; Steve Hoelscher on Natchez, Mississippi and the erasure of “Forks in the Road;” Samuel Dennis on the reconstruction of a South Carolina plantation as a tourist site, from the points of view of the planter, slaves, and free blacks on the land; Gareth Hoskins on Angel Island and Chinese Immigration; Daniel Arroya on racial stereotyping in turn-of-the-century picture postcards of impoverished Mexican families; James & Nancy Duncan on aesthetics and the battle between white and Central American residents of Mount Kisco, New York; James Rojas and “Latinoization” in the creation of  the East LA vernacular landscape; Jonathan Lieb and the attempt to put Arthur Ashe on Richmond, VA’s Monument Ave; Derek Alderman on MLK streets; and Heidi Nast on the relationship between race and the location of dog parks in Chicago.

This collection is valuable both for its wide variety of geographic locations and its work in opening up discussions of race beyond the black/white binary.  It’s also wonderfully readable.

134: Carl Sauer’s Morphology of Landscape

Carl Sauer’s “The Morphology of Landscape” argues unambiguously that geography is the morphological study of cultural landscapes; it is the systematic study of both the ways in which humans have manipulated the physical landscape, and the ways in which physical landscape shapes the cultural landscape.  This article is one of the foundational articles for the Berkeley School, human geography, and cultural geography; Sauer wrote it partly to get the environmental determinists off his back, and partly to stake out some territory for geography.  Here are a few highlights:

  • the “morphological method” involves describing the hell out of physical and cultural landscapes, and then looking for formal patterns across landscapes to determine the connections between culture and the landscape.  The goal is to create composite types, so that you can measure future landscapes against them.  

  • landscape, like area, is an organic whole; unlike area, its boundaries and composition are subjectively determined by the geographer based on experience with other landscapes
  • Geography is not an abstract, rational science; it accepts the subjectivity of the geographer, as long as that subjectivity is made somewhat objective by long experience with reading and writing patterns in the landscape.
  • the cultural landscape is the combination of humans and nature, where the natural landscape provides the materials, culture provides the shaping force, and the “mind of man” creates culture; however, it is “man’s record upon the landscape,” not “the energy, customs, or beliefs of man.”
  • history of the landscape is important, but it’s mostly just included as a “descriptive convenience”
I realize that there was a pretty fierce debate in the 1990s over whether Sauer’s theory of culture was “superorganic,” or a force independent of humans.  There is one paragraph in this whole essay that alludes to a superorganic theory of culture in here, but I think that the problem is more that cultural theory was a lot more complex in the 1990s than it was in the 1920s than that Sauer thought culture was an autonomous force.  He was trying to shift the geographical paradigm away from environmental determinism, not invent a spatially-informed theory of culture in the process.

133: Edward Relph’s Modern Urban Landscape

Edward Relph’s The Modern Urban Landscape examines the landscapes of large cities since 1880 for clues as to the relationship between modernization and urban form.  In particular, he studies the visual landscapes of the “modern parts of towns and cities” in North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; building on this firsthand experience, he concludes that “the modern urban landscape is both rationalised and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human, an expression of human will and deeply imbued with meaning.”  He thus shifts the focus of human geography from the rural to the urban, while retaining the discipline’s focus on empirical observations of coherent visual landscapes.

To collect data on the changes in urban architecture, planning, technology and social conditions since 1880, Relph takes the “geographical” approach of “watching:” he starts with “the totality of what I see,” then follows “several directions more or less at once,” looking for unusual details, new developments, and ironic juxtapositions within the larger context of the urban fabric.  Landscapes, to Relph, are the “visual contexts of daily existence,” and he insists on retaining the wholeness of the urban landscape because so much of landscape is about context, about the relationships between buildings and the streets and spaces and other structures around them, that you cannot study any one element in isolation.  Only by preserving landscape’s “fragile wholeness” can we hope to learn anything about how it functions.

Using this method, Relph traces a history of ideology in the landscape, from 1890s Progressive Era landscapes, through the Machine Age and into the Postmodern city.  He shows how Bellamy, Morris and other Utopians created landscapes of the future in the 1890s; how the Machine Age created both unornamented, standardized. geometric factory buildings and a chaotic mess of wires and tracks, the results of business needs, consumer demands, and municipal safety engineering; how the Modern “international style” was only briefly popular, but dominates the landscape because it belonged to an era of skyscraper-building; and how the Information Age has both refined and profoundly changed the forms of the Modern era, so that like “plastic flowers: things are left looking much as they always did but their materials and meanings are profoundly changed.”

Relph also discerns two sweeping trends with huge impacts on urban landscapes in the last 100 years:

  • internationalism: new building technologies, combined with faster communications and transportation, mean that “virtually identical bits of cities now seem to crop up almost everywhere, and behind any national or regional differences that might be visible there are always widely shared patterns and an international habit of thought.”
  • a “conviction in the merits of self-consciousness:” “everything now is subjected to cool analysis and technical manipulation, leaving little room for the traditions which stood behind most preindustrial landscapes.”  Elements of landscapes, from buildings to parking meters, follow an increasingly rationalised and institutionalized (and specialized) process, so very little building happens in a vernacular sense.
While Relph retains human geography’s emphasis on the coherent “fragile wholeness” of landscape, he also discerns power differentials and the impacts of capitalism on the landscape.  While he needs to work on his positionality (he argues at one point that everyone in cities works a sedentary job), I suspect this use of social theory is Relph’s way of making a few plastic flowers of his own.

131: DW Meinig’s Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes

The Interpretation of Everyday Landscapes: Geographical Essays is a collection of landscape studies edited by DW Meinig.  It represents a conscious effort to complicate the cultural landscape and reclaim it from the abstractions of science, in a way that both respects the visual nature of landscape and takes advantage of its discursive possibilities.

In his Intro, Meinig defines an ordinary landscape as a continuous surface created by and through the “routine lives of ordinary people.”  But it’s also not that simple: landscape is a coherent unity of physical, biological, and cultural features; it has both functional and aesthetic components; it is more visual and panoramic than an environment, but less subjective and experiential than a place; and it is both a geographical formation and a representation, a history and a text, a symbol and an accretion of meanings.  Landscape is both space and meaning; it doesn’t exist without interpretation.

The essays in this collection generally support Meinig’s rather complex definition of landscape as a field of study.  A few highlights:

  • Peirce Lewis argues that “our human landscape is our unwitting biography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible form,” and that “like books, landscapes can be read, but unlike books they were not meant to be read,” so we have to teach ourselves to see.  
  • Meinig uses “ten versions of the same scene,” which progress from pure, “unconstructed” nature to pure aesthetics, to show how landscape is “composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads,” and that it therefore “deserves the broad attention that only ordinary language allows.”  He also, in another essay, discusses symbolic landscapes as an iconography of nationhood.
  • Marwyn Samuels discusses authorship of the landscape and the difficulty of finding the voices of the people who created the landscape when the masses leave no signature.  
  • Yi-Fu Tuan argues that a landscape is both subjective and objective, created when the mind’s eye combines imagination and selected sense data into a coherent whole; reading culture in the landscape therefore requires learning “how to see from the landscape to the values and pathos of a folk.”  
  • David Lowenthal contemplates how monumentalizing kills the past by marking a space off from the rest of everyday life, so that everyday landscapes evolve, but “what previous groups identify and sanctify as their pasts becomes historical evidence about themselves.”
  • JB Jackson says he is still confused about landscape; even though he sees the American landscape as “the last and most grandiose attempt to create an earthly order in harmony with a cosmic order,” he still “persist[s] in seeing it not as a scenic or ecological entity but as a political or cultural entity, changing in the course of history.”
While these essays do not complicate culture as much as we would expect in 2013, they do complicate landscape, showing it to be both temporal and spatial, objective and subjective, material and symbolic, and individual and collective.  That it is consistently a visual, discursive space speaks to their own debts to JB Jackson and his version of cultural landscape studies.

129: Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place

Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History is a reflection on 8 years of work at her Boston nonprofit The Power of Place, which she started in 1984 to “to situate women’s history and ethnic history in downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists.”  Written for academics, fellow practitioners, and the general public, The Power of Place shows how collaboratively-produced public art can bring together urban space and urban history in new, generative ways, while also identifying and preserving significant public places from changes in the configurations of capital.  With the increasing interconnectedness of cities and the rise of placelessness, Hayden argues, an urban landscape history that accesses and generates “place memory” is the surest route to recovering both a sense of place and the historical agency/ capacity for social change that comes with it. 


Preserving and marking a city’s cultural sites, in ways that incorporate members of the community into the design process and that give both insiders and outsiders access to the multiple meanings and histories of those sites, uses the power of place to recover both historical memory and historical energy.  In other words, place can make struggles from the past feel real and accessible to people today – if it’s done right.  For Hayden, doing it right includes involving multiple community stakeholders; incorporating vernacular, rather than heroic, structures wherever possible, so that the social and political significance of a building trumps its aesthetic appeal; inscribing the experiences of immigrants, women, and people on the landscape; and developing a network of preserved places to “reconnect social memory on an urban scale.”  Throughout, she discusses various examples of this kind of preservation work: tenement buildings in New York that people can visit to get a sense of turn-of-the-century working class life; Cincinnati’s flying pigs; Kevin Lynch’s cognitive maps; the invisible angelinos in LA; Remembering Little Tokyo, an African American Homestead, and workers’ landscapes in LA; and the casitas in New York, which she reads as critiques of tenement space.

Throughout, Hayden looks for creative ways that ordinary people can connect history with cultural landscapes, so that place and memory can help generate progressive social change.  While I suspect increased urban mobility might make it hard to find the long-term community participation many of her Boston projects needed, and I’m not sure how much a particular place is going to spur someone to political action, her emphasis on making memory more multiple and more visible on the landscape could go a long way toward opening up history to more diverse, and more embodied, perspectives.