Category Archives: landscape

162: James Flink’s The Automobile Age

In James Flink’s The Automobile Age, the automobile, and its attendant complex of technologies, mass-production techniques, industrial development, roads, economic and public policy, and changes in American “lifeways” resulting from “mass personal automobility,” are central to the history of capitalist development in general and to American history in particular.  Flink’s materialist approach combined with the scope of this book – he attempts to cover the rise and fall of the Automobile Age in its social, technological, business, and global contexts, from the turn of the last century to the early 1970s – make it both a fascinating history of automobility and an argument for human agency even in what looks like global domination by the car.

Flink’s narrative covers many of the canonical topics within industrialization and automobility: the Fordist system of mass production/ mass consumption; transformations in social relations and the landscape as a result of automobility; Sloanism, bureaucracy, and flexible, style-based mass production;  global automobility coupled with competition from Europe and Japan; and social and environmental critiques of automobility combined with the “world car.”  He discusses these processes by carefully tracing technological diffusion within the technological system of the automobile.


But Flink also argues that the automakers, form the very beginning, articulated themselves within both American nationalism and industrial capitalism, so tracing the car allows him to trace and critique these larger systems.  He thus shows how Ford’s particular brand of paternalism was more social control than benevolence; how the auto boom in the 1920s directly contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s; how cars fragmented and rearranged neighborhoods and social networks; how the world car has led to uneven geographical development, and how the American “romance” with the car was actually the product of a lot of lobbying by automakers for more and better roads rather than public transit, so that an inefficient, capital-intensive system was largely funded by American tax dollars.

Flink argues that the automobile age ended in the 1970s, when public outcry led to increased safety and environmental regulations, but that the automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the US, for the foreseeable future.  I agree with him on both counts, and I hope that the recent resurgence of interest in bicycling and public transportation broadens to include more social groups so that the burden of automobility doesn’t continue to be shouldered by the poor.

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.

150: David Nye’s American Technological Sublime

In American Technological Sublime, David Nye investigates the history of the social construction of the sublime in America from about 1820 to the early 1990s.  Nye’s American sublime is somewhat like 18th century European concepts of the sublime, which involve human apprehension of something so big, beautiful, and incomprehensible that the mind is seized with terror, awe, and pleasure all at once; these extremes dominate the human mind, so that the person transcends the material world and comes into contact with the divine.  However, while the European sublime was a category of experience accessible only to educated individuals in contact with nature or sacred architecture, the American sublime has distinctly populist, nationalist, and capitalist overtones.  As early as the 1830s, American travellers in the West were reporting on the sublimity of the natural landscape, while people in the presence of massive new technologies were experiencing a transcendence usually reserved for nature or high art, and revivalists were recommending sublime tourist sites like Niagara as places to get in touch with the divine.  The American sublime was thus a popular, communal experience rather than an elite individual one; it was associated with emotions of awe, pleasure and terror rather than worldly transcendence; it could involve feats of engineering as well as high art and natural beauty; and its ties to American technological transformations of the landscape meant that the experience could be incorporated into nationalist narratives (love of country) and commodified into landscapes of fantasy and pleasure (Disneyland).  As Nye argues, the American sublime is key to American cultural identity.

Although the chapters are roughly chronological, Nye is more interested in talking about sublimeS rather than THE sublime, so that differences of time, place, and personal experience only add to his discussion.  Technological sublimes include the railroad as a “dynamic sublime” that awed in its ability to unite, expand, and enrich the nation; bridges and skyscrapers as a “geometric sublime” that “appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk…. the triumph of reason in concrete form;” factories, electric power plants, and other manufactories as a new “mechanical sublime, which regulates the mind and technologically supersedes nature;” the electrified urban landscape as an accidental “electrical sublime” that dominated night, embodied the values of capitalism and “transformed the appearance of the world;” the atomic bomb as a new, more terrifying form of the dynamic sublime, and Vegas and Disneyland (with nods to Niagara and the Grand Canyon) as the “consumer sublime,” commodified pleasure landscapes that provide the rush associated with dislocation from the world of work in simulation of the sublime.

Throughout, Nye traces the ways in which increased articulations between the sublime and mass American culture have led to a watering down of what was once a transcendent, otherworldly dislocation from reality, even as they make that experience accessible to more people.  While he argues that the sublime is at once an individual and collective experience, he also shows how top-down and structurally conditioned that experience has been.

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.

135: Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory

In Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama argues that “even the landscapes that we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out, on closer inspection, to be its product,” and that this mutually constitutive relationship between nature and culture is “a cause not for guilt and sorrow but celebration.”  Accordingly, while Landscape and Memory digs deep into the histories of a wide variety of landscapes, Schama’s is an “archaeological” method rather than a critical one.  His goal is not to expose capitalist exploitation in the landscape but to dig deep “below our conventional sight-level to recover the veins of myth and memory that lie beneath the surface.”  By situating landscape myths in their historical-cultural moments, Schama shows how socially-constructed meaning and memory become embedded in a landscape.

Schama applies his archaeological approach to a variety of landscapes: the primordial Bialowiez forest in Poland, which the Germans wanted to raze and replace with “a great, living laboratory of purely Teutonic species: eagles, elk, and wolves” (and bison) during WWII, because it was the symbolic and heart of Poland;   Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome as an embodiment and co=optation of the ancient obsession with circulation and flow; Mount Rushmore and sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s obsession with dominating nature by carving human heads into stone; and “both kinds of arcadia, the idyllic as well as the wild,” as escapist “landscapes of the urban imagination,” responding to cities by providing pandemonium when cities are too ordered and bucolic countryside when cities are too chaotic.

Throughout, Schama relies on a narrative form to weave many disparate threads into each chapter’s coherent whole.  This book is neither a call to action nor a complete history of particular places nor even a landscape study; it’s more of a literary exploration into the layers of myth and memory that make up a landscape, arranged by a subjective narrator into layers of his own choosing.  While it’s a lovely read, it does make me wonder whether Schama thinks the physical landscape needs to be there at all.

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.