Category Archives: objectivity

159: Eugene Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye

In Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, Eugene Ferguson argues that the current (since the 1950s) privileging of math and science over the visual and nonverbal in engineering education is both a historical aberration and a dangerous practice.  Using a well-illustrated history of engineering design, Ferguson argues that not all engineering problems can be solved by mathematical analysis; without the ability to visualize machines, structures, and the environment, engineers often make poor judgement calls that lead to disastrous failures in bridges, nuclear power plants, refrigerators, and other technologies.

Ferguson’s emphasis on the visual is actually linked to a larger concern with engineering’s loss of that holistic, experiential real-world experience on which the field was initially based – its retreat into scientific analysis.  Thus, his history of engineering emphasizes its subjective nature before the scientific turn.  In the Renaissance, engineers used improved drawing techniques to visualize and thus think through Scientific Revolution discoveries like planetary motion and human anatomy, and perspective drawing techniques (devised by Renaissance mathematicians) facilitated design by making representations more realistic.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, formalized drawing techniques (especially orthogonal drawing), the use of models, and the development of visual systems for engineering calculation – slide rules, indicator diagrams, nomography, and graphic statistics – kept visual thinking at the forefront of engineering design and practice.  After WWII, engineering education shifted away from an open-ended art and toward deductive, exact science: shop courses were replaced with theories of thermodynamics, mechanics, heat transfer; students have little interaction with the real world; graduating engineers have a hard time designing solutions for real-world problems.

Throughout, Ferguson’s underlying argument is that the subjective, connected to real-world problems through visual thinking and representation, is incredibly important to engineers’ ability to design effective solutions, and that engineering’s scientific turn to abstract objectivity has had disastrous effects on the safety and utility of engineering projects.  While his emphasis on the visual leads Ferguson to neglect larger systems of power in some of his examples (the Challenger failure), and I suspect that what he’s actually getting at is fostering creativity rather than the visual per se, his argument for subjectivity and creative, real-world thinking in engineering certainly makes sense to me.

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.

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.

130: JB Jackson’s Landscape in Sight

Landscape in Sight: Looking at America is a career-spanning collection of Jackson’s essays edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz.  From my notes from March 2012:

Horowitz writes in her introduction that Jackson’s two main purposes are to discover the American (cultural) landscape and to compare it with the landscapes of Europe.  She implicitly raises a host of questions that Jackson addresses in his work – is there a distinctly American landscape?  If there is, what makes it distinct, and why is it different?  What does this landscape say about American culture?  I like that she situates his work within the physical landscapes of Europe and America, but I suspect the ideological landscape (not that Jackson would like that use of the term) in which he was writing influenced him at least as much as the physical.  His work in landscapes belies a deep interest in culture and politics, showing him to be just as interested in ideas as he was in his physical surroundings. 

Situating him within cultural theory lends his interpretations of American landscapes a decidedly democratic bent.  After WWII, Adorno was interpreting fascism and the Culture Industry; Reisman bemoaned the “other-directed man;” Orwell and Bradbury and Huxley were drawing out totalitarian governments to their logical ends.  Conversely, Jane Jacobs was lauding the “eyes on the street,” David Potter was celebrating the “land of plenty,” and Kerouac was rejecting ideology in favor of personally experiencing reality.  Like the latter three, Jackson favors the material, the physical, and the creation of culture by both government and people.  He uses front yards and highways and garages to examine the interplay between top-down and bottom-up theories of culture in the same way that Jacobs uses New York or Kerouac uses San Francisco.  His arguments – that landscapes can and should be interpreted culturally and that the vernacular, the pragmatic, the environmentally or temporally contingent has at least as much to do with their development as the ideology of architects and government planners – indicate a faith in the American people to create a landscape that is uniquely, well, American.

Key to Jackson’s argument, I think, is that planned and vernacular development interact to create cultural records on the American landscape.  His articles reveal vestiges of the Turner thesis, of a faith in American individual enterprise, of the importance of perspective, of the twin foci on desire and commercialism that underpin the development of the landscape as he sees it.  His emphasis on the physical lends itself to an interpretation of the cultural, and he embraces popular culture and leisure (rather than work or city planning) as driving forces in American cultural landscapes.  He simultaneously encourages objectivity in defining the landscape and subjectivity in interpreting it.  While I don’t particularly think that highways, suburban sprawl, or mobile homes indicate much individual agency, I really like that Jackson still looks for that agency, still teases out that element of personal desire and emphasizes its role in the creation of the landscape.  His faith in individual agency and the vernacular contrasts with the more structuralist(?) approaches of people like Adorno and Don Mitchell in a very welcome way.

Today, I would only add two things: an emphasis on empirical observation of landscapes as a primary way of collecting information about them, and a definition of landscape that makes it both visual and discursive, a text whose meanings can be divined by looking.

128: Tim Cresswell’s On the Move

In On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, Tim Cresswell explores mobility – which he defines as “meaningful movement” – at a variety of scales and in a variety of places in the (mostly anglophone) West.  Pulling from case studies that range from Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies to British ballroom dancing to the LA Bus Riders’ Union, Cresswell argues that mobility is “both center and margin – the lifeblood of modernity and the virus that threatens to hasten its downfall.”  While the “mobility turn” had been taking the humanities by storm since 1996, this book is the first to interrogate what mobility is rather than defining it against what it isn’t (place, boundedness, foundations, stability.)

For Cresswell, mobility is actually three mobilities that mutually constitute one another.

  • Empirical mobility is the actual movement of people, things, birds, etc.; it is the closest to actual movement and thus the most abstract (because it traces displacement, not necessarily the meaning of displacement.)  
  • Representations of mobility are the photos, literature, philosophy, etc., that capture mobility and try to make sense of it, usually in ways that are ideological.  They might link mobility to freedom, transgression, creativity, life and so on.  They reproduce mobility and interpret it according to a particular worldview.
  • Experienced mobilities are mobilities that are practiced, embodied, ways of being in the world, as well as how we experience and feel about mobility.
Mobility is both subjective and objective, and the perspective from which we experience/ study mobility has a lot to do with how we interpret it.  Because mobility is both subjective and objective, it is also both socially constructed and universal, in the sense that everything moves, and the interplay between this universal fact of life and a particular movement within a particular context gives that movement meaning.  Mobility is thus a “necessary social production,” and a way of inextricably integrating geography with the politics of social life.
Cresswell’s writing style is wonderfully clear and engaging, and his many case studies, as well as his brief history of the development of mobility into an individual right in the modern capitalist state, cover mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the individual to the workplace to nation, empire, and the placeless place of the Shiphol Airport.  The only thing missing, maybe, is a study of imperial movement from the perspective of the colonized, with some attention to the relationship between labor migration and uneven development.

95: Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible

Mark Smith’s Social Science in the Crucible: The American Debate Over Objectivity and Purpose, 1918-1941 brings the Progressive Era tension between advocacy and objectivity into the interwar years, and shows that there was no “consensual paradigm” shift toward objectivity in those years.  Instead, he uncovers a debate between objectivists and purposivists – er, between people who thought they could do social scientific research from an objective viewpoint and people who understood that knowledge is always socially produced – and investigates the debate via 5 intellectual biographies.  By situating these biographies in their social contexts with an eye toward the sources of scientific research funding, Smith thus reveals the process by which scientific objectivity itself became socially constructed.

The five major figures Smith investigates are Robert Lynd, Charles Beard, Harold Lasswell, Charles Merriam, and Wesley Mitchell.  Via leading journals, lecture series, books, private letters, presidential addresses to professional societies, and other documents, he uses these five case studies to explore the historical trajectories of both sides.  Objectivists argued that it was the job of social science to provide clear, unslanted, authoritative data to policymakers, while purposivists were interested in using social science to further their own ethical goals for society.  At the heart of his book is a rather plastic use of Deweyan Pragmatism to highlight the differences and similarities of the two approaches: objectivists claimed Dewey’s argument that good techniques ensure good results, and they located morality in the consistently objective use of proper technique in social scientific research; purposivists argued that Deweyan morality dictated that research and knowledge had to be purposive, performed to solve a particular social problem, not to create knowledge for its own sake.

While Smith’s main argument, that social science at this time was not stuck in a consensual paradigm, was been proven by history of science scholars in the 1970s, his intellectual biographies are strong, and his interpretation of Dewey is interesting.  Further, the debate that Smith outlines here over the role of subjectivity and morality in science is replicated today, perhaps tellingly, in politics: conservatives argue that we should rely on our values to help us use our freedom, while liberals say that we should use our freedom to determine our values.  In science, I suspect we have arrived at a disingenuous combination of the two.