Category Archives: PoMo

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.

126: Groth & Bressi’s Understanding Ordinary Landscapes

The essays in Paul Groth and Todd Bressi’s collection Understanding Ordinary Landscapes are compiled from a two-day symposium at Berkeley in 1990 called “Vision, Culture, and Landscape” that was intended to both celebrate and critique JB Jackson’s version of cultural landscape studies.  In general, while the essays underscore Jackson’s reliance on and use of visual and spatial information as a way to understand past and present cultures, they grapple with ways to deal with the realities of social and cultural pluralism and their effects on the landscape.  While in many ways Jackson’s work was radically subjective and Postmodern before its time, in others it is distinctly Modern, particularly in its emphasis on underlying universals, empirical research, and continuity.

According to Groth, cultural landscape studies defines landscape as the combination of people and place, with an emphasis on the history of how people have used everyday or vernacular space – buildings, rooms, streets, fields, yards – to establish and articulate identities, social relations, and cultural meanings.  When JB Jackson started publishing Landscape in 1951, he also emphasized the activist mission of cultural landscape studies: the more people know about ordinary environments, the more they will become attached to them and the less likely they will be to wantonly destroy them.  Groth and Bressi build on cultural landscape studies via a 6-part framework updated for the 1990s:

  1. focus on ordinary landscapes to get at cultural meaning and environmental experience
  2. shift from a rural emphasis to both rural and urban landscapes, as well as landscapes of production and landscapes of consumption
  3. continue to study diversity and uniformity, but emphasize difference, fragmentation, intertextuality and hybridity instead of a single, unifying narrative
  4. continue to write for the intelligent lay reader
  5. support a broad notion of interdisciplinarity that includes cultural, human, social, critical, landscape architecture, art history and other approaches
  6. engage with visual and spatial information, either in support of or in direct opposition to it; the landscape must remain the primary object of study.  Respect JB Jackson’s argument that “landscape… must be regarded first of all in terms of living rather than looking.”
This collection includes many heavyweights: David Lowenthal, Peirce Lewis, Dolores Hayden, Wilbur Zelinsky, and more – all folks who are contributing to and thinking about what a new cultural geography might mean and how it might be updated to include social difference and PoMo cultural theory.  It also holds up JB Jackson as the methodological exemplar of cultural landscape studies – which makes sense, because as far as I know, he invented it.

118: Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that far from being a passive act, consumption, whether as use of an object or space, “ways of operating,” or art/ “ways of making” (combination, selection, cut-and-inversion), is a kind of spatial production.   
Building on (but rejecting) Foucault, Bourdieu, Kant, and others, de Certeau conceives of the physical world as divided into two classes: those with power and capital who are in control of space and production, and those with neither, but who exercise their agency by taking advantage of opportunities and consuming creatively.  The powerful side of things is also the scientific, the rational; this side creates static places of power, characterized by rational utopian uniformity, legibility, clarity, strategy, and centralized control.  The weak consumers take advantage of cracks in the rational system of these places; dependent on time, these peripatetic storytellers (walking and narration are inseparable) combine the fixed elements of the city/story with memories and inventions triggered by circumstance and audience to subvert the rational powers and create something new.

If power creates place, these storytellers operate in space, an undefined realm within place that is created as they walk/perform their narratives.   Critical is the connection between space and discourse; critical also is that this storytelling, while it carves out spaces of agency, is fleeting and momentary; it can subvert the rational powers but it cannot develop capital or power itself.  The whole point is that walking/ narrating is the illegitimate, illegible, other to the rational system; it unites discourse and practice, and as such it cannot be abstracted or contemplated from outside itself.   Or accumulated, for that matter.

Stuff I like: de Certeau is very clear: even in a Foucauldian system, there is still ample room for human agency.  That agency may not be able to build the kind of social capital needed to overthrow rational powers, but it’s not going away – the walker/ storyteller/ city inhabitant is the necessary corollary/ internal contradiction in the rational system.  Also, he combines narration with spatial movement, which links discourse to performance – sometimes with an audience, sometimes not.  His use of myth is interesting: myths humanize the city by layering legend, memory, and dream into the rational place and thus subverting its rational, logical (objective?) order.  They function as an escape from oppression.  The way he sets up the space/ place opposition is interesting: like Tuan, he argues that places “stay put” and spaces are for movement or for practicing place: one gets the feeling that the walker opens them up and they close again once he/she has passed through.  Memory also subverts place: ghosts of people or things or businesses that are no longer in a place haunt it and link people  to a place/ convert place to space in a way that defies the logical, rational order.  I also like his method: he clearly sets out the five or so theorists he is working with, pokes holes in their arguments, and shows how everyday practice links theory and discourse AND allows for human agency and ingenuity in a way that the other theorists seem to have missed.  And he clearly sees technology as rationalizing society in a way that’s no bueno.
Stuff I don’t like: To attempt to see the system from any perspective other than direct experience – to try and take it in conceptually, as a whole – is to alienate yourself from the system and to see it from the perspective of the rational powers, not from the embodied  consumers.  To study the production of space, then, requires giving up any chance to see the whole and only studying the stories on their own terms, which, sorry, just feels claustrophic and unnecessarily limited (though useful in the whole PoMo turn bit, for sure.)  Also, it makes me sad that these seem to be practices for surviving a utopia, not for changing it – unless he’s just being descriptive instead of normative.  He seems to take a technological determinist stance on the relationship between technological rationality and place/space.  Also, individuals are not atomized, but they are anonymous in the masses; without the potential for generalization, how are they not atomized again?  Further, it’s not like people are wholly irrational, and to classify them in binary opposition to rationality (er, technology and machines came from somewhere) is doing individuals a disservice… and may even be taking precisely the birds-eye view he so eschews.  From above, walkers in a medieval city probably look like rats in a warren; but from the perspective of the opportunistic walker, thinking on the margin, every movement she makes probably makes perfect sense.  Beware seeing people in the aggregate.
Connections: Laclau’s empty signifier, especially in the section on belief (to make people believe, offer them something and then don’t give it to them); Hardt & Negri, anything really, because they believe in the power of excess to overthrow the utopia (tho they allow for the development of capital among the oppressed).  He directs engages at length with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, Freud (both his psychoanalysis and his more social piece, Civilization something), Durkheim, and Kant (though admittedly I didn’t read the bits on Kat or Durkheim.)  He also uses Lacan’s mirror phase bit as a way at getting at the relationship between the individual and society.  He is fascinated by the basic premise of anthropological work in Durkheim: to go somewhere else to study yourself; and although he picks on Foucault in particular for cutting out a small piece of culture (panoptics, for instance) and then inverting society so that that small piece of culture becomes the organizing principle of a social analysis, he uses it as the basis for his definition of tactic: cutting up, reassembling, creating narratives out of fragments.  I guess the point is that it is a tactic of the weak, not a strategy (which requires vision!  Of the big picture!) of the strong?
What are the implications of de Certeau’s walkers for performance?
Why is it so important to link space and language?
What cities is he talking about
How does this work fit in with other PoMo (vs post-structural theory)?
Originally published on 6.26.12.

117: Doreen Massey’s For Space

Massey’s For Space is an attempt to develop a theory of subjectivity/ agency through a postmodern conception of space as geographical, temporal, and relational.  Because of Cresswell, I expected Massey’s construction of “the spatial” as relational flows, especially in counterpoint to Harvey’s construction of place as nodes where the flows of capital get stuck.   
But I didn’t expect her to be so tightly bound with high postmodern thinkers.  Massey draws a great deal from Laclau & Mouffe’s radical democracy and Deleuze’s reconfiguration of subjects from nodes to trajectories; I guess this is what happens when you shift focus from bodies to space as the field where bodies interact.  Of particular interest to me is her search for agency/ construction of radical subjectivity as uniquely spatial, outwardlooking and aware of its own relational constitution.  Space, rather than time, makes agency possible.   
Massey is trying to find a way to move beyond Modernism, which (she says) falsely annihilates space through time, and beyond the extremes of Postmodernism, which falsely annihilates time through space, and to articulate depth with breadth.  Yes, connecting depth with breadth is the project of all cultural theory, but her solution – to focus on space-time as the product of relations/ interactions between heterogeneous elements dissolves binaries like global/ local, place/space, space/time, and thereby makes space for agency.  She does a better job of situating potential agents within an uneven power grid than do Laclau & Mouffe/ other radical democracy theorists, but I do wonder if she’s falsely assuming that everyone would take freedom if given the space to do so – in which case she’s more of a product of the Enlightenment than she cares to admit.  (Not a bad thing to think that all people are fundamentally equal on some level; I’m just sayin…)   
Anyway.  I like that space and social relations are mutually constitutive – the concept is very useful for talking about transportation-based social movements.  She’s also got a nice discussion of how local movements might articulate into larger global struggles that looks a lot like how (radical) transportation movements, by their nature, have to grow.  And she clearly reads.  A lot.

Originally published on 6.17.12.

116: Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender

Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender is a collection of articles from the late 1970s to the 1990s, all of which attempt to formulate concepts of space and place in terms of social relations, class and gender in particular.  Her basic arguments, many of which she develops later in For Space, have to do with the development of a decentered, relational, temporal/process-based, postmodern concept of space, and the mutually constitutive relationship between space and social relations/ inequalities.  She sees
“space-time as a configuration of social relationships within which the specifically spatial may be conceived of as an inherently dynamic simultaneity.  Moreover, since social relations are inevitably and everywhere imbued with power and meaning and symbolism, this view of the spatial is an ever-shifting social geometry of power and signification.” (3)
In other words, space is the social “stretched out.”  Hence there are echoes of Deleuze, de Certeau, Bourdieu in here, and moving space and place to the cultural plane gives her more flexibility in constructing it (yes, she insists that space and place have objective, material components, too, but what she’s talking about for the most part is meaning rather than the physical environment itself.)

While I’m not terribly interested in gendered spaces, I DO, however, like her use of feminist theory as a way in to social/ spatial difference rather than as the be-all and end-all of social difference, and I also like that she actually began with class, which I agree is probably more important than gender as far as social/spatial shaping.  

I also like that she develops her theses regarding the social construction of space, place, and gender in direct response to political issues – her empirical studies lend weight to her ideas AND provide examples for how seemingly abstract theory can actually be useful.  These case studies are particularly effective with respect to issues of gentrification (Docklands/ Isle of Dogs yuppie invasion), class and gender-based economic exploitation (siting factories where working-class or ethnic people or women will provide cheaper labor sources), or inner-city deterioration (thinking of place as porous and geography as linked to social and economic factors helps contextualize urban problems and provide support for structural solutions rather than just blaming the poor for their poverty).

Her writing is compelling and well-organized, and I can imagine using one of her case studies, or the intro to one of the sections, in a course on transportation and culture.  

Originally published on 6.8.2012.

108: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

In All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman cautions against jumping on the PoMo bandwagon to make sense of the world.  Against Postmodernism, which he sees as a dead-end way of interpreting the world that only leads to the I, death, and fragmented searches for authenticity in depthless space, he argues that Modernism, and the larger Enlightenment project of which it is a part, have room for human agency, collectivity, and social change.  Further, instead of being the way out of global capitalism, Postmodernism is just a phase in the modernist dialectic, one of those moments when Marxism and modernism collide.

Berman accepts that Modernism in the mid-20th century became the top-down, monolithic grand narrative that Postmodern theorists reject, but for his definition of Modernism he points instead to the 19th century, when Modernism was a way of making sense of a chaotic new “modern” world and asserting human agency in the face of totalizing industrial development.  Modernism is a dialectic between top-down and bottom-up culture, and the Enlightenment project of Progress proceeds not in a

smooth grand narrative but through the public resistance, systematic rebellion, protests and other struggles by which “modern men and women assert… their right to control their future” and their right to “make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”  Within this dialectic, if modernization involves social fragmentation and detachment from place, Modernism is about reattaching, creating roots, and connecting to the past through history and memory and to each other through shared experiences.  If this interest in place and developing roots sounds like a Postmodern project, that’s because Postmodernism is a phase of Modernism; Modernism, Postmodernism, anti-modernism are all interrelated in the same project.

Two things that Berman finds essential in Modernism that he doesn’t see in PoMo are time, which he associates with progress, and dialectic, which is the process by which structure and agency struggle to move history forward.  He also hones in on modernity as contradiction: between place and placelessness, subject and object, old and new modernities, global corporations and individual workers.  Mired in a search for authenticity among the depthless surfaces of Postmodernism, we are likely to become so obsessed with our navels that we don’t even realize we’re being increasingly controlled and oppressed.  Like Marx, Berman argues that we need to make ourselves both subjects and objects of history; to peel back the surface and see how the system really works, and then to work together to make sure modernization doesn’t eclipse human agency altogether.

103: David Livingstone’s The Geographical Tradition

In The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise, David Livingstone uses an episodic structure both to trace the ideological and methodological history of the discipline and to map out the physical world as it looked through these various geographical perspectives.  He argues that geography changes as society changes, and that the best way to understand the discipline is to situate it in its social and intellectual environments.  A geographer and a historian of science, he takes a contextual approach to the history of geography, so he sees geographic knowledge as necessarily “partial,” neither value-free nor complete; his emphasis on the “contested” nature of the discipline injects a much-needed dose of relativism and PoMo into geography.

Much of what Livingstone is doing is applying methods and concepts from the history of science to the history of geography, thus constructing the discipline as both science and contested cultural terrain.  He argues for a “situated geography” whose meaning, methods, and applications vary with time and place; historians can only access the discipline by studying its internal and

external factors, so ideology, professional aspirations, metaphysical assumptions, social context, and geographers’ friends, funding sources, and allegiances are all fair game.  He also intentionally disrupts heroic “internalist” accounts, like David Hartshorne’s The Nature of Geography, because a) portraying the geographer as a magical being steadfastly and single-handedly pursuing the truth and b) selective genealogies leave out reams of details that could paint a more complete picture and help us understand geography in relation to the broader culture.  Reading Sauer and Hartshorne in the context of their historical moment in America between the World Wars, for instance, provides a much more complete account of their interest in areal differentiation than they themselves give: sure, area was interesting, but they made this move a) to disconnect geography from its “disreputable environmental determinist path,” b) to restore its intellectual and moral purity, and c) to draw professional boundaries that would separate geography from growing disciplines like sociology and economics.

Finally, he opens up the history of geography to look at moments of contestation, and the debates over how the discipline would (or should) proceed, situated in their historical context, humanize the discipline, reveal its social constructs, and provide points of entry for his audience.  He does not advocate pure social constructivism, but he does, at least open up geography to the chaos of history – within the bounds of a single “tradition,” of course.