Category Archives: representation

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.

121: Denis Cosgrove’s Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape

From my notes from Spring 2012:

In Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Denis Cosgrove argues that the idea of “landscape constitutes a discourse through which identifiable social groups historically have framed themselves and their relations with both the land and with other human groups, and that this discourse is closely related epistemically and technically to ways of seeing.” (xiv) In other words, both humanistic and scientific approaches to landscape construct, represent, and interpret landscapes from a single, primarily visual, ideological perspective.  If this perspective is more invested in conveying the individual consumption of the landscape than in collective production of it, it also clearly articulates the construction of landscape and landscape discourse with power.

Cosgrove builds this argument through a history of the ‘landscape idea’ as it developed in Europe during the shift from feudalism to capitalism (from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution), where he subjects transitions in both physical construction of landscapes (from feudal manors and land-bound serfs to property and landless, mobile populations) and representation of landscapes (from landscape painting and maps to photography) to an analysis intended to break down the ideological emphasis on the visual and to reveal the collective social construction of landscape.  

Further, his account breaks down ‘vulgar’ Marxism using three then-recent developments in Marxist theory.  These include the ‘cultural turn,’ which emphasizes a dialectical relationship between base and superstructure (and thus between means of production and ideas about landscapes), the construction of social formations as historically/ geographically specific social groups that include dominant, residual, and emergent elements (so a little Williams, a little Gramsci, and a lot of decentering of the classic binary model), and the emphasis on a kind of universal human experience that underlies both the construction and interpretation of landscape (maybe like Lacan’s Real?) and that allows him to claim that certain symbolic constructions/ “analogic reasoning” speak to everyone the same way.  He concludes that landscape can be deceptive because it hides the human struggles that went into its construction beneath an ideological veil of apparent coherence and unity.

As Cosgrove explains in his 1998 Introductory Essay, the argument that the landscape idea is ideological and is dialectically related to social formations is the main strength of the book.  Apparently, geography in the 1980s was lagging behind cultural studies, anthropology, history, and other disciplines and was still focusing on writing pretty descriptions of landscapes instead of analyzing them critically for potential ideological biases, and this book helped get the discipline moving in the right direction.  [update: I think what Cosgrove might have actually meant here was that he wanted to move away from the universalism/individualism of the humanist approach and look more closely at power dynamics and social divisions in the landscape.]  

And Cosgrove’s method definitely has its merits.  Considering that his contemporaries (Tuan, JB Jackson, Meinig) were heavy on the “landscape as coherence and unity” argument, Cosgrove is actually pretty radical in his explicitly Marxist critical approach to the dual histories of capitalism and landscape painting/ art in Western Europe from the 14th to the 19th centuries.  While the other writers only gesture to social divisions, Cosgrove focuses on them and on the constructed nature of the landscape itself.  He also makes good use of dialectics to explain the importance of a study of landscapes in the first place: he argues that rather than the base always determining the superstructure, base and superstructure are dialectically related so that changes in consciousness can beget changes in the landscape and vice versa.  Most of the writers in Meinig’s collection also talk about this relationship, but without the explicit Marxism; although I’m generally in favor of simple language, in this case Cosgrove’s slightly more complex formulations do a good job of revealing the theoretical complexities of landscape.  It’s subjective and objective, historical and artistic at once; it can be revolutionary – simply changing the way of seeing/ perspective and what is seen/ represented/ emphasized/ constructed can be a radical act.  

119: Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space & Place

From my notes from Spring 2012: 
In Space and Place, Yi-Fu Tuan develops three themes: the relationship between space and the human body; the relationship between place and space; and the range of human experience or knowledge of space and place.  He argues that human experience of the world (in all its fullness) both shapes and is shaped by space and place.  Tuan develops this humanist argument against more abstract geographical conceptions of space; this book is generally considered to be the first “human geography” book.  For Tuan, experience is both feeling and thought.  Experience consists of all the myriad ways in which humans interact with their environment: via the body (the five senses, along with “sensorimotor,” moving through a space, and “skin”), via the imagination (including myths, fantasy, narration, memory), and conceptually or rationally (a big-picture, god’s-eye view).  Space is more abstract, something that you move through and dominate; think openness, spaciousness.  Places “stay put;” they acquire value when humans pause in their movements through space and stop to experience them, to create memories there, or to otherwise create links between themselves and a physical location.  While a single human experience cannot possibly encompass the complexity of the real world, full experience of space and place, is integral to the development of human consciousness and culture and to the reintegration of body and mind (discourse).

Stuff I liked 
He take a humanist perspective and integrates body and mind (separated through the Enlightenment, rationalization, industrialization, etc) through the experience of space.  He distinguishes, though not as rigorously as de Certeau, between representations of space and experience of them.  De Certeau’s big point, that static structures reify power and freeze space in time, gets some of the same treatment here, though Tuan doesn’t see the tension in quite the same way: “the built environment clarifies social roles and relations” – makes them legible, communicates a certain perspective on “reality.” (102)  Building requires awareness: knowing where and how to build, physically building, and using the space.  His integration of narrative and myth in space is cool: mythical space as both the fuzzy unknown/ the field on which moral values get acted out underscores the development of a culture and worldview.  De Certeau sees mythical space as an escape from the reality of class struggle – Tuan has that too, but in his anthropological, humanist view of the world he puts it on equal footing with pragmatic space.  Mythical space attempts to organize and make sense of the world; it “imputes personality to space, thus transforming space in effect into place.” (91)  It’s a way of humanizing the world/ helps us find/create a secure place in it.  Much like de Certeau’s walkers, mythic space links movement and performance with discourse via narration.  Spatial divisions and orientations are developed around the body; distances are tied to blurred social/spatial networks (social relations).  Experience includes conceptual thinking; he doesn’t have the same problem de Certeau does with taking a birds-eye view.  Time is implied in the experience of space; it humanizes and historicizes it. (118)  Places are visible, but visibility really means making a place real through dramatization.  (161)  
Three relationships between time and place
  • Time as motion or flow, place as pause
  • “While it takes time to form an attachment to a place, the quality and intensity of experience matters more than simple duration” 
  • Being rooted in a place is not the same thing as consciously attempting to evoke a sense of place/ the past.  Experience > representation as far as developing place and time.   Abstract space vs concrete place: abstract space is strange, place is familiar and dear. (199) 

He has a strong emphasis on affect throughout, and a strong argument that just because an experience does not readily translate into words doesn’t mean it’s not important; many of the characteristics that make us pause in or return to a place are not verbal, rational, scientific, or even visual: they are remembered, imagined, sensed, felt.  An important, humanizing, affect/experience-based corrective to purely rational ways of organizing and thinking about space (ahem, the Midwest.)

Stuff I didn’t like: 
His emphasis on the precultural, universal “man” with little attention to how social divisions might impact the way people use space; too much attention to the development of children (and a suspicious, uncomplicated reliance on Freud to equate place and mother); a reliance on commonplaces and sayings and examples of “primitive” cultures as a way to make strange elements of our own culture, which assumes a universal human experience; no tension or mention of power: everything just seems to melt together, as though space is indifferent as to whether “man” is “upright” and controlling it or “prone” and submissive.  Are we all just individuals, floating through space at will?  Also, I realize he’s writing simply to help us experience what he’s writing about, but I found it slow and a bit pedantic.  I would have preferred a more historical account of the development of space and place through experience, a sort of material grounding of his ideas.  Unless his point is that there is no material grounding, and all we have is perspective?
de Certeau: they have similar but differing concepts of space and place, and they have definite similarities in how they conceive of performance, the construction of architectural space, reification of human experience, and the relationship between constructed space and human experience.  They also both emphasize, although in different ways, that space/place acquire value for users through use, and that peripatetic experience constructs spatial narratives better than representations do.  He also connects a lot to anthropology; I would like to see his connection to Simmel, for instance, or Durkheim or Bourdieu.  He writes a lot like JB Jackson, with that sort of vague, humanist approach to landscape.

102: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space

Lefebvre was one of the very first orals books I read.  My notes from a year ago: 

Henri Lefebvre’s vast, multifaceted The Production of Space could probably be said to advance any number of arguments, but I think his most compelling argument is the one that brings space and knowledge into a classical Marxist framework: capitalist Western society is moving from the production of things in space to the production of space itself, which means that capitalist powers are increasing their hold and surveillance on ordinary people (aka space is now shaping the working class).  However, all is not lost: no matter how much they try, the people who build and shape “dominant” space and employ the working class can’t squeeze the working class out of existence or keep them from “appropriating” and shaping space to suit their own needs, nor can they make the world a completely visual, timeless, ideological construct.  Regular people have bodies, and we live in specific places at specific historical moments, and we shape those places (yeah, I said places, not spaces) into unique, historical “works of art” that contrast with the partially commodified built environment constructed by the ruling class.  To say that capitalism has moved beyond the product to space itself is to argue for both an increasing attempt at totalizing control of society through space AND increased resistance from the people who live in, experience, and shape that space – with the potential for a socialist revolution where appropriated spaces based on the human body/lived experience and use-value take precedence over dominant, visual spaces and exchange-value.

Things he does well: Lefebvre is working primarily within Philosophy, though he declares several times that he wants to abolish disciplinary divides and develop a unitary theory of space that everyone can use.  Somewhat like de Certeau, Lefebvre is trying to find a way to go from structuralism – particularly Barthes’ semiology – to a decentered, poststructuralist conception of space and social formations.  Unlike de Certeau, however, Lefebvre is working explicitly within the Marxist tradition, so I might say he’s going for more of a Marxist – post Marxist transition.  His additions to Barthes are a) the body and b) power.  He follows the “critical” approach of classical Marxists in that his writing is part descriptive (dissection of current conditions), and part prescriptive (showing how to get from here to the revolution!), but he relies heavily on Deleuze (who I never realized was actually using Hegelian terminology until just now, but hey), especially regarding the general and the particular and the whole bit on difference and repetition in the construction of space.  He emphasizes production and processes and the movement made possible by the dialectic.  I think his big takeaways are: the distinction between dominant and appropriated space/ the idea that space both shapes and is shaped by social relations, particularly the relations of production; the emphasis on the (fleshly) body, spatial practice, and lived experience instead of a mental, primarily visual space; the tendency for capitalism to want to create as homogenized, timeless, placeless a surface as possible and the ability for embodied users to create unique places by giving spaces a history (i.e., by putting them in time); that space is to language as base is to superstructure (i.e., fuck the discursive plane); and the tension between local places (that operate via dialectics and power) and global capitalist networks – not world-systems, mind you, but networks – that operate within triads, especially the capitalist one of land, labour, and capital, aka rent, wages, and profit. (228)  Social struggle is spatial struggle; no space can exist apart from ideology/ particular social structures. 

Things I didn’t like so much: Ok, I realize he’s doing some important work by arguing against a conception of space as a coherent entity (hence hegemony, which allows him a good deal of messiness and gets him out of the trap of totalization), and sure, the form of your work (particularly when you’re engaging with theories of language) is implicit in your overall argument, but writing in such a fragmented, repetitive, circular way does no one any favors.  Also he is hella intense with the Marxism, which aside from being annoyingly polemical is theoretically problematic: he has a hard time integrating a basically deterministic, systematic, rational, Enlightenment mode of analysis with the “fleshly body” and with global capitalism – he ends up creating a zillion dialectics and triads and shaping them into a network, which, sure, is probably how the world works, but despite his insistence that it’s not reductive – it’s reductive.  Even with the messiness and the insistence that the class struggle no longer has a terrain or clear boundaries, it’s still neat and discrete.  Finally, despite insisting that disciplines should not get in the way of a theory of space, he primarily locates himself within philosophy.  This wouldn’t be so bad, except that, again, it gets in the way of his insistence on lived experience and physical, human space as the base upon which the superstructure of language and interpretation is built: as a philosopher, he argues that concepts (the concept of space, for instance) are foundational, rather than lived experience.  While I think he’s right to suggest that psychoanalysis might help him out of this quandry (it would link up nicely with his sensing-thinking-social triad), he doesn’t have much psychoanalysis in here.  He has Lacan, but Freud?  Zizek?  (Was Zizek after him?) 

Some connections: David Harvey’s post-Marxism is all over this book.  Lefebvre is obviously widely-read in his field, and engages easily with Foucault, Hegel, Marx (a lot), just to name a few.  He engages particularly with Deleuze, whose “body without organs,” “difference and repetition,” distinction between the singular and the general, and construction of a decentered (social?) field infuse Lefebvre’s thinking throughout, sometimes provoking him (fragmented bodies without organs drive him nuts!) sometimes sustaining him (the decentered field underpins his theory of global capitalism.)  He also, particularly in the conclusion, engages with the world-systems theorists, arguing that constructing the world in terms of flows and systems a) completely disregards the roads, objects, trucks, cities, trains, boats, political issues, etc., that create a global capitalist network (true) and b) is falsely totalizing because c) it completely ignores the embodied, lived experience (and agentive potential) of the working class AND d) it also disregards Gramsci’s theory of hegemony.  He thus paves the way for more nuanced interpretations of the global capitalist system.

And before I go, here is Lefebvre’s “conceptual triad of space:” 

1.     Spatial practice: production and/or reproduction in a particular place within a particular social formation
2.     Representations OF space: these are tied to the relations of production social order they produce.  They are historically contingent, and they mix understanding and ideology, so they are both political and coherent.  They operate in opposition to lived, historical space and are articulated with power.  They include knowledge, signs, codes; official space; rational, legible space; dominant or dominated space; architecture; part work, part product; more abstract space.
3.     Representational space embodies complex symbolisms, clandestine, underground, social life;  it is associated with lived experience, the body, the symbolic and non-verbal; it is living, not coherent; it works only, not necessarily leaving a record in the built environment; and it is underpinned by historical space.

96: Bill Stott’s Documentary Expression

In Documentary Expression and Thirties America, Bill Stott looks at 1930s America through the lens of the documentary genre.  Documentary is a form of expression that purports to represent reality but in which it is difficult for viewers to separate the false from the true.  Stott argues that at its base, the 1930s documentary had a left politics, a desire to look not just at the world as it is but at the world of the poor, the downtrodden, and the ordinary, with the intention not just of rendering it vivid and lifelike but also of constructing an audience response or instigating some progressive reform.  The different ways people created and used documentaries in the 1930s indicate, to paraphrase Agee, that the world can be improved and yet must be celebrated.

Stott considers a wide range of documentary forms and uses, and shows how documentary conventions were both developed and subverted.  Radio, examined through Edward R. Murrow, soap operas, and War of the Worlds, was the “paradigmatic medium of documentary” in the 1930s because it combined the two methods of documentary, “the direct and the vicarious, the unmediated experience and the interpretative commentary” in constant juxtaposition with one another.  Photography and documentary films, as Stott shows, were also forms in which apparent reality was actually heavily mediated, particularly when they were made by the government.  By contrast, Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men explodes social documentary by both critiquing the world of the tenant farmers and celebrating it in all its beauty, all well being self-conscious about the role of the narrator in the creation of a work of art that reveals the most intimate details and suffering in people’s lives in order to, perhaps, instigate social reform.

While Stott’s analysis is somewhat limited by his choice of documentaries – he works primarily with cultural products created by people who worked for the federal government or for private corporations – and while he could do a bit more with the conditions of production, his visual and textual analysis are strong, and his discussion of documentary as a particularly valid entry into American culture in the 1930s makes sense.  What better way to see what people might have thought about what their world was like?

87: Steve Hoelscher’s Picturing Indians

Steve Hoelscher’s Picturing Indians: Photographic Encounters and Tourist Fantasies in H.H. Bennett’s Wisconsin Dells argues that Bennett’s photography turned the Ho-Chunk people of the Wisconsin Dells into objects of the “camera’s colonizing gaze,” but that the Ho-Chunk also subverted Bennett’s exploitation of them.  Bennett’s photographs can thus be read as negotiations of power, where visual images both represent and shape the material world.

Photographs of Native Americans exploded at the turn of the last century due to the rise of commercial photography, mass tourism, and the final conquest and colonization of Native Americans.  While the most famous photographer of Native Americans was Edward Curtis, who wanted to record a vanishing way of life, H.H. Bennett had the far less noble goal of profiting by selling images of Ho-Chunk people to white tourists visiting the Wisconsin Dells.  Yet while Bennett worked to stage photos that communicated white nostalgia for a vanishing way of life, his Ho-Chunk models actively worked to resist becoming tourist objects: they wore certain items, posed in certain ways, and used the money Bennett gave them for their own economic and cultural survival.  And in real life, the Ho-Chunk have managed not just to survive but to retain and buy back their homelands in a very real repudiation of American cultural and political imperialism.

Throughout, Hoelscher works from a wide range of primary sources, including five years of interactions with Ho-Chunk people and close connections with Tom Jones, a contemporary Ho-Chunk photographer.  He is careful to contextualize Bennett’s photography in the cultural, political, and economic milieu in which it was created, and to balance Ho-Chunk and white perspectives.  The result is a profoundly interconnected relationship between Native and white cultures that uses Bennett’s tourist photos as a nodal point.