In The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape, Don Mitchell uses labor history, critical social theory, and cultural landscape studies to reveal the “connection between the material production of landscape and the production of landscape representations, between work and the ‘exercise of the imagination’ that makes work and its products knowable” in the construction of California’s agricultural landscape. In doing so, he argues that the “struggles over the form that the reproduction of labor power in industrial agriculture would take” ultimately shaped the landscape. However, landscape is ideological in that it tends to “erase the politics and actuality of work from the view” (Cosgrove) and naturalize capitalist concepts like property and land ownership. Therefore, the critical project of The Lie of the Land, to “understand the interplay between production and representation of landscapes, while at the same time restoring an ontology of labor to the center of landscape geography and history,” is a political project.
Labor history and landscape analysis can both explain each other because landscape is a particular kind of space, one that includes construction, representation, and lived experience; the making of landscapes is thus both a geographical and a cultural enterprise. Further, landscapes associated with the geography of labor are created and maintained through contestation: labor is required to create them, and where there’s social organization, there are power relations and conflict. If agriculture in California has long been represented as the promised land, an Edenic paradise wholly divorced from labor, in actuality it is the product of ongoing struggle between capital’s desire to properly reproduce labor power and labor’s desire to “resist their constant objectification and marginalization.” What we see is an always-changing, partial resolution to the struggle.
Mitchell pursues the laboring of the California landscape through a wide variety of contexts: Steinbeck’s The Beautiful and the Damned; the Wheatland Riot; the “subversive mobility” embedded within the migrant labor force; ideologies of race and gender that whites use to justify paying non-white workers lower wages; the Workers’ Revolt of 1933, in which workers radicalized and attempted to reshape the landscape; and the post-WWII increase in state surveillance of agricultural labor, which enforced better wages and living conditions by way of precluding future revolts.
In conclusion, Mitchell argues that rather than support representations of California’s agricultural landscape as a smooth, cohesive whole populated with anonymous, happy workers, migrant workers have to fight their own aestheticization and disrupt the landscape. Mitchell, for his part, hopes that this history of agricultural labor struggle will disrupt the “lie of the land” by providing insight into the violence and exploitation that created it.