Category Archives: seeing

132: Don Mitchell’s The Lie of the Land

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 Landto “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.

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.

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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.

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.