Thinking through Landscape
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Thinking through Landscape

Augustin Berque

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eBook - ePub

Thinking through Landscape

Augustin Berque

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About This Book

Our attitude to nature has changed over time. This book explores the historical, literary and philosophical origins of the changes in our attitude to nature that allowed environmental catastrophes to happen. It presents a philosophical reflection on human societies' attitude to the environment, informed by the history of the concept of landscape and the role played by the concept of nature in the human imagination and features a wealth of examples from around the world to help understand the contemporary environmental crisis in the context of both the built and natural environment. Thinking Through Landscape locates the start of this change in human labour and urban elites being cut off from nature. Nature became an imaginary construct masking our real interaction with the natural world. The book argues that this gave rise to a theoretical and literary appreciation of landscape at the expense of an effective practical engagement with nature. It draws on Heideggerian ontology and Veblen's sociology, providing a powerful distinction between two attitudes to landscape: the tacit knowledge of earlier peoples engaged in creating the landscape through their work - "landscaping thought"- and the explicit theoretical and aesthetic attitudes of modern city dwellers who love nature while belonging to a civilization that destroys the landscape - "landscape thinking". This book gives a critical survey of landscape thought and theory for students, researchers and anyone interested in human societies' relation to nature in the fields of landscape studies, environmental philosophy, cultural geography and environmental history.

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1 The waves of history

1 Landscape and thought

Do landscape and thought stand in opposition to each other? Normally, the landscape is outside, in front of me or around me, while thought is inside, somewhere behind my forehead. There seems to be a boundary between them. It is diffcult to say exactly where that boundary lies, but contemplation is obviously not meditation. The attitude of Rodin's Thinker is not that of someone looking at a landscape …
However, clearly the landscape also calls for a particular way of thinking and even inspires certain ideas. One of the frst landscape experiences of the West, Petrarch's at the summit of Mont Ventoux in 1336, leads to purely philosophical refections. To be sure, not everyone carries around Saint Augustine's Confessions in his pocket to produce at the appropriate moment, coming as if by chance across the famous passage where the text evokes what will later be called the landscape: “Et eunt homines mirari … et relinquunt se ipsos” (Augustine, 1994, 1996, X, 8–25); “And humans will go and admire the mountain peaks, the enormous waves of the sea, the wide river streams, the curved beaches of the oceans, the revolutions of the stars and they turn away from themselves.”
As it turns out, Petrarch had the Confessions with him on his outing. That was lucky, for Saint Augustine quickly brought him back to the straight and narrow path of morality where it is better to scrutinize one's own conscience than to enjoy the landscape. There is a kind of reversal in this scene: the young man becomes excited about the beauty of the landscape he discovers at the end of his ascent, but it is such an unusual experience that he pulls himself together quickly. Following the advice of the bishop of Hippo, he concentrates on meditating, not on the landscape.
Here, the antinomy is obvious, even schematic: for Saint Augustine to admire nature means looking outside (foris), in the opposite direction to the call of duty, inside (intus). Christian orthodoxy on the other hand demands that we look inside ourselves, in our own memoria, which later will be called “conscience,” because it is inhabited by God: Manes in memoria mea, Domine (You are in my memory, Lord; Augustine, 1994, 1996, X, 27–38). Almost a millennium later, in Petrarch's time, that orthodoxy remains dominant, preventing Europe from looking at the landscape or conceptualizing it. However, the text in which Petrarch relates his experience is one of the first signs that the hold of the prohibition is weakening.
Petrarch's situation in 1336 no longer resembles that of the Desert Fathers, who had many other things to do besides looking at the landscape. For instance, Saint Elpidius “never turned to the West, even though the entrance to his cave was at the summit of the mountain [Mount Luca, near Jericho]. Nor did he look at the sun or the stars that appear after its setting, not one of which he saw for twenty years” (Lacarrière, 1963, p. 182).
It is written in the pious record of Saint Eusebius that he
forbade his eyes from looking at the countryside [near Alep] or enjoying the pleasure of contemplating the beauty of the sky and the stars. He did not allow them to roam further than the narrow path the size of a palm leaf he took with him to go to his oratory. He lived thus for forty years (…). He encircled his waist with an iron belt, put a big collar around his neck and fastened it to the chain with another piece of iron to force himself to always look down to the earth.
(l'Histoire des moines de Syrie, cited in Lacarrière, 1963, p. 183)
However, we are already in the fourteenth century and Europe is beginning to look at the landscape. Petrarch's ascent of Mount Ventoux is from almost the same period as the Effects of Good Government in the Countryside (Efetti del Buon Governo in campagna), painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti between 1338 and 1340 for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. For Raffaele Milani, this quasisimultaneity represents the first sign of awareness of landscape as we understand it today. This is debatable: depending on the author, it is this or that work which signals the birth of landscape in Europe — but let us leave this aside for the moment. The important issue here is that from the Renaissance on, the landscape as such begins to exist for Europeans.
However, the existence of the landscape, whether contemplated, represented, or imagined, is not in itself a proof of la pensée paysagère,1 (landscape thinking), in other words of the identity between thinking the landscape and its existence. The French language obliges us to be more precise in that respect: it generally uses adjectives (here paysagère, that is, landscaping) ambiguously where meaning and grammar are out of synch. For instance, when you talk about “automobile” traffic (la circulation automobile), you do not mean that traffic moves by itself (i.e., that it is auto- mobile), but that automobiles are moving, even though the adjective automobile modifies traffic. It would be more appropriate to speak of the traffic of automobiles (la circulation des automobiles). So, what exactly do I mean when I speak of landscape thinking (pensée paysagère)? A type of landscaping thinking, or thought that has the landscape as its subject? In principle, both types of thinking, but here rather the first type than the second; they are not the same.
The landscape as a subject of thought, or of what I will call landscape theory is thought that has the landscape as its object, reflections on landscape. For such thought to exist, one must be able to conceptualize the landscape, that is, to represent it with words making it into an object of thought. Philosophy would say the noema of the noesis.2 To be sure, one can feel things with other means than words, but words are needed really to think them. This is what happens in Europe during the Renaissance: landscape theory emerges.
On the other hand, landscape thinking does not necessarily require words. The proof is that in Europe, from the first arrivals of African populations until the Renaissance, people have lived the practice of landscaping in ways that left us admirable landscapes, and this without any landscape theory. People created landscapes in excellent taste; we have indeed objective, material traces of that taste. We can only infer that those people thought — since they were no less “sapiens” or knowledgeable than we are — in ways that created beautiful landscapes. They produced things such as the Mont Saint-Michel, Vézelay, Roussillon, the vineyards of Burgundy, Rocamadour, etc. In short, they obviously practiced landscape thinking.
It is highly doubtful that we could do so today. Never has there been so much talk about landscape as in our era; never have we had as many landscape architects (in the sense of landscaping professionals); never have there been so many books published reflecting on landscape (this is one more of them). In short there has never been such a flourishing of landscape theory … and never have landscapes been so devastated. We are blabbermouths full of highfalutin rhetoric about landscape, whose talk is completely hypocritical because our actions produce the opposite of what we say. The more we think about landscape, the more we massacre it.
Of course one commonplace view holds that we are concerned about the landscape precisely because it is threatened. This is equally true of the environment. The first worries coincide more or less with the industrial revolution in England, which was followed by the first measures to protect the landscape, because industrial civilization and beautiful landscapes are clearly incompatible. China today is another obvious example. However, noting this relation does not solve the problem: how is it that our ancestors, who did not concern themselves with landscape, enjoyed such remarkable landscape thinking, while we, who overflow with thought about landscape, so clearly lack their capacities?

2 The landscape without landscape architects

This question is the subject of my book. We need to ask if the fact of thinking about landscape is not ultimately opposed to landscape itself, or whether, which amounts to the same thing, making landscape an object of thought excludes landscape thinking. We must not forget, of course, to evaluate this question in the general framework of social life. The landscape is born in the thinking of a literate elite: will it self- destruct when it evolves into an object of common representation?
This question is not as convoluted as it seems. Those familiar with architecture will recall a still famous book, which was of decisive historical importance in the sixties; indeed, it led to the first widespread questioning of the foundations of architectural modernism. Until then, this questioning had been limited to quarrels between different architectural schools, or between the happy few3 capable of understanding Heidegger's comments in Bauen wohnen denken (“Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” see Heidegger, 1951). Beyond these elites, no one really dared to ask the question: “Actually, why this particular architecture?” The book I refer to loosened people's tongues: I am thinking of Bernard Rudofsky's Architecture without Architects (Rudofsky, 1964). The magnificent illustrations said more than any specialized arguments. It spoke directly to the souls of most readers, the generation that had fully experienced the consequences of modernism in the concrete transformation of the built environment. Reacting against modernism and massively enthralled by all forms of premodern habitats, this generation was to invent, among other things, postmodern architecture.
As far as we are concerned, this phenomenon illustrates the problem that I have just posed in a related field, for the built environment is par excellence that which transforms the landscape. What I have called the landscape thinking of the countless generations without landscape theory, guided “the architecture without architects” discussed by Rudofsky. The doubt he expressed about the dominant ideology in architecture is precisely the question I am formulating about those two forms of thought.
Let us c...

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