Maps of Meaning
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Maps of Meaning

Peter Jackson

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Maps of Meaning

Peter Jackson

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This innovative book marks a significant departure from tradition anlayses of the evolution of cultural landscapes and the interpretation of past environments. Maps of Meaning proposes a new agenda for cultural geography, one set squarely in the context of contemporary social and cultural theory.

Notions of place and space are explored through the study of elite and popular cultures, gender and sexuality, race, language and ideology. Questioning the ways in which we invest the world with meaning, the book is an introduction to both culture's geographies and the geography of culture.

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Chapter one
The heritage of cultural

Cultural geography is in urgent need of reappraisal; its conception of culture is badly outdated and its interest in the physical expression of culture in the landscape is unnecessarily limited. In trying to find a way round these problems, this book argues for a more expansive view of culture including its less tangible aspects such as those embodied in symbolic forms and in everyday social practice, and it explores a range of geographies besides those that focus exclusively on landscape. Before proceeding to introduce these new approaches, however, this introductory chapter reviews the current stasis of cultural geography by providing a critical survey of its origins and development, particularly in North America, where it is shown to have been the product of one particular school (the ‘Berkeley School’) and one remarkable man, Carl Sauer.
The chapter discusses the intellectual context of Sauer's work, including his liberal borrowing of concepts and ideas from the anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie. His espousal of a ‘super-organic’ approach to culture is criticized and his inordinate influence on later generations of cultural geographers is traced. Finally some alternative conceptions of culture are introduced, to be discussed at length in subsequent chapters. Adoption of these alternatives involves a complete rethinking of cultural geography in which a convergence with social geography can be anticipated (Jackson 1980). The chapter begins, though, by demonstrating how the current stasis of cultural geography has arisen from its attachment to an outmoded conception of culture, inherited from the work of Carl Sauer and his colleagues at the Berkeley School.

The Berkeley School and its legacy

In the United States, ‘cultural geography’ is virtually a synonym for ‘human geography’, including several aspects of the subject that would be thought more appropriate to economic or social geography as they are currently practised in Britain. Introductory courses in cultural geography are taught to large classes of students, including many who have no intention of becoming geography majors. For many such students, it is their only contact with academic geography, the more so as geography is not commonly taught as a separate subject in high school. Several undergraduate textbooks have been designed for this market (e.g. Spencer & Thomas 1973, Jordan & Rowntree 1982, de Blij 1982). Insofar as they approximate the coverage of human geography in the British sense, their scope is correspondingly large. But in their definition of culture and its expression in the landscape, they seem excessively restrictive, as much in what they leave out as in what they include (cf. Norton 1984). Their content and approach owes much to the influence of Carl Sauer who, with the possible exception of Vidal de la Blache in France (Cosgrove 1983), occupies a unique place in the history of cultural geography.1
Carl Sauer (1889–1975) dominated North American cultural geography throughout his lifetime and particularly during his years as head of the influential Berkeley School, a position which he assumed at the age of 33 and which he held until three years before his retirement in 1957. At that time, as one of Sauer's students has remarked, geography at Berkeley was still less a department than an individual (Parsons 1979, p.9). During his time at Berkeley, Sauer supervised some 40 PhD theses, the majority on Latin American and Caribbean topics, conveying to all his students his firm belief in the need for first-hand field experience and for learning the language of the people being studied. A monolingual PhD was for Sauer a contradiction in terms (Sauer 1956a). Many of Sauer's graduate students went on to hold senior academic posts in their own right. Through them, Sauer continued to influence a second generation of American geographers.
Sauer was twice president of the Association of American Geographers (in 1941, and again in 1956), a position that gave him the opportunity to make a number of influential statements on the nature of the discipline.2 In 1941, Sauer spoke on the nature of historical geography, protesting against its general neglect by his American colleagues. Geography in the United States was a native, Midwestern product, he argued, and its development was a faithful reflection of this fact, dispensing with any serious consideration of cultural and historical processes. Sauer argued for a broad definition of the subject of geographical inquiry, fiercely opposing all forms of academic pedantry, and deploring those who valued logic above intellectual curiosity. His style was a characteristic mixture of the avuncular and the iconoclastic:
Only if we reach that day when we shall gather to sit far into the night, comparing our findings and discussing all their meanings shall we have recovered from the pernicious anemia of the ‘but-is-this-geography’ state (1941 p.4).
Despite this apparent catholicity concerning the subject matter of geography, Sauer nonetheless restricted his comments and the great majority of his own research effort to the material aspects of culture as expressed in the ‘cultural landscape’ (see below). It was this excessive focus on the material elements of culture and their representations in landscape that had such a profound influence on the development of American geography.3
In his second presidential address in 1956, Sauer elaborated on this educational philosophy. On this occasion, he spoke on the unspecialized quality of geography. The ideal undergraduate curriculum, he argued, would have a limited number of geography courses, enriched by courses in the liberal arts and especially in natural and cultural history. The geographer's best training came in the form of an active apprenticeship, he argued, doing fieldwork and developing the skills of experienced observation. He described the ideal field course as a peripatetic form of Socratic dialogue, a running exchange of questions between student and teacher, prompted by the changing scene. The most memorable portrait of Sauer shows him in such a characteristic pose, the accompanying text amplifying his mood (Fig. 1.1).
Despite his pre-eminence within American geography, Sauer felt himself to be rather out of step with his times. He withdrew from academic geography at a relatively early stage, championing the role of the individual scholar and opposing what he saw as the bureaucratization of social science research. There is a certain irony, then, in the extent to which Sauer's ideas reflect his own socialization within a particular academic milieu. Sauer's parents were of German ancestry and he himself spent several years at school in southern Germany. He was heavily influenced by the German cultural and historical sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), and, although he acknowledged the work of such British geographers as Vaughan Cornish and H.J.Fleure, and Americans like George Perkins Marsh, it was from the German classics (Ritter, Humboldt, Ratzel, and Hahn) that Sauer derived his perspective on culture and landscape.
After taking some graduate work in geology at Northwestern University, Sauer transferred to geography at Chicago. His intellectual debts to the geologists Rollin D.Salisbury and Thomas C.Chamberlin,
Figure 1.1 Carl Sauer in pensive mood
whom he encountered at Chicago, have often been remarked (Parsons 1976, Entrikin 1984). From them, Sauer derived his model of scientific method, his evolutionary perspective, his commitment to an extended time-span (what he called ‘the interesting far reaches of geologic time’), and his belief in the virtues of field research. His reading of the German geographers Ratzel, Schluter, and Hahn encouraged him to reject environmental determinism and to search for an alternative perspective on the human impact on the landscape. His geological sources provided little help in this search. Instead, Sauer turned to the German Romantics, and particularly to Goethe, whom Sauer admired for his rejection of the increasing specialization of modern science and its disregard of subjectivity and symbolism (Bowen 1981, Speth 1981). For, as Speth has argued, Goethe's conception of morphological change, with its dual emphasis on form and process, proved highly influential in the development of Sauer's own ideas on the cultural landscape.

The cultural landscape

Sauer advanced his most influential concept in a methodological paper called ‘The morphology of landscape’ (1925). It was this paper that, in the opinion of one of his students, ‘catapulted Sauer into international attention’ (Parsons 1979, p. 13), although the same author recalls that Sauer was himself rather dismissive about the paper's reception, suggesting that several people seemed to have spent more time reading it than he had writing it. The paper began by defining ‘landscape’ as ‘the unit concept of geography’, a ‘peculiarly geographic association of facts’ (Sauer 1925, p.25). He then used this concept of landscape to describe ‘a strictly geographic way of thinking of culture’, that is, the impress of the works of man (sic) upon an area (ibid. p.30). The approach was later exemplified in the Foreword to The early Spanish main (1966) where Sauer drew attention to the geographical significance of the United States' southern boundary with Mexico. The international boundary, he argued, ran against the grain of the continent, from the Rio Grande to the Pacific coast. It was a cultural rather than a physical divide:
The same mountains and deserts, pine forests, oak woodlands, scrub, and grasslands extend north and south; the difference is the people and their ways. On this side, change has been accelerating and innovation has become the dominant order of living. On the other side, ways of past experience and acceptance have been retained in gradual modifications (Sauer 1966. p.v).
The same physical environment has given rise to quite different cultural landscapes because of different cultural processes in each area. The cultural landscape was thus contrasted with the physical landscape, the former, in Sauer's classic phrase, having been ‘fashioned out of a natural landscape by a culture group’ (Sauer 1925, p.46).
Although the definition is not particularly contentious, except insofar as one might have difficulty specifying precisely what is meant by a ‘culture group’, little else in the paper can stand without comment. Sauer went on to argue, for example, that ‘Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape the result’ (ibid, p.46). This attribution of agency to culture is highly problematic and is symptomatic of Sauer's teleological approach. By attributing causality to ‘culture’ rather than to particular individuals or social groups, Sauer implicitly diverted attention away from the social and towards the physical environment. Sauer's educational philosophy is relevant again here. He was resolutely opposed to the ‘scholasticism’ of social theory and equally strongly of the opinion that geographers should retain close contact with their colleagues in the natural sciences. This view extended even to his opinions on anthropology. Although he spoke warmly of the prospects for a gradual coalescence of social anthropology and geography as the first of a series of fusions into a larger science of man (ibid. p.53), he later came to adopt a more critical stance towards anthropology because of what he perceived to be its growing interest in social theory and social welfare (Entrikin 1984). In order to understand this apparent transformation in Sauer's ideas, it is worth reflecting on his conception of human agency, as revealed through his approach to ‘culture history’, before returning to Sauer's particular interpretation of cultural anthropology.

Culture history and human agency

Although Sauer was influential in setting up the international symposium on Man's role in changing the face of the Earth, entitling his own paper ‘The Agency of Man on Earth’ (Sauer 1956b), his principal interest was in landscape as a record of human activity rather than in the social systems through which human agency is actively expressed. Sauer defined agency as ‘the capacity of man (sic) to alter his natural environment’ (ibid. p.49). Although he spoke of agency in terms of ‘historically cumulative effects’, his discussion concentrated on physical and biological processes set in motion by human intervention rather than on social processes per se. Sauer provides a perspective on the environment as ‘deformed’, ‘deflected’, and ‘appropriated’ by human beings, with an implicit moral stand against the ‘destructive exploitation’ of the Earth's resources. It is not an argument about human agency in the contemporary sense of a capacity for progressive social change (Gregory 1981, S.W.Williams 1983).
There is, however, evidence of considerable equivocation in Sauer's thinking about the significance of human agency. From an early emphasis on morphology and a concomitantly passive conception of the scope for human agency, Sauer shifted his primary research focus to a more active appreciation of the social transformation of landscape. This change of emphasis is most clearly seen in Sauer's essay on ‘Historical geography and the western frontier’ (1929) and in his attempts to repudiate an earlier generation's belief in the determining effect of environmental influences. Much of his methodological writing was directed towards this end. But he tended to substitute for environmentalism an understanding of culture that was scarcely less constraining.
The model Sauer adopted for cultural geography was that of geology and the earth sciences rather than history and the humanities. He found the time-scale of the geologist particularly appealing and took an evolutionary approach to history. Although Sauer thought his approach to landscape essentially similar to that of the cultural historian, it was a very particular view of history that he espoused (cf. M.Williams 1983). For Sauer, the most intellectually engaging problem was the search for the origins of an institution or culture trait rather than an interest in the dynamics of social change. Coupled with his evolutionary perspective, Sauer also tended to see history unproblematically in terms of tradition. He viewed with regret the homogenizing tendencies of the modern world. Urban industrial society was decidedly not to his taste.
By chance and choice I have turned away from commercialized areas and dominant civilizations to conservative and primitive areas. I have found pleasure in ‘backward’ lands, where the demands of industry for materials and markets are little felt (Sauer 1952, p.4).
Throughout his work, Sauer betrayed an anti-modernist tendency that went hand-in-hand with a fundamentally conservative outlook. Culture was equated with custom; cultural diversity as an unqualified good. Sauer's inherent conservatism never seems to have troubled his students for whom the ‘Old Man's’ ideas took on the status of common sense (Entrikin 1984, p.407).4 The current agenda of cultural geography in the United States is still dominated by Sauer's original concerns with rural, vernacular and folk themes. While it shows a respect for tradition and a fascination with diversity, it also betrays a reactionary attitude towards social and cultural change, not least in terms of the agenda that is not addressed. The approach to culture from which this attitude derives can be traced back to Sauer's interest in cultural anthropology.

Cultural anthropology: Boas, Lowie, and Kroeber

Sauer once wrote of anthropology as methodologically ‘the most advanced of the social sciences’ (Sauer 1941, p.6). His respect was directed towards the physical rather than the social aspects of anthropology, and more specifically towards the uniquely North American tradition of cultural anthropology. This tradition began with the work of Franz Boas who trained initially as a geographer and shared Sauer's own commitment to first-hand field research (Trindell 1969). But it was two students of Boas, Alfred Kroeber and Robert Lowie, who had most influence on him. Lowie introduced Sauer to the second volume of Ratzel's Anthropogeogra...