The ‘Sprawling Discipline’ of Cultural Geography18 minute read

Cultural geography is a variegated and contested field, Price and Lewis alleging it to be ‘perhaps the most ambiguous term in… [Geography’s] lexicon’ (1993, p.1). A commentary on how the sprawling discipline of ‘cultural geography’ came to be so extensive could take up many more words than we have here, resultantly we will narrow our initial engagement with cultural geography, reducing its complexity in order to make a more compelling and grounded claim. We will draw on the philosophy of Henri Lefebvre and A.N Whitehead in order to analyse the movement from ‘one kind of critically inflected cultural geography to another’ (McCormack, 2004, p.3), to demonstrate how a supposedly logical, progressive evolution has in fact been unable to transcend certain essential concerns.

Let us turn now to our framing of said development, from traditional to new, and beyond. We will use a central concern of cultural geography, that of landscape, and one of ‘high tension’, for it stands at the intersection of a number of difficult and entangled concepts (Inglis, 1977, p.489).

For Carl Sauer, who introduced the notion of landscape into Anglophone geography from the German Landschaft, its study constituted investigating the ‘peculiarly geographic association of facts’ pertaining to that region or area (1963, p.320). It had as its aim a founding of a ‘fully objective’ ‘landscape geography’, ‘shorn of the… fallacies of environmental determinism’ (Mitchell, 2003, p.238), based on the simple model outlined in ‘The Morphology of Landscape’ in which knowledge about culture could be grasped from those things extant in the landscape. As he puts it, ‘cultural landscape is fashioned from a natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area the medium, the cultural landscape is the result’ (Sauer, 1963, p.343). Hence the material practice of this ‘culture’ could be read off the landscape and interpreted in order to deduce the needs, desires and practices of said culture.

Crucially, as Cosgrove (1983) intimates, this initial approach of Vidal and Sauer was conceived as depending on an apprehension of the relationship between nature and culture as dialectical, and so not positing any kind of deterministic explanation. Dialectics is useful in restructuring our thinking so as to replace common sense notion of a ‘thing’ with a notion of ‘process’ and ‘relation’ (Ollman, 1993). This clearly comes out in a passage buried in The Morphology of Landscape, where Sauer avers that, ‘Geographers should avoid considering the earth as the scene on which the activity of man [sic] unfolds itself, without reflecting that this scene is itself living’ (1963, p.321). Whilst this does indeed add some nuance, there is a problematic usage of ‘man’, the assumptions of which undergird the primary critique of the traditional approach. Sauer conceived of his approach to landscape as ‘fully objective’ (Mitchell, 2003, p.238), and yet admits towards the end of TMoL that important aspects of the landscape were ‘subjective’ (ibid., p.246), and so must have been to some extent aware of the shortcomings of his approach. Through its objective, Cartesian-Kantian method, it implicitly posits as universal the perspective of its author. The issue is that whilst supposedly objective the description of traditional cultural geography actually involves a (re)presentation of reality with certain aspects privileged above others. The implication is that the authorial stance (thoughts or feelings towards the subject) does not have any effect on perception. This is clearly refutable, trying to argue for instance that Harvey’s statement on the topic, that landscape should be ‘regarded as a geographically ordered, complex, composite commodity’ (1982, p.233) is not influenced by his grounding in Marxist political economy is evidently preposterous.

The fact remains however that for some time the output of cultural geography was seen as objective, and meant that study became individuated and eclectic on account of its lack of guiding principles. According to Cosgrove, at this juncture cultural geography existed in a theoretical vacuum, having attached cultural significance to the landscape, but failing to extend this into a developing theoretical discourse (1983, p.3).

On the basis of this critique, and other developments in social and cultural theory, ‘new cultural geographers’ sought to set themselves apart from the traditional school through considering the role of symbol and representation (Jackson, 1989), and ‘culture as a medium of social power’ (Daniels, 1989, p.196). Landscape is an especially prescient selection for focus as it helps to demonstrate clearly how there is a complicated relationship between the image of representation and the material world.

This relationship involves power to the extent that there is a ‘privileging of surface and form over depth and process’ inherent to vision (Cosgrove, 2003, p.254), through which power may be exercised to naturalise a certain image and hide social relations from view. With a recognition that landscape was produced and could be deconstructed or ‘read like a text’ from various subject positions, coupled with the dialectical interplay through which the construction of self is linked to the landscape, there was a notable shift in focus from the material basis of landscape to the semiotic realm (Barnes and Duncan, 1992), which introduced into landscape study ‘questions of identity formation, expression, performance and even conflict’ (Cosgrove, 2003, p. 258).

This led to a number of interesting engagements with power structures, and lent a renewed interest and vigour to the politics of culture and space (McCormack, 2004). However, the interaction between self and landscape became seen as incredibly one sided, to the extent that the ‘well-established’ critique of representationalism is that it ‘framed, fixed and rendered inert all that ought to be most lively’ (Lorimer, 2005, p.84-5). This happened because of the dazzling polysemy of identity as opposed to the relatively static determining effect of landscape on the self. Identity itself was incredibly susceptible to the destabilising action of poststructuralism, and the self being inflected to a multiplicity of fluid identifications, as the individual is the means ‘of particularising the otherwise infinitely general aspects of time/space’ (Holquist, 1990, p.xxv) and so relatively, the tension between landscape as an ‘(illusory) “way of seeing” and as a (realistic) “way of life”’ became biased such to view landscape as almost completely reified ‘authentic’ object in this flux (Daniels, 1989, p.206; Harvey, 1996, p.356-7). The field of landscape studies today has come to recognise this, as it has had to deal with the charge of its representation being static and fixed through emphasising that it is not simply a referent against which an identity would be cast and the social relations producing that identity be more or less ‘realistically’ be portrayed in the landscape, but that there is a duality and provisional nature to sight, that its subjects also have the capacity to ‘manipulate, obscure, subvert or deform visual order’ (Cosgrove, 2003, p.265). The quandary ‘new cultural geography’ found itself in is neatly surmised by Greenhough when she says that it is ‘both telling and ironic’ that ‘we have invested our intellectual energies in questioning the politically contested process of representation perhaps at the cost of recognising that the world we represent is also a world we live in’ (2004, p.255).

Self-defined as non or more-than-representational, recent contributions cognisant of the aforementioned warning have reasserted the dialectic of ‘landscapes as co-fabricated’, and the notion of considering the individual too as in an ongoing process of co-fabrication, of becoming (Whatmore, 2006, p.603-4) and capable of apprehending the landscape through a multiplicity of senses and sensibilities (McCormack, 2004) to put an increased onus on ‘livingness’. This has been achieved through a number of shifts taking place in the contemporary field. Broadly speaking these are; a focus on practise as opposed to discourse, affect as opposed to meaning, non- or more-than-human as opposed to human, and a politics of knowledge as opposed to a politics of identity (Whatmore, 2006, p.603-4). The assertion of livingness has been achieved primarily through the notion of affect, though this is not always clear on a text by text basis. Affect may be considered as an assemblage of ‘bodies, places, times, events’ (Hickey-Moody, 2013, p.83), a Deleuzian elucidation of the Spinozian notion of affectus as an ‘increase or decrease of the power of acting, for the body and the mind alike’ (1988, p.49), which may be used to appreciate what a body is able to do rather than attending to potentially erroneous assumptions regarding the fixity of meaning (Buser, 2013). This is pushing the envelope of cultural geography, into a ‘realm of wild new imaginaries’ (Thrift, 2004 in Lorimer, 2005, p.90), towards engagements with ‘unfamiliar forums’ of science and technology. The challenge we envisage, from reading Thrift’s passages imbued with breathless excitement, is not to get carried away, as the ‘new cultural geographers’ did somewhat, and forget about the value of what has gone before.

Each of the broad schools of thought as we have characterised them here have been critiqued from a number of different angles, and so the development that has been put forward is hardly accurate, and we wish to avoid an implication of a logical evolution, however the straw-man progression that we have set out is merely to set up a framework.

Landscape has been a central concern of cultural geography since its inception, and it has given rise to a variegated, voluminous, sprawling literature pertaining to its various aspects, such that it has been incredibly difficult to provide a succinct but complete overview.

We contend this is due to the various theorisations of culture, or lack thereof, which have formed the basis of enquiries making it an incredibly chaotic concept (pace Sayer, 1984). We will take up Mitchell’s programmatic conclusion, that we must attend to how the ‘idea of culture becomes socially solidified’, and extend it, hopefully clarifying it, using the philosophy of Henri Lefebvre and A.N Whitehead.

We ground our theory of how culture comes to be produced in the materialist phenomenology pursued by Lefebvre (1991). Lefebvre’s dialectical materialist standpoint allows us to maintain a tension between materiality, a ‘thought concept’ (read representation), and an ‘experience’ or feeling (more accurately as affect –feeling being its emotional striation) (Schmid, 2008). It is through this framework (Figure 1) that ‘culture’ emerges, in the interplay of the elements. As Schmid’s demonstration of this approach tells us, ‘material practice per se has no existence when viewed from a social perspective without the thought that directs and represents them, and without the lived experienced element, the feelings that are invested in this materiality’ (2008, p.41), and this holds for each of the other dimensions. Now armed with this apparatus we may turn back towards the development of the field. At every juncture these aspects have all been in play, but just at various levels of explication and the resultant produced knowledge is of varying generalisability depending on how extensive an unattended (presumed universal or static) dimension is applicable. This is a complicated assertion, so allow a brief example to clarify.

Figure 1 Levels of Production of 'culture'
Figure 1: Provisional suggestion of levels of the production of ‘culture’

The work of on landscape within traditional cultural geography considered subjectivity ‘beyond science’, and did not even go so far as to recognise affect as a concern, but was still able in a number of cases to produce internally valid and interesting research, such as the origin and diffusion of plant and animal domesticates (Isaac, 1970). Whilst this is almost exclusively a material concern (the representational and affective components, whilst there are not controversial), the fact that it does not address the other elements is incidental but not important, however when we come to the more ambitious studies of the period, such as Zelinsky’s 1973 work on the geographical origins and consequences of American culture, the superorganicism which he employs becomes problematic as it renders static the dynamic categories which in fact comprise said ‘culture’ without acknowledgement. This specifically is the problem that Whitehead has with western thinking; that it has become dominated by generalizable abstractions set apart from the conditions of their production (McCormack, 2012).

However, it is impossible to actually attain true total knowledge of anything if every category is in fact uncertain and under construction, which is true of our triad of material, representational and affective. The category of culture itself is then unable to be researched if considered in its totality, as to define it fully would be to foreclose the possibility of change or becoming, but though the various abstractions which have been made by the various approaches to cultural geography, in order to foreground differing aspects of experience (some of which are demonstrated in Figure 1), some of this excess may be captured. As Wylie sets out, the withdrawal of experience is not necessarily escape, but perhaps the agitation of presence (2009). It is for this reason that there is a multiplicity of conceptions of culture; because whenever it has been used it has been reified, as a position must be solidified for each element to give the concept coherence.

It is for this reason that we turn to Whitehead’s notion of structured permanences (Whitehead, 1920; Harvey, 1996). Whenever ‘culture’ is used it assumes a shape and form and becomes an actor in the real world, intervening in actual social relations (Mitchell, 2003).

As Daniels informs us, the idea of culture describes at least five things, all of which explicitly or otherwise depend on a notion of differentiation. Following Harvey (1996) we posit that all social processes should be evaluated in terms of the ‘situatedness of the argument and the arguer’ (p.363), and reified notions of culture are ubiquitous to these processes, through which acts of violence and injustice are often done on the grounds of mis- or non-recognition (Fraser, 1995). Through binding our framework of how ‘culture’ comes to be produced to Whitehead’s permanence we can therefore unground the certain realities on which these are based.

We can conceive of culture as having no absolute reality, but being a ‘permanence’, arising as ‘a system of extensive connections out of processes’ which ‘achieve relative stability in their bounding and internal ordering… for a time’ (Harvey, 1996, p.261). The relative stability which processes achieve and which give rise to the conception of culture are subject to ‘perpetual perishing’ (Whitehead, 1920, p.52), and so as the hypostasised process forming it becomes ungrounded this conception of culture will become analogously unstable.

What this otherwise superfluous piece of meta-theory from Whitehead does for us is allow us to meditate on what actually constitutes the ‘development’ of cultural geography. Clearly in one sense this denotes a passing of time, the evolution which has occurred, and subsequent schools of thought which can be identified. However, development also supposes a normative sense in which over time there is ‘progress’. As we have earlier suggested, culture does not actually exist (pace Mitchell, 1995), and therefore it does not make sense to talk about more clearly defining it as constituting development (rather reification). What can be clearly denoted as development within a context where we cannot refute and resolve contradictory aspects (because logical ‘garden variety’ contradictions should not be found in this framework – though if they are then refute away) is ‘sublation’ (or transcendence) as not finding an ultimate truth, but as contradiction preserved and developed through a two-fold determination, ‘tend[ing] towards its resolution, yet since the resolution does not simply negate the old contradiction, also simultaneously preserving it and bringing it to a higher level’ (Schmid, 2008, p.31). Even this however, as it increases the internal validity of the theoretical framework for understanding, may not actually be developing practical knowledge.

What does most certainly constitute development therefore is the usefulness of theory in a particular time/space (pace Deleuze, 1973). While we cannot presume to know culture in a total form, every piece of cultural knowledge produced is an abstraction of sorts, as it involves at some point a simplification, a hypostatisation of a dialectical relation, and so the development of cultural geography really consists of producing forms of abstraction as ‘occurrent arts’ (Massumi, 2011) that draw out elements of the world in order to make them available in and for thinking (McCormack, 2012). Following on from theory being useful, moreover what is it useful for? This is clearly dependent on perspective, but if we are concerned with matters of social justice and equality then Stengers’ (2008) commentary on Whitehead which allows us to conceive of abstraction productively as ‘lures’, which draw attention to ‘something that matters’ (p.96) is clearly useful. What is useful is any knowledge which advances that aim, regardless of methodology, because crucially we can employ our conception of culture which makes clear that all produced cultural knowledge is an abstraction, and one that is situated in a ‘heterogeneous world of difference’ (Harvey, 1996, p.354) at that. Therefore, through the lens of culture one can posit both a vital individuality, but likewise construct an important solidarity, and so all produced knowledge of culture is valid but provisional, constricted in terms of its relevance and applicability by its conditions of production and generalisability by the limits of significant difference (pace Haraway, 1991, p.202-3).

In conclusion, we have seen through our review of the literature on landscape that as cultural geography developed it became more cognisant of its main constituent elements, through which ‘culture’ is experienced, and which exist in a contradictory dialectical unity. This essay has argued that it is as a result of reifying culture and not being attentive to the fact that every conception of culture is in fact an abstraction which privileges some constituents over others, premised on reification and difference, that such a sprawling literature has emerged. This is not a problem so long as we recognise that it is impossible to have the last say on ‘culture’. Going forward, cultural geographers must be careful not to fall into the trap of being fashionable at the expense of generating useful knowledges, especially in the case of burgeoning interests in more-than-representational geography, which may curtail exploration of materiality and representation. Finally, the methods of cultural geography do not matter, what matters is the production of situated knowledges to advance understanding of the world without denying people recognition and self-determination.


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