All landscape is reuse, whether through the intervention of human action or through the earth’s continual formation in a process that, in the words of geologist James Hutton, ‘has no vestiges of a beginning, nor prospects of and end’. Acting in parallel, human and non-human agents work to remake the surface of the earth and its ecosystems, though on different material and temporal scales and with different impacts, often working against each other. Thus, it is not possible to ‘discard’ landscape, only to reuse it. Continual formation and reformation is central to Georg Simmel’s definition of landscape. In his 1913 essay ‘Philosophy of Landscape’, he defines it as a subset of that which is not divisible: nature. In the tension between landscape’s claim for autonomy against ‘the infinite interconnectedness of objects, the uninterrupted creation and destruction of forms’, a boundary, says Simmel, is essential. In this essay I posit that to construct this tension between the discrete and the continuous, and to make its representation visible, is both the work of design and the work of criticism in the age of global disruption.
In the intervening century since the publication of Simmel’s essay, capitalism has advanced to form a globally interconnected and undifferentiated world. Many boundaries have disappeared while others have been formed as economies and priorities shift, as the strength of the institutions that sanction landscape wanes, as nature’s entropic forces soften its structures. Still, it must be emphasized, landscapes continue to be an act of will, a social product that registers the conflicts, the diverse interests, the tensions and the pressures that act on it. As such, landscapes do not just appear on their own, they must be simultaneously created, kept, maintained, and protected through institutions and governance. In this way they are demarcated, strongly or more subtly.
When it first came into being, the word landscape had two meanings. It denoted an area, an extent of the earth’s surface with boundaries, a meaning that has persisted until the present day. But landscape referred also to the group that shaped that area through practices, rituals, and institutions. Like the modern ‘township,’ landscape in this original sense was both a physical space and a political community. And like political communities everywhere, landscapes were almost always marked by unequal degrees of power. Landscapes were, and remain, places of contest and conflict, of hard work and brute force, even when studiously concealed. To ignore this political dimension of any landscape is to miss a fundamental part of its essence.
So: recover the political dimension of landscape. Wherever you work, know who has influence, who lacks it and why. Take the measure of old rivalries. Understand power.
Perhaps politics has really taken notice of the landscape? Is the opposite also true? The crises accompanying periods of great change are often occasions for new moments of creativity. The time has come to adapt and initiate a dialogue that manages to involve the general public. The landscape involves the science and technique of relations; it is not only an object of contemplation and reaction, but also a discipline in its own right. In recently times, the relationship between the landscape and politics has grown schematic, ambiguous and evanescent. Successively, it is as if it foresaw the imminent coming of a moment of truth, a moment that would raise a question that is not only cultural, but with notable effects on social and economic, and thus eminently political values. The greatest difficulty was to admit the need for a new approach, that it was no longer possible to wait and that the time had come to act and take risks. Despite the anti-political nature of a vision of the landscape as a controlled and guaranteed consumer good, a new way of speaking about the landscape and politics gives precise meaning to these two terms. The problematic dimension of the landscape viewed as a «project» highlights the urgency for transformation, a dimension that demonstrates not only an elevated level of ductility, but also a usefulness, in many cases strategic, to the governance of phenomena in an explosive phase of becoming. The thesis, to date in no way to be taken for granted, is that the question of designing the landscape is a challenge, a political emergency to be confronted as a priority.
Landscape and justice are fundamentally and inextricably linked. Landscapes are struggled over and are the means of struggle. In order to demonstrate this relationship between landscape and social justice, we lean on a landscape conceptualization where landscape is a site of such contention and struggle, claims and contestations. Social struggles not only shape landscapes but crucially also involve attempts to naturalize them, making them seem inevitable, ordinary, and even necessary. Social struggles are also attempts to resist such naturalization. Landscapes, then, work to (re)produce certain identities and ways of life, and become a spatial configuration of particular people’s legitimacy and moral authority.
In this way landscape speaks explicitly to social justice, or rather injustice, particularly through social processes of contestation, oppression and resistance. Social justice is a real world issue, produced and reproduced socially, rather than bound in theoretical constructs and universal truths. Generally, theories of social (in)justice have been concerned to explain the (re)production of equity, distribution and redistribution in society, although taking different approaches to the achievement of socially just outcomes. Much effort has, however, been devoted to demon- strating that one can only with difficulty ‘arrive at a socially just end without changing the production system’. This Marxist perspective on (in)justice is key to the theories of, for example, Harvey and Mitchell. Crucially, however important the production system is, post-structuralists, including feminists, have pointed at the fact that many groups would still be oppressed even if economic injustice was eliminated. There are, hence, differing notions of justice. Useful here is the distinction O’Connor draws between distributive (who gets what and where), procedural (mechanisms of distribution and their fairness) and productive justice. Social justice is hence fundamentally a relational question.
Following this logic, Iris Marion Young, in her influential book Justice and the Politics of Difference, offers a cultural politics concerned to explain (in)justice also beyond ‘equitable distribution of life’s necessities, comforts, luxuries and burdens, to include the potential for people to participate fully in the conditions, situations and decision processes that give rise to particular distribution in the first place’. Young’s theory is important because she demonstrates how injustice or oppression is always social, contingent and systemic. This allows her to identify more than one source (i.e. the economic, distributive system) of oppression. In outlining five facets, or ‘five faces of oppression’ – exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence – Young draws attention to the multifarious ways (in)justice is (re)produced.
Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, and nowadays, hardly anybody likes it when you mention the environment. You risk sounding boring or judgmental or hysterical, or a mixture of all these. But there is a deeper reason. Nobody likes it when you mention the unconscious, not because you are pointing out something obscene that should remain hidden—that is at least partly enjoyable. Nobody likes it because when you mention it, it becomes conscious. In the same way, when you mention the environment, you bring it into the foreground. In other words, it stops being the environment. It stops being That Thing Over There that surrounds and sustains us. When you think about where your waste goes, your world starts to shrink. This is the basic message of criticism that speaks up for environmental justice, and it is the basic message of this book.
A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to signihcant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socio-environmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized-treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. By contrast, an official landscape -whether governmental, NGO, corporate, or some combination of those- is typically oblivious to such earlier maps; instead, it writes the land in a bureaucratic, externalizing, and extraction-driven manner that is often pitilessly instrumental. Lawrence Summers’ scheme to export rich-nation garbage and toxicity to Africa, for example, stands as a grandiose (though hardly exceptional) instance of a highly rationalized official landscape that, whether in terms of elite capture of resources or toxic disposal, has often been projected onto ecosystems inhabited by those whom Annu Jalais, in an Indian context, calls “dispensable citizens.”