Looking as Engagement

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com

A response to “Scenophobia”, Geography and the Aesthetic Politics of Landscape by Karl Benediktsson (Geografiska Annaler B, 89, 203-217, 2007.)

“My contention is that a serious engagement with the visual, couched in terms of a more general philosophy of aesthetic engagement, should actually be an indispensable part of a landscape geography which purports to have something to say about the politics of landscape.” (p. 209)

This response essay sets out to explore the meaning and potential of the term “aesthetics of engagement,” and its relationship to the concept of a “politics of landscape.” Benediktsson’s statement is the gist of his position and merits a close look. At first read, he seems to be simply arguing for scenic visual values to be incorporated into a discussion of landscape issues and their relation to decisions affecting land use and the needs of society, such as energy and infrastructure.

I would like to delve deeper into the meanings of the terms Benediktsson uses in his argument. Firstly, the term “aesthetic” has come to be used to designate, among other things, a kind of object, a kind of judgment, a kind of attitude, a kind of experience, and a kind of value.1 The concept of “aesthetic of engagement” refers to the work of Arnold Berleant, a social philosopher, “whose approach to environmental aesthetics considers the human person as an active contributor in a context that includes and is continuous with the participant.”2 Secondly, the basic meaning of politics, derived from the Greek word for citizen, refers to the processes by which groups of people make collective decisions.3 I read
“politics of landscape” to mean the realm in which the concept of landscape interfaces with society and its decision making processes, about land use policy and resource management.

If looking at the landscape is an active form of engagement, as Berleant and Benediktsson suggest, then images have a similar power to allow us to engage, by acting as a window onto the world. This in turn can affect decision‐making processes about that place — whether to preserve it, transform it, or destroy it. However, images, through their aesthetic content, contain the values and attitudes of their authors. This makes the discussion much more complex, because everything hinges upon what the underlying values of the participants are, both aesthetic and political. Benediktsson is in fact arguing that we enlarge the field of the aesthetic within landscape beyond what is traditionally the purview of historians, designers, and geographers. He proposes the incorporation of new or overlooked ideas, such as the sublime, enchantment, and the scenic.

These ideas allude to a common imagination, to experiences that we all have as human beings at one time in our lives. We are transported to magical realms as children through myths and fairy‐tales, we have all experienced the scenic at specific moments, and less commonly the sublime, that state of being transported outside of ourselves while feeling awe, reverence, and mystery. Incorporating these concepts into the images that we use as a common ground for discussion of landscape within the body politic may open up new ways of thinking about the actions that we take. Perhaps we will be moved to preserve a landscape because it is enchanting as well as ecologically valuable, or design new landscapes to be sublime as well as practical for new housing or infrastructure.

In conclusion, Benediktssons’s stance opens the door to yet another rich territory for designers whose stock and trade is the representation of spatial ideas, specifically in the building arts where image precedes realization. Images, as we have explored in previous readings, do not merely convey basic information about place. They are loaded with assumptions and histories. An aesthetic of engagement implies the potential for images to do more than visually represent space. Images become in themselves territories where a dialogue takes place between desires and needs, between design and landscape, between cultural values and utilitarianism. Further, the quality of this dialogue becomes a space of contact for the participants, allowing for new forms of exchange and engagement.

1 Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetic‐concept/
2 Arnold Berleant’s website, www.autograff.com/berleant/pages/vitae.html
3 Wikipedia definition