Substantive Natures

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com

A response to “Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape” by Kenneth Olwig (Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1986)

Olwig begins his explorations by highlighting a recent divergence in meanings of landscape. He finds a distinct polarity in current meanings of the word. One extreme still refers to geographical place while the other is about pure perception. Derived from pictorial meanings of landscape, this understanding now encompasses almost any conceptual assemblage of objects or ideas, from emotional landscapes to datascapes. Thus this divide spans from the material to the purely semiotic.

Olwig’s position is that by looking at the original meanings of the term in its historical context, the substantive, or real and material meaning of landscape as place can be reclaimed. How? In origin, landscapes not only referred to places but also to units of social and political identity related to those places. Landscape as physical site and landscape as identity or medium for social cohesion became woven together through painting and theatre, but later dissociated. Olwig believes that this potential for both image and deeper connection still lie present in landscape and can be recovered.

Olwig refers extensively to Northern European landscape painting as embodying the fullest meaning of Landschaft, a concept “imbued with meanings… that were at the heart of the major political, legal, and cultural issues of the time.” Over time landscape painting has lost this power as societal nexus; it has long since been replaced by new image and information technologies. In my opinion, Olwig never sufficiently develops the idea of an actual recovery. He does not offer a strategy for recovering landscape; rather he merely shows the potential for doing so and adds another layer of historically derived importance to the landscape concept.

Recovering landscape has to encompass new developments in society and technology. The idea of community that Olwig refers to within the landscape concept is in contemporary terms a virtual one. We currently live in a world that is partially dematerialized. We depend on invisible networks of information to navigate and function, to store information, and to communicate. The virtual world overlays the physical one on the level of our daily lives, and I believe this must be taken into account.

How can we achieve this layering of the virtual onto the real in a meaningful way in order to reclaim landscape? In many ways it has already happened; one must only reframe current developments in terms of a landscape project. Olwig’s reference to the mnemonic activity of beating the bounds of the village – a practice often referred to by cultural geographers when invoking landscape as “lived practice,” made me recall the experience of navigating by iphone. Holding a phone with a pulsing blue dot indicating where I stood, I was amazed that this technology could “see” me. All of a sudden, all the information available through the internet is available to the individual explorer of landscape.

New technologies add a new layer of information to our perception of the world; they function as an additional sense, a new pair of eyes. You can upload a picture of where you are standing to a virtual map of the earth, and by doing so you enrich the virtual landscape with your own view for all to see. In this context it is useful to invoke other contemporary thinkers’ work. Manuel De Landa is a philosopher and proponent of “new materialism.” This school of thought rejects the dualism between object and thought – in other words, what we know and think about an object or place is part of the reality of that object or place. The virtual and real are two sides of the same coin. The world we know becomes a delicate and sometimes unstable construct composed of information as well as physical reality – a networked world.

I believe that it is within this thinking that we can fully recover landscape. We can never fully reclaim its original “substantive” meaning, however, because we live in a world in which the material and the virtual are in a constant dialogue that our predecessors could never have fully imagined. By going further into the possibilities of the virtual, which allow us to perceive the world in new, multi‐layered ways, we can augment our knowledge of the world and forge new types of communities. Datascapes and landscapes become one. I believe that this is the future of landscape, and it still potentially holds original values of Landschaft that Olwig extols.