Myth and the Monsters of Landscape Theory

As the practice of landscape architecture expands like a strange attractor in the binary universe of capitalism, folding in on itself while it ever-expands outward, an oft-heard question that bears repeating is:  how should we understand, conceive of and interpret the landscape?  

[Is this landscape architecture?  who cares?]

Perhaps McHarg would say that it is best understood as a pristine nature to be disturbed as little as possible.  John Lyle and Joan Naussauer would say it is a complex system to be interpreted culturally and managed scientifically.  Ann Spirn would argue that landscape is best understood as a language.  Denis Cosgrove and Christine Boyer, among others, would argue for understanding the landscape as a cultural product.  James Corner might call for reading the landscape as a narrative, Tom Leader as a palimpsest.  Charles Waldheim, and Pierre Belanger vociferously state that it is to be understood as infrastructure.

And all of these might be correct, in a specific location at a given moment.  Perhaps we don’t need a framework beyond that; if each designer or group is competent in each of those methodologies, and can choose from them for any given project, perhaps that is just fine.  Unfortunately though, designers, clients and their concomitant critics usually fall back into metaphor as a way to sell an inane and costly intervention.  And lord, do we hate that.

[how, exactly, would you define this landscape?]

Readers of this blog will recognize the familiar bang of our favorite drum when we contend that the landscape is best understood through myth.  It is something we typically drone on about every couple of months, but permit us 1000 words while we try to expound on why we think this approach is appropriate.  (We should note that all of the above critics/theorists/practitioners and many more provide amazing insights and we recommend looking into their work, hence the links).

The difficulty with the above conceptual frameworks is that they are limited; ie sure, the landscape is infrastructure, but it is also a language, a cultural artifact, a product, a dynamic networked system.  It is literally all of that and anything else you can put forth.  There is nothing it is not, and there is no way to bound it (which is not to say that specific conceptions of landscape as palimpsest, artifact, narrative, ecology, etc are not useful at a given point in time).  So how is mythology better?  It is expansive.

Let’s look at the definition of mythology (in the venerable oed):
mythologythe exposition of myth or myths

Not helpful.  Let’s look at myth:
mytha traditional story, typically involving supernatural being or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

Okay, that is understood and a common definition.  But this pre-post modern definition of myth(ology) dating from the 19th century places an undue emphasis on the notion of totalizing effects wrought through the common shared beliefs of a group of people.  In The Wasteland, TS Eliot creates a mythology, through allusion, to all of historical western thought (and much of eastern, insomuch as it relates to western).  The Wasteland is an epic in 433 lines, with something like 60 allusions to 40 different writers- bits of culture, broken up by the Great War, reassembled into a single frame, all reinterpreted.  As elucidated by Nick Mount, when Eliot writes in the epigraph that “I had not thought death had undone so many” he is alluding directly to Dante, using him to build a new world; one in which a crowd of people waiting outside the gates of hell has become a group of daily downtown commuters (24th minute)- goddamn modernity!  Throughout, Eliot shows that traditional, totalizing readings of ancient “narratives, artifacts, and palimpsests” are not appropriate now.  So let’s refine the definition of myth.

Creatively, we look to Roland Barthes and his work Mythologies to better understand what myth is about in this post-modern world in which old meanings have come undone and, as Joseph Campbell insists, everyone must make there own mythology.  In it, Barthes describes 28 modern mythologies, ranging from “The World of Wrestling” (our favorite), to “Plastic”, to “The Blue Guide” [of France].  He could just as easily written of George Washington Cable’s New Orleans guidebooks or the myth of George Washington himself (as others have).

It is the last essay, “Myth Today”, which is most helpful (though least interesting).  In it, Barthes states that “since myth is a type of speech, everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by a discourse.”

Whoa!  This sounds like Ann Spirn; the landscape as language with multiple readings, not limited to descriptive observations (ie, the formal qualities of a tree), but also lending itself to multiple and dynamic narratives.  In The Language of Landscape, Spirn states “landscape has all the features of language.  It contains the equivalent of words and parts of speech- patterns of shape, structure, material, formation, and function.  All landscapes are combinations of these.  Like the meanings of words, the meanings of landscape elements (water, for example) are only potential until context shapes them.”  This in turn, smacks of Joseph Campbell’s assertions that “the ultimate ground of the individual character… lies beyond research, beyond analysis… intelligible character is unfolded only gradually and imperfectly through circumstance.”

And this makes sense.  For Spirn, the landscape is language, and for Campbell [though he’s not speaking about landscape, I will construe it that way] there is a dialectic between different characters, be it the landscape and a culture or an individual and a particular event (such as a war, or a barn-raising).  Landscape is forms, systems, patterns, yet it is also informing other characters in a larger story.  The meaning that comes from its constituents (places, processes, objects) is influencing something else, in a dialogue.  How is that to be understood?

Here, Barthes offers us a very ugly, simple diagram:

For Barthes, myth is a semiological system, as is language.  But he argues persuasively that myth is a meta-language, a second-order system of signs.  As such, it is both the specific structures, forms, and processes that make up a landscape and the “meaning” those have (number “3” in the diagram) but it is also part of a larger system of signs, an inflexion of and in the culture that created it.  It is not a commodity created or a narrative pieced together, it is not solely an artifact of a historical moment.  Rather, it is, but it is also then informing the ongoing dialogue, changing the patterns, structures, and lexicons.  It is the embodiment of a historical narrative or reality, but as that embodiment (that “sign”) it becomes a character in a larger semiological system.  As Barthes states, “what must always be remembered is that myth is a double system; there occurs in it a sort of ubiquity:  its point of departure is constituted by the arrival of a meaning… [and] motivation is necessary to the very duplicity of myth:  myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form, there is no myth without motivated form.”

[a barn-raising in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada]

Much more could be said (though not by us), but we think it is this expansive understanding of the landscape that may offer a conceptual approach that can keep us from hyperbolic en vogue conceptions of the landscape that only serve to ultimately limit both our understanding of landscape and methods for intervening in it.  To be sure there are problems with myth as a means for understanding the landscape, (though not limits).  Any quick survey of critical literature shows that conceptions of landscape are constantly redefined, and it is likely that we are now working during an incredible historical moment, one in which the landscape will figure just as prominently in our post-hyper-modern meta-narrative as the oceans did during the 16th century, monarchs in the 15th, industrialists in the 19th, or capitalists and engineers did in the 20th.  Perhaps our understanding will be up to the moment.

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