American Landscapes, not Hybrid Landscapes

[“The Hybrid Landscapes of Roberto Burle Marx.” Bank Headquarters in São Paulo]
In the social sciences the concept of hybridity refers to a “constant becoming-ness” (or other terrible phrase) resulting from an ongoing mixing of ethnicities and worldviews. This is sometimes posited to be a fundamental characteristic and core aspect of the modern Latin America society. Landscape theorist Anita Berrizbeitia made the strongest argument for applying this quality to landscapes, arguing that hybridity as the “crossing of indigenous, Spanish colonial, African, and European cultures” is a defining aspect of the Latin American landscapes of Roberto Burle Marx. Upon closer examination there are two distinct problems with this assertion.
The first is that the concept conveniently whitewashes the violence that historically accompanies this mixing. This violence is historical, persistent, and dynamic, from the initial genocide and wars and culture of rape among European men and indigenous women to the centuries of slavery to the race riots of the twentieth century. This whitewashing tendency benefits the historical perpetrators, typically Creole Americans and Europeans, and tells us more “about the power relations of the writing of urban history” than about the landscapes themselves.
The second problem with hybridity is that it is completely unclear exactly how the dynamism and mixing is more fundamental in Venezuela, Mexico or elsewhere throughout the Americas than other places in the world. In this conceptual schematic it is as if Latin American societies are dynamic, constantly intermingling in every sort of way giving rise to new hybrid forms of living and “eschewing cultural essences”, while other societies (especially Europe) are staid, stolid, old. This schematic paints a vibrant, optimistic and virile picture of American society, and this absolutely exists. If you lived in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950’s or Los Angeles in the 1960’s or Vancouver in the 1990’s you have seen this side. And the facet of the historical American landscape that has given rise to utopian speculations, dreams of a New World, is important in some ways. But there are many other facets to the American societies and their landscapes- they are nasty, violent, large, without meaning, but also vernacular, personal, and rooted in traditional ways.
This emphasis on and definition of hybridity seems not to arise from any sustained inquiry into the landscapes of the Americas themselves, but rather smacks of Hegelian idealism and a continued dedication to the European concept of Universal History. In his famous Philosophy of History Hegel explains that Asia is the beginning of history, and Europe is the end- the fully realized state of humanity- with Africa acting as a sort of prehistorical control group, and America as an unfinished realm of the future awaiting Europeanization:
America is therefore the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself… What has taken place in the New World up to the present time is only an echo of the Old World…
In reality American landscapes demand something much closer to a pluralistic schematic, one in which communities exist side by side, and at different scales, at times in conflict and other times working together, and still other times completely oblivious of or ambivalent about one another’s existence. The work of pragmatist William James points the way:
… nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything… The pluralistic world is thus more like a federal republic than like an empire or a kingdom. However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.
This philosophical distinction is convenient, perhaps a bit too convenient- Hegel was a German Idealist, James and American Pragmatist. Nonetheless, it is useful to examine these sources for the light they throw on the intellectual roots of any notion of hybridity. We can see in Hegel and more generally in the preponderance of historical ideas that construct the Americas as an unfinished place for projecting idealized futures (see Thomas More’s Utopia) a direct tie to the concept of hybridity as a “constant becoming.” And while it is true that things are always constantly becoming in the American landscape, it is also true that things actually are, and have been.
Berrezbeitia’s work on Burle Marx stands as an important contribution to the discipline of landscape architecture. However, the concept of hybridity is perhaps best seen as a vestige of its time. In recent decades relational philosophies have dominated theoretical development, especially in landscape architecture. In these, concepts that emphasize interconnectedness are of utmost importance, and connectivity, the related-ness of things, is always seen as good. However, it is important to recognize that not everything is connected, and often times when things do connect it is not a good thing.
This is one of the great contributions of the object-oriented philosophers. And it is precisely because of this fact that figuring out exactly what does connect, and how, becomes extremely important. As landscape designers, the importance of this can be seen in walls and fences which remain understudied and misunderstood, despite their ubiquity and importance in the landscape, and the great difference they can make when done well and appropriately. In the future walls and fences in all their forms should become one of the great objects of inquiry in landscape design, taking its place alongside landform and vegetation.
What it is, and what it is not
Proposing hybridity as a foundational concept requires an act of negative leveling. Aboriginal American societies are defined more by what they are not than what they are (they are not-European). Groups as diverse as the Huarpes and the Onondagas are roughly shunted into the same role in the landscape schematic and considered to be passive receptors awaiting Europeanization. This is a massive impoverishment of reality with regard to the landscapes these peoples created and inhabited and the ongoing processes that shape them. It also delimits aboriginal squarely outside of any European or modern American relationship. While this may be a useful boundary to draw in the social sciences, with regard to landscape studies, and actual landscapes, it is not clear at all that this is an appropriate practice.
The direct importation of concepts from both the social sciences (and physical sciences) is a move that should be done with caution. This fact suggests something I argued for in my lecture at SUNY-ESF this past spring and as part of my landscapes and instruments work: we must construct a landscape science. And this science must not attempt to shunt landscape studies into either physical or social sciences, but instead develops methods and concepts appropriate to the landscape itself. This effort is something I will elaborate on more in the future, as I think the traditional tension between physical and social sciences in landscape studies is not a productive one, but rather a root cause of the schizophrenia that characterizes landscape architecture. However, for today it is enough to argue that hybridity is not a foundational concept for American landscapes.
Ultimately the case for hybridity is a historical argument, not an ontological one. The intermixing of cultural influences- the importation and reinterpretation of modernist landscape design principles for instance- is a historical fact in the making of some American landscapes. However, the concept of hybridity does not do justice to the wild heterogeneity, the violence, and the forms of annihilation that often took shape instead of any real mixing, just as it does not do justice to original or autochthonous forms that existed as preconditions or arose in response to the destruction of aboriginal societies and their landscape technologies and methods.

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