Marx’s Landscape Instrumentalism

[contemporary aerial showing the Boston Fens, image by RobDoesArchitectureHomework]
A few months ago I published an article in Landscape Journal by the name of “Landscapes and Instruments”. The piece was a refined and advanced version of some ideas I've been working out here and over on an a blog by the same name. In it I try to draw from John Dewey's instrumental theory of knowledge and some of object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman's current work, as well as some historical and contemporary thinkers and theorists in landscape architecture to recover a more expansive, richer understanding of instrumentality.
The basic premise is that even though the suite of terms related to instrument (instrumental, instrumentality) have been largely reduced to a simple straw man for use in conversations about the use or role of theory and history, a richer, more generous understanding of the concept offers a way forward to grapple with one of the great unexplored regions of landscape design practice and research- the gap between intention and reality (what you intend to happen, and what does happen).
Two related arguments I made in the piece were that:
1) instruments are not just the perfect executor of human intent, but are objects that mediate relations between other objects (interactions, transactions, etc) and they always do it imperfectly,
2) landscapes can be understood as instruments themselves, instruments made of nothing but instruments because a landscape always carries some measure of human intent.
These assumptions build directly on Harman's object-oriented philosophy and were shaped by a conversation he and I had a few years ago, which you can see here. Harman's philosophy springs from a surprising reading of Heidegger's famous tool analysis and I find it offers a breath of fresh air and new direction for work relative to the current emphasis on relations and concomitant infatuation with process, flows, flux, etc (what Julian Raxworthy convincingly criticizes as the 'process discourse'). I hope to make those arguments the subject of more theoretical work over the coming year, but in the meantime there is another foundational piece of a theory of landscapes and instruments that I'd like to try and work out.
Marx's Broken Landscapes
One of the heroes of modern western thought that is strangely missing from most landscape theory is Karl Marx. Of course, he does appear in the writings of other landscape fields such as geography and anthropology, but even then his work is rarely considered for what he has to say about landscapes themselves, instead being used to understand and criticize social or economic processes or effects occurring on or in a landscape. This may be due to the fact that because theory and history in landscape architecture has largely been developed through art-historical conventions and focused on precious, expensive, small, beautiful landscapes, Marx hasn't had much of a place. He just doesn't have as much to say about those spaces as he does technology, production, and power relations.
At any rate, I am interested in what Marx says about actual landscapes, and Section 1 of Chapter 7, Part 3, Volume 1 of Capital is the most salient passage I have found. In this one section that focuses on instruments of labor, Marx surprisingly talks about landscapes, and in a way that adds a new dimension to my thinking on the subject. Early on he defines 'instruments of labor' as:
a thing, or a complex of things, which the laborer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims.
So here, Marx tells us that an instrument can be a thing or complex of things and notes that it mediates the relations between the laborer and another object which the laborer intends to affect in some way- whittling a stick, smelting some copper, plowing a field. For Marx, like for Dewey, intent is very important. And intent is mediated by an actual thing.
Marx then wants to clarify for us that what he means by 'instruments of the labor process' entails much more than simply hammers, clothing irons, and microscopes. They encompass a whole range of objects, things, complexes, and assemblages:
In a wider sense we may include among the instruments of labour, in addition to those things that are used for directly transferring labour to its subject, and which therefore, in one way or another, serve as conductors of activity, all such objects as are necessary for carrying on the labour-process.
And just a few sentences later, Marx makes it explicit for us:
Among instruments that are the result of previous labour and also belong to this class, we find workshops, canals, roads, and so forth.
Canals, roads, and so forth. Landscapes. Though these landscape types stand outside of the traditional canon with its focus on royal gardens and municipal parks, these landscape types can absolutely be found in both historical and contemporary practice and theory. Just consider the writings and work of Charles Eliot, Olmsted, and Horace Cleveland or contemporary projects by Landing Studio, PRex, and Scape, and research by Kristi Dykema, Pierre Belanger, and the Dredge Research Collaborative, just to name a few.
Denatured Instruments
It is exciting that Marx is talking about specific landscape types that landscape architecture is also engaging, and talking about them as instruments, but that is not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is what he goes on to say after establishing that landscapes are instruments. In the same section a bit later we find Marx discussing the general tendency of means of production (instruments of labor) to become naturalized over time:
Whenever therefore a product enters as a means of production into a new labour-process, it thereby loses its character of product, and becomes a mere factor in the process.
This tendency has been recognized as one of the prime problems of landscape-making. Discussing the large scale urban project of Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston, the Fens, Ann Spirn noted that “[he] disguised the artifice, so that ultimately the built landscapes were not recognized and valued as human.” That is, for Spirn, constructed landscapes must be formally and stylistically distinct from what already exists and is perceived as natural or they will fade into the background and become a mere factor in the processes of everyday life.
When a person in 19th century Boston went to the Fens they probably expected to take a nice stroll around water on the pathways, enjoying beautiful scenery in a serial fashion as they moved. Meanwhile, nearby homeowners expected the Fens to protect their homes from stormwater flooding, and city managers expected the landscape to help with the flushing and processing of sewage. Spirn is right in noting that an important aesthetic choice was made when Olmsted chose to make the Fens appear very similar to an idealized version of the previously existing wetlands. While this contrasted nicely and to great effect with the busy, hard, noisy streets of 19th century Boston, it tended to obscure the fact that this landscape was made, that it has a social history, and that only through labor and political decisions is maintained.
While spot on, it is interesting to consider what Marx's insight might add to this. For Marx even a New Jersey bridge overpass on Interstate 95 or the All American Canal running along the US-Mexico border (things obviously human made) could become naturalized, fading into the background and becoming a part of the scenery, an object that is a part of everyday life that becomes a mere factor in the labor process, without history or special importance. In this Marxist landscape approach the things that are hard and grey and built with straight lines are not special or separate from trees, dirt mounds, and other bits of cultural landscape that are more closely associated with biological and geological processes inasmuch as they are all part of different labor processes (whether that is working on the docks, smelting steel, or picking the kids up from practice).
I think the key difference between Spirn's critique and Marx's argument is that Spirn is attuned to perception and appearance and therefore questions of aesthetics, while Marx is interested in performance, its limits, and its social potential:
On the contrary, it is generally by their imperfections as products, that the means of production in any process assert themselves in their character of products. A blunt knife or weak thread forcibly remind us of Mr. A., the cutler, or Mr. B., the spinner. In the finished product the labour by means of which it has acquired its useful qualities is not palpable, has apparently vanished.

That is, for Marx, it is when the instrument breaks, or ceases to function as intended, that we become aware of it, that we recognize the social and cultural history of the thing itself, whether that thing is a hammer or a landscape. It is when a landscape no longer performs in the way we expect it to that it becomes denatured, and we are forced to grapple with it.
Landscape Change
When tied more directly to the idea of landscape-as-instrument, the idea of a landscape breaking does not simply mean it stopped working, but rather that it is doing less and more than originally intended; there is a gap between intent and reality. To illustrate this idea, it helps to consider the landscape that Spirn has brought up- the Boston Fens as originally designed by Olmsted.
If a storm comes through and washes out part of the path network or overwhelms the stormwater infrastructure and causes flooding in nearby basements, thereby performing less than previously, inhabitants become aware of the Fens landscape. Similarly, if climate change cause changes in continental flyways which change the Fens into a spectacular birding sanctuary, thereby superseding or doing more than previous functions and what was intended, people become aware of the Fens landscape. Marx would even say that we become aware not only of the instrument, but of the labor of people behind the instrument- the labor of the people who built the path that couldn't withstand the storm, the labor of the people who conceptualized a large tidal marsh in the middle of the metro area that become an important stopover for birds.
And all landscapes are always doing this, though we have developed myriad devices and techniques such as contractor change orders, contract specifications, interchangeable parts, and maintenance regimes that are intended to minimize this deviation from the original intent. It is possible that the reason people tend to overlook and neglect cultural landscapes over time is not because the chosen style or aesthetic effect too heavily from what people already identify as natural, but rather because we are constantly trying to minimize this gap between original intent and reality; we are trying to minimize landscape change rather than work with it over time.
This implicitly privileges the original intent as somehow more right, more correct, above the possibility of a continued and sustained engagement with our world and its host of broken instrument-landscapes through tinkering, training, repairing and experimentation. This emphasis exists for good reason: most deviation from the original intent is crap- the result of bad workmanship, shoddy products, limited conceptualization, bad installation, a drought, a flood, etc. But perhaps the design process could generate methods that continue to minimize shoddy workmanship while opening a space for other, more exciting and interesting forms of breaking.
Of course, if the political dynamics and tastes of the intended inhabitants of the landscape will likely remain the same over the projected initial lifespan of the landscape, then minimizing change or breakage is undoubtedly a more direct and assertive approach. But perhaps there are other types or subsets of societies- polyglot, highly mobile, pluralistic societies- for whom cultural perceptions and political dynamics cannot be assumed static relative to the intended lifespan of the landscape.
This lesson from Marx has some pretty compelling operational and aesthetic implications. It suggests a model of practice that veers away from the architectural capital project and more toward the type of work done at Parc du Sausset or carried out in modern forestry, though the difficult work of creating devices (policies, representations, technologies, rhetoric, concepts) that can withstand the vagaries of economic downswings and political cycles becomes even more important in that scenario.
Aesthetically, it suggests that we deemphasize beauty (the alignment of expectation and fulfillment) in favor of the more expansive sublime concept put forth by Maria Hellstrom Reimer. This is something that I presented on at a recent conference and will try to work out in this space a bit later. Aesthetic concepts that change expectations and create a perceptual and mental rupture offer a powerful starting point for the type of sustained engagement implicit in an instrumental view of landscape. They are a means and end-in-view, not a perfectly conceived ideal that must be achieved and held at all costs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s