The Existential Insider in the Landscape

by MT

Rereading Dennis Cosgrove’s Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape after two more years of schooling is fruitful. It is surprising that I only remembered his first ambiguity between the objective (scientific) and subjective (artistic) views of landscape, and forgot the second one between individual and collective aspects of landscape. Here the key word is ambiguity, a very useful concept nowadays, if not employed as a cunning denial of reasoning or slippery excuse of our own stupidity. My first reactionary question with the first category of ambiguity is: Why arts and science? Are there really such thing as the two cultures, or is it something made up by the scientist-turned-novelist C. P. Snow? The temporary outlet for this dissatisfaction, though hardly an answer, is the realm of the history of science as well as environmental history, as seen in authors such as Donald Worster, Caroline Merchant, and Stephen Jay Gould. At this moment, it is the second category of ambiguity that intrigues me.

A careless reading of Cosgrove’s distinction of individual and collective aspects of landscape might repel this category as artificial. But this distinction is not a dichotomy. Moreover, in Cosgrove’s view, the boundary between an individual and the society is fluid and the two infiltrate each other. Note here that an individual looks at the landscape as an outsider and the collective aspect of landscape is embodied through insiders. The outsider (individual) mode of seeing a landscape is embedded in the culture and most familiar to us. For some (and perhaps not unexplainable) reasons this view seems to be cross-cultural. Most of us have this endearing experience of traveling through the countryside and appreciating the scenery of rolling hill and grazing cows. Conceptually this appreciation is reinforced, some might say invented, by the psychological theory of the eighteen-century thinkers such as John Locke. It is true that landscape become the subject of many Romanticist writings such as those in Rousseau’s New Eloise and in the enduring pastoral theme of the Victorian literature. Cosgrove effectively points out that the whole business of visual assessment theories (all those criteria in VRM, VMS, etc), with its prescribed formula of composition and proportion is but an extension of this individualist take of landscape.

We can imagine that this outsider view of landscape lends itself to criticism for its detached, segregated attitude toward nature. It is here that the insider-view of landscape comes in. The theory is that a worker does not appreciate the beauty in the farm because he is not able to control his view. In other words, he is forced to view his working place and hence [perhaps with the assumption that work is pain] does not control this landscape. This Marxist critique has in turn tainted with a moral tone. A more subtle point, however, is that this insider-viewer contains both the individual and the collective view of landscape. With this Cosgrove associate the enterprise of “place” and the philosophical existentialist theory attached to it in the writings of Edward Relph [perhaps we can add to this list Yi Fu Tuan and Christian Nobert-Schultz]. According to Cosgrove, this insider not only represents but also acts out [act as an agent] the collective aspect of landscape. He said: “For the insider the external world is unmediated by aesthetic conventions and the collective coexists with the individual.”

Here comes a prevalent misunderstanding: the insider view is devoid of aesthetics; on the contrary, a quick glimpse at the development of modern art discloses a constant push and pull between this outsider/insider distinction. This topic might veer into a daunting journey of the jargon jungle planted by the twentieth-century artists and art critic. For a lighter take, Malcolm Andrew has clear a path through his lucid analysis of the relationship between the content and frame of the landscape painting. In landscape design, the various works of Dan Kiley, Lawrence Halprin, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, to name a few, have focused on bodily experience and dealt with the overlapping realms between the insider and outsider, between the individual and collective. Though a very broad brush, with this view the artistic and social meanings of landscape design are tied together. Landscape architects are not lone artists segregated from the society, but a social practitioner, if you will, who glue the individual and society together. No wonder Cosgrove is so popular among landscape architects. I wish him the best.

[cf. The Effervescent, Grotesque Body]e