Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Landscape Ontology III: Potentiality

[Dipsacus fulonum, common teasel, is simultaneously an invasive weed, a machine age implement, a gorgeous perennial, habitat, or an armature for collecting on, depending on who or what you ask]

A few days ago we posted DRDLM’s findings on some of the historical and contemporary infrastructural efforts in Brazil.  In that post the concept of potentiality surfaced as a consistent theme, a shiny medallion luring farmers, politicians and industrialists into the jungle.  And while the post highlighted a number of well-intentioned projects that met their demise, there have been just as many urban, industrial and infrastructural undertakings that have met with more success, be it the garden-and-causeway urbanism of the indigenous people in the northeastern Amazon, or the contemporary hydrological infrastructures of Sao Paulo

One of our ongoing efforts here at FASLANYC is to excavate and further develop an ontology of landscape*.  In earlier ruminations we established the concepts of territorialization and generative capacity as fundamental to landscape ontology.  That is to say that Hernan de Soto, Johnny Appleseed, and Robert Smithson are all fundamentally concerned with demarcating a piece of the earth’s surface and engaging this as a medium.  
[the pre-inca complex of Caral, Peru; a sophisticated and urban-scale example of territorialization and generative capacity of the landscape dating back 5,000 years; image source] 

The importance of territorialization- the demarcation and control of a specific piece of the earth’s surface- can be seen in both the history of landscape practice and by examining the etymology of the word itself.  A simplified argument can be made with the Spanish words “pais” (country as in “nation”) and “paisaje” (landscape).  The close etymological link between the ideas of “nation” and “landscape” is something we hope to explore further in future work, but suffice it to say that surveying, map making, notational systems, or otherwise “taking stock” as well as bounding, fencing, patrolling, policing, or otherwise controlling the land are fundamental to landscape-making.

Generative capacity is defined by engagement with the medium of landscape itself through abstraction, experimentation, cultivation or otherwise.  It is in this way that landscape practice differs significantly from engineering which is defined by a teleology.  Generative capacity is best understood as an engagement with the land (a defined piece of the earth’s surface) as a medium, not merely something that can be deconstructed and quantified as assemblages of geologies, biologies, and social patterns.  Denis Cosgrove and Donald Worster have done much work to clarify this perspective, and a further exploration of the idea through the theories of Marshal McLuhan would be helpful, were we not too thick to comprehend it.
[generative capacity and territorialization of the aqueduct-landscape of Ayacucho, Peru]

Today we propose that a concern with potentiality is the third pillar of landscape practice.  Potentiality- pure capacity for becoming- is the ingredient that creates the ephemeral and contingent qualities of landscape.  Over on Larval Subjects Levi Bryant has a great piece on this topic which helps to clarify our muddled thinking.  In it, while discussing Graham Harman and Bruno Latour’s thoughts on the subject, he states:

Quality or local manifestation (the actual), by contrast [to potentiality], is purely creative, a genuine and novel event in the world. This is because power, potency, or potentiality, in actualizing itself, must negotiate all sorts of material differences to become what it is. As a consequence, the quality that an object will come to embody can never be fully anticipated on the basis of the power that an object possesses. Here I distinguish between “endo-qualities” and “exo-qualities”. Endo-qualities refer to qualities produced as a result of the contingent path that internal processes of the object trace in actualizing themselves. Objects must contend with their own past materiality in actualizing their powers. The thoughts that I have at this moment must contend with the thoughts that I have had, with the things that I have experienced, with the things that I have written in reaching actuality. I have a power to think, yet the actualization of this power must navigate this materiality or actuality of my being in becoming actual. As a consequence, the thought that I now have becomes a novel event, a new creation, or something that couldn’t have been anticipated based on the power to think alone.

Landscape practice is tricky and ambiguous because it is concerned not only with possibilities (accepted operations within the territory- people sitting on a park bench, daylilies spreading in a planted bed) but with potentiality which serves to open up routes of deterritorialization**.  In the process of translating potentiality into a “quality or local manifestation” landscape practice is concerned with the transgression of the boundaries and limitations set up by territorialization or the material qualities of the soil or flora in a particular place. 

This dance based on the tension established between objects and relations (for example, a dogwood tree is a home to an oriole, but a sculpture to a landscape gardener, and a genome to a biologist) suggests an understanding of the landscape as a spatial mythology or a cosmological constellation (as opposed to a system); the landscape and its referents become protagonists in a heated dialogue with the other objects and their desires, and constantly enter in to new relations, and break off old ones.  A nighthawk and chrysanthemum weed arrive and flourish in a rubble strewn lot in Toledo intended to stand vacant.  A bee colony constructs a hive in someone’s favorite peach tree.  High chromium and mercury levels from the abandoned thermometer factory allow ailanthus and black locust to flourish in the vacant edges because no humans dare excavate the soil. 
[landscape representations might come to more closely resemble celestial maps rather than the engineer's diagram, if an authentic landscape ontology were more fully developed; image source David Rumsey maps]

The medium itself is loaded with the potential to inflect or define the conversation at a given time, always in a contingent and ephemeral way.  And this potential cannot be exhausted by any particular relation or manifestation.  In terms of landscape potentiality is the capacity of the medium that exists outside of the act of territorialization- the land in service to humans.    Concern with these potentials, the indeterminant and contingent nature of landscapes, are fundamental to landscape practice.
[a shift in emphasis from classical composition to aggregated constellation- varied styles and aesthetics slammed together- doesn’t change the fact that it’s still music]

*the aim in developing this ontology is to define how it is different; not through negation by asserting what it is not (it’s not art, it’s not architecture, it’s not engineering, etc.) but by affirming what it is becoming:  what is the landscape-ness of landscape practice? 

** thanks to Nam Henderson for bringing this point up in earlier conversations


  1. "Concern with these potentials, the indeterminant and contingent nature of landscapes, are fundamental to landscape practice."

    To landscape practice as it is, or to landscape practice as it should be?

  2. good point- this is definitely worth questioning more (as are a few more assertions I try to make, I think).

    First, I should clarify that by landscape practice I don't mean landscape architecture projects. I would characterize many of these as architectural projects outside. Not there is anything wrong with that (except when there is).

    I would say that architects, artists, agronomy and civil engineers, and some landscape architects engage in landscape practice as I’m attempting to define it. That is they employ a landscape approach to a project. Which begs the question of what does “landscape” mean? It does however make clear that a landscape project could exist entirely within an object, or include multiple objects. In some ways, this goes without saying, I suppose. And it can be seen in the certain representations- Borromini's chapel was represented as an autonomous object, and a surveyor's map often stops at predetermined bounds. This begins to be illustrated in the difference between engineer/surveyor Egbert Viele's plan for Prospect Park, and Olmsted and Vaux's plan, which proposed to shift the borders and engage the edges, both down through the earth (the geology of the site) and horizontally across the assorted urban grids.

    That being said, I would argue that landscape architecture is still largely either concerned with space (architectural approach) or recently more interested in a diagrammatic abstraction of the landscape through a system-concept. Both are still territorial, systematic or spatial.

    Landscape practice, because of a concern with potentiality, is dancing back and forth over the demarcation (whether it is spatial, material, or systematic doesn't matter)... I think this starts to get at the problematic ambiguity found in both the word “landscape” itself, and the way in which it is practiced.