Sunday, February 19, 2012

Landscapes, Hyperobjects, and the Linguistic Turn: some thoughts on Timothy Morton’s “Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects”

[Image from "Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects" by Timothy Morton in GAM 07; Ice island calves at the coast of the Petermann Glacier, provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 team and the United States Geological Survey]

Not too long ago we got our grubby hands on Timothy Morton’s provocatively titled essay “Zero Landscapes in the time of Hyperobjects”.  It was written for the Graz Architecture Magazine, a publication of the Graz University in Germany and boasting of a very fine editorial board and an absolutely bulletproof lineup in issue 7.  Morton is the author of the recent influential books Dark Ecology and The Ecological Thought, and has spent a lot of time in the last year speaking on object- oriented philosophy.  Last January we read on his blog the following quote:

I had such a good time composing an essay for Graz Architectural Magazine that I thought I should just share it a little bit. It's called “No Landscape”—the issue is about the role of landscape in ecological design (I believe). I take the “Zero” in the issue's title very seriously. I mean absolutely no more landscapes, whatsoever...”

We were intrigued.  And while Morton’s writing style is the type that leaves you confused and squeamish, akin to your uncle getting a bit boozy at the family reunion and inviting you into the basement to check out his Norfolk and Southern model train dioramas, Morton’s polemics are so relentless in banging home the point, like some kind of bass drummer in a marching band, and the ideas so troubling that it is usually worth the time to do the reading.

"Zero Landscapes in the time of Hyperobjects" follows this trend.  The essay weirdly relies on analogies laid down in the Matrix, and while we are fans of the mating of pop culture and scholarship that is still no excuse to throw out quality, which is exactly what you are doing when you venture in to the world of post-Point Break Keanu Reeves.  In the essay Morton offers a schematic for his “hyperobject” which he defines as “massively distributed in space and time” and characterizes as “viscous, squishy, non-local and transdimensional.”  This is immediately compelling. 

The idea that the Mississippi River can be understood as a hyperobject implicating everything from USACE technological regimes and structures, the Laurentian Shield, the Gulf of Mexico, and Monsanto is a powerful and challenging conception that serves to open up a wealth of new questions and courses of action.  It’s also nothing new.  The idea that historical landscape practitioners (be they designers, farmers, surveyors, or foresters) did not consider the fact that a particular landscape is profoundly influenced by and consists of geological structures that expand beyond human conceptions of time, the sun’s energy and light, and water from the air or rivers beginning outside of the frame is wrong.  Of course, bad landscape designers may not have considered some of these factors, but we generalizations shouldn’t be drawn based on the Keanu Reeves of landscape.  The simple fact that geologist Nathaniel Shaler was a key faculty member and taught lecture and design courses as a member of the first landscape architecture department in the United States should be enough of an anomaly to call for further examination at the least.

The fact is that Morton’s definition of landscape is fundamentally dominated by a Eurocentric art-historical interpretation with special emphasis on the linguistic and etymological aspects of the practice.  And this is understandable.  Many of our most prominent recent theorists have claimed to be full on champions of semiotics, from Ann Spirn [the language of landscape] to James Corner [the hermeneutic landscape], and the Betsy Rogers-style historiography that has tended to dominate landscape pedagogy and practice in the modern period, a fact we attribute in part to the European Turn.

In one of the best passages, Morton states:

If we’re going to think beyond the modern period, beyond the era of philosophy, society and ecology in which we have been stuck for about two hundred years, then we will have to let go of the idea of landscape as a picture in a frame, even if the picture is liquid and motile, like a movie.  Why? The problem is the notion of the frame, and the distance the viewer has to assume for the landscape to appear as such. Because of this distance, the landscape embodies a subjective (whatever word works best for you here, “spiritual,” “ideological,” whatever) state. The picture is about the attitude you must assume to look at the picture. It’s less about land, then, and more about scape. 

[a gorgeous map of the the Eerie Canal as landscape/hyperobject; image courtesy of David Rumsey maps]

We appreciate that “Zero Landscapes” serves as a powerful critique of the late 90’s tendency of landscape practitioners within the academy to call everything “_scape” (there was even a European journal by that exact name).  But it is wrong to assume this trend is indicative of a landscape ontology.  Morton discards landscape because he sees it as being situated within an artistic tradition of painting, without realizing that this historical slice of landscape practice can be seen as drawing from the larger field of the artes plasticas.  This places landscape practice apart from [though related to] the literary arts. 

He also fails to realize the picture frame, which for him is a fatally flawed instrument of aesthetic distance, is a historically specific fact and not one that is ontological to landscape.  People painted landscapes at that time and put them in frames for specific reasons, much like people today take photos with their phones, put them up and flickr, and then tweet them out.  Both of these are interesting and germane, but neither is fundamental to landscape practice. 

We have argued that acts of territorialization, the making and transgressing of boundaries, are fundamental to landscape ontology.  This act could be through the aesthetic frame that enables the construction of specific views but this is only one possibility.  Acts of surveying, establishing political-economic property boundaries, understanding ecological territories such as a watershed, or the creation and policing of electromagnetic territories for the Greenbank telescope are also acts of territorialization.  What is more, it seems foolish to completely discard or disregard the frame, even if we agree with Morton that it has been way too heavily relied upon in the last two centuries.  The whole epistemological notion of object-oriented ontology is not to obliterate historical concepts but rather can be summed up in two words:  more everything!

The irony of the hyperobject schematic is that it suggests a further definition of the idea of landscape.  The spatial implications of Morton’s hyperobject lead him to the conclusion that space is not a container but rather a space-time manifold.  This definition is drawn directly from Graham Harman’s definition of space in Guerrilla Metaphysics and is based on a topological understanding of space.  This area of study has not been explicitly explored by landscape theorists, but it is fundamental to any real definition of landscape as a practice that is concerned with the properties of an object that remain or persist under continuous deformation, be it the erosion of slopes, the growth of plants, or the contingent choreography of people tailgating before a football game.

We have proposed before that a topological study of landscapes might offer a way in to better understand the differences in fixity and contingency in the landscapes we inhabit.  For all its flaws, Morton’s essay ultimately establishes a different imperative:  “Once we become aware of long-term effects of hyperobjects, we cannot abolish this awareness, and so they corrde our ability to make firm decisions in the present.  Hyperobjects force us to live this paradox, and design with it.” 

It’s all very Genesis 3:6.  Nonetheless, it does point to a real difference between intentionality and agency in the landscape, and compellingly suggests future landscape designs will have to grapple with this minute chasm.  More hopefully, it offers the rudiments of some of the conceptual tools that will be needed in this task, specifically his defining and characterizing of the hyperobject and challenging the historical biases and weaknesses of the landscape approach.  These should be further prototyped and tested and added to the good work already underway.

[Adam, Eve, Satan, the hills, the sky, the groundwater, the mycorrhizae, all together in the Garden of Eden hyperobject/landscape on the Sistine Chapel]