Landscapes are assemblages of objects and spaces arrayed on the surface of the earth. As influenced by Dutch landscape painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the term came to mean the scenic aspect of an area, particularly as it was viewed from a single vantage point. In a global context, landscapes are the material and symbolic sites of agglomerated economic, political, social, cultural, and environmental phenomena that functionally and symbolically mediate global processes.
The geographer Carl Sauer of the Berkeley School championed the idea of landscape as an alternative to the theory of environmental determinism that had gained a footing in early twentieth-century American culture. Where environmental determinists held that natural phenomena such as climate and terrain had direct and decisive influence on human agency, the landscape approach described social interaction with the natural environment, with an emphasis on the historical shaping of earth by human activity. In this view, all landscapes are cultural landscapes given the pervasive influence of human beings on the Earth’s surface (Sauer 1925). Later humanist geographers were to extend this claim even further, stating that the mere selective viewing and naming of a landscape by human beings changed its status from natural to cultural (Tuan 1984).
This conception of landscape set the stage for the rapid influx of social and cultural theory into the field of landscape studies in the 1980s and 1990s. The human perception of landscapes was not naive but a strongly ideological representation of land tenure as an aspect of class relations. Landscape was a “way of seeing” (Cosgrove 1998) that existed prior to the act of representation whether on the ground, on canvas, or in the imagination, an idea that was borrowed from the iconographic method of art interpretation (Cosgrove & Daniels 1988).
A common application of this ideologically-informed method of representation was in the designation and depiction of national landscape ideals. Although the scenery that was portrayed in these paintings was to be found in only one region of the burgeoning nation-state territory, it supplied the graphic representation of the entire national identity. Thus, the landscapes of Tuscany as rendered by the Macchiaioli School of painters in the latter half of the nineteenth century came to represent the entire national landscape of the new Italy, a country whose natural environment was highly variegated. Of course, the same was true for other nations as well.
This same process that was immanent to the creation of the nation-state is now occurring at the scale of the globe. Following World War II, the American way of production and consumption spread throughout North America and Western Europe, and eventually into other parts of the industrialized or newly-industrializing world including Japan, then Korea, and now China as well as smaller but highly influential centers of modern consumerism such as Hong Kong and Singapore. A particular feature of this cultural, social, and economic phenomenon is the widespread emergence of “cathedrals of consumption” (Ritzer 2005). These are the megamalls and theme parks, the cruise ships and casinos, that provide the sites in which consumption as a cultural and social practice takes place. A more recent trend has been the development of “landscapes of consumption” (Ritzer 2005) which are much larger assemblages of cathedrals of consumption, the most exquisite and iconic examples of this global phenomenon being Las Vegas and Dubai, at least before the global economic downturn that began in 2007.
The close proximity of the cathedrals within the larger landscape generates a synergy of consumption that increases the consumption at each site that surpasses what would be possible if each cathedral were to stand alone. This is the same principle that explains the agglomeration of different yet complementary industries in a single district, only in the industrial case the goal is hyperproduction rather than hyperconsumption although culture can still figure prominently as a key commodity (Scott 2000).
Not all global landscape projects are attuned primarily to the economic imperative, however. World Heritage, a program of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), aims to protect and promote the natural and cultural heritage of the world by identifying landscapes that are of “universal value” (UNESCO 2011). The program operates at a global scale, listing 890 properties in 148 states. It aims not only to preserve these built and natural landscapes for global posterity, but also to incorporate them into locally-sustainable development projects. Developing and applying the criteria for selecting sites has proven to be difficult and controversial, however, and each year the World Heritage Committee struggles to balance the participation of the 186 state members who have so far ratified its 1972 Convention, among the highest rate of participation of any international agreement. The project of identifying a world culture via its landscapes is attractive and necessary in the eyes of willing global actors, but daunting and disagreeable to those who fail or refuse to seek inscription onto the list.
Landscapes do not have to be visited material sites; they also can be digitally created and disseminated via broadcast and online technology. Such is the case of “electronic landscapes” deployed toward European unification, an echo of the national landscape ideal project (Morley & Robins 1995).
SEE ALSO: Cathedrals of Consumption; Ideoscapes; Place; Space; World Cultural Heritage.
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