In this essay I’ll be taking a look at an article first published in ‘Landscape’ in 1984. The article is not particularly long, only nine pages, as republished in ‘Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing and Visual Poetics’ in 1998. The article in question is Johanna Drucker’s plainly titled ‘Language in the Landscape’. In this essay I’ll be referring to the republication, a larger compendium of works by Drucker, just so you know.
I chose to focus on the article because it could be seen as a(n unwitting) precursor to linguistic landscape research. It’s not that other landscape researchers have ignored language, but unless I’m mistaken, no one really took up language in landscape prior the boom in the unrelated or rather parallel strand of research that became known as linguistic landscape research. You can find authors mentioning the role of language in landscape in landscape research, but mainly in passing. It’s not really taken up as I see it.
Anyway, Drucker (90) starts provocatively:
“STOP. We respond to the red octagonal sign almost without thinking. We react partly because of its standard form: we might not halt in front of a post with graffiti or for a chalkboard, even if they carried the same message.”
The red octagon on a pole with the white text makes you stop. Why is that? Well, as covered in a previous essay, in Richard Schein’s terms the stop sign is part of regulatory discourse that has materialized in the landscape. Encountering it while driving disciplines the driver to stop. What compels the driver to stop then? Drucker (90) explains:
“We are aware that disobeying the sign might have unpleasant consequences – an expensive fine, imprisonment, or a traffic accident.”
I’m not too convinced by the second explanation, obeying the stop sign because it might lead to an accident. If the sign wasn’t there, or there was something else, such as a yield sign, I think the driver would still take it into account, perhaps not in equal measure, but to some measure nevertheless. I think the sign is telling the driver to stop, disciplining the driver, because the collective responsible for erecting and maintaining it knows better. Of course it’s not that it doesn’t, I mean stop signs are typically placed in intersections that have limited lines of sight and/or in places where traffic accidents have happened before. It’s rather that the driver is given no choice. As Bruno Latour (152) puts it in the previously discussed ‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts’, the inanimate object is enforcing proper conduct on the driver. The difference here is, however, that, I think, Latour would probably argue that the stop sign is only compelling the driver to stop. The stop sign does not some fail safe mechanism in case the driver does not stop the car. The sign, the road or the intersection (whatever it is) would have to have some interaction with the vehicle in order to make sure the car stops, regardless of the driver. I wouldn’t be surprised if that will be the case in the future. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if driving was made unnecessary in the future, cars moving about without drivers. Then the signs wouldn’t even be needed as the vehicles would not need disciplining. Anyway, while clearly acting at a distance on the behalf of the collective, the sign is only disciplinary. The possible punishment makes the driver think twice, or well rather more accurately ideally not at all, before opting to ignore it.
The point Drucker is making in the opening lines is that landscape not only is, but also does. More specifically the things in landscapes, as encountered by the human landscape participants, not only are, but also do. Drucker (90) offers more examples:
“Language can be explicit (DO NOT ENTER), deceptive (THE ONLY REAL BEER),enigmatic (EDY’S CHARACTER CANDIES), confusing (PARKING THIS SIDE ONLY BETWEEN 4PM AND 6PM ON ALTERNATING TUESDAYS EXCEPT WHERE INDICATED), and elucidating (WINDOW 6 FOR TAX FORMS ONLY).”
Drucker is not offering any definite list here. The point is rather that landscape speaks, as she (90) explains:
“[W]ritten language represents an invisible conversation: someone is speaking, someone is being addressed, the message has a purpose, and the message is delivered in a particular way.”
Here, however, following Latour, I would argue that the thing with landscapes is, as with inanimate objects, that only the landscape and/or the things in it address you and speak to you. You can attempt to have a chat with it/them, but it/they will not answer you. It doesn’t make humans powerless though. Landscapes can be changed and they are changed all the time, but that’s not exactly how it is done. Yelling at a stop sign hardly makes it disappear or changes its function. Anyway I’ll let her (90) rephrase the point:
“We cannot dismiss language in the landscape as auxiliary or duplicative. The relationship between linguistic statement and physical object influences every encounter we have with our environment.”
Without getting stuck with discussing the infinite deferral meaning, I think it is best to understand her statement as that language affects our relationship with the environment and the physical objects in it, while the physical objects in the environment also affect us and language. How could I put this more neatly? Assemblage, as elaborated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ comes to my mind from this. If there was no language, no system of signs, then the things we encounter would be unintelligible to us, or, well, I think that we would at least encounter them differently. In other words, the world would unfold differently, but I think it’s rather pointless to even attempt to explain how it would unfold. For me, that’s the being stuck in language thing, how to explain in language how one perceives things or, well, reality in general, without language. Anyway, that said, language would be nothing without the material bodies, the machinic assemblages, the non-discursive. In other words, both are needed. They are co-constitutive.
In general, the interesting thing about this article for linguistic landscape research is that it more or less covers a number of aspects present in contemporary linguistic landscape studies. Drucker (90-91) makes note of the visible features, the method (typography and calligraphy) and the medium (materials used). Materiality in particular is highlighted by her (91):
“Whether language is carved in stone or scratched with chalk, its message is influenced by its form.”
She (91) adds that the materials are connected to the origins, that hand made signs are rare and typically found decorating older establishments. I believe the charm of hand made signs is back in fashion though, so an old looking and/or uniquely hand made sign does not necessarily mean that the sign is old. Anyway, she (91) adds that the materials, rather obviously, differ in terms of their durability. She (91-92) also makes note of that digital carriers, such as LED displays, render the medium neutral, yet effective.
With regards to language by itself, she (91) makes note of the differences between the use of what is often referred to as standard language and the deviations from the standard, such as slang, jargon, unconventional spellings and neologisms. She (92) also notes that the unconventional forms of language used, for example by businesses, draw attention. To her (92), these do not serve as conversation, but as commerce. Among others, she (93) uses the example of ‘UNEDA WINDOW’, which itself is not what is typically attributed as correct, so it’s not “immediately readable” and takes a moment of staring at it to get the message, but that’s the point. My own example is a very similar sign, ‘uneeda Burger’ on a sign that I once encountered in Fremont in Seattle, Washington:
As evident from the photo taken by yours truly, the sign is not the most legible of signs with its stylized letters, yet I paid attention to it. The burger place itself was hard to notice, so it did a good job at making me a customer. As a backstory to this, I happened to be particularly hungry at the time. I was in Fremont to eat at a place a friend of mine, a Seattle local, had once recommended, but that place was closed at the time, so I had to find something else. I was not aware of the existence of a burger place there, but it sure made my hunger go away. As also pointed out by Drucker (93), I paid attention to the sign because the text on it was (and probably still is) not standard, nor easy to read. Staring at the sign, I was like, u, you, needa, you need a … burger. Thinking to myself, well, you know what, that’s exactly right, idoneeda burger. I have to say that not only did I need a burger, but it was a great burger, with great sides and a great beverage. If you are ever in Seattle, do yourself a favor and venture into Fremont, because uneeda burger. After all, ugotta eat, wealldo.
Moving on, Drucker (93-94) states that language is informative, a function of linguistic landscapes discussed in the often cited article by Rodrigue Landry and Richard Bourhis (25) titled ‘Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality: An Empirical Study’. Drucker (93) states that language in the landscape guides us and our behavior as it helps us to identify places, so we know where we are and what to do. While she uses the label or heading ‘informative’ or ‘information’, she (93-94) questions its neutrality. Is informative really merely informative, is it neutral? She (94) makes note of street names, usually understood as identifying a place:
“The name of the street reminds us that some political body supervises the existence of the street. that it has a legal as well as functional existence.”
She (94) then elaborates plant names in a botanical garden:
“The plant markers help justify the existence of the park. They enhance the open space with the trump card of education, a social value higher than mere recreation.”
In her third example she (94) argues that clocks are hardly neutral. They tell us what time it is, pushing us to organize our lives around the way time is segmented on the basis of the rotating of earth around its axis. After all, it’s important to be in the right place at the right time, which, if my memory serves me (I hope to find time for it in the future), is what Henri Lefebvre examines in ‘Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life’ published in 2004, originally published in French as ‘Éléments de rythmanalyse’ in 1992. Anyway, returning to the topic, the point here is that even naming of places or things is hardly neutral. It’s not that, for example, the street signs aren’t informative or useful, indeed they are, but rather that we typically have no saying over these things. No matter how much you yell or shake your fist at a street sign, its name won’t change. Sure you can repeatedly vandalize it and/or advocate to change a name in act of resistance, but that won’t make it any more neutral than what it previously was. As Michel Foucault (82) puts it in the first volume of the ‘History of Sexuality’:
“[T]here is no escaping from power, that it is always-already present, constituting that very thing which one attempts to counter it with.”
In other words (95):
“Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. Should it be said that one is always ‘inside’ power, there is no ‘escaping’ it, there is no absolute outside where it is concerned[.]”
Relevantly to linguistic landscape studies, I would add or specify that it is not merely a matter of what something is called, but also the language or languages in question. Of course, it’s debatable whether one should speak of languages or linguistic resources here, but under the current regimes of truth, in various societies, it is fair to speak of languages as distinct entities, regardless of whether they are or aren’t as the general consensus in these collectives is that they are.
So far, as examined in this essay, Drucker has made it clear that language use is not a neutral phenomenon and I have tried to further explain how and why that is. She (94) aptly summarizes the role of language in landscape:
“Language provides leverage. It is the only element in the landscape that challenges us to reevaluate what we see according to the ideas not indicated by the physical setting. Only language tries to tell us what we see. Language does not simply, or even actually identify things. Rather, language itself raises the question of definition. To take language in the landscape at face value is naive.”
Provocative and straight to the point here. You don’t need language in landscape in order to evaluate the landscape, only the internalized way of seeing, as elaborated by, for example, Denis Cosgrove in ‘Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea’ published in 1985. It’s fascinating and puzzling how that comes to be. I cannot recollect how it came to be for me, to (ap)perceive or construct reality in this way. Yi-Fu Tuan (100) addresses how we come recognize landscapes in ‘Thought and Landscape: The Eye and the Mind’s Eye’ published in Donald Meinig’s edited volume ‘The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays’ in 1979:
“[Children] learn to recognize landscapes to construe worlds, while at the same time they submit – as all organisms must – to environment’s pervasive influence.”
I keep staring at this passage in the book. While I’m torn, going back and forth, trying to figure out conceptually whether it is the landscape or the environment that affects us, and/or the things in it, I’m struck by how perceptive the statement is, considering that it dates back to the late 1970s. In particular, the part about construing worlds strikes a chord in me due to my own understanding of landscape affected by Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari as a diagram or an abstract machine, constructing a type of reality, one that isn’t by any means somehow false. If it was merely false, it would take less of an effort to convince people otherwise. At times I’ve tried to elaborate this to some of my friends, how this way of seeing the world permeates them, more or less all day every day, but it just doesn’t seem to cut it for them. The aesthetic component emerges rapidly as I poke them to react to what is in front of them. Of course, I understand; it is tricky to try to imagine how it would be to perceive reality differently, as much as I am aware that it is possible. I would say that I’m particularly aware of how it is a type of reality which has certain implications, perhaps nearly hyper so, yet at times I lapse into it, finding myself admiring the spectacle. I think that’s the pervasive influence which is very hard to escape. I guess there’s just that much pleasure in it that you just end up finding yourself immersed in it. Troubling, deeply troubling, even if only a handful of people in the world probably agree with me on that. Perhaps that’s why.
Anyway, I got sidetracked there quite a bit. To return to the point Drucker (94) makes, it is not only landscape as a way of seeing that affects us. It is also the landscape itself, the physical manifestation that affects how we come to think and see it. In the same edited volume by Meinig, in ‘Age and the Artifact: Dilemmas of Appreciation’ David Lowenthal (109) elaborates how we come to identify a landscape as old, valuing its antiquity by marking it:
“Designation serves both to locate the antiquity on our mental map and to dissociate it from its own surroundings. It is no longer just old, but ‘olde.’ The marker emphasizes its special antiqueness by contrast with the unsignposted present-day environs, and diminishes the antique artifact’s continuity with its milieu. The antiquity becomes an exhibit; we stand before it like a painting. The signpost tells us that it is in some measure contrived for out attention.”
What Lowenthal is on about is that what is present in the landscape itself affects how we come to see it. The standing in front of it like a painting part resonates with me in particular. It hints towards why we take it as it is. Anyway, he explicitly refers to signposts, which, at least according to him (100), make a clear difference:
“[W]ithout signposts, few visitors would even be aware that they were on a historic site.”
Moreover, he (110) indicates that some lament that it’s in some cases harmful to historic landscapes:
“Instead of rescuing history from obscurity, such markers drown it in trivia.”
What is meant here is that the signs, all the information they ‘neutrally’ provide change the way people see the landscape, to the extent that they can’t escape being force-fed what they are supposed to appreciate in it. I find the photo on the following page, page 111, credited to Peirce Lewis particularly telling of this. In it there is a road sign containing an arrow and a text ‘Historical Area’. While I’m not familiar with the site, indicated as situated in Sacramento, California, the message of this still holds. When you encounter such sign, perhaps when traveling, the sign alters how you come to perceive the landscape. You might not be familiar with whatever supposedly makes the landscape worth your attention, say certain architectural features dating to certain point in time, so without the sign you might not make much of it. Of course that sign doesn’t tell you why there’s something to it, but it nevertheless steers you to pay attention to the landscape. It may be that once you pay attention to whatever is signposted or make your way closer to it, you may find another sign that then drowns you in information that shapes your understanding of what you might have otherwise simply ignored. Drucker (94-95) uses a more humorous example:
“PLEASANT VALLEY ROAD in Oakland could not be more aptly named in this regard. The street climbs from a complex traffic intersection between concrete condominiums and a plain of parking lots buffering a shopping center. … [W]e can never reconcile the name on the sign with the place. How could we? The identification is made by contrast. The inevitable reaction to those words while paused at the stoplight is to look around and ask, [w]here?”
Once again, I’m not familiar with the area, so I cannot confirm the accuracy of this passage, but I think it holds regardless of whether it is the case or not. Many of us, if not all of us, have ran into what she is characterizing here anyway. I for sure have come across such signs that are rather, let’s say, optimistic about the prospects. There irony of it. It’s hard not to smirk at that moment.
Drucker (95) advances the argument that language in landscape is hardly neutral by stating that not only does it steer us, but also steers us away from other options:
“In some sense, instructive language always cheats us out of the experience we might have in exploring a situation. Instructive language often protects us (NO SWIMMING, DEADLY UNDERTOW), but it also can be restrictive and can limit not only our activity but our perception.”
Indeed, as already argued, at least in part, language in landscape can be seen as restricting us. Like with the stop sign, it might well be in our best interest in general, no doubt about it. However, the point is that the choice is not supposed to be yours to make. You can ignore it, but that entails consequences not limited to the aforementioned drowning. It is arguably in our best interest not to drown, fair enough, and that probably pushes us to take the signs at face value, regardless of whether what is indicated holds or not. In other cases, like with the stop sign, there may be disciplinary consequences for not opting to adhere to the message, as already mentioned in this essay.
So far the focus has mainly been on signs that are typically put in place by the authorities, the collective, which tends to have the right of enforcement. In other words, those signs are not just empty threats posted on the side of the roads for no apparent reason. Drucker (95) moves on to examine language in advertising. She (95-96) uses the example of a building side with the text ‘FIREPROOF’ on it, used to mark that the old building in question, housing a hotel, alleges that the company running the hotel is conscientious of fire hazards and up to the task. You can trust this hotel, it takes its responsibilities seriously. She (96) argues that this is a form of virtue signaling. Now, it’s unclear whether this holds or not, but that’s not really important. What matters is that they are telling you, in big block letters on the side of the building that they hold your life dear, or so you are told.
Also of particular interest in the article, especially more contemporarily, is the role large corporate entities. Drucker (96) argues that large conglomerates fit well in any landscape due to their uniform appearance. This, I believe, is not a sign of approval on her behalf, rather that unlike smaller companies, such as local newspapers, as she (96) indicates, the conglomerates fit the picture because they surface at multiple points in space, making them seem like they belong, wherever you come across them. In other words, they seem like they come with the territory.
Drucker’s following point might not be of great relevance to many, but as I’ve come across this myself in my own research and it has to do with who is the intended audience, I think it’s worth including. She (96-97) makes note of odd markings, such as chalk marks on pavement. She (97) argues that it’s not always evident what such markings mean. In her example, either a utility company or a municipal maintenance crew has scribbled something on a street surface. The message is obscure to anyone but the people who know what’s it all about. It may be that it’s a trade specific thing, so anyone with the required knowledge can understand it. Her interpretation is that it’s specific to a certain crew, which is likely the case. It’s not that uncommon to come across such markings, often technical designations that contain text and/or images for some specific purpose. You can obviously see them, no doubt, and you may even pay attention to them, considering they deviate from what we are used to, but unless that’s in your area of expertise or you are willing to find out, they’ll likely remain obscure.
The second last part of the article examines language as edification, that is as moral instruction. I consider this part particularly relevant to the importance of the medium, the materiality of the language use. She (98) makes note of formal inscriptions on the sides of buildings that contain moral assumptions and warns that inscriptions, put in place at a time of great expectations, may indeed “turn into an oddly mocking travesty of its original intention.” In other words, they are rich in faith into something, such as humanity, yet, often paradoxically such faith has had grave consequences to many. This makes me think of what Foucault once said about intentions and consequences, but as I’ve quoted that a number of times already, so I won’t go there again. While it is not evident in the text itself, merely hinted as something worth further discussing (99), what I take from this is that the grandeur of it, the landscape, supported by the durable materials, can make us believe in such, excuse the pun, edifices. I especially like this point she is making, highly related to the pun, because, for example, somehow there is just that something that compels us and at the same time impresses us in landscapes that are marked by durable old structures, be they, say, buildings or statues, even if any virtuous inscriptions on them may run contrary to what may have occurred later on or the hard labor put into the manifestation of that expression. It makes you think, for example, of the inscription at the main building of my own university, loosely translating as ‘gift from the free people to free science’ (people could be translated as nation, free as liberal, but you get the point). The first part might hold, people are free and their intentions are good, but when you immerse yourself in the academics, the second part comes across as a naive. To think it exists in a vacuum, the irony of it, what a barrel of laughs.
Think of this essay and the article what you will, but I think it is worth reading, at least the article that is. Things haven’t changed that much since it’s original publication in 1984, so it’s still relevant. Sure, it’s only nine or so pages, including the photos, but it includes a lot of what was to come decades later. It’s for sure ahead of its time if it is seen as an article pertaining to linguistic landscapes, which I think it clearly is. It challenges the use of language in landscape as neutral, as unconnected to its uses and its users. It reminds me of Louis Althusser, in the form of interpellation, as well as Deleuze and Guattari, who incorporate language into assemblages and argue for understanding language first and foremost as pragmatic (you’ll have to look what they mean by that yourself).