I planned not delving into discussing linguistic landscape (LL) studies at this stage. Anyway, as I’ve been more or less focusing on representation in landscape research, I felt that a recently published article titled ‘Representation and videography in linguistic landscape studies’ would fit in the mix just fine. As the title suggests authors Robert Troyer and Tamás Szabó address representation in linguistic landscape studies, more specifically the appeal of photography. I think there has been too little discussion on representation and the effects it may have and so I looked forward to reading this article before it was published.
Troyer and Szabó dedicate the first few pages (56-60) on representation and photography. They start by pointing out the obvious, that there is a major difference between the digital and the analog eras. That said, I have to say that I’m quite entertained by their (56) formulation of what it entails: “[a] combination of electronic instant gratification, a passion to document the surrounding world, and freedom from the constraints of celluloid and chemistry enhanced by the fascination of a new toy.” Well put, I wish I had come up with that myself. It probably works the best for someone like me, who works as a photographer. It crystallizes both the good and the bad in digital photography. Troyer and Szabó manage to capture the irony of it and subsequently address its rather pervasive role in LL studies, if you will. Borrowing from John Berger, like I feel I keep doing in my own writing, they (59) remind us of the role of sight, that an image, a picture, a photo, or whatever you want to call it now or in the future, is not objective. It is a moment frozen in time, a recreation or a reproduction of what one sees, or more specifically what one perceives. Simply put, it is a mere representation of the real deal.
Before moving on to discuss videography, the second part of their article (which I hope to comment on separately), Troyer and Szabó continue to elaborate the role of photography. Firstly, they (59) state another rather obvious, yet I’d say crucial point: “the camera is a tool.” Indeed it is and should be understood as such. That said, as they (56) point out so well already in the second sentence of the introduction, the ease of it, the fascination and the will to know carries you away and you end up longing for more. As Maurice Ronai (153) argues in his first article on landscapes, ignoring representation easily results in “a passion for landscape as an object of knowledge, emotion and desire”, making the researcher both complicit and complacent in (re)producing representations. Simply put, it leads to a vicious cycle in which the researcher is trapped in, only reinforcing representation and rendering the landscape impervious to change, as Ronai (153) puts it. One could say that the researcher is thrilled by it all, but risks ending up being thralled by it all.
Secondly, Troyer and Szabó (59-60) address what Denis Cosgrove (48) discusses in his 1985 article titled ‘Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea’: the ‘costruzione legittima‘, the realist illusion of rendering “three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface.” Now, if your artistic rendition of the world created on a canvas with oil paints achieved realism, the ‘il vero‘, it doesn’t take much convincing to assert that cameras manage to do the same, but only better. They don’t offer mere realism. They offer photorealism. Gilles Deleuze (91) comments on this in ‘Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation’:
“The most significant thing about the photograph is that it forces upon us the ‘truth’ of implausible and doctored images.”
He (91) reckons that photos are, in Bacon’s view, mere representations, yet still somehow something more as “they impose themselves upon sight and rule over the eye completely.” I think Deleuze’s (91) most interesting insight is, however, that:
“The photograph ‘creates’ the person or the landscape in the sense that we say that the newspaper creates the event (and is not content to narrate it).”
In other words, they are, in a way, representations, yet they are more than that. How so? Well, because they act upon the world.
Thirdly, Troyer and Szabó (60), point out the role of units of analysis in LL studies and raise issue of frames. Landscape is indeed nothing without space, the materiality. It needs that anchoring. That said, it is not an inventory, a list of items or objects. As Ronai (137-139) has it, understanding landscape as a fragment of space, taken as the visible appearance of a geographic area, results in landscape studies with no landscape to be found. It risks missing the mark, not understanding landscape as produced (through both practice and perception), just as Ronai (137) remarks.
I have yet to discuss his work, but, in ‘The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom’, James Duncan (11-12) makes note of the same issue. He (11-12) finds paying attention to artifacts or ensembles and their distribution without consideration of how they came to be and the role of the researcher problematic, as if the world was simply there and examining them revelatory of something. He (11) is particularly skeptical about the belief in unmediated observation, venturing into the field, going through archives and reporting the results, and refers to it as object fetishism. As explained by him (11-12), citing Catherine Belsey’s ‘Critical Practice’, and reformulated here (3):
“[E]mpiricism evades confrontation with its own propositions, protects whatever values and methods are currently dominant, and so guarantees the very opposite of objectivity, the perpetuation of unquestioned assumptions.”
It easily results in, as Ronai (137-139) has it, a study of landscapes with no landscape. Photography, like its predecessor, painting, has a hard time getting around this issue. As a seasoned photographer myself, I am keenly aware of framing. In photography, as well as videography, the frame is a basic concept; one speaks of frames. There is something peculiar about being up in arms over manipulation of photos, what is now called photoshopping, when framing, what is included in the frame or excluded from it, is in itself a fundamental issue. To me this self-explanatory. There is no need to invoke Erving Goffman to explain this. Then again that’s just me. Maybe I’m too aware of what Deleuze (91) comments on. Anyway, Troyer and Szabó (60) do us a favor by clearly pointing this out.
To keep this somewhat focused, I didn’t cover the second part of the article where Troyer and Szabó cover videography. In summary, I find the first part discussed here in parallel to a handful of studies in landscape research pertinent. To me what is discussed by the authors is hardly new, actually rather obvious, especially in the light of what I have covered so far in this somewhat haphazard free flowing collection of essays that one might refer to as a blog. That said, that is not the case with many others, as the authors make note of (60). There is hardly any discussion (that I’m aware of) of what the authors aptly refer to as the “allure of representation” in LL research, whereas by looks of it that was a hot potato in (geographic) landscape research already in the 1970s (French circles) and in the 1980s (Anglo circles). It’s not that the issue has been solved in landscape research and that people are just ignorant of a solution, but rather that there has been very little discussion of the issue at all. I’ve been going through French texts lately, so it’s only fitting to write chapeau Troyer and Szabó for bringing up the difficult subject in LL studies.
- Belsey, C. ( 2002). Critical Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
- Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.
- Cosgrove, D. E. (1985). Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 10 (1), 45–62.
- Deleuze, G. ( 2003). Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation (D. W. Smith, Trans.). London, United Kingdom: Continuum.
- Duncan, J. S. (1990). The city as text: the politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan kingdom. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
- Goffman, E. ( 1986). Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
- Ronai, M. (1976). Paysages. Hérodote, 1, 125–159.
- Troyer, R. A., and T. P. Szabó (2017). Representation and videography in linguistic landscape studies. Linguistic Landscape, 3 (1), 56–77.