Getting carded

In his book simply titled ‘Landscape’ John Wylie (117) characterizes understanding of landscape as discussed by David Matless concisely not as a matter of property, but propriety, more specifically “as a matter of conduct and forms of ‘proper’ bodily display and performance.” It is not that the ownership of land and its connection to landscape are unimportant or have simply ceased to exist, but rather that landscape has become more linked with “the subject of codes of conduct and aesthetics of existence” as Matless (142), building on Michel Foucault and Andrew Thacker, argues in his article titled ‘Action and Noise Over a Hundred Years: The Making of a Nature Region’.

Now what is meant by all this? Matless opens up the second expanded edition of ‘Landscape and Englishness’ with an added preface, in which he examines his renewed UK passport. He notes that the blank pages of a previous passport design are gone, having been replaced by pages containing depictions of landscapes. The pages contain depictions of rural landscapes from the four constituents that make up the United Kingdom. Now, reading the preface I couldn’t resist reaching to a drawer and taking a close look at my own passport. The interior lining of the cover of my Finnish passport, a 2012 to 2016 edition, contains a landscape, featuring trees, bushes and a whooper swan, which happens to be the national bird of Finland. The pages inside do not depict any landscape, but they do contain animals. For the amusement of it, every other page contains an elk, depicted in slightly varying positions so that if you quickly flip through the pages it looks like the elk is walking. The previous 2006 to 2012 edition also had a landscape on the interior lining of the cover pages, depicting trees by a body of water. The whooper swan was also present. There was no funny business on the pages in that one though. Interestingly, the latest 2017 version is not simply another passport with the interior lining depicting a landscape and a swan taking off. The authorities clearly went all out on this one. Celebrating 100 years of independence, beginning in 2017 (hilariously nearly a year before the actual ‘birthday’ mind you) each double page apparently contains a different landscape depicting scenes from northern Finland. I wouldn’t know as I don’t have one of those passports, but anyway that’s what the Finland 100 project tells us. Sadly as I don’t possess one of these myself, I cannot revel in the landscapes supposedly presented on the pages. Snowflakes and northern lights are said to be present as well so that winter gets a shout-out. Physically remote to most Finns, Lapland is specifically mentioned. The story (15.11.2016) on the official home page of the Finland 100 project says it all about the passports: “Elements characterising Finland in the passport include the whooper swan, the national bird of Finland, Finland’s coat of arms, a poem by Finnish poet Eino Leino and a lakeside landscape on the inner cover page of the passport.”

Eino Leino’s Nocturne (1903) is (also) present in the 2012 to 2016 edition, but only to prevent forgery so it’s hardly legible. It is more legible in the previous edition. In short, the poem depicts a Finnish summer night. It may or may not be in the anniversary edition. Anyway, in summary, the Finnish and the UK passports make use of the same mythical and romanticized imagery. As I pointed out, I don’t have the latest one to browse through and to confirm this, but as Matless points out in the preface, you won’t find cities, factories, offices, shopping centers or motorways on the pages of these passports.

What we can take from this examination of passports is that landscape and nature represent the nation. Just as Maurice Ronai (78) has it in his second landscape article, the quality of landscape is associated with the quality of the nation and it is reduced to territory. The landscapes, the flora and the fauna depicted in the Finnish passports are not merely present in the space that happens to be in the country of Finland, no no, but rather somehow make it what it is. So when I explain to my foreign, or rather non-Finnish, friends what ‘Finnishness’ is, I could say that it is propriety, as in the obsolete dictionary definition, the characteristic state of it, the, pardon me, the nature of it. It only makes sense that ‘Finnishness’ is defined by (the very) nature (of it). The imagined and depicted landscape with its trees and water, not to forget the whooper swan, surely make Finns the Finns they are. That only makes sense. We have no say in that.

Those interested in landscape, heritage and citizenship in the Finnish context can do themselves a favor and take a look at ‘Administration, Landscape and Authorized Heritage Discourse – Contextualising the Nationally Valuable Landscape Areas of Finland’ by Hannu Linkola. Relevant to the discussion of passports, Linkola (943-944) notes that post 1918, the time of the civil war in Finland, “a confident elite began to represent Finnish landscapes in a uniform and argumentative manner that both concealed deep-seated social contradictions and supported existing power relations” and that as a result “[t]his landscape imagery was charged with a clear image of an ideal citizenship.” As we can see by flipping through the passports, the landscapes depicted in them are void of anything non-ideal, anything that could be understood as in contradiction with the ideal. Relying only on the rural and/or natural landscape imagery escapes even hinting at that there could be any internal disagreement, discord or strife. When it comes to the use depictions of landscapes of Lapland, apparently present in the anniversary passport, it might be explained by what Tuija Hautala-Hirvioja refers to as the frontier landscape in her article titled ‘Frontier Landscape – Lapland in the Tradition of Finnish Landscape Painting’. Now, in the case of Finland it might seem odd to consider Lapland as the mythical national periphery as that tends to be associated with Karelia. That said, Hautala-Hirvioja (199) argues that while that used to be the case prior to the 1950s, the secession of Karelia led to its substitution by another symbolic frontier, Lapland. I guess it’s more practical have that within your borders than not. Again, I cannot check, but I have a feeling that the anniversary passport doesn’t address any tensions between the Finns and the Sámi in Lapland on its pages.

I intended to bring up ‘Landscape and Englishness’ in order to discuss landscape, citizenship and nationality, but then I came across its second edition. I felt like reading the added preface, what’s new in it and what not. The passport example tempted me to examine my own passport. So I really went on a tangent here, discussing representations instead of the practices which was my intention. Anyway, this proved quite interesting as a passport is arguably a, if not the, key (document) to one’s identity. It ‘tells’ you who you are. As Louis Althusser (170-177) puts it in ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, itself nested in his ‘Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays”, it interpellates you. Similarly, we could also refer to this attribution as an incorporeal transformation, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (80-81) put it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’‘.

You don’t get to choose what is on the pages of your passport, not even your details such as your name(s), date and place of birth. Unless you undergo modifications (e.g. tattoos or surgery), you are stuck with how your face looks, or rather looked at the time the photo on your passport was taken. Even if you opt to change how you look, you still have to have a face on it. That tells that you are you, in the flesh. You cannot not have it. Your signature is original in a way, fair enough, yet what it’s based on is not as someone else, likely your parents, chose it. Okay, it’s possible to change your name, albeit, at least in Finland, this involves a procedure that may well be rejected. Also, even if you manage that, it would be silly to think that a record of all names associated to you isn’t kept. You are at the mercy of the authorities in that regard. Simply put, who you are is not up to you. The same thing applies to the nationality (explicitly indicated) on your passport, as well as how it is depicted on the other pages. Okay, you can apply for another passport, go for another nationality, one that isn’t the one you currently have, but that hardly changes much. You still don’t get to define the contents, the state does. In addition, your passport further affects you and others by indicating that you are or aren’t trustworthy (enough) to enter and/or stay in another country. Whether you really are or aren’t isn’t relevant when your identity indicates otherwise. You’ll notice this at border controls. I am to be trusted because there’s a gauntleted sword wielding crowned lion balancing on a saber (and stabbing its own head with the sword, as some like to remark) on the cover of my passport. Others who might not have such a cool creature depicted on their passports may not be considered as trustworthy. Fair enough, one could argue that certain nationals are deemed such and such as in the past there has or hasn’t been issues with people holding a certain passport. Nevertheless, you don’t really get to appeal if your passport makes you come across as less reputable or trustworthy than what you consider yourself. It does that for you, like it or not. As an added twist here, this, of course, only applies when a passport is valid, as indicated in it and defined by the state. If it’s not valid, in a sense you are not you. Also, it used to be the case that the interval of validating you as you was ten years, but now, for some reason, you are you only for periods of five years. In summary, my passport tells me who I am. It defines me as a Finn and at the same time defines Finnishness through the representations of landscapes depicted on its pages, as if by nature.

Now, I’m not particularly troubled by this passport business. It’s not that it doesn’t concern me. It’s rather that I find it hardly troubling on a personal level. In the end, it’s just a representation. That said I’m not sure people share my views on this: how representation, subject and individuality work (which I should address at some point). I like how Foucault (17) puts it in ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’:

“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order.”


  • Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (B. Brewster, Trans.). New York, NY: Monthtly Review Press.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Foucault, M. ([1969/1971] 1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language (A. M. Sheridan Smith and R. Swyer, Trans.). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
  • Foucault, M. ([1984] 1990). The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  • Hautala-Hirvioja, T. (2011). Frontier Landscape – Lapland in the Tradition of Finnish Landscape Painting. Acta Borealia, 28 (2), 183–202.
  • Leino, E. (1903). Nocturne.
  • Linkola, H. (2015). Administration, Landscape and Authorized Heritage Discourse – Contextualising the Nationally Valuable Landscape Areas of Finland. Landscape Research, 40 (8), 939–954.
  • Meinig, D. W. (Ed.) (1979). The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Matless, D. (2000). Action and Noise Over a Hundred Years: The Making of a Nature Region. Body & Society, 6 (3–4), 141–165.
  • Matless, D. ([1998] 2016). Landscape and Englishness (2nd ed.). London, UK: Reaktion Books.
  • Ronai, M. (1977). Paysages. II. Hérodote, 7, 71–91.
  • Thacker, A. (1993). Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence. Radical Philosophy, 63, 13–21.
  • Wylie, J. (2007). Landscape. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.