The Extra Miles

I realize this might be or at least come across as a bit ostentatious, but that said, this time I’m looking at my own text. The text in question is a recent article published in Linguistics and Education. It’s currently in press, so it doesn’t have more specifics to it yet. Anyway, it’s titled ‘The advantages and disadvantages of quantitative methods in schoolscape research’. If I’m not entirely wrong, that was the working title as well. In retrospect, it’s a bit bland. It would have been cool to come up with a snazzier title, but whatever, not the end of the world. The page numbers are from the final version (as I have subsequently corrected the text, to have them match it).

As a word of warning, I will be assuming that whoever happens to read this has both read the article and my essays (or is otherwise on the same page). I’ll try to do my commentary as smoothly as possible, without referring to specific works as much as I usually do. Otherwise it might be rather painful reading. That might not happen though.

So, anyway, as I point out in the introduction section, my intention in the article is two-fold. It’s intended as a methodology article, but I can’t just do that without having something to base it on, as I point out in the conclusion. I like how James Duncan (15) puts it in ‘The city as text: The politics of landscape interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom’, going for a middle ground between the empiricism and theoreticism. What he (15) is arguing for is acknowledging landscape as a projection, not just simply out there waiting for us to uncover it with scientific rigor and precision. In one of my essays I made a remark on the use of the word ‘describe’ and I’d like to reiterate that point. You may or may not have noticed, but I use that word very sparsely. That also applies to the article itself. Duncan is actually on the same page with me on this one, so I’ll explain it in his words (12):

“Descriptions are not mirror reflections; they are of necessity constructed within the limits of the language and the intellectual frameworks of those who describe.”

Indeed, I find it a bit, if not more than just a bit, suspicious if one does not acknowledge that. Anyway, as Duncan is to the point here, I’ll let him (12) further elaborate this:

“Such language is not a set of words which have a one-to-one correspondence with reality ‘out there.’ It is based on discourses which are shared meanings which are socially constituted, ideologies, sets of ‘common-sense’ assumptions. The same words may have different meanings in different discourses. Descriptions can only have meaning in such a context-bound sense. Thus all description, whether explicitly theoretical or not, relies on language, on some form of categorization which is inherent in the very act of naming. And categorization is necessarily theoretical.”

In what is quoted above in two parts, Duncan doesn’t build on anyone specific in support of his argument. That can be found in the notes section, where he (195) elaborates different stances on the issue. As pointed out, he (15) advocates for a middle ground, not for what some may call a relativist stance where anything goes. To be more specific, Duncan (11-12) is against old school empiricist inquiry building on a unmediated relation between the landscape and the fieldwork and/or archival research. It’s hard not to think of this as referring to Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School of landscape research. It obviously is, considering how Marie Price and Martin Lewis (3) react to the issue in ‘The Reinvention of Cultural Geography’:

“[Critics] specifically allege that Berkeley scholars focused their studies on material artifacts, exhibiting a curious and thoroughly antiquarian ‘object fetishism’ over such items as houses, barns, fences, and gasoline stations[.]”

I cut out who they consider as the critics and in which specific work (it’s a bit of a list). Feel free to look that up, it’s worth reading and going back and forth. Anyway, the ‘object fetishism’ is straight from Duncan’s publication discussed here. It’s worth adding here, I believe, that Duncan is not simply against listing items, per se. Instead what he (11) is against is claiming that:

“[S]uch artifacts as house types, barn types, fences, or landscape ‘ensembles’ which are claimed to reveal culture regions or culture hearths.”

He (11) points out that there’s been plenty of work done on that premise. The problem is, as I’ve pointed out in some of my previous essays, that such work may end up living a life of its own, or so to speak. In the Finnish context, the work of J.G. Granö is particularly influential, to the extent that it led to the creation of landscape management reports commissioned by the Finnish Ministry of Environment. Those reports are examples of ‘object fetishism’, involving landscape inventories. The issue is not keeping tabs on land use, but the antiquarianism of those reports. They build on a rather dated understanding of landscape and research methodology that has been heavily criticized, many decades ago. Richard Hartshorne’s criticism of early landscape research is worth reading, but clearly it wasn’t part of the reading for the group of people who came up with the reports. The same applies to the more recent criticism of early landscape research, the very topic of discussion in the article written by Price and Lewis. In other words, to simplify things here, the problem of such old school empiricism is in its reliance on … well … empiricism. Whatever is out there, the landscape, is just there for you to uncover and/or reconstruct, as if you could somehow pull off unmediated observation in order to guarantee objectivity. Duncan (12) offers an apt characterization of this line of thinking:

“Their vision of the scholar is one who, armed with a sound historical training, goes out into the world and records what is there. This is based on an empiricism which sees outwards forms and surface appearances as largely unproblematic. Artifacts are observed and recorded as data, given things. Observational data, whether recorded by the researcher directly or retrieved from archives, is distinguished from theoretical statements which are seen as abstract and hypothetical, and therefore not descriptions of the world.”

So, in other words, I want to include plenty of theory not because I want to bore the reader, but because I think it is is highly important to include it and worry over it. Duncan (12) adds that:

“There is a strong anti-theoretical bias in this separation of facts and theories, and, unfortunately, this common sense view of facts as theory neutral is also naive.”

I can only agree with his statement. I’m often puzzled by the lack of theory in texts. Things are just taken for granted. Now, I am aware that this also has to do with limitations imposed by publishing. You can only write this and that much of this and that into an article. I get that, but still, if no one ever objects to it, it’s hardly going to change. The limits make sense for prints, but not anymore. For example, I can just go on and on and on and on and on here, for no apparent reason, so surely I can get away with actual content as well. Anyway, back to the topic, Duncan (11-12) explains his view through Catherine Belsey’s ‘Critical Practice’, in which she (3) argues that:

“[E]mpiricism evades confrontation with its own propositions, protects whatever values and methods currently dominant, and so guarantees the very opposite of objectivity, the perpetuation of unquestioned assumptions.”

The copy currently at hand, the second edition, has a bit different pagination, hence the discrepancy between what’s stated here and referred to by Duncan. Anyway, not included by Duncan, she (3) continues:

“But there is no practice without theory, however much that theory is suppressed, unformulated or perceived as ‘obvious’.”

So, in summary, she (3-4) clarifies:

“[I]t is language which offers the possibility of constructing a world of distinct individuals and things, and of differentiating between them. The transparency of language is illusion.”

Anyway, to make the point clear, as I’ve done in a couple of previous essays, it’s probably easiest to invoke René Magritte here. His painting ‘La trahison des images’ (The Treachery of Images) depicts a pipe and under it a text ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’, which translates to English as ‘This is not a pipe’. What is on the canvas, the depiction of a pipe and the text that includes the word pipe are not pipes. The image of a pipe is just a representation of a pipe, or rather, what people tend to call a pipe. The word pipe itself then doesn’t stand for the pipe, but in for the pipe. Now, to be accurate, here I’m actually not even using the word pipe to refer to a pipe, a thing, but referring to pipe as a word. So unless somehow it’s possible to include a thing that is a pipe (any type of would do) here in the mix, the word pipe, the signifier is not even pointing to a signified, but to a signifier. We could also be doing this in person, going back and forth with it, speaking instead of writing. It would make little difference. It doesn’t do any good to think that adding a photo of a pipe would suffice because that’d be just more of the same, more of treacherous images. If you don’t buy my Magritte example, Jacques Derrida makes the same point in ‘La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines’ as presented in 1966, and subsequently translated into English as ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, as included in ‘Writing and Difference’. Yes, it’s the one where Derrida uses Lévi-Strauss against Lévi-Strauss. Relevant here, he (353-354 in the 2005 edition) states:

“Henceforth, it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play. This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse – provided we can agree on this word – that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”

His writing probably comes across as obscure, but he is arguing that things, you know, for example, all of those bits and bobs, are a matter of discourse. He then clarifies that what he means by discourse is that it’s agreed upon, not preset. Well, that’s how I interpret it anyway. It reminds me of Michel Foucault’s (49) definition of discourse, as presented in the 1972 ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’:

“[P]ractices that systematically form the objects of which they speak.”

Simply put, it’s all made up on the spot. We call a pipe a pipe because we do. We don’t have to, but we do. There is little inherent to pipes for why they should be called pipes, but we do. Now, what I mean by on the spot doesn’t mean that we freestyle with it, but we could, yet we don’t, or, well, some do, some don’t. Mainly not. Of course we’ve inherited those practices, no doubt. Derrida (354) does actually point this out:

“We have no language – no syntax and no lexicon – which is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition which has not already had to slip into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.”

I don’t think he is saying that one stuck in language. I mean in a way, yes, but then again no. One is stuck in language inasmuch as it does not change, but that applies the other way around as well. You can work with what you got. Things can change, but then, at least for me, the question is rather do they and if not, why not? Probably because it’s hard, as I think Derrida (356-359) is pointing out. It’s hard not to build on what you’ve got, I reckon.

I guess I should get back on track, on the double topic of theory and methodology. Incidentally, Derrida (360) brings up method, contrasting the engineer and the bricoleur in the works of Lévi-Strauss:

“The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ‘out of nothing,’ ‘out of whole cloth,’ would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself.”

So, Derrida (360) is indicating the absurdity of the engineer, the master of all, standing in stark contrast to the bricoleur who works with what’s at hand, tinkering, creating bricolages. He (360) then uses Lévi-Strauss on Lévi-Strauss:

“[He] tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur.”

I couldn’t help but to smirk when I read that. That’s just amusing. The irony of it. Anyway, to cut long story short, Derrida sees Lévi-Strauss clinging on to structuralism, despite being aware of the inconsistencies in it. There is this undercurrent, in which, in Derrida’s view (362-363, 367-368), Lévi-Strauss acknowledges the lack of unity, a center (a deity, human, desire … you know, something structural, superorganic, determining), yet still ends upholding it.

Now where does this put me? I’m obviously a bricoleur. I mean you can only be a bricoleur, always working with what you got, no matter how much you claim to be an engineer or a scientist. Just in terms of thinking, I cannot think of the unthinkable. Of course I can think of the unthinkable, or rather what was previously unthinkable once things have changed in some way to enable that, but strictly speaking that’s not the same thing. It’s still unthinkable in the moment, which counts, not in glorious retrospect, which doesn’t count. This is where I find reading Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari particularly useful. I’ve shifted my thinking from being to becoming, which, at least for me, enables to think of things that were previously unthinkable. That doesn’t mean that it’s a switch, from this to that, but rather a process that takes me … somewhere. I can steer where I go, but I still cannot think the unthinkable. I don’t seek to know who I am, what’s the true me or what’s in my nature. That would only trap me to a dream of presence, a futile quest to find “the reassuring foundation, the origin”, one that entails “the end of play”, as Derrida (370) characterizes it. When you compare the two, I really don’t see the upside to that either. Why be something instead of becoming something? In conversation with a friend of mine (I like to test if I manage to get the message across), I thus posited that the question is not to be or not to be, but to become or not to become. So, no, I’m never going to be at the top of something, but always in the middle of it, as Laurent Binet has Deleuze state in the novel ‘The Seventh Function of Language’.

In conferences I’ve been called a theory guy. I think what I’ve written here so far should suffice as an elaboration as to why that is. However, it should also now be clear why I take theory so seriously and why I, generally speaking, advocate for post-structuralism (I know, that’s really vague) and post-empiricism. Now, fair enough, someone might still object that I’m contradicting myself, using a largely quantitative method, typically associated with early landscape research that makes claims to objectivity, while abandoning the related yardsticks, namely objectivity and replicability. Well, for starters, at least for me, it’s an oversimplification to say that what I do is merely quantitative. I would say that what I do, analyze or examine certain items of interest, but I do it on a large scale, en masse. I could do it on a smaller scale and it would likely be classified as qualitative research. It used to be the case that conducting large scale research was not only resource intensive, but also unwieldy. Not unlike many others, I make use of photography. Not that long ago, a bit over a decade ago (give or take), amassing thousands of photos would not have been impossible, but still highly inconvenient, having to work with either film (good quality, but expensive and impractical) or early digital cameras (more convenient, clearly less expensive, but poor in quality). At the moment, digital imaging makes things easy and requires little investment. The file handling has vastly improved as well, so managing the photos and building a database is fairly easy. In other words, what I do does not neatly fall under the label of quantitative, albeit it probably is closer to it than qualitative.

Okay, so, I still haven’t addressed the yardsticks. Right, so, I’ll let Derrida explain this. Famously, in ‘Of Grammatology’, he (158) states that:

There is nothing outside of the text[.]

Now, this, the translation of “il n’y a pas de hors texte”, stands for “there is no outside-text”, as pointed out by Spivak (158) in the English translation. Some, namely John Searle, are in opposition of this statement. In the ‘The Construction of Social Reality’, he (159) states that:

“Derrida, as far as I can tell, does not have an argument. He simply declares that there is nothing outside of texts[.]”

He (159-160) then laments on the back and forth responses between one another:

“And in any case, in a subsequent polemical response to some objections of mine, he apparently takes it all back: he says that all he meant by the apparently spectacular declaration that there is nothing outside of texts is the banality that everything exists in some context or other!”

Well, indeed, that is what Derrida is after, after all, context. At least the way I read Derrida in ‘Of Grammatology’ states exactly that. He is not saying that what’s at stake, reality, is a mere social construct, or that there is no reality outside language. Derrida (123) addresses this explicitly in ‘Dialogue with Jacques Derrida’, included in Richard Kearney’s ‘Dialogues with contemporary Continental thinkers: The Phenomenological heritage’:

“I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. … Every week I receive critical commentaries and studies … which operate on the assumption that what they call ‘post-structuralism’ amounts to say that there is nothing beyond language, that we are submerged in words – and other stupidities of that sort.”

In other words, Derrida is in fact interested in what he calls the ‘other’, what is outside language. Of course, at least for me, this is a tricky thing; how does one come to terms, understanding how reality would be perceived if one was outside language, if one never learned any language. It’s like trying to ask a dog how it makes sense of the world. If that were to work out somehow, say I’d manage to teach a dog to speak, wouldn’t the dog be inside language then, only able to explain how a dog perceives reality in language, which is not what we are after here. What I mean is that I take it that dogs, among other beings, do perceive world, in their way, whatever and however that is, but how would I be able to grasp that outside language is beyond me. If I were a dog, I guess that’d be self-explanatory, but I’m not.

Anyway, the way I read Derrida is that the way reality is perceived is affected by language. As I point out in my article (32), landscape, among other … things … is a diagram or an abstract machine, one that, according to Deleuze (35) in ‘Foucault’ “never functions in order to represent a persisting world but produces a new kind of reality, a new model of truth.” So, in other words, language is not faithful to reality, only kind of. Feel free to think of Magritte’s work here again. We can also go back to Derrida’s statements in ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, to point out how meaning is discursive, not transcendent, that is to say language is not a predetermined closed system. You can find the same interest, not only in language but in whatever is beyond language, in the works of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, as I have elaborated in my previous essays. As presented by Deleuze in ‘Foucault’, I find the Foucauldian terms, discursive and non-discursive, the easiest to comprehend, as long as one understands what Foucault (and/or others) mean by discourse. To return to where this started, it’s worth reiterating Duncan (12):

“Such language is not a set of words which have a one-to-one correspondence with reality ‘out there.’ It is based on discourses which are shared meanings which are socially constituted, ideologies, sets of ‘common-sense’ assumptions.”

This is likely easier to comprehend than Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari or Derrida, so I’ll leave it at that. Of course I couldn’t help myself. I felt I had to delve into reading various works of the aforementioned philosophers. I couldn’t justify it, to just take what Duncan states at face value, so I went the extra mile. This is why I call my research interpretative, rather than descriptive. Sure I could say it’s descriptive, assuming that people share my (and Duncan’s) view on it, but I have a feeling that that’s not the case.

I have to end this essay at some point and I think here is a good point. I’ll end with more Duncan. He (14) summarizes what cultural geographers have tended to do:

“[They] have tended to privilege vision and thereby adopted an unproblematic stance toward data[.]

He (14) then contrasts them with the developments in social sciences and literature:

“[S]tructural and post-structural social science and literary criticism have privileged the linguistic and thereby refused to question the relation between data and theory; while focusing attention on the unstable relation between signifier and signifieds (where signifieds are concepts not the actual referents), issues of epistemology, the theory-ladenness of data or the validity of concepts, theories or explanations has been ignored.”

So, in other words, Duncan is stating that cultural geographers, or in this context landscape researchers, have ignored niceties of theory. I assume he is mainly referring to the early landscape researchers, not to himself or his contemporaries, considering the polemics of the 1980s and the 1990s (traditional vs new cultural geography). In contrast, in other fields there has been the tendency to do just the opposite, go heavy on theory to the point that there is nothing tangible studied. I take this to mean that some have got stuck in language. Anyway, this is why Duncan (15) is arguing for a middle ground between empiricism and theoreticism:

“For just as one might argue that a landscape underdetermines its own context of interpretation, so one might equally argue that there is also danger in radical relativism. Although I have attempted to place some distance between myself and the cultural geographical tradition, I do draw from that tradition an impatience with groundless idealism. … I am arguing here for a middle road between empiricism and theoreticism, whereby our ‘contextual conception of the world’ and the landscape’s ‘own projection’ confront one another.”

I agree with Duncan. This is why I went the extra mile, in order to better understand how one could just do that. As stated in the article (32), following Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, I understand landscape as a discursive and non-discursive formation. To be more accurate, it’s between the two, not just one of the two. It’s the connection or crossing over of the two. Brian Massumi (18), the translator of ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, explains in his guide to Deleuze and Guattari’s works, ‘A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari’ this in-between, this diagram (in Foucauldian terms) or abstract machine (in Deleuzo-Guattarian terms) through essence or meaning:

“Even in its most deceptively homogeneous expression, the essence faithfully marks its own bipolar nature as a fragile integration of two ‘forms’ separated by a hyphenated gulf. It is two-faced, suspended in the abyss looking to both edges at once.”

Adding to this, a page earlier, Massumi (17) states that:

“The abstract machine is interpretation. It is the meaning process, from the point of view of a given expression.”

In other words, connecting this all to landscape research, I’d say that I interpret landscapes, not describe them. Where it is similar to early landscape research is the fieldwork, but I do not claim that I am capable of unmediated observation. There is no origin, no transcendent(al) meaning to landscapes. Now, that might then be understood as anything goes. As I point out in the article (41), and as does Duncan (12), this does not, or shouldn’t, lead to claiming that everything is subjective. That would, in my opinion, lead to an undue emphasis put on the individual. On the contrary, as I point in the article (32), landscape is not unique to each person. Of course in a way it is as there are minuscule differences between people, but as a way of seeing the world, landscape is not unique to each and every observer. I’m not going to elaborate this further as I’ve covered this in my previous essays, namely when examining articles of Maurice Ronai and Denis Cosgrove. So, in other words, while I consider that there is no transcendent meaning or truth, it doesn’t mean that everything is up for grabs for people. Instead there are what Foucault (131) calls regimes of truth:

“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”

That’s from ‘Truth and Power’, which appears in ‘Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977’. Anyway, following this, it is arguable that everything is not suddenly subjective in the absence of transcendent truth. As Foucault adds (132):

“There is a battle ‘for truth’, or at least ‘around truth’ – it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted’, but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true’, it being understood also that it’s not a matter of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays.”

To exemplify what this understanding of truth entails, we can take, for example, word like culture. There is an interesting and fruitful discussion of the word between Don Mitchell, Peter Jackson, James Duncan, Nancy Duncan and Denis Cosgrove, centering around Mitchell’s article title ‘There’s No Such Thing as Culture: Towards a Reconceptualization of the Idea of Culture in Geography’. While there is disagreement among them, there is a shared concern over the word, for what the Duncans (578) indicate in their response to Mitchell as giving it ontological status and causal powers. It can argued that culture does not exist as explanatory, having an ontological status and causal powers, yet, as the Duncans (578) note, it is “very real in its effects.” In other words, the is no origin to any given culture, no center, meaning that culture isn’t real, yet to many it very much is. If people are in agreement that is is, then it is, regardless of whether it is.

I have to stop somewhere, so I’ll might as well end this here. I didn’t get far, but at least I covered the aspects that I consider pivotal in my research. I plan to write more on the methodology, further explaining it, but we’ll see how turns out.


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