The (un)happy couple – When Athens met Jerusalem

In the previous essay I presented a list of excuses as to why I’ve been unproductive but finally managed to be productive. Anyway, I didn’t get far. The only thing I attended to was noting how perceptive Marwyn Samuels is in his essay ‘The Biography of Landscape: Cause and Culpability’.

The gist of that essay is that Samuels asks us to pay attention to the absence of humans in the landscape, be it how we come to observe the world, our surroundings, or in art. The central problem is that agency or authorship, the issue of who did this, was, and arguably still is, largely explained by appealing to entities such as culture, which is as useful as attributing its existence to the will of God. I also pointed out that, oddly enough, Samuels seems to end up doing the same thing.

I’m going to continue from my point of departure in the essay, which is before I got sidetracked and ended up explaining why attributing landscape to not only no one in particular but to something as broad as culture is such a problem. Relevant to that issue, Samuels (53) wonders how it is, how it came to be so that we’ve come to forget the who when it comes to landscape. How is it that landscape is all about people, yet always in the absence of people? The short answer here is that objectivism, what Valentin Vološinov might call abstract objectivism, leaves no room for the subject, the self.

Samuels (53) characterizes the intellectual heritage of the West as having two sources: Athens (the Ancients: the Greeks, the Romans) and Jerusalem (the Jews and the Christians). The former is marked by objectivism, seeking explanations. The latter is marked by subjectivism, engaging in lamentation, anguishing in passional guilt.

Now, if you’ve read my essays on ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, you’ll notice something familiar. On one hand you have the signifying regime of signs. On the other hand you have the postsignifying regime of signs. The former is marked by a thirst for meaning or signifiance, what something is or what it means, that can be rather paranoid, as one simply needs to know! Damn you Plato! The latter is marked by passionality, the know it all type, and infinite postponement, existing under reprieve, going from one trial or anguishing experience to another, just when you thought you made it. Contemporarily these are mixed, hence people want to know what something really is, say, the meaning of life, their raison d’être, or the like, and, yet, think they know it all, that they are the center of universe and everyone else is dumb. The irony is, of course, that their quest for the meaning of something is futile and they know nothing, you know, like Jon Snow.

For Samuels (53-54) the issue is that Athens has overrun Jerusalem, eradicating the self, the ‘I’. Even though I don’t fully agree with him, I’ll ally myself with Samuels here for a moment because he is making a good point. Now while I try to write these essays, these glorified blog posts, in a way that would be approachable to just about anyone, this is not the case when I write articles that are published in journals. Why is that? Well, because, you are not supposed to be ‘subjective’. You are supposed to be ‘objective’. This extends to the way how things are expressed, to the point that it’s just absurd. Taken to the extreme, there shall be no ‘I’ in a ‘scientific’ article because that’s a sign of ‘subjectivism’ and we, no, sorry, they, the priests, simply cannot have that. The irony is, of course, that no matter how you abstain from expressing the ‘I’, it’s always there. What do ‘I’ mean by this? Well, let’s say there’s this line (that ‘I’ just made up, on the spot):

“It is a matter of fact.”

As you can see, there is no ‘I’ contained in that line. There’s no who to it, which is exactly what bothers Samuels (53). Of course that’s just nonsense. How so? Let me rephrase that:

“I say that it is a matter of fact.”

The objectivist is either clearly misguided or simply dishonest. Perhaps even both. No matter how you try to justify it, there is no expression, be it spoken or written, or anyhow … expressed … say, gestured, without it having a source, someone who expresses it. There is no language without people. It’s always the ‘I’ who expresses something, regardless of the mode of expression. It’s just delusional to think otherwise. Expressing ‘I’ is redundant, considering that it’s always someone, an ‘I’, who expresses the ‘I’. This actually the issue you could take with such ‘subjective’ formulations. Why express it? It obvious that the expression always has an origin, no matter if that origin is a mere mouth piece.

That said, you can state that the latter formulation is still different from the former. Agreed. It’s not that expressing the ‘I’ doesn’t have its uses. For example, it can be handy when the origin of the expression is obscure or unclear. This would be the case if I said what’s contained in the former example, only to be asked who said it, followed by me saying what’s contained in the latter example, that I was the one who said that.

Then again, taking all that into consideration, the supposed objectivist still cannot abstain from expressing the ‘I’ as an indicator of objectivism. I reckon that, unless the ‘I’ is expressed for the sake of clarity, expressing it or not expressing it results in the same thing. It may indeed seem that the latter example concedes something and that it is thus subjective, the former example is no more objective than the latter example, considering that there’s always an ‘I’, even if, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to be the case.

To make this interesting, for you that is, try it out, properly, by eliciting a reaction from an objectivist. I dare you! Don’t be a frail coward! Push people a bit and you’ll see how rewarding it can be! For example, try it out on some high and mighty publication, just so that you can experience how the editor(s) and/or reviewers react to a supposedly subjective formulation. The goal is to see how it works in actuality, how the objectivists snap at you when they fail to see the point, when they take the bait. Okay, it’s actually pointless to do that. It won’t get you anywhere as they don’t have to concede anything, because, as I have explained in the past, the thing with priests is that they are always right because they are in a position to be right, by the grace of God.

To get back on track here, in the words used by Samuels (53-54) in reference to Lev Shestov, there is “an unrelenting ‘struggle against the ‘I,’ against individual experience’ which arises from the all too human endeavor to escape the particular and the consequences of selfhood.” More concisely, the way he (54) puts it, the objectivist hates nothing more than the ‘I’, the enemy number one is always “the ego, the self, and even the soul, all of which find their integrity simply as dependent variables.”

I acknowledge that I’m out of my league when it comes to medieval theology, so I can’t vouch for everything that Samuels (54-55) goes on about pertaining to the problem of subjectivity in Christianity and subsequently in the Enlightenment. There’s that. So if I’m off about something or if I fail to challenge him on something, it’s simply because I haven’t delved deep enough into medieval Christian theology to know any better. Know thy limitations and what not.

Anyway, in summary, Samuels (54-55) argues that under Christianity will, individuality and the self became associated with the doctrine of sin. That said, he (54) also notes how the will of the self is an essential premise in the Judeo-Christian understanding of what it is to be human as that’s what differentiates humans from animals. He (55) also connects monasticism and especially asceticism, seclusion from the hustle and bustle and the temptations of crowded cities, with the development of landscape as a secluded activity, confronting the world alone, in the absence of others, “devoid of humanity-in-general”.

This reminds me of how on the aesthetic lectures that I attended the lecturer stated how landscape was conceived as operating this way, as one’s solitary engagement with the world, in the early 1800s. Art was still very religious, even though, at the time, the influence of Christianity was far from what it was during medieval era. He indicated that back then it was held that it was possible to achieve metaphysical understanding of the world and your place in it by, for example, hiking to an elevated position, such as a steep hill or a mountain, and looking at the world from that position. This then ended up shifted from engagement with the world to engagement with the nation in the late 1800s. You no longer sought to understand the world and yourself through distanced visual engagement but to understand the nation and yourself as a national, as part of that nation.

Back to Samuels (55) who notes that while there was this emphasis on the self in ascetism and in the secluded life in the monasteries, the social order of monasticism still prevailed. In short, the world and the society were seen as in dire need of order (logos), whereas anything individual, anything related to the self and the will, was deemed perverted. He (55-56) continues, noting that this reached a whole new level in the Cartesian Cogito which saw the self, the empirical or particular self, the individual, being substituted by the universal self, the self of no one in particular. It resulted in a peculiar form of idealism. He (56) elaborates it:

“The idealism of the new world was thus never subjective idealism. The paradox of that idealism, furthermore, was that in order to defend its own brand of humanism, the new sciences had to rid themselves of any anthropocentric taint. Thought became the center of being, but had nonetheless to rid itself of the familiar enemy: the potential assertion of self, its suspect will, unreliable senses, and fearsome accountability.”

In other words, the subject, the self became universal. This also explains the point he (57) makes about how in science the observer, the one doing the experiment is always taken as no one in particular. There is also no room “for the idiosyncrasy, willfulness, and irrationality of men”, as he (57) puts it.

At about this point in the essay I find myself no longer in agreement with Samuels. He (58) is very adamant about the willful self, the autonomous individual subject, to the point that, to me, he, himself, ends up conceptualizing humans as no one in particular, as having built-in universal autonomy and exhibiting perfect individuality distinct from everyone else. For example, he (58) castigates David Harvey for ignoring those who live and work in the landscape:

“At least, we might expect an interpretation of the meanings people give their landscapes. In fact, however, what we are given instead is a panoply of qualifications. First, the landscape symbols themselves are deemed meaningful only in the light of their most general concatenations. What is more, only the ‘messages people receive from their constructed environments’ acquire significance here, for only they can be measure with any accuracy as regards behavior.”

In other words, he (58) isn’t happy with how Harvey considers people passive recipients in the landscape, having no agency. He (58) finishes his argument against Harvey:

“As for anyone in particular, any one individual that might have constructed the landscape, Harvey is quick to add that he ‘doubt[s] very much whether we will ever truly understand the intuitions which lead a creative artist to mold space to convey message.’”

He (58) takes issue with what to him seems like Harvey’s unwillingness to understand the author, the artist, the will of the individual. He (58) calls this a rationalist belief, that holds that it is impossible to understand someone’s intuitions. I’m sorry but I have to side with Harvey on this one. I just don’t buy it that there is any ill will to it. That said, I think Samuels is correct when he (59) states that no matter what, the self lurks in the background. Even the researcher is always an ‘I’, no matter how much attention you pay to formulation sentences so that it doesn’t appear to be subjective, as I pointed out earlier. However, I don’t agree with him (59) on that:

“[T]he failure to understand the intent and responsibility of the individual in no sense here mitigates the ‘fact’ of ‘intuitions which lead (some individual) to mold space to convey a message.’”

Which, according to him (59), apparently:

“It merely admits to a failure of method. Indeed, by his doubt, Harvey proclaims the individual (i.e., the ‘creative artist’) as the source of landscape meaning.”

The way I read Harvey, I just don’t see him admitting to any failure of method. Sure he (31-33) isn’t crystal clear about the issue in ‘Social Justice and the City’, the book that Samuels is referring to here, but I can’t find a passage where it would be evident that this is the case. I also fail to find a passage where he asserts that the individual is the source of landscape meaning. His (31-32) examples actually consist of churches, chapels, skyscrapers and villages. Sure, an artist, in this case an architect, may have something in mind, but an architect is rarely the person who commissions buildings. The artist may have a vision, but those who commission the projects are the ones whose interests the artists further. Harvey (32) actually notes how the layout of an 18th century English village actually reflects social order, how the nobility and church are in privileged positions in the society. Simply put, it is of little consequence who came up with the actual layout or engaged in masonry when those who fund the projects have the final say anyway.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that the artist, be it, say, an architect or a sculptor, funds the project on one’s own and puts it on display in a place owned and controlled by the artist. This way we eliminate the third parties. However, that still gets us nowhere when it comes to explaining the artist’s intent. It still remains ineffable. How so?

Well, for me, following Vološinov (36) in ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’, one’s expression of one’s experience, is never the same thing as experience itself and experience itself is never individual as it is always conditioned by language, which certainly does not emerge from the individual but from engagement with other individuals. That’s why Harvey (32) calls them intuitions. You can try to explain intuitions, something intuitive, say, how it is that I know my hand is my hand and that I can do all kinds of things with it, for example wave it. However, at least I keep failing to explain how that is. Just stating that I do something with my hand is off. It’s, as if, my hand was separate from me, my body, which it is not. I just do. Explaining how I do that is ineffable.

As I’m just some random graduate student, perhaps it’s better to have someone smarter explain this, someone like Henri Bergson. In ‘The Creative Mind’, he (187-188) makes a distinction between two kinds of knowing, relative and absolute. The former is perspectival and symbolic (involves translation). The latter is non-perspectival and non-symbolic (no translation necessary). So, to go back to my hand example (Bergson actually uses moving an arm as an example), I sure can wave it around, in front of my eyes and see it from many perspectives, as if it was outside me, my body, dangling in front of me. I can also just have it be in front my eyes and move myself, my head and my eyes instead. I can also translate all that, put it into words, for me and others to know but the knowledge of that will always remain relative. I will have to keep analyzing my hand forever. Alternatively, and, at least to me, making way more sense, I can intuitively understand what the heck is going on. No words, nor thoughts are needed for me to operate my hand. I don’t have to command my hand, to articulate it in inner speech or outer speech. I don’t need any of that because I’m, quite literally, inside my own hand. If you feel like doubting my take on his view on this, just have a look at the original wording by Bergson (187):

“Take, for example, the movement of an object in space. I perceive it differently according to the point of view from which I look at it, whether from that of mobility or of immobility. I express it differently, furthermore as I relate it to the system of axes or reference points, that is to say, according to the symbols by which I translate it. … [I]n either case, I place myself outside the object itself.”

That is the relative way of knowing something, be it mobile or immobile. He (188) reiterates the key points in a shorter form:

“Symbols and points of view … place me outside it; they give me only what it has in common with others and what does not belong properly to it.”

The key thing here is the point of view, how there is this and/or that point of view. He (187-188) then explains the absolute way of knowing something:

“[T]he movement will not be grasped from without and, as it were, from where I am, but from within, inside it, in what it is in itself. I shall have hold of an absolute.”

Only to be reiterated by him (189):

“[W]hat is properly itself, what constitutes its essence, cannot be perceived from without, being internal by definition, nor be expressed by symbols, being incommensurable with everything else.”

So, you are no longer in this and/or that position, looking at the world froma certain point of view. According to him (189), the problem with the relative is that:

“Description … and analysis … leave me in the relative. Only by coinciding with the [object] itself would I possess the absolute.”

That’s his take on analysis for you, but that’s not all there is to life. To get to point, he (190) indicates that:

“It follows that an absolute can only be given in an intuition, while all the rest has to do with analysis.”

He (190) further clarifies that intuition is always unique and inexpressible. Conversely, as added by him (190), analysis always involves reduction, reducing an “object to elements already known, that is, common to that object and to others”, and expressing something “in terms of what is not it.” I like the way Brian Massumi expresses what happens here in his book ‘A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ when he (16) reminds the reader that “[t]ranslation is repetition with a difference.” I reckon that’s as simply as you can put it.

It’s worth reiterating and emphasizing that, for Bergson (190), the central problem with analysis is that it will always result in a representation. For him (189-190), the central problem with representation is that it is never match to the original and it will always remain imperfect, no matter how much you attempt to add more data or further elaborate what’s at stake in other words. He (189) uses the example of attempting to photograph a whole city, a project that can only fail because no matter how much effort you put into it, you can never be sure that you covered it all. He (189) also explains this by comparing a poem with its translations, noting that while the translations may get close to the original, especially if they are reworked side by side, they always remain imperfect.

This is why Deleuze and Guattari (21) explain that we shouldn’t confuse multiplicity with multiple. With regards to the former, in practice, we always deal with subtractions of it, hence the formula they (21) use: n – 1. With regards to the latter, as they (21) explain, no matter how you pile up ones, you only end up with a multiple and therefore the formula is not: n + 1. The trick is that you can never piece together a multiplicity by piling up ones, by listing them all together because the ones are themselves subtractions of a multiplicity that “is not composed of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion”, as they (21) explain it. I like to think of it as trying to piece together a puzzle, only to never really know if you’ve managed to complete it because you don’t know if you have all the pieces because you don’t know the dimensions of the puzzle.

To explain this the other way around, for Bergson (189-190), only the absolute, only that what can be given in an intuition, reaches perfection. The analysis is forever condemned to going around in circles in its attempts to embrace objects from the outside, as explained by him (190-191).

Getting back on track here, back to the essay written by Samuels, I have to state it again, that I don’t know if it’s even possible to understand someone else’s intuitions as they cannot be put into words. The absolute can never be explained as something that is explained always becomes relative. It’s pointless for me to go on and on about my hand, how it is that I know that it’s my hand and what I can do with it. I just know and so do you. I can’t explain it and neither can you, yet I know and so you do. Strange, isn’t it? I must investigate this more, but I’ll leave that for another day (as I don’t really agree on the relative being representational, as opposed to discursive).

Anyway, Samuels (84) actually further clarifies his stance vis-à-vis Harvey in the notes section of the essay. There he acknowledges that he is, in fact, largely in agreement with Harvey. For him, the key difference between him and Harvey is in their views on how meaning or sense emerges. Samuels is adamant about how one must start with the individual and then work one’s way up from there. Harvey (34) acknowledges that meaning is never separate from the individuals, yet, for him, like for me, and also for Vološinov, not to mention for Deleuze and Guattari, experience is, pretty much, always collective. Therefore, as hypothesized by Harvey (34), people are remarkably alike, largely because one’s experience is always colored by language, which one simply isn’t born with, nor are others, those from whom you acquire language, for that matter. That said, this does not result in herd mentality.

I think Vološinov (88) explains this issue particularly well when he distinguishes between the I-experience and the we-experience. The former has to do physiological reactions, animal like behavior, if you will. For me, getting hit hard in the face or the like might just do it. The latter has to do with all those experiences that aren’t merely direct physiological reactions. It’s also worth emphasizing, as he (88) does, the we-experience is never “nebulous herd experience”. Instead, for him (88), as it is for me as well, the physiological reactions aside, experience is always collective, yet differentiated. In his (88) words:

“[D]ifferentiation, the growth of consciousness, is in direct proportion to the firmness and reliability of the social orientation. The stronger, the more organized, the more differentiated the collective in which an individual orients [one]self, the more vivid and complex [one’s] inner world will be.”

To make more sense of this, he (88-89) exemplifies this with how one comes to experience hunger. Hunger is a specific experience, very intuitive really, yet, as he (88) points out, being part of a collective always colors it, somehow. For example, it may be associated with various feelings, such as humility, shame and enviousness. It’s festive season right now and most people sure won’t end up experiencing hunger during Christmas. There are, however, always people who spend the holidays queuing to a soup kitchen or standing in a bread line. If it were only about the food, getting a fix to a physical reaction, those people wouldn’t feel any shame about it.

He (89) also warns not to confuse individualistic self-experience nor solitary self-experience with the I-experience as both are actually forms of we-experience. The former does not emerge from the individual, but from the socioeconomic situation outside the individual. He notes that it may well appear to be I-experience but it is not. It is the we-experience of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In his (89) words:

“The individualistic type of experience derives from a steadfast and confident social orientation. … It is the … interpretation of one’s social recognizance and tenability by rights, and of the objective security and tenability provided by the whole social order, of one’s individual livelihood. The structure of the conscious, individual personality is just as social a structure as is the collective type of experience. It is a particular kind of interpretation, projected into the individual soul, of a complex and sustained socioeconomic situation.”

Here, in particular, I would make note of how he calls it a projection and how he (89) adds to this that it is in contradiction with itself. I reckon the contradiction is rather obvious, considering that it is not actual I-experience but we-experience projected on to oneself. In ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, Deleuze and Guattari (129-130) calls this relation or recoiling, the invention of the doubled subject, being slave to pure reason, the Cogito.

With regards to the solitary self-experience, Vološinov’s latter example of peculiar we-experience, he (89-90) characterizes it as “characteristic of the modern-day West European intelligentsia”, involving an illusory split between thinking ‘for oneself’, for the inside, and ‘for the public’, for the outside. He (89-90) explains that it is illusory because both are one and the same. Taking all this into account, he (90) summarizes how experience works:

“Thus the personality of the speaker, taken from within, so to speak, turns out to be wholly a product of social interrelations. Not only its outward expression but also its inner experience are social territory. Consequently, the whole route between inner experience (the ‘expressible’) and its outward objectification (the ‘utterance’) lies entirely across social territory. When an experience reaches the stage of actualization in a full-fledged utterance, its social orientation acquires added complexity by focusing on the immediate social circumstances of discourse and, above all, upon actual addressees.”

In other words, the individual is always the product of the social, never the other way around. Who you are is who you’ve become and who you’ve become is always the product of the outside. All your experiences are collective, albeit differentiated. All that you can say or do is always conditioned by what has been said or done before you say or do. Anyway, I think he expresses this better than I do.

So, right, I find myself more in agreement with Harvey than Samuels when it comes to the interpretation of landscapes and/or the elements present in landscapes. I don’t agree with Samuels (84) when he states in the notes section that:

“From the perspective of this paper, group consensus, as such, makes little or no sense unless and until its individual components are determined.”

It just doesn’t work for me when I take into account what Vološinov has to say about language and experience. Anyway, this doesn’t mean that Samuels doesn’t have good points in the essay. Another good point is when he (59) notes that the issue he takes with objectivism, in its many forms, be it “objective idealism, materialism … logical positivism, modern nominalism, and the manifold forms of determinism”, is in how it results in “the loss of freedom.” I agree with him, that objectivism leads to the loss freedom, individuality and the self, but so does subjectivism as it fails to take account how experience takes place in social territory. It ends up resorting to an asylum of ignorance when it gives primacy to the subject, by asserting the autonomy of the individual, the willing self, as a given and as a starting point for everything else.

It’s also worth acknowledging that Samuels (61) makes note of certain limitations to the position he holds, that “[w]e understand now better than ever before that human and individual choice, freedom, will, and responsibility are undeniably constrained” and that we are “object[s] in nature, … function[s] of bio-chemical drives, … victim[s] of the DNA molecule[.]” On top of acknowledging the built in constraints or should I say, rather, features, he (61) acknowledges that “[n]either can we deny that human beings as such and as individuals live out their lives in close accordance with hereditary, physical, psychological, social, education, and broadly environmental conditioning”, as well as “that virtually all our thought, feeling[s] and actions are subject to a mode of classification and analysis that renders ourselves merely latent in the environment. He (61-62) goes as far as to point out that if wasn’t the case, we’d have to consider, for example, insanity, sickness and poverty as mere choices, as lifestyles, if you will. He (64) also indicates that he is well aware that language cannot be subjective, up to the individual, as otherwise people wouldn’t understand one another.

That all said, Samuels (62-65) firmly holds his ground, arguing in favor of the primacy of the authorial intent. To be more specific, he (64) argues that landscapes are not unlike other products human creativity. For him, the limitations or constraints are contextual. He likens the contextual limitations to the materials needed in visual art such as paper, canvas or rock, the colors, the brushes, the pens, the knives and the chisels. Same applies to written self-expression, namely literature. Nonetheless, it seems that he considers the limitations or constraints more like obstacles or inconveniences that the artist not only must but also can confront and overcome than something that conditions and sets limits of human action and thinking, as one acts and/or thinks. For him, what matters in a work of art is the author’s intention. In his (65) words:

“The images, symbols, metaphors, and most of all the meanings, whether visual or literary, are always references to something on the part of someone – the author. If that ‘upsurge’ is always ‘engaged in’ some context, the product itself is equally the function of some author’s intentions, perspectives, aspirations, inclinations, or broad partialities.”

I disagree with this. For example, what does a word mean? Look up the word in a dictionary and you’ll notice that it refers to another word, explained in other words, which are also explained in other words if you happen to look up those words. Words are always in an infinite regress. This gets us nowhere, especially if we take into consideration that, following Bergson, once we put something into words, we can no longer know something absolutely, only relatively. So no, going back to his objection to Harvey’s remarks, while it may be the case that we manage to intuitively understand someone else’s intuitions or intentions, we always fail once we put something into words. It’s the same thing with any mode of expression, not only language, be it spoken or written.

In other words, explaining this through my own research, it’s not that I cannot grasp the intentions of others, to truly know why something is the way it is, as manifested in the landscape, even if that may not necessarily be the case. I don’t think that I can ever be fully certain that I know it all, for sure, albeit, I reckon I do, but only intuitively. That’s actually the problem. Once I attempt to put those intuitions into words, they are rendered into partial accounts. Piling them doesn’t do much good either as there can only be partial accounts, no matter how many accounts you take into consideration. In other words, there’s little value added by adding more and more views as the view is never complete. On top of that, it is likely that the views of individuals are remarkably alike, considering that, if we disregard physiological reactions, experience is always collective.

I have written essays on this already so I won’t go into detail about my objections to the primacy of authorial intent. In short, for me, it matters not what the author intended to mean. Once a work is done, it starts to live a life of its own. Often we couldn’t even rely on the creator as people do tend to have a limited life span. Oddly enough, as exemplified by the cases where those who have created the works have already died, we don’t need the author to tell us what was meant by it, what the intention is. Just imagine it, reading a text, enjoying it, getting, and then, all the sudden, like a flash of lightning you no longer can make sense of it, because the author happened to die a moment ago. Now obviously that’s not the case. You can make sense of just about anything, regardless of the intentions of the author.

The lecturer explained this issue well during the aesthetics course. He told the audience a story how a student came to him after an exam, to point out that he or she (in Finnish it’s unclear whether it was a he or she as the pronouns are not sexed) deserves a better grade because the examiner just has not understood what he or she meant by this and/or that in his or her answers. He told us how he reacted to the student, telling the student that it matters not what you say you intended when what is conveyed to the reader is something else. Simply put, he sought to make the audience aware that the only thing that matters for the reader is what is contained in the text. In a sense, what is written is always exactly what is intended, as read by whoever it happens that comes across the text.

I reckon it’s necessary to ponder a bit here. What counts as art? Are landscapes art, can space itself be art? Why does Samuels seem to think it’s necessary to liken the two, art and landscape? The first question is tricky and I guess it depends on what is the basis for an answer to that. From a legal perspective just about anything is art or can be a work of art. A work of art always has a creator, regardless of whether the whoever it was that created it is known or not. We could call the creator an author but, as discussed in my previous essays, the author is not the actual person who created the work. The author is always the figment of our imagination. For example, I don’t know Samuels, Harvey, Vološinov, Deleuze or Guattari, yet I behave as if I’m having a conversation with them. Of course I’m not doing that. I don’t know them, nor would it even be possible with some of them, considering that some of them are dead already. I think Henri Lefebvre (73) has something useful to say on this in ‘The Production of Space’:

“Consider the case of a city – a space which is fashioned, shaped and invested by social activities during a finite historical period. Is this city a work or a product?”

Yes, I reckon it’s fruitful to make this distinction, even though, I guess, all works are products but not all products are works of art. Lefebvre (73) exemplifies this:

“Take Venice, for instance. If we define works as unique, original and primordial, as occupying a space yet associated with a particular time, a time of maturity between rise and decline, then Venice can only be described as work. It is a space just as highly expressive and significant, just as unique and unified as a painting or a sculpture.”

So, yes, it would appear to be the case that something spatial, such as the landscape of a city, can be understood as a work of art. That said, it’s not at all that clear that this is the case. Lefebvre (73) continues:

“But what – and whom – does it express and signify? These questions can give rise to interminable discussion, for here content and meaning have no limits?”

This is the problem with art. What does it mean? As also argued by Harvey, Lefebvre (73) thinks that there is no right answer to this, nor would it even be possible to query it from the author(s). Why? Well, as argued by Lefebvre (73), we need to ask another question:

“Who conceived the architectural and monumental unity which extends from each palazzo to the city as a whole?”

In other words, how does one decipher the author of a landscape? Each building may have an architect and a city may well be planned, but, on the whole, it seems absurd to try to assign a landscape an author. We can list everyone involved in this and that project that led to this and that building, monument, square or the like, but the sum of all this is not the author of the landscape. In his (73-74) words:

“The truth is that no one did – even though Venice, more than any other place, bears witness to the existence, from the sixteenth century on, of a unitary code or common language of the city. This unity goes deeper, and in a sense higher, than the spectacle Venice offers the tourist.”

He (74) attempts to explain this in less abstract terms:

“[A city] has, after all, been ‘composed’ by people, by well-defined groups. All the same, it has none of the intentional character of an ‘art object’.”

So, in summary, it’s not that a city, nor, I’d add, the countryside, cannot be art or, rather, come across as such. It’s rather that while they are indeed produced, as is anything really, they aren’t created as works of art, as Lefebvre (76) goes on to reiterate. Simply put, landscapes don’t have authors. That said, it’s not that they aren’t produced, that they aren’t created by actual people. They are. I’ll let Lefebvre (75) elaborate this:

“There is an overwhelming case for saying that it is a product strictu sensu: it is reproducible and it is the result of repetitive actions.”

A page earlier he (74) provides an example:

“What exactly were the great cathedrals? The answer is that they were political acts.”

Only to expand on this, albeit in the context of the city of Venice (76):

“The fact that this … production was put to an aesthetically satisfying use, in accordance with the tastes of people who were prodigiously gifted, and highly civilized for all their ruthlessness, can in no way conceal its origins.”

What he is getting at here is that while there is indeed a difference between a work of art and a product, between creativity and production, even the artists are still people. Also, even if they were somehow distinct from other people, they are nonetheless working at the behest of someone else. In the case of Venice that would be the wealthy patricians. The artists aren’t somehow exempt from the influence of others. So, to repeat myself, I’d say that all works of art are products, but not all products are works of art. What’s relevant to this essay is that, in the terms used by Lefebvre, both works of art and products, are the results of production. So, yes, to connect this back to the essay written by Samuels, someone is always culpable for their presence. Landscape, on the whole, is unlike a work of art though. Unlike what is contained in it, it lacks an author that we can point to.

As a side note, before I jump back to the topic of this essay, I think it’s worth emphasizing what Lefebvre (75-76) thinks is particularly important about our engagement with space:

“A further important aspect of [produced] spaces … is their increasingly pronounced visual character. They are made with the visible in mind: the visibility of people and things, of spaces and of whatever is contained by them. … People look, and take sight, take seeing, for life itself. … We buy on the basis of images.”

The central problem is then, for him (76) that:

“Sight and seeing, which in the Western tradition once epitomized intelligibility, have turned into a trap: the means whereby, in social space, diversity may be simulated and a travesty of enlightenment and intelligibility ensconced under the sign of transparency.”

In other words, we are in the habit of conflating seeing with truth, which leads us to take what can be seen as what is true. The central problem is that what we see is actually produced. I reckon that should be sort of a given, really, as everything is produced, everything has come to being. It’s not that things are simply always already there, but come to appear to us, yet people take things for granted. That’s why Lefebvre (75-76) characterizes our reliance on vision a trap. People tend to rely on images, not realizing that those images are products.

Anyway, I can’t really explain why Samuels wants to explain this issue by comparing landscape with art. I reckon it’s more fruitful to compare it with anything produced, as all products have their producers. It still retains what Samuels is after, the responsibility and culpability aspects that are central to his essay. I can, however, agree with Samuels (64) on another thing:

“[E]very work of art imposes an order of reality[.]”

Before I offer my take on this, Lefebvre (77) actually also brings this up:

“Each work occupies a space; it also engenders and fashions that space.”

In other words, a work of art is always a function. It operates. It does something. It doesn’t merely exist. Anyway, I agree with Samuels on this, as I do with Lefebvre. Every work, every text, every utterance, is always imposing, as I’ve discussed on my essays on pragmatics. This is also the position held by Deleuze and Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. For them (75-76) language functions to impose, to compel, that is to say make things happen, make people do things, including refraining from doing things. Hence they (76) call the elementary unit of language, the statement or the utterance, the order-word. More broadly speaking, language orders reality, in the sense that it creates or produces (whatever word you want to use here) a certain order of things. Language is thus very creative or productive, even though what is (re)created or (re)produced by it isn’t always good for people. So, yeah, I agree that intention matters, in the sense that whatever one does or says is never neutral. This is why Samuels (64) is so keen to emphasize responsibility and culpability:

“[E]very work of art … is nonetheless the responsibility of its author. It is his responsibility, further, because he, first and foremost, gave it meaning. Even if successive generations of critics reinterpret that meaning in the light of their own contexts, the author’s responsibility does not change. Neither does his meaning change without a change in authorship.”

As much as I understand why that might be the case, why you might want to hold people accountable for what they say or do, I’d rephrase this, swapping works of art with products or creations. What I don’t buy is the emphasis on the importance of the author’s intent, for reasons I’ve addressed already in this essay. This also goes back to the point made about the aesthetics lecturer. A reader brings its context to the text, which functions in the absence of its author. It only follows from his (64) view on authorial intent that, once again, David Harvey is, apparently, wrong about the impossibility of explaining human experience, why it is that someone does this and/or that. He (65) argues that:

“[Intuitions] are everywhere evidenced by the way individuals explain, rationalize, or describe their intentions.”

Again, as expressed by Vološinov (36), one’s expression of one’s experience, is never the same thing as experience itself. So, no, I don’t think Samuels (65) is right about intuitions being accessible through people’s “diaries, letters, books, poems, paintings, and in the broad archival collections of individuals” or through the “means of interview and discussion.” I can partially agree with him (65) on that:

“[W]e can probe the intentions of individuals, whether rational or irrational, right or wrong, good or bad, to find the meanings they ascribe to a landscape already given, and to find the means whereby they mold their environments to create meaningful landscapes.”

I reckon we can probe the opinions people have about landscapes. However, I wouldn’t simply assume that what people say to those who interview them is what they believe. It might not be in their interest to do so, so you can’t just assume that you are getting good information. This also assumes that people have anything to say about the landscape. They might not pay attention to it, as argued by others elsewhere in the same book. They might also end up saying what you wish them to say about things they’ve never cared for and/or paid attention to. For example, if you ask people to tell you about the landscape, you are putting them on the spot, likely making them more aware of the landscape or the various particulars in it. Funny how language works, ordering reality, compelling people.

There’s still ten or so pages to cover in the essay written by Samuels, but I reckon I’ll leave the rest to a later date. I’ve already crammed in a lot, so adding more probably won’t do any good. So, how to summarize all this? Right, I agree with Samuels, but only to a certain extent. What’s great is how he points out how the objectivists manage to only fool themselves when they appeal to the universal, generic human, who happens to be no one, ever. What’s not so great is how he, in support of subjectivism, ends up doing the same when he asserts that one should always start with the individual. For me, that’s just all to quaint. I find myself somewhere in between the two, albeit I realize that I probably shouldn’t explain it as such. Anyway, more to follow, whenever it is that I find the time to address the rest of the essay.


  • Bergson, H. ([1934] 1946). The Creative Mind (M. L. Andison, Trans.). New York, NY: Philosophical Library.
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Harvey, D. ([1973] 1988). Social Justice and the City. Oxford, United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Lefebvre, H. ([1974/1984] 1991). The Production of Space (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Basil Blackwell.
  • Martin, G. R. R. (1991–2011). A Song of Ice and Fire. New York, NY: Bantam Books / Harper Collins.
  • Massumi, B. (1992). A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Samuels, M. S. (1979). The Biography of Landscape: Cause and Culpability. In D. W. Meinig (Ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays (pp. 51–88). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  • Vološinov, V. N. ([1930] 1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, Trans.). New York, NY: Seminar Press.