Impressions and Expressions, Designs and Designations, the Elite and the Riffraff

So, I have about ten or so pages of ‘The Biography of Landscape: Cause and Culpability’ by Marwyn Samuels left to cover. I’ll go through these pages in this essay. But before I do that, I’ll summarize what I covered in my previous essay.

Right, the gist of the essay is that we should not attribute what we see, the landscape, to some abstract, otherworldly entity or process, such as nature, culture, deity, economy, labor, capitalism, politics or humanity. That said, that’s the trick. We tend to do exactly that, to attribute landscape to no one in particular (at all), which then obscures why things are the way they are. It is in this sense that landscape is particularly absurd. It’s clearly a human invention, yet it appears as if it wasn’t. On top of that, it’s very telling of humans, yet, oddly enough, it’s that in the absence of actual humans. In short, I guess you could say that landscape is human, yet, at the same time, also inhuman because all that’s human is at the expense of actual humans. So, it also not only obscures why things are the way they are, but it also obscures who did what and, in reverse, who didn’t do what, that is to say who don’t have agency, who don’t get to have a say about the way things are or should be. In other words, Samuels reminds us to not forget who is or could be held responsible for the way things are, hence the title of his essay includes the words ‘cause’ and ‘culpability’.

In order to address the central concern of his essay, authorship or, what I’d rather call it, agency, Samuels (69) distinguishes between how we come imagine the world, landscape impressions, and how we come to live in the world, landscape expressions. Up to this point in the essay he’s gone on and on about how subjectivism is a good thing, to the point that I think that he, inadvertently, ends up doing the same as the objectivists, universalizing what it is to be human, making it no one in particular. Anyway, here he (69-70) shifts his view, making this neither simply a subjective or an objective matter. I can only appreciate this move.

He (70) elaborates landscape impressions or landscapes of impressions. For him (70), they are “by definition, [what] belong to and arise from the thoughts of someone”, “more about than in the landscape”. What’s crucial is how people come to perceive their surroundings and reshape them into images. So, in a sense, landscape impressions are imaginary. What’s also important is how ill conceived landscape impressions are, how landscape imagery is riddled with caricatures, with clichés. He (70-71) includes a short list of such caricatures that plague landscape art. I won’t go through them. I’ll offer another example instead. I remember watching a documentary on Australian painters. The documentary covers different stages in Australian visual arts. What struck me was how the first bunch of painters were plagued by the landscape impressions of Europe. Their depictions of their new surroundings looked awfully lot like Europe. For example, their depictions of mountains bore resemblance to the Alps. Having grown up in Europe, they had become accustomed to the ways painters had depicted mountains, so they ended up depicting them the same way. That may seem absurd but you do have to keep in mind that painting outdoors, looking at what you are attempting to depict on canvas, is fairly new thing. Many famous landscape paintings were actually painted indoors, in a studio, because mixing the paints was a pain in the ass, way too much of hassle to do somewhere outdoors before the introduction of prefabricated paints. When you take that into account, it’s not that surprising that their depictions of Australian mountains ended up looking like the Alps. Okay, they may have had sketches done on the spot but they still had to fill in the gaps, or so to speak, and that‘s where the impressions kick in.

I pointed out in the previous essay how landscape art became associated with nationalism. Samuels (71) makes the same observation as did the lecturer on my aesthetics lectures when he points that nation states were keen to utilize landscape art for their own purposes:

“The modern history of nation-states is filled with exaggerated images about homelands, motherlands, and fatherlands. They are exaggerated both by means of poetic license applied to the ‘we of some identity with place, and by exaggerating the conditions of an alien ‘they.’”

He (71) calls this the topophilic myth and exemplifies it with how countries such as Canada are depicted as virginal and untrammeled, distinguished by the vast swathes of untouched forest. He (71) adds that, in reverse, what tends to be missing is anything modern or technological:

“It is a landscape of lost, but aspired to, innocence; a modern day variant of romanticism.”

So, anything that is ‘alien’ or ‘other’ to these romanticized depictions of our environment is kept out. This means that, in practice, you’ll find it hard to find landscape imagery that contains polluting factories, traffic jams, clearcutting or the like. Now, of course, this does depend on the context. For example, I reckon that you can have landscape imagery that depicts factories, say, those old brick buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, but, in my experience, they are, quite literally, sanitized versions of what was.

Anyway, Samuels (71) moves on to point out that while landscape impressions are riddled with hyperbole, exaggeration and caricatures, they are not simply a matter of make believe. People are not being whimsical. In his (71-72) words:

“[I]f subjective in origin, landscape impressions acquire an objective content insofar as they have a history: a history of authorship, diffusion and impact. That is, whether benign or odious, landscape images have an objective content as[.]”

This is a three-fold matter to him (72). Firstly (72):

“[T]hey can be attributed someone[.]”

Secondly, continuing on the first case (72):

“… who … created, obtained, or conveyed an image in a context[.]”

Thirdly, continuing on the second case (72):

“… which … is shared with others.”

In other words, as explained by him (72):

“The image can be explained in terms of an historic someone somewhere. It can be explained in terms of a reality charged and often supercharged with attachments to and identities with places, people, and things on the part of some author in some context. In the process, the image itself acquires an objective content, because it too has a history.”

If it isn’t obvious already, the key word here is history. So, instead of taking things for granted, that a certain landscape is inevitably like this or like that, we need to examine its history, how it came to being and who were involved in it coming to being. Samuels (86-87) further elaborates this in the notes section of his essay, noting that it matters not whether something is actually true or false. What matters instead is what people hold to be true or false. In his (86-87) words:

“The ‘truth-value’ of an image is not in the environment itself, but in the eye of the beholder. If the image is ‘exaggerated,’ it is only to say that someone else (a third party, or the one against whom the image may be aimed) holds a contrary view which through common agreement, is less ‘exaggerated.’ Whether true or false, benign or dangerous, images exist and acquire an ‘objective’ content as they acquire a history; a history of authors in context.”

So, that’s not given, but it appears to be given. He (87) also clarifies what he wants to do:

“One essential merit of a biography of such imagery is that, by tracing the history of authorship, we expose the identity of those most responsible for the image, as well as for the landscape made in the wake of the image.”

That said, as acknowledged by him (72) in the body of the text, figuring out the authors is easier said than done, because:

“[T]he original authors, contexts, and meanings of landscape images are often lost[.] … The image may become, as it were, part of the media for the making of its likeness in the impressions of others. Here too, however, the image acquires an objective content as it is shared, promulgated, and changed by other authors to suit their own purposes. The image may become part of the media for the making of shared landscapes.”

More simply put, as this deals with landscape impressions, how we imagine our surroundings, the impressions end up shaping subsequent impressions, and so on and so on, to the point that it can be quite hard to trace who did what, why, where and when. It can get quite blurry, yet it’s all still quite important as our imagination is loaded with these impressions that we have inherited down the line. I reckon it’s fair to say that landscape is an invention, of a certain artistic kind, and hence subjective. That said, imaginary or not, they are, oddly enough, not merely subjective. You don’t get to have a say, really. This is part of the problem. You can not not see landscape because it’s not about you.

Samuels (72) turns his attention to landscape expressions or landscapes of expression. Not unlike landscape impressions, for him (73), “landscape expressions are, by definition, expressing something on the part of someone.” So, as already hinted in the title of his essay, he (73) wishes to emphasize the importance of asking the question of who is behind this and/or that expression in the landscape. The problem with this task is that, as acknowledged by him (73), “landscapes are the products of pluralities, rather than particular individuals.” In other words, again, it’s hard to pinpoint anyone particular as responsible for this and/or that in the landscape. On top of that, as pointed out by him (73), while it may well be possible to indicate certain individuals as responsible for this and/or that expression, as manifested in the landscape, one needs to take into account how the landscape impressions, as well as any other unrelated impressions, operate as “the contexts for the making of landscapes”, i.e. why people act in this and/or that way. Then there’s also the problem for accounting for all the impressions that do not, for whatever reason, manifest in the landscape and indicating why that is or might be, as he (73) goes on to add.

There’s some repetition in this part of his (73-74) essay (on how impressions and expressions are alike and linked to one another), which I’ll gladly skip, in order to cover new ground. So, Samuels (75) turns his attention to what he calls “the design of landscape.” He (75) indicates that some landscapes are clearly designed, that is to say that they were purposely designed and subsequently built and/or shaped according to a certain design. He (75) exemplifies this with large gardens that are designed to look a certain way. That said, he (75) acknowledges that his example is clearly contrived and has little to do with the everyday life of most people. Indeed, when was the last time that you spent your days in some garden? Yeah, that must have been a while ago (except, perhaps, if you are a gardener or a groundskeeper). I for sure can’t remember when that was. I reckon my last encounter with such was walking through some palace garden abroad. That would mean it was years ago. As a result of this issue, he (75) turns his attention to cities as they are often designed, yet, in actuality, their design involves a vast number of people, including “all those who live in and contribute to the design of the landscape.”

Samuels (75-76) reckons that language plays an important part in how it is that we come to think of certain areas. Again, he (76) wishes to emphasize that landscape impressions, namely in the form of landscape imagery, are as important as the landscape itself. To be more specific, he (76) argues that, in the modern context, those who make the landscape are also often those who imagine it. So, you have to take into account those who have a stake in various developments, including “real estate agents, brokers and developers” who not only “convey and perpetuate landscape intentions cast by others” but also “create, manipulate, and designate the forms and meanings of places” in order to convey a message that molds places, as explained by him (76). I reckon it’s worth clarifying here that they do so because it’s in their interest to do so, to make money. So, in short, while design is important, one also needs to take into account how language (or, I guess, more broadly speaking, semiotics) plays a role in the production of landscapes, what he (76) calls designation.

Having established what he calls design and designation, Samuels (76) indicates what’s left to do:

“[W]e are still left with the problem of identifying particular authors. We may understand that some author or authors were responsible for an event or fact of landscape, but find the task of specific attribution difficult. At this juncture the biography of landscape becomes akin to the task of investigative reportage. It becomes, as it were, a search for those who have obviously, intentionally, or inadvertently left their signatures somewhere.”

What I found interesting about this is how we need to be on the lookout for signatures. This made me think of Jacques Derrida in ‘The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond’ and in ‘Limited Inc’. In the former Derrida (5) asks a number of relevant questions:

“Who is writing? To whom? And to send, to destine, to dispatch what? To what address?”

As suggested by the title of his book, he (5) focuses on a post card and wonders, who wrote this, who sent this, and to whom it was written to, to be received in mail, only to make a further distinction. He (5) notes how a post card may contain a signature, yet he can’t be sure that the person who put the signature on it is the same person who wrote it. He (8) points out the same thing in ‘Limited Inc’, how the writer, the scripteur, is not necessarily the same person as the underwriter, the souscripteur (the one who subscribes?), the signatory. It’s the same thing on the other end. The addressee is not necessarily the person who actually receives and takes a look at the post card.

This may seem rather gloomy, but, I reckon it’s not. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature. As explained by Derrida (8) in ‘Limited Inc’, works, in his case texts, are always cut off from their creators, “orphaned and separated at birth”. I reckon this is a positive thing. This actually allows the works to operate in the absence of their creators. For example, this feature allows you to make sense of this essay, in my absence. I hope you are aware that I’m not literally having a conversation with you. Instead, it’s rather like you having a conversation with a text, which is, at best, a fictional version of me, as imagined by you. Oddly enough, you don’t have to query any of this from me. Sure, you can do that and I could put this and/or that in other words, to further elaborate what I’m after with this and/or that, but it’s not necessary. This also applies to cases where the creator is long gone, already dead. Of course, it’s beside the point whether the creator is dead or not as the absence just has to do with not being present, there and then, to be consulted. Anyway, we are able to make sense of things, even in the absence of others, those who created whatever it is that we are trying to make sense of.

Of course, this not only makes our creations quite handy but it also lends us the potential to express anything in our absence. Simply put, it’s handy that we can relay a message to someone else, for example by leaving a note, say that we’ve run out of food, so that that person can remedy the issue. That’s very productive as people don’t have to be in the same place at the same time. Then again, that’s only one example, a rather benign one. The same applies to other expressions, such as signs indicating that an area has camera surveillance. It can and probably does change people’s behavior, regardless of whether there actually are any cameras or not. Now, we could have someone there, to express the same thing to people, on the spot. We could also just have them there, for that purpose, to keep an eye on people, so that they behave. However, all that is expensive, at least when you compare it to just having a sign that tells people that they are under surveillance. As I pointed out, you don’t even need the cameras. You only need to make it seem like there are or could be cameras, recording your every move.

For Samuels (76), one obvious form of signatures is the practice of naming places, calling them this or that, often after this or that person. He (77) also notes how a lot of what’s contained in the landscape, the design(ed) bits, can traced back to various public and private entities by looking at various records, such as “city and county council minutes, newspaper editorials and columns, corporate stock holder meetings, promotional literatures, and in various other public and not-so-public archives.” That said, he (77-78) reckons that this is only a part of the story as the records tend to only contain information about “those whose names have been deemed worthy of record.” He (78) argues that we end up subscribing to a partial and elitist view of landscape authorship if all the “transients, newcomers or strangers, criminals, the ‘outsider[s],’” and “the ‘poor’” are not taken into account.

Before he moves on to take less evident landscape participants into account, he (78) clarifies what he means by elitist. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to cover this segment. That said, I’ll include bits of this segment because people often use the word differently from what it used to mean, specifically. He (78) acknowledges how it is typically used:

“Whatever their scale or nature, the ordinary meaning of the term ‘elite’ refers to those who occupy positions of authority in the sense that others follow, listen to, and are influenced by their choices and decisions.”

I agree. I reckon that’s how people tend to use the word. That said, as pointed out by him (78), to be specific, ‘elite’ has to do with having the ability to choose and therefore “[c]hoice is the central criterion of elitism.” Often having a choice has to do with money. However, it’s not only about the money. It could be about status or about your contacts. I’m not going to go deep into this as this is a topic for another essay, something that I’ve already done. Instead, I’ll go with how Samuels (79) further elaborates the issue:

“[T]he implementation of choice is often limited to those who, for one reason or another, have the means to overcome or escape social, economic, political, legal, education, physical, or other constraints.”

This does not, however, mean that it’s a clear cut thing, that there are only the haves and have nots, not to mention the have yachts. Samuels (79) argues that while it may seem like that only the select few can shape landscape, everyone actually do, albeit their influence over landscape obviously varies accordingly. In his (79) words:

“[E]ven in the most socially limiting circumstances of birth, race, wealth, education, or position, individuals ceaselessly emerge to mold and create their own landscapes.”

He (79) adds that the expressions of the masses, the folk and the poor are not hidden. They are always there but you just have to know how to look for them, as he (79) points out. What’s missing here is, however, how one does that, how one not only looks for those expressions but also how one finds them. He (79) does provide some examples, such as graffiti, but at least I find his instructions rather concise. Then again, perhaps I’m just more stringent on what counts as such expressions. He (79) includes people and what they tell in the mix, whereas, for me, those don’t count as landscape expressions. I reckon they may well count as landscape impressions, but not really as expressions. Anyway, feel free to disagree if you don’t like my view of the issue.

Samuels (79) wraps up his essay by emphasizing that unless we address agency and grant that people have agency, no matter how difficult the circumstances may be, as in the concentration camp example he uses, we succumb into determinism in which no one has any responsibility because no one has any choice. For him (79), there’s always choice, even if those choices can at times be very limited. He (79) does acknowledge that there can be situations where people have no choice but it’s not because they inherently have no choice but because others have stripped them from having a choice. In other words, the choice is rendered moot. This is what he (79) refers to as dehumanizing, a process in which victims are no longer treated as humans and the perpetrators are, possibly, no longer acting as humans but mere automatons. Of course, he (79-80) isn’t content with this, even if that may well be the case on the ground, or so to speak. This goes back to his (52) initial statement about the absurdity of landscape, how it is certainly human, yet it is “a geography of man devoid of men.” Simply put, as I pointed out early on, landscape is both human and inhuman at the same time. That’s the central problem. In his (80) words:

“[If] no one is ever responsible, if we are all but victims of G[o]d, History, Nature, Reason, or ‘the System,’ then we and our landscapes are by definition, lacking in human content. In that event, ‘explanation’ may supercede ‘attribution’[.]”

If it isn’t obvious already, he (80) wants us to do the exact opposite, to pay attention to who is responsible and for what. How one does that is something that he leaves open, as I already pointed out. To be fair, he (80) does actually indicate that his theory and his method is hardly complete, albeit largely because he reckons that he has barely scratched the surface of the issue that pertains to human choice and responsibility. I think it’s good that he acknowledges that. Then again, perhaps that’s a bit unnecessary. I mean, I reckon he does a fairly good job at explaining such a complex issue in about 30 pages of text. I quite appreciate how, at the time, it was actually possible to write 30 pages on a single issue. Imagine that now. Yeah, not gonna happen. There’s no patience. What is expected of people is more of the same, what has already been established. I’d love to write 30 pages on a single concept, but I reckon it would be considered tedious. Oh, why dost thou even bother, they’d ask. For me the problem is that I end up writing something either something super dense or superficial when I don’t get to explain things in the necessary detail.

Samuels (81) also adds that as much as he is in favor of focusing on the individual, in order to embrace greater particularity and avoid the inhumanity of attributing landscape to abstract entities or processes, he acknowledges that his approach may not always work. To be more specific, he (81) concedes that much of our environment has been “molded, designed and designated” for centuries without there being any traces of anyone’s signature. It’s, of course, possible that there once were signatures but they have been eroded or removed. It’s also possible that people didn’t leave any signatures. This is actually ones of the points Derrida makes when he discusses how texts function. Anyway, Samuels (81) reckons that often the best thing we can do is to speculate, to infer, to intuit, who is responsible for this and/or that feature or artifact in the landscape. For him (81), this by no means results in “a dehumanization of the faceless and the nameless” and it is, perhaps, if not likely, “all that we can ever hope to accomplish.” On top of this, I would add, one should acknowledge the possibility of forged signatures. Not everything is what it appears to be. Appearances can be deceiving.

As a recap, while I don’t agree with everything in the essay, I do recommend reading it as it contains very good points that actually still highly relevant. Sure, I reckon it’s fair to say that it shows that the essay was written in the late 1970s. That said, it’s still way, way better than most journal articles that I come across these days. There’s just the level of depth that I like. His emphasis on agency, who is responsible and for what, is what makes this essay stand out. He is also willing to recognize how difficult the task of answering that question is and how one inevitably runs into problems when attempting to answer that. At best, one is often left to make educated guesses, working on intuition as those responsible for this and/or that are long gone. So, do yourself a favor and read this essay. You’ll find it in a collection of essays titled ‘The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays’ edited by Donald Meinig.


  • Derrida, J. ([1980] 1987). The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (A. Bass, Trans.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Derrida, J. (1988). Limited inc (S. Weber and J. Mehlman, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  • Meinig, D. W. (Ed.) (1979). The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays. New York, NY: Oxford University 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.