Not a moment too Yoon

How about something new? How about something refreshing? How about something short this time? Yes, yes and yes. This time I’ll be taking a look at ‘Iconographical landscape warfare’, a very recent 2020 article written by Hong-key Yoon.

I think it’s apt to say that this article is refreshing, in the sense that it is refreshing to see this type of work getting published, as opposed to the dreary more of the same, whatever it is that happens to be the latest trend (read: ethnography), as well as in the sense that this is something re-freshed, going back a bit and reworking what I think has been forgotten in the meanwhile. I like that, going back to what people used to do, and making good use of that, rather than just doing what everyone else is doing these days, citing the latest work by people who’ve managed to get elevated on to some pedestal.

Anyway, to be fair, Yoon (428) isn’t saying that you should be doing what he is doing or what someone else is doing just because he is doing it or someone else is doing it, nor that you should do what he is doing or someone else is doing the same way he or someone else is doing it. I think this is one of the strengths of landscape research and, I’d say, geography in general, not that landscape research is the prerogative of geography though (as there’s plenty of interesting landscape research done by people in other fields or disciplines, just as there are people in other fields or disciplines that are also rather open minded).

Yoon (428) points out that people are in the habit of thinking about tensions, conflicts and warfare as something that has to do with the involvement of the military. It’s of course fair to say that armed forces tend to be involved whenever there are tensions, conflicts and warfare, especially if it flares beyond what the police can handle, but that’s not the whole story. What interests Yoon (428) is exactly what people usually don’t think as having to with warfare. It’s all that is bubbling under that interests him in this article. He (428) exemplifies this with how murals and architectural features (for example monuments) are used to claim territory and assert one’s group identity in Northern Ireland. Similarly, graffiti is used to do the same in large cities where gangs tag what they consider as their turf, as he (429) goes on to point out. Of course not all graffiti are drawn and/or painted for sectarian purposes. For example, graffiti can be an act of resistance, as he (429) does point out. It’s the same with murals and architectural features as well. Not all of them have the same territorial function. In addition, the function also depends who we ask, as well as where and when we ask. A work of art, intended as such by the artist, may well be taken as an embodiment of oppression by the people who come to encounter it in their everyday life. Think of statues of certain political figures who were heralded by some, yet hated by others. There’s a reason why monuments, such as statues depicting Lenin, have been subsequently defaced and/or removed from where they once stood. This (type of stuff) is exactly what Yoon wants to focus on in this article, the warfare that takes place in our everyday surroundings, in the landscape. This is why the title of his article is what it is.

I used the example of statues of Lenin, of which my dear Turku actually has one (and so does Kotka, apparently), albeit I reckon it’s more apt to call it a monument rather than a statue as it’s only a bust, but other monuments work equally well as examples. He (429-431) lists Nelson’s Pillar (Dublin, Ireland, destroyed in 1966), Kyŏngbok Palace (Seoul, partially destroyed and partially obstructed during the Japanese occupation of Korea), Buddhas of Bamyan (Bamyan, Afghanistan, destroyed in 2001), as well as similar acts in Iraq and Libya in the early 2000s and 2010s. All of these examples listed by him (429-431) involve a struggle, some antagonism, which results in the alteration of (previously) existing prominent landscape elements. He (431) also notes how this warfare can extend to commercial establishments, such as the rivalry between HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) and BOC (Bank of China). He (431) also adds that this does not have to be about anything that humans have made and build or put in place to be seen as it can also be about something like trees. For example, some may take offense to the presence of human introduced non-local trees in the landscape, as opposed to local trees. His (431) example deals with One Tree Hill (Auckland, New Zealand), which involves warfare over which type of trees should be present on the site, with activists attempting to cut down trees with chainsaws. Apparently there once stood a lone local tree on the hill, hence its name, but it was cut down by European settlers. The tree was subsequently replaced by another tree, but it wasn’t the same type of tree as the one before, which is why some Māori activists have carried out attacks against it. The point he (431) is making is that while they are just trees, the one before and the one after, to many people they are more than just trees.

Following the listing of a handful of examples, he (431) summarizes the textual or symbolic approach to studying landscapes as not merely a matter of reading the landscape, as in just a text that one reads and that’s it, but as a matter of interpretation or understanding by a textual community or textual communities. The point here is that a text only makes sense, the way it does, to certain groups of people. So, to be clear, the process is never as simple as just reading some words on a page. There’s no meaning inherent to landscape that can be uncovered by any reader if they just try hard enough. There are, of course, meanings, but understanding is always dependent on what Yoon (431) calls a textual community. Note how he is not saying that one’s understanding of the world is objective, nor subjective, but shared, communal or collective.

This textual approach discussed by Yoon in this article is not a new approach, as I already pointed out in the first couple of paragraphs. There are others, but the Duncans, James and Nancy, are, perhaps, the best known advocates of this type of approach in landscape research, as Yoon (428, 431-432) points out. That said, as Yoon (431-432) goes on to indicate, understanding the world textually, as a book has its roots in Christianity, in the Western or Catholic tradition and in the Eastern or Orthodox tradition. In summary, landscape can be understood as book created by God, not in words, but in things, so that to discover God, one must study the world and the things in the world. In other words, the world is, in itself, the Bible. I’d cite St. Augustine here, but, apparently the bit included in this article might be incorrectly attributed to him, so I guess it’s better that I don’t. This is not on Yoon, but rather on Clarence Glacken who relies on Hugh Pope, who, in turn, seems to have muddled the reference as this cannot be found in book 16 of Augustine’s ‘The City of God’. This doesn’t change things though. This is in line with my understanding of this and, I think, Erwin Panofsky also discusses this in ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’, but I think I’ll cover that another time.

Yoon (432) notes that this textual or discursive approach to landscape research declined following the 1990s and early 2000s. He (432) states that it declined due to the criticism from a number of parties. In summary, advocates of old school landscape geography criticized it for being overly theoretical, to the point of obscurity, and lacking in terms of the data, materialists criticized it for not being critical enough and, most importantly, those subscribing to what is known as non-representational theory (or theories) criticized it for relying on dualisms, that there are distinct spheres of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’, and an underlying assumption that landscape can be read to understand society. Now, to comment on this, non-representational or more-than-representational (as Hayden Lorimer prefers to call it in his article ‘Cultural geography: the busyness of being ‘more-than-representational’) approach or approaches emphasize emotion and affect, but, to me, while they go beyond what’s representational, and I commend them for doing so, some of the work ends up being uncritical of how societies work and how people actually think.

Emma Waterton (71) comments on the pitfalls of non-representational theories in her book chapter ‘Landscape and non-representational theories’ noting that there is a risk of being enamoured by it, so that one “may become so enraptured with the freedom of performativity that [one] may lose sight of the ways which difference, power and control also figure within the mix.” In other words, while it’s great that one manages to get out of representationalism, one shouldn’t forget that most people haven’t managed to do that. As she (71) also points out, it’s great to be positive about things, but one shouldn’t forget the negative things, what constrains and marginalizes people in the meanwhile you are all positive about things. I mean I think differently, very differently, in a way what many probably think is just vile heresy. It allows me not to worry about, well, anything really. I just am. I just do stuff (and yes, thinking also counts as doing). That’s it. I don’t judge myself. Others do. I don’t. I understand how judgment works, what’s the logic behind it, so I don’t do it to myself and avoid doing it to others as well. That said, others still do judge people, me included. Sometimes they also force my hand, so that I have to, formally, judge other people. It is, of course, a mere lip service on my behalf. I know what they do and why they do it. Now, while I can work around it, to the best of my ability, it still impacts me, at least to some extent, in the sense that their judgment comes to affect my capacity to affect and be affected, just as my judgment does, if I am forced to judge others, to put this in a Spinozist way. I can’t completely ignore it, no matter how I think differently and don’t agree with it. For example, much of the travesty known as peer review is just judgment which enables people to exercise power over others behind the veil of anonymity. I know how it works and I keep saying that it’s not actually merely broken, something to be fixed, because it was never whole(some) to begin with. The way it works is not caused by a bug in the system. It’s a feature. That said, be as it may, I still have to deal with that POS system. It still has real consequences for me. I shrug it off, have a laugh at it, and move on, but I still have to deal with it.

I’d actually say that not all textual approaches are representational approaches. I’d say that most textual approaches are actually non-representative, inasmuch they are discursive approaches (in the Foucauldian sense) or constructivist / post-structuralist approaches (to use more genetic terminology, given that the terms vary between authors). It’s also crucial to understand that they oppose dualism, that something can be represented, that is to say re-presented, presented again. So, I reckon that the problem with some (but not all) non-represenational or more-than-representational takes is that they tend to ignore how experience is always conditioned by language or, more broadly speaking, semiotic systems, including but not limited to language. Valentin Vološinov (85) explains this particularly well in ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’:

“It is not experience that organizes expression, but the other way around – expression organizes experience. Expression is what first gives experience its form and specificity of direction.”

He (28) also comments on this earlier on in the book:

[N]ot only can experience be outwardly expressed through the agency of the sign … but also, aside from this outward expression (for others), experience exists even for the person undergoing it only in the material of signs.”

Simply put, you cannot separate language from experience. The only way you can convey your experience to others is through language or, alternative through other semiotic means, such as through facial expressions, as he (28) points out. More importantly, not only does expressing experience work this way, but so does experiencing. So, in a way you are indeed trapped in language (and a whole host of other semiotic systems). He (28) really likes emphasize this, as you’ll surely notice:

“Meaning is the expression of a semiotic relationship between a particular piece of reality and another kind of reality that it stands for, represents, or depicts. Meaning is a function of the sign and is therefore inconceivable (since meaning is pure relation, or function) outside the sign as some particular, independently existing.”

Pay attention to how he is not saying that this or that word corresponds to this or that object in reality. He (28) really likes to be clear about this:

“It would be just as absurd to maintain such a notion as to take the meaning of the word ‘horse’ to be this particular, live animal I am point to. Why, if that were so, then I could claim, for instance, that having eaten an apple, I have consumed not an apple but the meaning of the word ‘apple.’ A sign is particular thing, but meaning is not a thing and cannot be isolated from the sign as if it were a piece of reality existing on its own apart from the sign.”

To link this back to experience, he (28) states that:

“Therefore, if experience does have meaning, if it is susceptible of being understood and interpreted, then it must have its existence in the material of actual, real signs.”

So, you cannot have experience, in any meaningful way that is, unless it involves a semiotic relationship. To be clear, it does not have to be about language, but it often is, especially when it involves writing. Much of academic work certainly does. Before I jump back to Yoon’s article, I think it’s also worth noting that this also means that there is no distinction between what one thinks, what Vološinov (28-29) calls inner speech, and what one expresses, except a possible change in semiotic modes, which may alter how others come to understand what is expressed. So, as paradoxical or counter-intuitive it may seem, inner speech is best conceived as inner dialogue, an imagined dialogue with someone else, in the absence of someone else, and thus, well, just dialogue, just speech, as he (38) goes on to point out. Crazy shit, eh? Now, why is that? Well, because, “[s]igns emerge, after all, only in the process of interaction between one individual consciousness and another”, that is to say because, “[c]onsciousness becomes consciousness only … in the process of social interaction”, as he (11) expresses it. This is not to say that one cannot conceive a life without thought or inner speech, but rather that, for us, it comes across as simply meaningless, as he (11, 29) points out. In short, you cannot experience anything, the way you do that is, unless someone else has made it possible for you through interaction with you and therefore the way you experience anything is always interactional or dialogical. So, when you think or do something, both being same thing really, considering that any act is an expression, your thoughts or acts are always conditioned by prior experience, which is always shared, communal or collective, considering that experience is always interactional or dialogical.

So, what is a textual community? Yoon (432-433) addresses this because the Duncan’s build on this concept in their work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Anyway, this concept is attributable to Brian Stock who introduces it in ‘Text, Readers, and Enacted Narratives’. He (294) indicates that it pertains to writing, reading and enacting or performing, hence the title of his article. He (295) defines the concept of a textual community as:

“[The] union of literates and non-literates around the message of a text, written or spoken, with subsequent implications for behavior.”

He (295) exemplifies this definition with how heretical beliefs, held by actual people, are transformed into action through text, religious orders that come to govern people’s life through various rules, revolutionary movements that seek organize people according to a manifesto and technocrats who seek to establish utopias. I realize that this may still be rather vague to you as not many of us are heretics (I most certainly am though! haha!), belong to a religious order or follow the rules set by religious institutions particularly … religiously, take part in revolutionary movements that have actual manifestos that people read and subscribe to, or consider oneself to be a utopian visionary or a follower of a utopian visionary, so this needs a better definition. He (295) further elaborates his definition by adding that:

“The norms of bureaucracy, even the agenda of a meeting, can be a ‘textual community’, depending on the relationship between texts and action. Such ‘communities’ are not unusual; they are rather common. And being common, they all the more deserve our attention.”

So, in other words, anything can be a textual community, inasmuch it involves some text, be it written or spoken, somehow conveyed, in whatever shape or form, and comes to affect what do and/or think (as I think that thinking is also doing, albeit people may disagree with me on that). I think it’s also worth emphasizing how, for him (295), communities are common, or everyday, if you will. This reminds of how Vološinov (85) states that expression, whatever it is that someone expresses, one or another, is always “determined by the actual social conditions”, namely by the “immediate social situation”, “the concrete social milieu surrounding us.” These conditions or circumstances of course vary considerably, so that the context is indeed what comes to define the text. So, for example, people speak (or write) to others differently depending on whether or not they consider themselves as members the same social group, same hierarchical standing (employer/employee, parent/child etc.) or as having familial relation (member of the same family), as he (85) goes on to specify. In other words, “[t]he word is oriented toward an addressee” who is never “an abstract addressee”, “a man unto himself, or so to speak”, as he (85) points out.

But what about text then? What is a text? Stock (295) acknowledges that it is tricky to define it, not because it cannot be defined but because it is tied to textual community:

“Trying to move from the text to the textual community is like moving from the philosophy of language to the everyday uses of language.”

In other words, you can’t have a text without the people, the community. If there was text before textual community, text would be something transcendent and the definition of textual community would rely upon it. That would be just top-down, when it’s the other way around, bottom-up. This is not to say that aren’t often fooled to think that text is something transcendent, something beyond, something otherworldly, something that can be tapped into. In his (295) words:

“[O]nce we learn to read and write, we automatically acquire an abstract notion of a text which is independent of our knowledge of particular texts.”

To paraphrase this, we are often fooled to think that text is something that exists on its own, something otherworldly, even though it’s a mere abstraction of our own experiences with reading and writing these and/or those particular texts, engaging in dialogue with them, as Vološinov might explain that. Reading is therefore not a mere one-way street in which an ideal reader, the textual version of the ideal speaker/listener, processes a visual message from some surface, be it a page or, more contemporarily, a screen, but a two-way street, which is why, “[p]aradoxically, to comprehend, [one] must already comprehend” as aptly noted by Stock (297). So, oddly enough, you can understand something because you are part of a network, a textual community, as he (297-298) goes on to point out. In other words, “[w]hat brings people together and makes them act is the articulation of a text within the group and the binding of the group’s behavior to the rules set forth in the text”, as he (299) rephrases it. It is, of course, worth emphasizing, as he (299) does, that textual communities are contextual. This means that one is not a member of one textual community but a number of textual communities, which themselves are subject to change. This is why Vološinov (85) points out that people behave differently in different situations, depending on what roles they come to assume in relation to other people. So, for example, people tend to behave in a certain way at work, but not the same way as would at home when speaking to the members of their family or when buying groceries. On top of that, work place behavior not only depends on what the work involves, as well as how the work place is organized, who does what and in relation to whom, but also on how all that is organized at a given time in a given place. As pointed out by Stock (300), normalcy, what is considered normal or standard behavior, what is expected of people in a certain context, is always historically conditioned. So, for example, sexist behavior was permissible, if not the norm, at work not that long ago, but that’s no longer the case. This does not, however, mean that things have changed everywhere, in every country, nor that sexism doesn’t exist in other contexts, for example, outside the work place.

I like how Edward Sapir explains this in ‘Cultural Anthropology and Psychiatry’. He (287) states that “[t]he dairyman, the movie actress, the laboratory physicist, the party whip” all share something in common, that which is transparent to all of them, but much of what they say and/or do is opaque to others. In some cases it is also not necessarily opaque to others, but rather contradictory, as (287) goes on to add. Simply put, their occupations, what it is that they do for a paycheck, affects how they come construct their world, as he (287) puts it. This does not, however, mean that they can never come to understand one another. They may understand one another and get along just fine in other contexts. They may also dedicate their time to understanding one another, for example by training themselves in this and/or that occupation.

What about Yoon then? What’s his take on textual community? Well, it’s fairly similar to Stock’s definition. Yoon (433) defines is “‘a group of people who share a common or similar understandings of a text (similarities in varying degree) and are united in taking actions to achieve the common goal’.” He (433) adds that it should not be understood as a mere group of people, people who happen to read it in a certain way that each member of the group happens to share with the other members, but rather as involving people who go on about with their lives, living it in a certain, doing this and/or that, in response or interaction with a text or texts. To make more sense of his definition, he (433) goes back to his One Tree Hill example. He (433) points out that the two textual communities, the one that doesn’t mind the pine tree and the one that does mind it, read the landscape differently and act according to those readings, not because they’ve chosen to do so, to group themselves as for or against, formally declaring their position and self-identifying with a certain community, but because they come to do so, based on their responses to texts they’ve engaged with, their shared collective experience or background, to also explain this in terms used by Vološinov and Sapir.

To make more sense of this, Yoon (433-434) reminds the reader that a reading or the process of reading is never just a one-way street. So, as already explained, when we read something, we engage with what we read. Reading is a two-way street. It’s a dialogue with what we read. Another way of saying this is that the reader projects oneself to what one reads, as Yoon (433) points out. That said, it’s worth pointing out that what the reader projects to what one reads is, in fact, determined in relation to what one has read previously or, to put this more broadly, what one has experienced previously. So, reading a text is never as simple as it may appear, involving a reader and a text. As a side note, why do I feel like I’ve written about this exact thing before? Moments of wonder… Anyway, reading a text is therefore always intertextual, in the sense that that text is connected to the texts we have encountered before or, more broadly speaking, to our previous experiences. That said, as pointed out by Yoon (433-434), people typically think otherwise, that reading is just a one-way street.

When reading landscapes, the naïve understanding of reading also prevails, as Yoon (433-434) points out. This point is central to this article and, I’d say, to any critical landscape research. People are naïve about their surroundings, not because they have to be that way, but because they are, because they’ve come be that way. So, yeah, as aptly stated by Peirce Lewis (11) in ‘Axioms for Reading the Landscape Some Guides to the American Scene’, for the many, landscape just is.

Yoon (433-434) calls the process involved in taking landscape for granted, as given or natural, naturalizing. He (434) juxtaposes this with the process of denaturalizing, which, in turn, involves a critical reaction, a challenge, to what is or has been thought of as given or natural. This may involve a mere reinterpretation of the landscape, altering the reading, as well as altering the landscape, as he (434) goes on to point out. The process of denaturalizing may well be violent and involve destroying various landscape elements, for example, demolishing buildings, as specified by him (434). Denaturalizing can, however, be countered by renaturalizing. In his (434) words, this takes place when what has been denaturalized, that is to say transformed, is not accepted by a textual community. He (434) exemplifies this with how the Kyŏngbok Palace landscape was considered natural, subsequently denaturalized during the Japanese occupation of Korea when the landscape was altered by the Japanese colonial government and renaturalized following the end of the colonial era, when the locals chose to restore the landscape to its former pre-colonial glory.

Yoon does not emphasize this point, but I think it’s worth pointing out here that what is considered natural is by no means natural. What’s considered natural is merely naturalized. It appears natural, but it isn’t, anymore than anything else. This also means that what is subsequently denaturalized and/or renaturalized has never been natural in the first place. This emphasizes the role of the communities and why it is only apt that Yoon calls the tension between different communities and, possibly, within communities warfare. In short, landscape is always political. There is no beginning, nor end. There’s nothing original to it, nor a state of completion. This is why landscape is better thought as always in the making, as a palimpsest, in the sense that in textual terms it is a document that contains some writing on it, some of which has been erased, to varying degree, and subsequently written over, as he (434-435) goes on to point out.

Yoon (435-441) moves on to exemplify landscape warfare but I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go through them. It’s interesting reading, especially because the examples discussed are situated outside Europe, but I’m sure you can do yourself a favor and read these parts yourself. Anyway, I enjoyed this article because it revisits an old theme, something that people seem to have forgotten, and addresses how engaging with landscape is not objective, nor subjective, but collective.


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