Postmodern Geographers and Imaginal Landscapes

THE LINK BETWEEN mind, imagination and landscape has been celebrated by some eminent geographers. As geographer historian John Kirtland Wright (1891-1969) once commented; “The most fascinating terrae incognitae of all are those that lie within the minds and hearts of men”.[i]

David Lowenthal is another geographer who has made a strong advocacy for personal and collective cultural imagination and creativity as underlying our images and ideas of the world and the earth.

“Every image and idea about the world is compounded, then, of personal experience, learning, imagination, and memory… The surface of the earth is shaped for each person by refraction through cultural and personal lenses of custom and fancy… We are all artists and landscape architects, creating order and organizing space, time, and causality in accordance with our apperceptions and predilections… The geography of the world is unified only by human logic and optics, by the light and color of artifice, by decorative arrangement, and by ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful.”[ii]

Placing this within a temporal and historical perspective, Lowenthal emphasizes the importance of image:

“The lineaments of the world we live in are both seen and shaped in accordance, or by contrast, with images we hold of other worlds, past worlds, future worlds. We constantly compare the reality with the fancy. Indeed, without the one we could neither visualize nor conceptualize the other.”[iii]

In 1971 geographer Yi-Fu Tuan maintained a deep identity between man and world: how we think about the world is revelatory of the inner man. Thus geography “reveals man… knowledge of the world elucidates the world of man: the root meaning of “world” (wer) is in fact man: to know the world is to know oneself… Geography mirrors man”.[iv]

For geographer Denis Cosgrove “all landscapes are symbolic” and are “expressions of cultural values, a code by which collective meaning can be read”; they express in the words of geographer Donald Meinig ‘a persistent desire to make the earth over in the image of some heaven’ and they “undergo change because they are expressions of society, itself making history through time”.[v]

In 1991 geographer H.K. Yoon coined the term ‘geomentality’ which, he maintained, is “the foundation of and key to understanding geography of mind”.[vi] A geomentality can be held by an individual or a group of people about a particular environment. It is “an established and lasting frame (state) of mind regarding the environment”.[vii]

Coinciding with and stimulated by the advent of postmodernism, geographers have had a renewed revival of interest in metaphor, image and imagination in the creation of landscape. For example, D. Matless, 1992, argued that geographers exploring landscape:

“have sought to develop a form of analysis in which transcendent, ahistorical, biological or spiritual categories are explored to investigate human responses to landscape. Cosgrove in particular phrases this approach in postmodern terms, and in doing so raises key issues regarding the status of image and metaphor…Whether or not they conceive of their endeavor as ‘postmodern’… there would appear to be a search underway for an elevated, transcendent base.”[viii]

Denis Cosgrove, 1990, pronouncing the status of image and metaphor and depicting his approach to geography and landscape in postmodern terms, puts the case as follows:

“My argument is that both in the later sixteenth century – immediately preceding the Scientific Revolution, and in the closing decades of the twentieth century – following the scientific and intellectual contributions of relativity and psychoanalysis, there have been serious attempts to collapse Modernist distinctions between spirit and matter, humans and nature, subject and object, poesis and techne. In both cases understanding is constituted neither in solely operational, nor entirely speculative terms, but rather through the construction of metaphor and image by individuals actively embracing the materiality of the world, recognizing the necessity of mechanical intervention in transforming nature, but refusing to be ruled by the materialist and mechanical vision of Modernism. Metaphor and image are conceived not as surface representations of a deeper truth but as a creative intervention in making truth.”[ix]

For Cosgrove people “seek to create meaning and do so through metaphor” and that rather than being grasped by empirical observation or measurement this meaning is “apprehended phenomenologically, below the intellectual level of formal science”.[x]Further, meaning is “increasingly constructed through images”.[xi] Postmodernism has promoted in some respects an “evocative sense of metaphor as that which lies between fact and idea. The metaphor may thus picture or represent an understanding which must otherwise remain unarticulated.”[xii] In the words of K. Harries: “What metaphor names may transcend human understanding so that our language cannot capture it”.[xiii]

Radically for a geography which has traditionally been entrenched in scientific empiricism, Cosgrove argues that “Scientific discourse has always been metaphorical in the Aristotelian sense, but has proclaimed a privileged ‘truth’ for its metaphors or models in representing reality”. However, with the shift from metaphors of science to those of the arts and the “rejection of foundationalism in post-modern writings” there is an implied “relativity in which the competing claims of different representations can not be evaluated”.[xiv] If pure perspectivalism is accepted it “opens the door, at least in thought, to transcendence of its own limits, to metaphysics and thus to the collapse of clear distinctions between science and poetics”.[xv] Cosgrove concludes:

“We need to locate the history of our discipline within a broader historiography of constant metaphorical and imaginative reconstruction of nature and our place within it, not seeking ultimate foundations for spatial and environmental metaphors and images but rather respecting them as ‘more or less adequate and fragmentary repetition of that speech which nature, or perhaps God, addresses us.”[xvi]

In the postmodern camp and tracking a new way forward, Peter Bishop explores links between landscape geography, archetypal psychology and postmodern epistemological ways of knowledge and meaning. Bishop maintains that the attitude towards rhetoric, metaphor and imagery is central to the definition of postmodernism and postmodern scholarship – “that questions about the relationship between archetypal psychology and geography mirrors the wider postmodern phenomenon of comparative knowledges”.[xvii]

THE EMPHASIS ON METAPHOR, symbolism, transcendence and imagistic reconstruction are characteristic of both postmodernism and an archetypal analysis. As we have seen, the role of the imagination in the creation of landscape is of increasing interest to geographers. However it is in the consideration of spiritual landscapes and sacred places that landscape as a manifestation of personal and collective imagination becomes most apparent. And so we now turn to a consideration of historical changes in spiritual imaginal-visionary landscapes.

[i] John Kirtland Wright, ‘Terrae Incognitae: The Place of the Imagination in Geography’, Annals, Association of American Geographers, vol.37 (1947), 15.

[ii] David Lowenthal, ‘Geography, Experience, and Imagination: Towards a Geographical Epistemology’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v. 51, no.3, September (1961), 260.

[iii] David Lowenthal and Martyn J. Bowden (eds.), Geographies of the Mind – Essays in Historical Geosophy (Oxford University Press, 1975), 3.

[iv] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Geography, Phenomenology, and the Study of Human Nature’, Canadian Geographer, v.15 (1971), 181.

[v] See Denis Cosgrove, Social and Symbolic Landscape (Croom Helm, London & Sydney, 1984), 35. See also Donald Meinig (ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes (Oxford University Press, 1979) 6. Note: Both refer to the seminal importance of the writings of J.B. Jackson and to his journal Landscape.

[vi] Hong-Key Yoon, ‘On Geomentality’, Geo Journal, v.25, no.4 (1991), 392.

[vii] Ibid, 387.

[viii] D. Matless, ‘An Occasion for Geography: Landscape, Representation, and Foucault’s Corpus’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, v.10 (1992), 44-45.

[ix] Denis Cosgrove, ‘Environmental Thought and Action: Pre-modern and Post-modern’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, v.15 (1990), 345.

[x] Ibid, 352.

[xi] Ibid, 353.

[xii] Ibid, 345.

[xiii] K. Harries, ‘Metaphor and Transcendence’ in: S. Sacks (ed.), On Metaphor (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978), 72.

[xiv] Cosgrove(1990) ‘Environmental Thought and Action’, 345.

[xv] Ibid, 345.

[xvi] Ibid, 357.

[xvii] Peter Bishop, ‘Rhetoric, Memory and Power: Depth Psychology and Postmodern Geography’, Environmental and Planning D: Society and Space, v.10 (1992), 5.

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