Friday, December 28, 2007

The Phenomenology of Landscapes

I have been nearly successful in upholding my vow not to stimulate a single neuron between December 24 and January 1.

In years past a chunk of this time has been lost to the great vortex of MLA. For once, though, I don't have to attend this Convention of the Bespectacled, a fact both good and bad: good, because -- well, because I don't have to be there; bad, because that means we are not hiring this year, and we are down one early modernist. I have vowed to spend the hiatus as a normal person would: resting, eating, resting from eating, eating to assuage the hunger of resting from eating, resting from eating to assuage ... well, you get it. The best part of this week has been the liberation of my family from the tyranny of its schedule. No ballet classes, Hebrew school, fencing lessons, piano lessons, EcoDefenders meetings, readings, business meetings: almost nothing at all for any of us. This gift of time has given us the chance to halt our constant motion and reacquaint ourselves with each other. Interesting fact: until recently I had forgotten that I have TWO children. How wonderful it is to possess both a son and a daughter.

Today, though, most of the family has vanished to spend some time without The Killjoy (I think they mean our dog Scooby, but they seem to have forgotten that I am in the house as well. Odd.) I've been reading through an excellent book and thought I'd share it with ITM's readership, since it bears so directly on some conversations centering around the "Weight of the Past" project, on MKH's dissertation proposal, on Eileen's enduring interest in capaciously rethinking the human, and on Karl's animal-focused thoughts about boundaries and borders. Liza, a frequent contributor, will see that I have her in mind as well.

Readers may remember that not long ago in the comments to one of MKH's posts I suggested the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as offering a usefully embodied way of thinking about horizons. Right now I'm working through an e-book heavily indebted to M-P, on the experience of stone and observer, and thought I'd share some of its foundational precepts as useful for other projects. So here is Christopher Tilley, The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology, laying out some guiding principles for his scholarship on neolithic stone structures:

A phenomenological perspective provides an ontological ground for the study of
things, places and landscapes, a means of approach and a way of thinking through
the body in its participatory relation with the world. I summarize some fundamental principles.

1. A phenomenological approach to landscape and place, as discussed here, using
the framework of Merleau-Ponty's thought and interpretations of this thought
by others, is not a philosophical approach emphasizing the personal and the
subjective. It is an approach emphasizing the intertwining of subject and object,
things and persons, mind and body, places and Being in the world. The rejection
of any possibility of an objective approach does not mean that we pass into a
realm of personal subjectivity, because meaning is grounded in the sensuous
embodied relation between persons and the world, an invariant ontological
ground for all feeling and all knowing taking place through persons with similar
2. Any study begins with lived experience, being there, in the world. It must
necessarily be embodied, centred in a body opening out itself to the world, a
carnal relationship. The exploitation of basic bodily dyads provides one entry
point into the study of place and landscape. A concentric graded sense of place
and landscape provides another basic way in which meaning may be explored.
Both originate in the body and extend outwards.
3. Perceptual meanings of place and landscape are constituted as gestalts, themes
against horizons, to which the human body and the external world both contribute,
a lived structure of experience formed through engagement and interaction
in which the body-subject and the world flow into each other and form part of
each other. The body is concretely engaged in the world from a particular point
of view that is always unfolding and changing in space-time. The mobile
interaction of the body in the world creates a framework for experience which
is produced in this lived interaction. What is experienced is an articulated
sensuous theme, against a horizon, in which perception is a meaningful bodily
organization of the perceptual field. There is a dialectical exchange between the
embodied structures of the engaged perceiver and the structures of that which
is perceived.
4. This involves a dehiscence, an opening of my body to things, a reversible
relationship between touching and being touched, myself and other, the effect
of myself on things and those things on me.
5. In an experiential relationship with things there is always a chiasm, an intertwining between 'outside' and 'inside', which mediate each other but never
totally fuse. So my body is in contact with the world but still separate from it.
My body experiences from the inside but opens itself to the outside. Since, as
an embodied observer, I perceive the world through a set of frameworks which
are habitual and grounded in the body, to a certain extent anonymous, these
frameworks cease to be mine alone and are not therefore 'personal'. They are,
however, both objective and subjective insofar as they simultaneously stem
from my own body. First-person experiences can be used to gain access to the
experiences of other persons because of the incarnate and sensuous opening
out of the 'primal' embodied subject to the world.
6. Our primordial experience is inherently animistic, disclosing a field of phenomena that are all potentially animate and expressive because our perception
involves the reversibility born out of our participation in the world.
7. Direct prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, disclosing the things
and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects
of experience, born out of our multidimensional sensorial participation in the
8. There is a fundamental temporal dimension to the body, place and landscape
carried through movement and sedimented into what places and landscapes
are and how we experience them.
9. Persons do not passively receive information and knowledge about the world
but always act in accordance with practical projects, values, needs, desires and
interests. What information and knowledge is indeed received can only be
understood in the context of these needs, desires, etc. It is in the context of a
needful body reaching out to the world that meaning and significance are
found. The manner in which we experience place and landscape is, however,
forever unfinished, uncertain and therefore ambiguous. The ambiguity inherent
to both that which we investigate (place, landscape) and how we perceive
is not a problem for analysis. Instead it provides an inexhaustible field of
affordances for us.
10. The aim of a phenomenological analysis is to produce a fresh understanding
of place and landscape through an evocative thick linguistic redescription
stemming from our carnal experience. This involves attempting to exploit to
the full the tropic nature of our language in such a way as to seek the invisible
in the visible, the intangible in the tangible. The mode of expression must
resonate with that which it seeks to express.
Reference: Tilley, Christopher. The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2004) pp 29-30.

Cf. this summary, p. 31: "What I have been suggesting is that rather than regarding things, placesor landscapes primarily as systems of signs, or as texts or discourses which encode meaning and reflect social identities in various ways, we can regard them as agents which actively produce that identity. In other words we need to think about places and landscapes animistically, in an analogous manner to the way in which we like to think about persons, as entities who can and do make a difference. The move is from considering things as representing the world to us to things as producing that world for us. It is a move from the cognitive sign value of things to the embodiment of things, from the code of the world to the flesh of the world, from symbol to action. Producing human meaning in the world is all about establishing connections between ourselves and the disparate material phenomena with which and through which we live, the plants and animals, landscapes and artefacts that surround us, and this is the work of tropic language, of metaphor and metonymy."


  1. Fascinating stuff here -- no time to linger with it this evening, but given that the CU library has a copy of it in electronic form too, I have no doubt I'll return to it. As you point out, JJC, this definitely has a lot of impact on the project I'm trying to define for my dissertation...I'm moved to wonder what kind of landscape might form a text, and vice versa, or if we might speak productively of a kind of environment that includes texts as actors (I obviously think we can -- and I'd say monasteries in the Middle Ages are as good a place as any to think about such a thing).

    One thing I find too intriguing to leave behind: The move is from considering things as representing the world to us to things as producing that world for us. It is a move from the cognitive sign value of things to the embodiment of things, from the code of the world to the flesh of the world, from symbol to action. Producing human meaning in the world is all about establishing connections between ourselves and the disparate material phenomena with which and through which we live, the plants and animals, landscapes and artefacts that surround us, and this is the work of tropic language, of metaphor and metonymy. My query here would be his use of the word "for", in that landscapes produce the world for us. He seems to move later in the part you quoted to an idea that it's the connection between human and landscape (through language) that produce "meaning" -- but there's also the fact of the body (which he's gotten to in the numeral-ed portion you cited above) -- which is itself part of the landscape as it were. I think I'm drawing on Latour a bit here -- "intertwining" still implies separateness, and I'm still not sure I want to make that kind of a divide so concrete. I may be misreading -- I should confess that due to WFU being closed for the break at present I've yet to get to the library since arriving home and so have not gotten Merleau-Ponty quite yet, and so I might be missing a lot of the discussion I need to understand in order to iron out these things in my mind. So -- more next week when I've gotten to the library again!

  2. Anonymous4:41 AM

    So glad you are reading Christopher Tilley. As I expect you know he is one of the most famous archaeologists/anthropologists who have pioneered postprocessualism in Archaeology. His collaborator is Michael Shanks (now at Stanford) and there is also Ian Hodder. (And, incidentally, they have all produced textbooks of archaeological theory for undergraduates).

    Archaeologists have been interested in objects as language for a long time, though. Colin Renfrew (one of the innovators of processualist theory - briefly that the environment determines human culture) wrote one of his first books on Archaeology and Language. He argued that environmental evolution determined and shaped the emergence of human language and power structures. A less discursive, flexible, multivalent and human-centred approach to that of the postprocessualists, but recognisably influential all the same.

    In answer to MKH I think that the argument is that all material objects or landscapes can be considered as having agency in producing a world with meaning. Roberta Gilchrist has particularly focussed on monasteries. She is also a leading exponent of feminism in archaeology. (Like much post modern criticism - and you can shoot me for saying this - phenomenology can be criticised for having little to say about power).

  3. SRJ writes: In answer to MKH I think that the argument is that all material objects or landscapes can be considered as having agency in producing a world with meaning.

    From the summary, I would say generally inert potential instead of agency. To clarify: generally inert to us (more on that "us" or "our" soon). Although #6 speaks of "potentially animate" "field of phenomena," this field becomes animate--at least to our perception/bodies--only through our contact with it. It's the disclosure of the field itself that animates it for us.

    And to what degree is it animated? What are the ultimate boundaries of our engagement with "plants and animals, landscapes and artefacts"? It's the human umwelt, the subjective sensory limits of our bodies (decide here what you might want "body" to mean). The limits prevent us from knowing, for example, the emotive life of an octopus, or whether or not "emotive life" is even a fit question to put to the life of octopedes; they prevent us from knowing the phenomenological impact we make on other beings with dissimilar bodies and selves. I think here, also, of a recent post at Larval Subjects that finally asks:
    The question, then, is whether this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves, or whether there is no some minimal transcendence that allows us in certain circumstances– not all–to surmount the limits of our embeddedness in context to encounter some minimal otherness of the other. In encountering others, do we only ever see our own reflection in the mirror?
    To a degree, phenomenology stirs up "embeddedness in context" by reminding us of how the context--the self, that is--always changes through contact, how, in short, contact is always dispersing and reforming the self (which means we need another concept for self, a new language). But what are the final limits of that dispersal? I'm tempted to believe that the transformative encounter with the other through our senses is one tethered to our sensory limitations. Even if the "us" is shifted, even if, to speak deleuzoguattarianly, becoming coagulates differently, there's a limit, and because of that limit, the disclosed phenomenon is always, ultimately, translated into an us that is, yes, always shifting, but shifting like an amoeba: within limits, and through assimilation.

    And losing sight of that limit, and assimilation, means losing sight of power. So, when SRJ writes you can shoot me for saying this - phenomenology can be criticised for having little to say about power, I want to join her on the wall. After all, Tilly's project, as it's described here, remains anthropocentric, even if it's a phenomenologically inflected anthropocentrism. "[P]lants and animals, landscapes and artefacts" disclose themselves to an us that remains resolutely human Do only we creatures with "similar bodies" count as "other persons"? I see no evidence that Tilly means something else. This anthropocentric phenomenology continues to exercise specular power in which the world seems a theater of being for and through us. I'm not saying that it's possible to have an an-anthropocentric project, but it should be possible, even while celebrating a postcartesian mobile subjectivity, to remember what limitations phenomenology discloses, and what ethical effects there should be from these limits. At least, however, phenomenology, because of its attentiveness to embodiment, demands that we not lose sight of the human umwelt: not as much can be said for other epistemologies, other ontologies.

    (JJC: you might like to see this.

  4. I guess you can pretty well forget about that vow.

    I am generally pretty allergic to analyses that use the word "theory" or words that include "ology" (as a historian I can get away with this) but I find this blog very stimulating. A few sentences here made me think of my last book "Deeds of Arms" and the embodiment of chivalry.


  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments -- and thanks, Sarah, for your context.

    MKH and Karl: This passage by Tilley from near the end of the book may help, since it makes clear how he sees the interrelation of objects and humans:

    Persons make things and things make persons. This book has attempted to explore the multiple ways in which prehistoric social identities were created or sustained, reproduced or transformed through the agency of stones. The argument in a nutshell is that social relations are simultaneously relations between material forms. Since the meanings and significance of artefacts and places, landscapes and representations are intimately linked, separations between them are inevitably of an artificial character. . . Social identity is always experienced and enacted in specific contexts. Having a processual character, it always requires specific concrete material points of reference in the form of landscapes, places, artefacts and other persons. It is therefore constituted through various forms of subject-to-subject and subject-to-object relations, giving it a transactional and performative character. The contexts in which identities are experienced, reproduced or transformed may be conventional and familiar, in which persons know how to act and carry on, habitual and routinized, or less familiar, requiring a much greater degree of discursive reflection with regard to what having a particular identity might entail. Material forms may thus act as key sensuous metaphors of identity, instruments with which to think through and create connections around which people actively construct their identities and their worlds.

    I don't have time to unpack it fully, and it obviously doesn't address everything on Karl's list, but it does give a good indication of the kind of work Tilley accomplishes -- mostly through close readings of specific kinds of stone monuments (e.g. menhirs in Brittany). Often the stones have been acted upon (transformed into towering monoliths), but he insists that those who do the transformation have already been touched by the world of which the rock forms a single component, and that the monument becomes an active agent within the machine it forms. Still, if the phenomenological world is a kind of vast organism for Tilley, the heart of this organism is *always* a human being.

    Another way of putting this: Tilley is no Bruno Latour, whose notion of a "democracy of objects" goes much farther than Tilley's admirably mobile approach to materiality and temporality.

    OK, kids are waiting to go to the Corcoran. Maybe more later.

  6. Anonymous4:09 PM

    being on the road I don't have access to the right books but from memory I would argue that Tilley is indeed relatively anthropocentric - yes - but that this is in part because he is reacting to an earlier school of archaeology (processualism - epitomised by Renfrew inter alia) which was radically an-anthropocentric. Have a look at Renfrew's Arch & Lang where he more of less argues that a particular variety of wheat willed cultivation by humans, and so brought settlement, trade, language and power relations into existence.

    Renfrew and other processualists (at their peak in the long 60s) were in their turn reacting against dominant historical explanations of cultural change (and so the wheel turns and keeps turning).

    Although Tilley is reacting against processualism by reintroducing an anthropocentric perspective, he still retains enough of their influence, I think, to see objects as much more than inert (a term I cannot imagine any archaeologist employing about mattter).

    Anyway Karl, if I could have anybody with me on the wall it would be you. Either your smart talking would get us out of the tight spot, or it would be so smart that I could handle the martyrdom.

    And on another tack here is a quote I cannot resist sharing with ITM from my current reading on Plato by the philosopher Simon Blackburn: 'I find it easy to tiptoe past large tracts of history, here at least following the early 20th century Platonist Paul Shorey: "We need not recur to the Middle Ages further than to add one example of medieval confusion of thought and of the way in which the Timaeus of Plato exalted their imaginations and confounded their ideas".

  7. Thanks for the additional context JJC and especially Sarah, who fills in a whole institutional history that's otherwise entirely unknown to me. I should say that I don't mean to dismiss Tilly entirely: it's more that he's being used as a way for me to think through problems I'm trying to work out, and my frustration with him is more my frustration with my own thinking. As for talking before the firing squad: thanks very much for your kind words, but believe me, I'm more smart mouthed than smart in such circumstances. It's a wonder I'm still in this world.

  8. Anonymous6:45 AM

    There are many non anthropocentric models of history - they tend to come from fields where history rubs shoulders with the sciences (such as archaeology, economic history, environmental history including landscape studies and so on). Indeed much of my own training back in the 70s was in such fields. Just recently I have been put in touch, (by Bruce M. S. Campbell professor of Geography at QUB), with a journal called the 'Holocene' which is a marvellous repository of entirely non anthropocentric studies of the relatively recent past.

    So, for a while, Karl I was puzzled by the nature of your problem. My world is so full of non-anthropocentric models, how could you find them so difficult to uncover? But now I more fully understand that you are interested in the subjectivities of non human others and their emotional life (if they have one...etc). So when I talk about landscapes/buildings/objects possessing agency you translate this into a human-centred understanding of the term and immediately want to replace it with something less emotively powerful (your inert potential).

    The non-anthropocentricities that I am familiar with never, I think, consider the subjectivity of strains of wheat or the emotional intelligence of climate systems. I wonder whether there is any possible confluence between their world and yours? I encounter both negative and positive responses to this kind of question. Can it only be on the level of the broader philosophy of knowledge (such as phenomenology) that such interdisciplinary discussion can work? What work might be done with the actual content of their studies and yours?

  9. Jeffrey,

    Another stone phenomenology book you may be interested in:

    John Sallis, Stone (1994).

    Also, there is an interesting poem by Szymborska called "Conversation with a Stone."

  10. Thanks, Nicola: will definitely check both out.

    I often go back to your own stony musings:


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