Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: April 2005

Landscape and Memory

I haven’t been able to post much recently, as I’ve spent much of my time working directly at my “field” site and, until the ethics arrangements I have proposed have been approved by the university, I need to keep confidential the various thoughts that have emerged from that research. This weekend, however, I have taken a brief break from fieldwork to re-read Simon Schama’s Landscape & Memory (1995). It’s an impressive work, which I have really enjoyed re-reading. I particularly appreciate the delicate balancing act Schama attempts, between engaging with the nature-myths of modernity, while also recognising that modern romantic ideals often sit in complex tension with democratic values.

I particularly liked the way Schama frames his goal (p. 14):

It is not to deny the seriousness of our ecological predicament, nor to dismiss the urgency with which it needs repair and redress, to wonder whether, in fact, a new set of myths are what the doctor should order as a cure for our ills. What about the old ones? For, notwithstanding the assumption, commonly asserted in these texts, that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths, they have, in fact, never gone away. For if, as we have seen, our entire landscape tradition is the product of shared culture, it is by the same token a tradition built from a rich deposit of myths, memories, and obsessions. The cults which we are told to seek in other native cultures – of the primitive forest, of the river of life, of the sacred mountain – are in fact alive and well all about us if only we know where to look for them.

And that is what Landscape and Memory tries to be: a way of looking; of rediscovering what we already have, but which somehow eludes our recognition and our appreciation. Instead of being yet another explanation of what we have lost, it is an exploration of what we may yet find.”

Schama goes on – in the style of a critical theorist – to argue that he does not intend to minimise the consequences of ecological degredation, but rather to demonstrate that our past – and our present – need not be seen as a one-sided rush toward destruction, but rather as a complex and contradictory history. By understanding this history – in all its contradictions – we can equip ourselves to choose our future course.

I think this is quite a good formulation of what would be entailed by a critical appropriation of our past – and I think that Schama’s work is an important reminder that constructing an adequate ethics for our times may entail a very complex series of partial appropriations that do not accept wholeheartedly the judgments handed down by either the rationalist or the romantic traditions.