Transgenic Landscapes

1. Polysemy

An excessive polysemy has transformed landscape into a fluctuating concept, vague, precarious and colonisable by numerous meanings that act as metonymies—a figure of speech that consists in the use of one word as a substitute for another with which it is closely associated. In this way, a relation of mutual implication is established between the real object and the represented object, as the whole is represented by one of its parts and one thing is taken for another.

If we read any of its parts as the whole—which is, in itself, an exercise where images, representations, perceptions, contents, signifiers and also simplifications are expanded—the illusion of a consensus (as well as the persistence of polemics) legitimises the coexistence of the whole alongside the realities and fictions it summons. Filling the void or the porosity of landscape becomes a black hole of sorts, sustained by the proliferation of meanings and polemics—the veritable matter of landscape.

The (pseudo-)concepts of landscape inhabit the web of relations in which they are expressed. Hence, if we question the fluctuating meaning of landscape, we are also questioning its role and what is conveyed by the discourse and representation of landscape: who conducts it and in what context; what conflicts are hidden behind those words or images and what individual or collective concerns do they reveal; who is summoned by this discourse (and who is excluded?), and what motives are behind this.

Landscapes are like Aristophanes’s clouds: they can assume any given shape, become something else, be ethereal, generous or threatening, and they can finally turn into pure rhetoric, becoming elusive and vague figures whose role is to seduce listeners.

Landscape thus becomes an extremely voracious device of intelligibility of the real; it is omnivorous. It absorbs practically everything and has the advantage of rendering visible (to show or represent, as its own objectification strategy) any given problematic subjected to a process of “landscapisation” (mis en paysage).1 The resources employed in these manoeuvres of production of meaning cover a wide spectrum, ranging from the typical “artialisation2 of the picturesque paradigm that exists behind concepts of heritage place or landscape (and its reconversion into a tourist product that produces identity, distinction and value), to the various discourses of “scientification”, which have, in the wide and structured field of science, numerous instances and platforms of conviction and legitimisation and, in environmental issues, a powerful political argument with great social acceptance, at least of its most general statements.

However, the inescapably mutable nature of landscape bestows it with a precarious, fragile and vulnerable content, which can be greatly dramatised. The continual tension between preservation/ destruction, stability/threat, pleasure/discontent, acceptation/negation, uncertainty, etc., produces a similarly constant tension, which has a continual source of afflicted conscience and rationality in our great social diversity and contradiction: there is an eagerness for confrontation, negotiation, normativeness, imposition, penalisation, etc., whose aim is to regulate this discord.3

This is why landscape policies are an extremely useful tool for understanding what is really being said when we discuss the landscape and our actions within the landscape. When we politicise the landscape, it becomes possible to socially re-centre the “public space” as a device of discussion and conflict, of implication/belonging to a social collective, but also as a device of negotiation and deliberation of issues, of actors, as a social structure of current fields, arguments, powers and counter-powers, of those implicated and those excluded, of the commercial exploitation of landscape, of media involvement and the “places/territories” of landscape. Augustin Berque defines landscape as “médiance”, a device of cognition and production of meaning operating in the realms of the senses and identity, in which aesthetics plays an important role in the relations between societies and territories.4

As narrative devices, the arguments surrounding landscape reveal the consensuses and contradictions regarding the legitimacy of different modes of development and the actual sense of territory as a “common house”. According to Bruno Latour,5 the “matters-of-concern”—polemics, arguments, objects of discussion—over the landscape are more enlightening than the elusive meaning of the “matters-of-fact”. This is because there are no hierarchies of clearly delimited and delineated facts in the “landscape” as an objective entity, but rather an endless list, a precarious excess of human, non-human and hybrid nature-culture subjects that materialise differently through the devices that reveal them: platforms and social networks; activists and mediators; “us” and “them”; hegemonies, counter-powers and acts of resistance; all this in real and virtual geographies, ranging from the micro- local to the global, from an inscription in very specific and well-delimited territories to networks in a continuous rhizomatic expansion.

2. Transgenics

Transgenic Landscapes6 emerged out of a need to overcome biases, barriers and illusions of knowledge attached to vague concepts7 of landscape—which were paradoxically considered clear and classifiable in stable taxonomies—in an attempt to reduce the background noise and existing cacophony and in so doing gain a better understanding of what really matters in the social malaise expressed in the discourse about and in representations of landscape as a public concern and a common good, as well as an element of identity and distinction in the face of rapid processes of globalisation/mass production and a general feeling of loss of identity. Among this set of questions, the following matters become clear:

• The phantom risk, threat and loss8 of goods considered to be extraordinary, possessing exceptional attributes translated/assimilated by the landscape and its codification of modes of looking and appraising (biodiversity, natural resources, built heritage, great narratives of collective memory embedded into certain places, nostalgic fetishisation of a golden age, etc.);

• The neglect and damage suffered by more or less mythicised territories, where previously more- than-perfect-worlds are now thrust back into reality through a discourse about ruins, absences and dysfunctions enmeshed within the intrinsic contradictions of the narrative construction of an Eden that never existed there, and its reconfiguration in contexts considered current, comfortable and, above all “sustainable”;

• The amnesia and low regard afforded to ordinary landscapes, levelled by the banality of daily life, divested of memories, references or specificities, deprived of enchantments or memories successively inscribed in resident and non-resident collectives. Banal and generic landscapes, with no recognisable past or with a broken lineage, subjected to successive transformations with no discernible direction towards a new positive identity, but rather, and above all, with a great opacity and subjected to a succession of negative controversies: damage, depersonalisation, predation, simultaneity of phenomena that cannot be embraced in a whole, contradictions and measures of low self-esteem regarding who truly inhabits or is imagined to inhabit these places;

• The construction of simulacra and fictions—or the proliferation of artialised landscapes in the sense of A. Roger9 —which are adjusted to (and create) new geographies of landscapes and their modes of perception, and which circulate in abundance in the mass media, in tourism promotion, in local development projects, in movies and soap operas, in artistic production, etc., constantly shifting between the central themes and branding that legitimise the landscape: authenticity, wilderness, tradition, risk and adventure, exoticism, wonder...;10

•Furthermore, the politicisation of landscape through discourses and social practices in various fields of struggle for symbolic power. As M. Weber and P. Bourdieu have pointed out,11 landscape becomes a device of symbolic struggle, where the various existing social groups try to impose their interests, establish their domains, differences and social hierarchies in the way they present and try to legitimise and impose new beliefs and worldviews. The absence of a body to fully legitimise the concept of landscape—its complete “scientification”—combined with the persistent use of landscape as a source of identity and a mediator of social regulation, facilitates the transformation of landscape as a political object. The scientific contents and their diverse origins shape and inform these validatory junctures, regardless of their different motives and objectivities.

Among all of these overviews (not all are included and the possible combinations among them have been omitted), “Feísmo12 (ugliness) is the one that best helped me understand this issue.

Galicia’s Foro Internacional del Feismo (2006 and 2007) is one of those initiatives that sheds light on what is at stake in most current arguments about the environment, space, territory or landscape. Feísmo is simply a great catalogue of facts and occurrences associated with a certain Galician malaise as it faces the crisis, the peripheral nature of the Galician territory, economy and culture within Spain and in the global context, the radical changes in new forms of production of landscape (or other issues that have now been transformed into “landscape”, such as the real estate bubble along the coast), and the dramatisation of the “destruction” of ancient Galicia, following the mass emigration of its farmers, the people who looked after the landscape.

When the meaning of a word is not quite clear—space, territory, environment and landscape, for instance—it can become a sponge: it absorbs any social theme and, when we squeeze it, will produce any given subject. In short, these pseudo-concepts become communicational devices which, much more than their own variable content, are used as weapons in processes of symbolic struggle, during moments of change with a high-degree of social conflict.

This is how I view most of the discussions about changes in the still so-called urban and rural Portuguese landscapes. Due to a lack of knowledge and understanding as to what is changing in Portuguese society’s modes of territorialisation, current opinion appears to have become ensnared between the “Historic Centre” (the good old town) and the “Traditional Village” (the bucolic beauty of the fields and their simple folk).

When everything is combined, as if in a process of hybridisation between two species, landscapes may be called “rururbane”, a very simplified way to designate recognisable socio-territorial patterns, which may be the product of several different strands (and not just two) of “urbanity” and “rurality”.

However, these representations endure far beyond their designated reality in a specific space and time and, for that reason, the inability to overcome the city/country dichotomy (the confined territory, densely populated, with a precise shape and boundary vs. the immutable pastoral mirage of wide country spaces) has resulted in a negative discourse based on the trauma arising from the loss of these two spaces. Hence, the ancient image of the city as a model of urbanisation becomes the “suburb”, “diffuse urbanisation”, “urban dispersion”, etc.; on the other hand, the fields (practically Elysian) become “peri-urbanised”, “industrialised”, etc., resulting in, and reaching its logical conclusion, a “diffuse rural industrialisation/urbanisation”.

What is really at stake behind this composite denomination is a twin metamorphosis:

• Agriculture and farmers (their landscapes too...) now have a residual statistical expression; cultural practices and references are combined in an enormous diversity of local/global referents—so why “rural”, when deprived of the economic centrality of agriculture and of the cultural specificities of country life?;

• Urbanisation, through construction, the intensification of infrastructures, cultural diversity, etc., continues to grow exponentially in different patterns of agglomeration and dispersion, both ancient and contemporary. But above all, it does not have any stable or definable boundaries; the city has now been replaced by extensive urbanisation, made possible by the provision of infrastructures, which can be likened to a system of devices designed to colonise a territory immersed in a process of profound socio-technological transformation.13

As we only recognise images through memories of other images, the simultaneity of signals belonging to each of these worlds—fields, houses, factories, roads, shops, etc.—is what nurtures this illusion of not accepting the twin metamorphosis (or twin loss of country and city). At the same time, as we are unable to overcome the city/country dichotomy, everything is attributed to a process of “degeneration” and, as a consequence of this, everything becomes “ugly”: ugly either because the good old city has vanished or because the country has been squandered, or both.

And this is why we resort to the transgenic metaphor—to break this vicious circle that stubbornly refuses to look beyond the (pre-)conceptions with which we face reality:

• Transgenic because, instead of having a stable body and an intrinsically scientific taxonomy, the landscape is a work-in-progress combining elementary materials and processes (genes, DNA) that generate, arrange and encode the complex structures and systems to which they belong. The landscape is not conceptualised as a GMO, a genetically modified organism, on account of possible associations/ analogies between organism and landscape, but in order to rationally understand the presence of materials/elements belonging to conceptually distinct organisms or bodies (and their disciplinary fields, scientific areas, taxonomic systems, etc., as well as their overlaps and intersections). Hence, the occupation of a simple plot of land can give rise to a vegetable garden or a grove (agriculture, agricultural, rural, etc.), a house (habitation, architecture, family, etc.) with a commercial or industrial ground floor (business, services, industry, urbane, etc.); which can be reached via a road (route, lane, traffic, flow, mobility, transportation, etc.) that is not really a street (city, public space, etc.); next to which there is a river fronted by a wood (water, hydro system, riparian gallery, eco-system, etc.); and so on. This heterogeneity takes us to the composite and precarious nature of landscapes.

• Transgenic because the combination of hope and expectation over the results achieved by science, and bio-technology in particular,14 is transforming the transgenic universe into a combination of utopian dreams and apocalyptic nightmares. The transgenic intensifies the reappraisal of nature and of the “natural order of things”. Outside culture and society, the “natural” is, more and more, the product of a combination of scientific results—over-abundant, precarious, going through an accelerated process of innovation and fragmentation in specialties, or being reintegrated, as in nanotechnology and genetic engineering itself—and near-cultural mythologies based on beliefs or desires, created to address fears and incomprehension: longevity, health, cyborgs, dangers, eugenics, etc. The natural easily becomes the supernatural or expands into so many themes (ranging from the wind to the HIV virus) and scales (from the nano to the cosmos) that to understand the whole becomes an increasingly difficult task: “Nature” is something that has to be explained and is not itself a part of the explanation. In other words, “Nature” is not the source of scientific beliefs, but rather the outcome of these.15

After the “death of God” and the disenchantment of the world (Max Weber, 1904), enlightenment and rationalism instituted the hegemony of science as a producer of meaning and a civilisational drive, which served to legitimise the social order and our worldview. Writing about chickens as nature, Hegel stated in 1806 that “the rational existence of a chicken consists in it being fattened and then eaten. Our task does not require us to contemplate nature; sentimentalism lost in singularities is a wretched thing”.16 Curiously (or perhaps not), it took a modern hyperstructuralist such as Lévi-Strauss, for whom the world was divided between nature and culture, to conclude that the paradox of science is that the more we know, the harder it is for us to process our knowledge and the more aware we are of what we do not know. Lévi-Strauss concluded this as he dwelled upon the similarities between the mythologies produced by the savage mind and the rationalities of science. This means we are one step away from transforming the idea that the clearer-science-is-the-more-opaque-it-becomes into a great myth, one that is present in all our major concerns: death, the unknown or the meaning of life.17

Once science’s enlightening and liberating state of grace ends, locked away in its ivory tower, transgenic organisms become a very clear example of the unfathomable complexity of science/technology and of the false certainties attached to current beliefs about rationality, progress, certainty, objectivity, etc., within science/technology/society collectives and conventional categories, oppositions and relations between “human”, “technological”, “natural”, “cultural”, etc.18 As the aforementioned authors explain, transgenics belong to a very different socio-nature from both the natural-nature and the wilderness as original-natures.

• Transgenic finally because, as shown by what has been produced in Transgenic Art, the adjective allows us to see and understand the landscape differently,19 by the questions it poses and its capacity to perturb, and by producing and spreading meanings and polemics. The representation of landscape (discourse, image), much like artistic production, is a method of legibility and intelligibility of the real which although continuing to employ scientific methods and their diverse products, breaks down the old disciplinary frontiers and many other hegemonies, thus creating knowledge at the intersection of sciences, arts and the public sphere. Here, the power of aesthetics is to question the rules of the work of art: that is, to try to understand what is hidden behind the work and how it is viewed.20

Having said that, it does not matter whether art is embodied by the mysterious face of the Mona Lisa, by Duchamp’s urinal, entitled Fountain and placed in a museum, or by Eduardo Kak’s fluorescent GFP Bunny. It is perfectly admissible to make aesthetic appreciations of art and, connected with this, value judgements, regardless of whether or not we know if the content of any given work is socially irrelevant, trivial or of great importance. The opposite is also true, but such a strictly aesthetic appraisal of art cannot exist without an intense cognitive experience: “(...) similarly, the hypothetical economic, affective, decorative, political or therapeutical worth of some works of art does not warrant their value as art” and, furthermore, “the value of art lies in the fact that, much like science, it allows us to increase our knowledge of the world. This is a key aspect of aesthetic cognitivism.”

Another factor is the intentionality of the “artist” and the colossal difference that may sometimes exist between the artist’s intentions and the individual or collective response to products, arts, artefacts or the artistic activity as a whole: pleasure, appeasement, pain, joy, devotion, fun, anger or any other feeling; furthermore, there may also be a great degree of subjectivity and what for some may feel like torture, to others may be beautiful or sensorially “uplifting”. In the case of Transgenic Art, intentionality is explicit and art is for art because it uses its power of action / product / process of social interpellation. As Nietzsche wrote concerning the critical role of art and its power to sanction or invert the moral and ethical codes, this is an art concerned with the “revaluation of all values.”21

Given the weight of issues of art and aesthetics surrounding the landscape, here we might look to the definition proposed by J. Rancière: “Aesthetics does not refer to the aesthetic theory of art in general, or to a theory of art concerned with its effects on the sensibilities, but to a specific regime of thinking about and identifying artistic phenomena—a way of articulating ways of doing, forms of visibility of these ways of doing and ways of thinking about their relationship”.22 The title of the work cited, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, is exactly what it is: organising the distribution of what becomes sensible and relevant to a social group.

Dealing with art, science, politics or any other field of production / cultural action concerned with the landscape, does not mean that one is advocating an equivalence between these modes of speaking and building the reasons of speech. This is simply to show in a different way, to build controversies, to try to objectify, and to overcome the illusion of objectification that populates so many speeches about the landscape. The use of the adjective “transgenic” implies bearing the whole load of fascination, polemic, sensationalism, transgression, hope, etc., that is contained in biotechnology research. At the same time, it invokes biology as an eminently cultural and scientific field with all of the rigour that stems from the universal processes of legitimation / falsification of the results of biological research.

The transgenic organism defies nature, often understood as an instance of absolute legitimacy of the reason of things, having a transcendental character independent of culture and therefore containing a normative power as lofty as morals and ethics—the transgenic is unnatural because it defies the natural order of things. Therefore, bioethical issues oblige us to imbue nature with meanings derived from the development of the sciences (the factory of knowledge about nature and its contents and meanings) and from the social web in which scientific facts are produced and entangled—what Bruno Latour calls the “hybrid nature-culture”—and thus overcome the false evidence of the universality of nature (a unique nature), opposed to the plurality of cultures.23  Ultimately, and in the case of a synthesised nature, transgenics raises contentious “synthetic ethical” issues related to “artificial life”, and “scientists playing god.”24 Beyond living organisms, biotechnology and molecular biology are concerned with the components, parts or systems of living organisms, forming new bodies and modifying others in a sort of expansion of biodiversity that is not produced by spontaneous processes of “nature” and what “it is natural” (here understood as that which is not only acceptable but also predictable and consensual).

Landscape has to be fictionalised to objectify its constantly growing reality. As visions of the world, these fictions organise the facts into narratives (including so-called scientific/technical narratives), without which the facts are just interminable lists of things subject to an endless process of scrutiny regarding their profound or non-existent social validity—a kind of chaos of facts.

In any case, assuming that reality is the part of fiction that can prove that it exists,25 the landscape will become, as in geography, a tool for understanding reality. Everything therefore becomes a process of legitimisation, which inevitably brings us back to the political construction of landscape.

As in transgenics and discussions on bioethics, the reasons of scientific knowledge intersect with greater and more powerful reasons that fuel the delicate ecosystem of politics, modes of expression and the exercise of power within social collectives. Hence, landscape signifies a place or territory to which we belong or can recognise, a shared house that is never quite tidy... This means that the “landscaping” of polemics involves centering controversies in a specific place or geographic location, which rather than a simple arena of political action is itself the subject of discussion and deliberation. “Landscape” thus becomes a representation that is composed of actions and validations of various social actors—public and non-public—their places and fields of belonging, and their strategies and modes of legitimisation, as the aforementioned Anne Sgard explains.

Georg Simmel wrote the following in 1913:

For there to be a landscape, our consciousness has to acquire a wholeness, a unity, over and above its component elements, without being tied to their specificity or mechanistically composed of them. If I am not mistaken, we are rarely aware that a landscape is not formed out of an ensemble of all kinds of things spread out side-by-side over a piece of ground and which are viewed in their immediacy.”26

In this, G. Simmel was close to the theories of Gestalt psychology. The whole is more than the sum of its parts in the sense that it is the perception of the whole that gives meaning to the parts and completes its meanings. The whole (as figure and figure-forming of sense) is the coherence rescued from the chaos of reality and its meaningless. It is what gives meaning to things which appear together and are thus grouped and presented to us as regular, simply arranged in accordance with stable patterns through the repetition or similarity of elements and their combinations... and other criteria of legibility and comprehensibility. According to Simmel, this is how we perceive “landscape” instead of what could be a simple summation of fields, houses, roads, or passing clouds. However, this wholeness is a state of mind—a mood or zeitgeist—a spirit of the times, a predisposition and not a characteristic inherent to the objective facts that make up the landscape. Fictions, therefore, but strong enough to resolve and make sense: as Simmel said about overlapping alpine landscapes, “the restlessness of dispersive forms.”

The concept of Transgenic Landscape addresses exactly this restlessness of dispersive forms. Accepting the landscape as a transgenic composition is tantamount to producing an alternative explanation about the nature of things, challenging the ethics and aesthetics which, explicitly or implicitly, are inherent to the representations and imagery of landscape—as in artistic work, to building a “representation of the device possible (undesirable and desirable),” with all that that implies in terms of agreement and transgression,27 but most of all, knowledge.

Given the opacity of the landscape as a whole—an expression that refers to the difficulty or inability to delineate the system that constitutes the vague concept of landscape—and the impossibility of assigning a broad and unique sense widely shared by different social fields, the metaphor transgenic allows us:

• From the scientific point of view, to operationalise an attitude of approach to landscape that is capable of relativising or replacing such “coherent wholeness”, and the supposed stability of the classifications and types of “purity” that are assigned to the landscape (a kind of genetic purity that abounds landscape studies), and leaving more space for diversity in the composition of the elements, their heterogeneity and instability, the simultaneity of events, interaction, conflict;

• From the aesthetic point of view, to find opportunities for the shared experience of the sensible about the landscape which can be extended to other references, values, viewpoints and explanations, forms of visibility, etc., which can avoid the most common landscape stereotypes, and above all which can raise questions and confrontations about otherness and mixture. One should not underestimate the importance of the aesthetics of the landscape, because that is precisely one of the most common forms of thinking about and representing the landscape;

• From the standpoint of ethics and morality, the discussion about “synthetic ethics” (and about breaking the “natural order of things”, the “unnatural”, and other non “natural” phenomena in the sense of what is widely regarded as predictable, accepted and consensual) offers a valuable tool for filtering what we genuinely want to legitimise at the analytical level and especially as regards the normative/ prescriptive attitude towards landscape. The ethics of the synthetic allows us to evaluate that which is new, otherness, everything that falls outside the norm;

• Finally, the politicisation of the landscape repositions the proliferation and fragmentation of meanings about the landscape in the social debate about shared things (common issues) and how they are shared. There is no scientific, aesthetic or ethical discourse about landscape that does not involve identifying its status as a matter/context of deliberation through which a collective organises itself and how and around what it organizes itself.

Tautological as it might seem, and as Bruno Latour has pointed out, landscape is what we talk about when we talk about landscape.

And this is the point. It is impossible to love or hate what we do not know. Landscape allows us to pave our path with the expanded reality afforded us by art and the artistic eye. In disembowelling the reality of things from their common places, practical senses and everyday life, the artialisation achieved by landscape photography lends charm and meaning to that which has no meaning and to the absentmindedness with which all too often we wander, more or less amazed, through the world.

A landscape should not be defined as hybrid simply because it combines rural (ploughed land) and urban (block of flats or factories) materials. In biology, as far as we know, such opposites were never meant to be hybridised. Therefore, landscape is transgenic.

Strangeness only arises from the view of the whole. Each element is clearly identifiable: a new vineyard in a ploughed field, old vines on trellises around the fields, factories, apartment blocks, a church, houses, trees and vertical artefacts, chimneys from the days of steam and coal, high-voltage poles, low-voltage poles, telecommunications towers, lights, fog, blue hills in the distance. It is the dispersive restlessness of forms, as G. Simmel would say (cheating himself ).

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