Walking Home and the Phenomenology of Landscape
In a recent article, by John Bintliff ("The Implications of a Phenomenology of Landscape," in E. Olshausen and V. Sauer, Die Landschaft und die Religion. (Stuttgart 2009), 27-45) offers (another) harsh critique of Christopher Tilley's efforts toward a phenomenology of ancient landscapes. Bintliff, in particular, takes issue with Tilley's efforts to produce an landscape rooted in its "emotional and symbolic significance" to the exclusion of a more holistic view that includes an emphasis on the landscape as economically productive space. He argues that Tilley's view of the landscape as "really just about feelings, and symbolic behaviors…" represents a distinctly British reaction to historical phenomenon of the last century or two: namely the gradual abandonment of the countryside by a large part of the population who moved to cities and the consequent inability of most of the population to understand the countryside as productive space. Instead, the countryside has become a kind of "enormous themepark for the urban millions".
Reading this and contemplating my own walks home made me question the authenticity of my own experience. After all, I don't need to walk home or even be outside in the cold. I don't walk home for environmental reasons – my wife happily drives to and from campus in the relative warmth of our relatively inefficient little Honda. I do not even do it for convenience, bowing to our more than hectic schedules my wife and I indulged in the ultimate symbol of middle class affluence, when we purchases a second car. I always thought that I walked home because the outdoors offered an experience that was common not only to members of my community today, but also to historical members of this community who would braved the brisk walks across the exposed prairie for over a century. In short, I was imitating, in my own hopelessly local way, Tilley's call for phenomenological approach to the local landscape.
At the end of the day, I suppose my walks home did lack the kind of authenticity necessary to allow me to engage with the past in anything but the most superficial way. The cold, bracing, North Dakota evenings existed only in contrast to the forced-air warmth of my home and office. Our knowledge of space and place can only ever be relative to our historical engagement. Bintliff's holistic view of the past, of course, is just as easily subsumed into this paradigm. His call for a holistic view of the landscape is clearly fed by the modern roots of archaeological practice and the political drive to document exhaustively the natural, cultural, social, political, and economic resources of a place. So, if the critique of Tilley's methods for understanding the landscape derives exclusively from its unabashedly urban, 20th century, bourgeois position, then Bintliff's calls for a holistic view of the landscape must certainly have roots in the modern or even colonial dream of documenting the entire world.