Initial Thoughts on ‘Total Landscape’

So here are my initial thoughts on the volume reblogged earlier on a recent book titled Total Landscape, Theme Parks, Public Space (2006) by Miodrag Mitrasinovic with Ashgate. I wanted to give the book a closer look before forming an opinion. And I still have questions as I haven’t gotten all the way through it yet…

The first issue is this: The original source promoting the book claimed that “One of the central premises of this book is that theme parks and PROPASt [privately-owned publicly accessible space in a themed mode] are complex artifacts designed to materialize such convergences and to spatialize corresponding social and environmental relationships.” My question is, what on earth is “privately-owned publicly accessible space” (rhetorical question)? (I’ll answer the rhetorical question anyway…) So that’s private space, dressed up like public space? I’ve also seen the acronym POPOS [here], which are “privately-owned public open spaces”–what a smooth term, makes it sound like a cool blending of private and public, which seem to coexist in some non-dualistic relationship like happy opposites, each ‘completing’ the other, taking both for granted. (is public space just assumed to be a romantic dream or remnant from the past by the people using these terms?…)

Now, the author writes of ‘Total Landscape’ that:

“The idea of ‘Total Landscape’ first emerged to me in 1993 while working on the Global City project with my friends and fellow students Sarah Gansel and Antonella Vitale at the Berlage Institute Amster-dam (BiA). The project was supposed to rationalize an idea that essentially came from our professor Elias Zenghelis, who gently coaxed us into believing that that differences between what we call ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ are no longer the differences of kind but of degree. The Global City project was about identifying a universal set of conditions characteristic for each point of a global network of artificial ‘landscapes’ that would allow intensified compactness andcongestion in particular segments we called ‘environments’. Typology and theme of environments depended on the percentage of density occurring in the particular landscape, in relation to the balance between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’.”

I ask whether other readers of the book find that the author is discussing the city as a use-value by its inhabitants (understood as social and political beings with sometimes radically different needs, perspectives and access to resources) or whether this is yet another example of a bourgeois type of knowledge discussed by Henri Lefebvre that coalesces in the 19th century and that leads merely to the creation of the city as exchange-value in the interests of capitalists, urban planners and speculators (as Lefebvre discusses in The Right to the City).

In particular, look at the phrasing of the “balance of natural and artificial”–which are no longer “differences of kind, but of degree”. There is in this phrasing a curious inverted appropriation of Bergsonian philosophy. Henri Bergson’s philosophy was (as I argued in the book Encounters with Bergson(ism) in Spain from 2010) perhaps not as expressly political as Lefebvre’s (it was not at all political, in fact), but its philosophical nuances were later used by Lefebvre to create a quite provocative theory of the production of space and of everyday life in cities (Lefebvre criticized the spatialization of time just as had Bergson, using the same metaphors and emphasizing the importance of seeing space and time as interconnected, I won’t get into that here…)

Bergson’s works (Matter and Memory, Creative Evolution, Time and Free Will) often made the distinction between differences of degree (space) and differences of kind (time) — all as a way of making our understanding of space (for example, but many other notions) much more nuanced than our ‘intellect’ (Lefebvre’s ‘analytical thought’) would have us believe. The intellect grasps things only through space, simple divisions. Does the author mean to say that natural and artificial are more or less the same and that we progress from one to the other slowly but methodically? Bergson would say that this change eventually reaches a point that we have not a difference in degree but one of kind, such that through quantitative movement we also effect qualitative change. Would Mitrasinovic say it this way? I’d have to keep reading to find out.

The more important question is about private space and public space–are they now merely the building blocks of successful environments? The larger question would be whether certain architectural approaches naturally aestheticize space and minimize ignore or erase social conflict in the city. The book (according to the original source ad) “is an essential guide to those interested in cities and urban futures, particularly to scholars and students of urbanism, architecture, design studies, cultural studies, media studies, geography, anthropology, sociology, economy, and marketing.” Interesting that we start with urbanism, architecture and design and end with marketing, with other fields thrown in for good measure. But there is a revealing comment in the author’s foreword that cuts to the heart of the problem:

“Writing a book on something as complex as theme parks and public spaces without explicitly referencing ways in which their cultural and social meanings are contested on the ground through daily practices was a hard task, but it was done on purpose. The assumption that at this point in time seems realistic is that in-between theme parks and the increasingly privatized urban public spaces, there are subtle differences of degree rather than kind, and the purpose of my effort has been to identify, unearth, and study the common framework of the two in order to eventually learn how to manage it in regard to its most promising possibilities.”

But, do theme parks and privatized public spaces have promising possibilities?

“Despite all the challenges to be mapped out later in this book, it has been precisely the populist appeal of mass entertainment and mass consumption thatpotentially, just potentially, carries an energizing force within it for the traditionally marginalized social groups, for women, children, teenagers, people of color, the poor, the old, and many other ‘good natured crowds’, both as producers and as consumers. Despite all my efforts, I did not find evidence that there is a critical mass of resistance practices that can mount a significant challenge to the condition of total landscape, even though, one could argue, we all simultaneously produce it and consume it.”

So does total landscape mean? Is it globalized capital? Should we just enjoy globalized capital? Read the end of the foreword.. which somewhat disturbingly describes a lead-up to a visit to Walt Disney World…

So, does total landscape mean accepting the reality of globalized capital, market(ing)-driven convergence culture and the privatization of public space without resisting?…   I ask the question of the book’s readers… Is it just an apology for the city as exchange-value (as it seems to indicate on p. 22…)… or is it something more? Does the author present us with a more nuanced understanding of space or is it merely a simplistic model that takes as its point of departure the cool flashy logic of postmodernity which has been coded into the theme park mentality and somehow (apparently) rendered indisputable?

(p.s. on p. 24 he steps ‘away from Marx’ to use Lefebvre’s ideas on space… I think you may have missed something here… Lefebvre was a Marxist philosopher…)

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