Difficult relationships between maps and the landscape
The landscape is everything a map fails to grasp of the world and to express in terms of the separation between subject and object, placing some distance between them
Let’s say it right away: the landscape, the form of a place, is everything that a map, i.e space, fails to grasp. It is everything that escapes spatial capture. The landscape is a limitless question, its existence posing the problem of how there can be a whole that is visible but lacks boundaries and so cannot be measured. For this very reason, it raises a problem that is very hard to resolve: that of totality. This serves, however, to differentiate the landscape from all the other models applicable to the Earth which are, on the contrary, by their very nature circumscribed and with which people have casually and hurriedly been tending to equate it for some time. Landscape, area and space are not bodies of things but ways of portraying them. In the language of Gottlob Frege, the father of contemporary analytic philosophy, they do not correspond to the meaning of Earth (which is the Earth itself; the meaning is the thing) but to its sensations, to the various specific ways in which the Earth presents itself; how it gives itself. Each of these ways stems from a specific intention, a different form of historically determined collective will; it obeys a gaze that upholds a different project from the existing one. The landscape is everything a map fails to grasp of the world and reduce to its essence, i.e to express in terms of the separation between subject and object, placing some distance between them. We can be even more trenchant: only the diaphragm that is a map allows the distinction between subject and object. By contrast, the landscape model is founded on precisely the impossibility of such a separation, such a detachment, and on the non-existence of any interval between the two essential terms of the cognitive process. The attempt to hold subject and object indistinguishably together effectively ended in the mid-19th century with the substitution of a “reading public that debated critically about matters of culture by the mass public of culture consumers”, to use the words of a young Habermas; and with the end of the project to know the Earth that was critical and politically civilly oriented, i.e. could transform bourgeois knowledge from aesthetic-literary knowledge to scientific knowledge, one no longer capable of only describing the world but also of controlling and changing it. It was in this way and within this strategy that the concept of landscape – of pictorial and literary origin – became part of scientific analysis, thanks to Alexander von Humboldt. In the second volume of his principal work, Kosmos, published in Berlin in 1847, he distinguishes between three stages of knowledge, three stages in the cognitive relationship between humans and their environment, valid not only in the phylogenesis sense of the history of the human race as a whole but also in that of ontogenesis, the history
of the individual. The first stage is that of the impression (Eindruck) that stirs in the human soul as an originary manifestation, a primeval sentiment before the grandiosity and beauty of nature. Its cognitive form is, indeed, that of the landscape which corresponds to the world in the sense of a harmonious aesthetic-sentimental whole to which all rational analysis is (still) alien – and so it regards only the subject’s mental faculty. Eindruck is a compound and only seemingly simple word. Druck means impression and also applies to that of typeface on a white sheet of paper. For Humboldt, however, it invests the sensitivity of the observing subject: the white sheet is their soul and the landscape features are the letters printed on it. However, the other half of the term, the prefix Ein, is of equal importance. Despite meaning “one”, it actually performs a dual function. On the one hand, it refers to singularity, to the individuality of the observing subject, and observing starts the knowledge process. Equally, it signals a subject’s tendency to reduce an accumulation of impressions to a single unit, in such a way that – from the very first and albeit only on an aesthetic and impression plane – the cognitive sphere is configured as a totality, as a whole predisposed to reveal the order “concealed beneath the skin of the phenomena”, of which the subject itself is an inextricable part. The totality is transformed and restored not in terms of an aesthetic and sentimental impression but a scientific one in the final stage of the cognitive process, where it takes the form of a Zusammenhang, the connection of everything with every other thing. The development of every knowledge is, according to Humboldt, none other than the translation, at long last in scientific terms, of an auroral impression, the one expressed by the landscape which is absolutely not scientific but without which all science would be impossible. In today’s scientific language, Humboldt’s Zusammenhang equates with complexity or rather with global complexity. It is undisputable that when the history of global thought, i.e. that of globality, is written, Humboldt should be given a place of unqualified prominence by the West. Meanwhile, Gregory Bateson was right: ecology is something that primarily concerns the mind and the thought models with which we try to come to terms with every reality. What do we do when we multiply two very big numbers? We use pencil and paper to reduce a complex problem to a series of simpler problems. We find the solution via an interlinked series of iterative completions of the model and by remembering the partial results thanks to the paper. It is perhaps the first form of symbolic manipulation we have managed, in which the outside environment becomes a vital extension of our minds. Traditional artificial intelligence based on the simple distinction between symbol and rule committed a fundamental error by reducing the whole, consisting in the cognitive profile of the agent and its surrounding environment, to the simple cognitive profile of the brain. In recent years, however, things have changed, to the degree that we no longer know where the mind ends and the world begins. So we speak of the “extended mind”, see Andy Clark and David Chalmers: a
device in which it is clearly extremely difficult, except instrumentally speaking, to distinguish between human mental functions and those of the “machines’ machinery”, of the cartographical device from which all machines originated and also of everything that constitutes the whole of elements that we concisely call “environment”. This is because the Internet appeared in 1969 and, as explained by Manuel Castells, when we say “Internet” we mean an aggregate within which it is impossible to distinguish between the machine (hardware), its inbuilt intelligence (software) and the men and women tasked with their functioning. Suffice to add that, precisely like Humboldt’s first stage of knowledge, the form of perception required by the Internet does not entail a distinction i.e the distance between subject and object, precisely because, just like the landscape, the Internet world is the epitome of the anti-Kantian world, within which time and space have virtually no importance anymore; indeed, they have almost completely terminated all their constituent functions. In short: to date, or almost, the mind model has been the map, a limited but open structure and all modernity has perceived and constructed the world in its image, i.e spatially. Today, however, globalisation – via the deadly vehicle that is the Internet – forces us to acknowledge that the world is not a map but a sphere, a globe, the structure of which cannot be reduced to a map; on the contrary, it is closed but unlimited which means, above all, not only that there is no longer a distance except the difference between subject and object but that every perception of the world is, precisely and solely like that of the landscape, an informed image of Humboldt’s “sensitiveinfinity”, of the inevitably incomplete nature of what we see, the structurally unfinished nature of what we know and the programmatically partisan (also when tending towards totality) nature of what we do.
Franco Farinelli (Ortona, 1948) is the director of the Department of Philosophy and Communication of the University of Bologna. His most recent publications include L’invenzione della Terra, Sellerio editore, Palermo 2016.
This spread: Passage of Quindiu, in the Cordillera of the Andes. Drawing by Koch. Engraving. Next spread: Rope Bridge over the Chambo River at Penipe, Ecuador. Engraving. Both from Vues des cordillières et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, by Alexander von Humboldt with Aimé Bonpland, F. Schoell, Paris 1810