Seminar 5: Landscape as Theory

What theoretical frameworks does the concept of landscape offer us? This was the question explored in the May seminar by Marilynn Desmond (Distinguished Professor of English and Medieval Studies, Binghamton University, State University of New York) and Matt Lampitt (Junior Research Fellow, St John’s College, Cambridge), in papers which took us to ancient Troy, medieval islands of ruins and mysticism, the tourist map of the modern West of England, and maps of New York State. Prof Desmond’s presentation on the reception of the matter of Troy  reflected in the landscapes of the Eastern Mediterraean began with pilgrimage routes through the Ionian archipelago along which travellers such as the fourteenth-century Italian notary Nicola de Martoni could spot what they understood to be ruined sites associated with the Trojan war. These ruins were often evoked in terms resonant with the Freudian unheimlich, uncanny: they were spaces at once familiar and unfamiliar, spectres of lost civilisations, summoning narratives of the myths and histories of these civilisations and superimposing them on the medieval landscape. Yet many of these putative locations were inaccurate: overriding the geographical specificity of sites associated with the Trojan War is the intense desire to see, know, and circumscribe it within the itinerary of a learned medieval traveller and the narrative of medieval literary culture.

If medieval Europe was haunted by classical topoi and toponomy, then so is contemporary New York State. In the fascinating closing section of her paper, Prof Desmond drew attention to the proliferation of place-names of the ancient Mediterranean in contemporary upstate New York: Ithaca, Syracuse, Troy, Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can all be found on the map, as can Vestal, New York, the location of Binghamton University. The landscapes of Central New York were originally inhabited by the five nations of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois federation–the Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga and Seneca; this land was brutally cleared and torched under orders from George Washington, and then remapped and reparcelled under the direction of colonist Robert Harpur (1731-1825), after whom the College of Arts and Sciences within Binghamton University is named. This investigation of the violent facts that lie behind the indigenous land use acknowledgements in the US—statements intended to promote a new ethos of land stewardship and tribal sovereignty—was a salutary reminder of the uses to which the shifting landscapes of antiquity are put, and the imperative to use our scholarship to rethink the spaces we inhabit.

Matt Lampitt’s paper took the idea of ‘Landscape as Theory’ as an invitation to think through the ontological stakes and statuses of place: how, asked Dr Lampitt, does place/how do places exist? In what ways do medieval literary texts and documents and artefacts think about that question? How can they speak to, and diverge from, and enrich how we think about that question in the present day? In a rich and rigorous presentation, Dr Lampitt engaged with these ideas by establishing a dialogue between, on the one hand, one of the most alluring and mysterious medieval locations, Avalon; and, on the other, Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. A Latourian focus helps to investigate the agency of the nonhuman; in his Inquiry, Latour is interested in redistributing what he often calls ‘ontological dignity’ to beings usually considered too ‘immaterial’ to ‘count’ as ‘real’ actors. The relation between Latour’s beings of fiction (modes of art and invention which fundamentally shape the human) and the mode of reference (claims to access the objective, unmediated truth about the world) is instructive when thinking about imagined geography such as that which governs the depiction of Avalon. First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum (c. 1136) as the place to which Arthur is transported to be healed of his wounds after the battle of Camlann, Avalon is an imagined place that exists everywhere and nowhere; and to the extent that it exists somewhere it also exists elsewhere. It therefore, argued Dr Lampitt, generates fictions about its own referential existence, creating category crossings which in Latour’s terms can be represented both as [FIC•REF] and [REF•FIC]. Perhaps because of its premodern framing between history and myth, the Latourian modes enfold and chiastically envelop one another, especially in the case of La faula (c. 1370–74), an octosyllabic verse text by the Majorcan writer Guillem de Torroella, in which considerations of truth, fiction, and proof are intertwined in engaging and provocative ways.

It was striking that both papers ended in a twenty-first-century landscape that claims or disavows links to histories of tradition and mythmaking. Where Prof Desmond concluded by considering the connections between Trojan narratives and colonisation in the US, Dr Lampitt left us in contemporary Glastonbury, where attempts to fix the misty location of Avalon are apparent in the tourist industry. Theorising landscape in this way produces unsettling connections between lost pasts and present politics, economics, and ethics.





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