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Visualising relations, Part III

The landscape metaphor and its entailments

(I want to thank my colleagues in the Visualising Transitions research group in the School of Design at UTS, Anne Burdick, Jacquie Lorber-Kasunic, Abby Mellick-Lopes, Kate Sweetapple and Cameron Tonkinwise for inspiring this piece of thinking)

In this article I discuss metaphor of ‘landscape’ in multi-level perspectives (MLP) on technological transitions, with a particular focus on Frank Geels’ diagram depicting levels as a nested hierarchy, also discussed here with reference to nests and networks.

It’s crucial to emphasise at the outset that this is not a critique of MLP theory per se, but rather some of the images and metaphors that rise to the surface, often under-examined, in this field of research. Much of what I say about the dynamism of landscapes is implied in MLP theory — it is after all a theory of change. Nonetheless, the units of meaning, the apparatus, used to convey this theory is nonetheless to some extent shaped by sets of assumptions concerning how things relate to each other in space and time; a kind of diagrammatic-metaphoric-conceptual residue. The diagrammatic imagination is to some extent only as good as the metaphors and tools available: in this case geometrical shapes and lines, and the ostensibly blank, abstract emptiness of the page, or rather, the screen. Perhaps there are other ways?

MLP mash-up, based on Geels 2002

“The metaphor ‘landscape’ is chosen because of the literal connotation of relative ‘hardness’ and the material context of society, e.g. the material and spatial arrangements of cities, factories, highways, and electricity infrastructures. The ST-landscape contains a set of heterogeneous factors, such as oil prices, economic growth, wars, emigration, broad political coalitions, cultural and normative values, environmental problems. The landscape is an external structure or context for interactions of actors. While regimes refer to rules that enable and constrain activities within communities, the ‘ST-landscape’ refers to wider technology-external factors. The context of landscape is even harder to change than that of regimes. Landscapes do change, but more slowly than regimes.” (Geels 2002, 1260)

The metaphor of landscape: the great exterior; the hard, unchanging background to the relative effervesce of human activity. How much of Modern, Western thought is premised on the literal and metaphorical work done by this notion? Could Geels do better in terms of a source metaphor? He could certainly do better in terms of his diagram.

The conceptual entailments of the landscape metaphor: consistency (hardness/ resistance to change), orientation (outside/ not-inside) scale (big).

For the purpose of speculation and to invite greater scrutiny of the metaphors and images used to frame theories — what if these entailments were reversed, or at least modified? So: a landscape is not hard, outside and big, but soft, inside and small. Or, rather than opposition, simply doing without: a landscape that has an agnostic relationship to consistency, orientation and scale?

All this unpicking is perhaps the perversity of the poetic imagination at work: language and images are valuable to the extent they can be revivified, conventions are to a large degree arbitrary.

Though perhaps there is also more to this than paradox. As noted by Professor of Landscape Architecture, Brett Milligan:

And yet, most of us — designers included — imagine migration as the movement of isolated things (fish, birds, people) against a fixed background (the Klamath River, Pacific Flyway, U.S.-Mexico border). We know that environmental conditions are always changing, but we allow ourselves the fiction of background stability. When we limit our thinking in this way, our political and design responses are circumscribed. (Allot water rights. Designate a wildlife refuge. Build a wall.) Not surprisingly, they often fail. (Milligan 2015)

Milligan identifies “fixed background” as one of the defining and limiting entailments of the landscape concept. Surely the mountain is resistant to change, whereas isolated things come and go? Perhaps, though, phenomenological intuitions are misleading in this regard?

A comparable argument is made by Peter Sloterdijk’s in his spheres theory, which criticises the limitations of phenomenological understandings of bigness or background (atmospheres, globes), in contrast to understanding how atmospheres are psycho-technically produced, whether greenhouse effects, air conditioning or gas warfare. Likewise, in drawing attention to how we think about background and what we choose to think it with, Milligan also echos Latour’s stated desire to abstain from off-the-shelf concepts for context: “Events are not like tidy racks of clothes in a store. S, M, X, XL…But we never seem ready to draw the obvious consequences of our daily observations, so obsessed are we by the gesture of ‘placing things into their wider context” (Latour 2007, 186). The landscape, the context, the background, the system…

I keep coming back to the COVID-19 pandemic: in a way the omnipresent background to our present lives, and a landscape in that sense. But in no way is the landscape aspect of COVID slow changing. COVID became all encompassing (the prefix ‘pan’ meaning all, like panorama, panopticon) rapidly, and it continues to change. Furthermore, each variant of the virus seems to reconfigure society in a different manner (Sloterdijk’s notion of society as defined by spatial immunity has never seemed more pertinent). Would the nested hierarchy model for MLP adequately account for this dynamism? Perhaps, to some extent the MLP diagrams and accompanying theory are in this sense shaped by the kinds of technological change for which they attempt to account, which is fine if they’re being used to study a limited set of examples, and not a theory of change in general.

Like the popular aphorism regarding models, all metaphors are to some extent wrong, nonetheless, they provide useful approximations. So it would 1) be churlish to critique a metaphor simply for being imprecise in some regards, and 2) naive to imagine an alternative metaphor wouldn’t harbour its own imprecisions. Furthermore, diagrams (like the example produced by Geels to show the MLP nested hierarchy) are images that tend towards schematisation, which is to say, compressing the messy romance of unmotivated noise into sharp edged, motivated, readily transmissible information.

The route around this seeming binary comes through the notion of emergence: that which shows the schema and the grades of abstraction leading back to the noise.

While MLP theory is to a large extent informed by a seeming desire to understand socio-technological transitions as complex and dynamic, the diagrammatic means used to convey these attributes are constrained by a reductively simple geometry, and the metaphors have resistant and sometimes misleading conceptual entailments.

Rather than a landscape diagram that belongs in Euclidian space, perhaps Geels would have been better — or at least differently — served by using an image that described topological space, such as evident in the landscape paintings of William Robinson? Robinson’s native landscapes are the forests of Beechmont on Yugambeh Country, in the Gold Coast hinterland. His distinctive contribution to the genre of landscape painting is arguably in the way his works — such as “Purling Brook escarpment”(2005) and “Springbrook with lifting fog” (1999) — show landscape as a dynamic visual sequence. It is impossible to locate a single vanishing point in Robinson’s paintings and the orienting device of the horizon plays a displaced, partial role. The centre of his paintings travels, as though circulating through the picture while it is viewed. Robinson eschews the perspectival devices that allow the viewer to obtain an exact notion of the space between things. Instead, he captures a sense of interconnectedness among the viewpoints that compose a given landscape.

The link between his work and a kind of vernacular topological thinking has been recognised by Janelle Robyn Humphreys in her dissertation on mathematics and art (2009). Humphreys uses the paradigmatic topological figure of the Möbius strip to interpret the twisting coherence at work in Robinson’s paintings . As she notes,

“There is no single viewpoint from which to observe his landscapes as is often the case in landscape paintings based on linear perspective. The multiple or shifting viewpoints give a sense of topography that is twisting and turning, like the rotating earth”.

In this sense, Robinson’s paintings are a kind of ‘geometry given body by motion’ — an irresistible phrase of Connor’s to describe the topological thought at work in the philosophy of Michel Serres (2004). His paintings offer an alternative spatial model of a landscape that complicates background and foreground elements of an image.

Now, if only I had a Möbius strip algorithm, comparable to the “neural style transfer algorithm” Michail Rybakov used to create his distinctive block diagrams. I could run Geels’ MLP nested hierarchy through it, and the dynamism and complexity for which MLP attempts to account would be far better communicated.

List of works cited

Connor, S. (2004). Topologies: Michel Serres and the shapes of thought. Anglistik, 15(1), 105–117.

Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research policy, 31(8–9), 1257–1274.

Humphreys, J. R. (2009) “Shadows of another dimension: A bridge between mathematician and artist”, PhD Dissertation, University of Wollongong, Faculty of Creative Arts, School of Art and Design.

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the social. An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2016). Spheres Volume III: Foams, W. Hoban (trans.), Los Angelas: Semiotext(e).



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Tom Lee

Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz.