REVIEW: Conversations with Landscape

Book Review
Benediktsson, Karl & Katrín A. Lund (eds). 2010.
Conversations with Landscape. Farnham: Ashgate.

by P. LAVIOLETTE, Anthropology Dept, EHI, Tallinn University

Finally a book that could speak to me. And yet, with the unpredictability of conversational direction that the editors remind us of in their introduction, what would I hear? How to respond? Such ideas were made even more daunting when flipping through the table of contents to realise that we are dealing with a cacophony of no less than eighteen different authorial voices, not to mention those of informants, reference citations and of course the unique narrative style of the volume itself.

Why get drawn into this particular conversation then? There’s indeed a plethora of books on landscape out there. Not so many, however, deliberately embrace an ‘undisciplined’ perspective which is explicitly sensitive to the approaches and debates advocated within material culture studies itself (Basu 2013). This collection is both subtle and wide ranging in terms of the ambiguity it provides regarding the many facets of conversation. Inspired, for instance, by certain deep-ecology principles (e.g. Aldo Leopold; David Abram and so on) the editors set the scene by pointing out: “the idea that a conversation of some sort can be had with landscape thus has a long and complex history” (p.3). They also pick up on the work of Barbara Bender. Adopting her ideas about the extended ‘anarchy’ of landscape, its unruliness, allows them to develop a fascinating, politically charged, discussion about the ‘horizontality’ of our imaginations as well as the spatial dimensions of our embodied thinking, experiences and actions (p.5).

With the idea firmly established for the multi-sensorial dimensions of conversation laid out in the introduction, we are on familiar ‘non-representational theory’ ground in this volume. Yet this is also a facile categorisation which I suspect the editors might contest, or at least react to in some form or other. Theories and descriptions that fathom the diverse perspectives from which people embrace and are embraced by landscapes are now starting to surface with more regularity. As are comparative studies of the ways in which we experience. Indeed, scholars are increasingly tackling the shortage of detailed descriptions of landscape sensations. Recent writings by cultural geographers, historians, ecologists, political scientists, sociologists and social anthropologists have reinvigorated the fascination with the intricacies of place and landscape. This attention reveals the ease with which the problems of culture and environment trespass conventional disciplinary boundaries.

To be honest, the idea initially of reviewing a book with what seemed to be an array of Nordic case studies by predominantly Icelandic based authors left me somewhat cold. This was based, however, on a knee-jerk reaction which was completely superficial and misguided. Once I started travelling through the text though, the strength of the inter/trans-disciplinarity in the volume’s essays became evident. As a collection, they provide a comparative perspective on the conception of landscape as a cross-cultural process. Such collaborations inform us that the relationships between culture and the environment centre on the considerations of perception, positionality and practice.

The volume sets out to depict how landscapes are understood, constructed, negotiated and conveyed through various mediums: social space, consumption as well as community relationships. The work is framed intellectually by a range of ideas concerning the critique of representation (within archaeology, art, cultural geography, literary studies, philosophy and social anthropology) which actively engage with reflexive, even poetic, discourses. Within the scope of philosophical reflection as well as a series of multi-sited, ‘social-science at home’ studies, the book largely examines how everyday ‘Nordic’ landscapes are embedded, materialised and visualised into the world of social relationships. But the overall approach is intentionally diversified, highlighting heterogeneity and some of the ironies of socio-cultural construction. It is also highly erudite, as demonstrated by the extensive bibliographies which indicate that the contributors are exceptionally well read across a number of subjects in the social sciences and humanities.

Equally worth noting, nearly half the chapters include visual illustrations. This is particularly surprising since the volume includes contributions by philosophers and literary scholars (not especially known for visual communication). This is the strength of collaboration which the collection exudes. Artists working along side scientists and theorists of the humanities/social sciences.

Moreover, it is refreshing that the volume does not have any overt subsections. Indeed it works as an integrated whole. One cannot easily provide any comprehensive categorisation without potentially providing a counter synergy. At the end of the introduction, the editors do provide a rationale for the ordering of the chapters. Adapting their own structure somewhat, I’d suggest the following groupings for those who had to be mercenary about which chapters applied most to their professional identities: the introduction, plus chapters 14, 15, and 16 form a section about collaborative research which draws together all the volume’s representative disciplines. Chapters 2-3 predominantly make up a philosophy section. This is followed by chapters 4-5 which act as a geography/archaeology section. Chapters 6-7-8 are dedicated mostly to anthropology whereas chaps 9-10-11 deal more explicitly with geography, art and literature. Finally, the expertise of the editors is manifest with essays by a geographer and an anthropologist respectively in Chapters 12-13.

For the sake of brevity here, I shall not examine any of the chapters individually save to mention how Chapter 7 by Lund & Willson gives us a succinct insight into the volume’s conceptual rationale:

 Thus, it is the ground which one’s footsteps follow that is the point of ongoing sensual dialogue – the touching point which generates the rhythms which, as we will illustrate, engenders conversations with landscapes” (p.97-98).

As a review which is still drifting, I would finish this particular journey with a sidetrack – that in which the main tenets of the volume in question are reminiscent of a recent interview between the philosophers Raphaël Enthoven and Ali Benmakhlouf (2013) who outline, in a mobile fashion, the philosophical premises of conversation. During this semi-spontaneous, semi-directed film interview which moves through a few Parisian locales, they reflect that if discussion is a journey, to which the destination is more or less known in advance, then conversation is perhaps more analogous to the stroll of the flâneur. It is all the more fruitful when it serves no particular purpose. Under this playful guise, the conversation has the double advantage to multiply the subjects of study, to be inquisitive without constraints, to deal with serious things with the lightness they sometimes deserve. To test, finally, the intimate need which prevents us from saying absolutely anything whilst allowing us to speak haphazardly, with divergences and digressions.

Conversations with Landscapes strikes such a balance between openness and experimentation on the one side and comprehensiveness on the other. Between the significance of rooting ideas in the local and the importance as well as difficulty of making certain universalising generalisations in textual form.


Basu, P. 2013. Material culture: Ancestries and trajectories in material culture studies. In Carrier, J.G. & D.B. Gewertz (eds), Handbook of Sociocultural Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury.

Benmakhlouf, A. 2013. Interviewed by Enthoven in Conversation – ‘Philosophie’ (01/03/13), (in French).

Introduction: starting a conversation with landscape (Katrín A. Lund & Karl Benediktsson)
Conversations with ourselves in Metaphysical experiences of nature (Sigridur Thorgeirsdottir)
The limits of our “conversations with nature” (Gabriel Malenfant)
Landscape as conversation (Edda R.H. Waage)
Time for fluent landscapes (Oscar Aldred)
Grief paves the way (Arnar Árnason)
Slipping into landscape (Katrín A. Lund & Margaret Willson)
Landscape and aesthetic values: not only in the eye of the beholder (Guðbjörg R. Jóhannesdóttir)
The sublime, ugliness and “terrible beauty” in Icelandic landscapes (Emily Brady)
Transporting nature: landscape in Icelandic urban culture (Anna Jóhannsdóttir & Ástráður Eysteinsson)
Ways of addressing nature in a northern context: romantic poet and natural scientist Jónas Hallgrímsson (Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson)
A stroll through landscapes of sheep and humans (Karl Benediktsson)
Sentience (Anne Brydon)
The empty wilderness: seals and animal representation (Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir & Mark Wilson)
Aurora landscapes: affective atmospheres of light and dark (Tim Edensor)
Epilogue (Tim Ingold)

1 Comment

  1. This is a very pleasing review which nicely teases out and supports the overall aims of the editors. Thanks for that. Only one point, or maybe two. The volume predominantly focuses on Icelandic landscapes which are not necessarily ‘Nordic’ in any way except for the reason that Iceland is an island in the north Atlantic ocean. And funny you mention ‘non-representational’ theory, something we decided to avoid addressing directly because of the interdisciplinary emphasis.

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