A Theory of Instruments

In recent decades any notion of instrumental theory has generally been ridiculed by critics and thinkers.  Instruments and instrumentalism have been converted to mean a sort of dumb matter completely at the mercy of hegemonic power structures and the nefarious intentions of social beings, such as the omnipresent bourgeois.  While well intentioned, this tendency has rather unimaginatively demonized and diminished the role of instruments and equipment, not only impoverishing the project of Heidegger which pointed us toward a richer understanding of the role of tools in the world, but also stripping instruments of their autonomy and agency, leaving them unable to do anything except fulfill the intentions of the user.

[the geotube manifold system in a dewatering process for consolidation and containment of dredged materials]

One of the major issues that has continually come up in this project as I bore down on the relationship between landscapes and instruments is the seemingly insurmountable gap that is always present between the intention behind any given instrument and the reality.  This gap seems to always be at issue, and is something that has consistently troubled, and animated, the practice of landscape  architecture from the beginning, as we can see here in Olmsted’s 1866 report to the Brooklyn Commissioners:

But to this process of recuperation a condition is necessary, known since the days of Aesop, as the unbending of the faculties which have been tasked, and the unbending of the faculties we find is impossible, except by the occupation of the imagination with objects and reflections of a quite different character from those which are associated with their bent condition.  To secure such a diversion of the imagination, the best possible stimulus is found to be the presentation of a class of object to the perceptive organs, which shall be as agreeable as possible to the taste, and at the same time entirely different from the objects connected with those occupations by which the faculties have been tasked.  And this is what is found by townspeople in a park.

If now we ask further, what the qualities of a park are which fit it to meet this requirement? we find two circumstances, common to all parks in distinction from other places in town, namely scenery offering the most agreeable contrast to that of the rest of the town; and opportunity for people to come together for the single purpose of enjoyment, unembarrassed by the limitation with which they are surrounded at home, or in the pursuit of their daily avocations, or of such amusements as are elsewhere offered.  [1866 Report to the Commissioners of Brooklyn]

Considered both historically and theoretically it seems that the production of liminal space between intentionality and reality is ontological to landscape practice.  Traditionally we have dealt with this fact through contractor change orders, addenda to construction documents, and other conceptual and practical techniques including the generally agreed upon notion that not everything is going to turn out precisely as we had imagined, which seems to be a fairly reasonable approach.

This condition is not necessarily unacceptable, though it is the root of many lawsuits and much stress and client strife as well as contributing to the death of well-conceived projects that just don’t come off.  The problem, however, is that this space that is created in any landscape project is fertile ground being lost due to our contemporary over-reliance on architectural pedagogy and technique.  And we might grasp this territory as energetically as we have with the other aspects fundamental to landscape practice including setting a bounds or limit, the idea of generative capacity, and the importance of respecting difference.  The fact that we don’t or haven’t recognized this only further confirms my intuition that one project that is needed is the definition of a landscape ontology.

[landscape architect Horace Cleveland’s map for expanding the municipal parks system of Minneapolis and St. Paul, 1883]

However, in this effort to explore an instrumental theory of landscape the work of philosopher Graham Harman is useful.  His work Tool-Being, which offers an illuminating and suprising reading of Heideggerstool-analysis, is helpful to understand the real metaphysical implications of instruments and tools:

Equipment in action operates in an inconspicuous usefulness, doing its work without our noticing it. When the tool fails, its unobtrusive quality is ruined.  There occurs a jarring of reference, so that the tool become visible as what it is… there is thus a double life of equipment- tool in action, tool in disrepair… the visibility of Heidegger’s “broken tool” has nothing to do with equipment not being in top working order.  Even the most masterfully constructed, prize-winning tools have to regarded as “broken” as soon as we consider them directly; the broken/unbroken distinction does not function as an ontic rift between two different sorts of entities.  Thus, as ought to have been expected, Heidegger teaches us not about smashed-up blades and chisels, but only about beings in general… Whether it is “out of order” or not, the visible tool is simply not the tool in its being; in this way, insofar as they are ever encountered, all beings are broken equipment

This is an apparently radical stance to take on, seeming to objectify everything in the world down to the level of a dumb hammer or chain link fencing.  But the opposite is true:

Contrary to the usual view, what we really want is to be objects- not as means to an end like paper or oil, but in the sense that we want to be like the Grand Canyon or a guitar hero or a piece of silver:  distinct forces to be reckoned with.  No one really wants to be a Cartesian subject, but everyone would love to be some version of Isis, Odysseus, Aquaman, Legolas, or Cordelia. [p 140, Guerilla Metaphysics]

As Harman shows it is the traditional philosophical stance that denies any agency or potency to the hammer or the fence, the nighthawk or the kentucky coffee tree to extend beyond the intentions of the designer or the user- the human- and this has been largely true since the adoption of the work of Kant and the resultant linguistic turn. This includes most of the philosophies that have been influential in contemporary landscape design including the phenomenology of Husserl and the writings of Deleuze, though more recently the work of Bruno Latour does point towards a new materialist understanding.  Harman’s philosophy, and that of others working in the contemporary philosophical movement known as Speculative Realism, shows that it is actually all entities that possess this intention, and all have the capacity to supersede, wiggle out of, or come up short of another object’s intention for it.

[here the hills are instruments for growing grass, for shedding water, for framing views; the river is an instrument of conveyance, of material sustenance, an excavator; the road is an instrument to collect heat, to mark an edge, to propel automobiles]

Considering this we can see that in a landscape the objects and things themselves have their own desires, and intentions.  At times this might be similar to what we’ve attributed to humans- imagining how users might react, gather, or what they might gaze upon- and at other times not.  Harman’s philosophy shows that any perceived object is already the broken tool- any tree, any change in slope, and carousel- that seems to jump out of the background and figure itself in relation to another object (be that a cyclist, a chimney swift, or inanimate objects such as a stormwater drainage).  Much of the most exciting and powerful work in the field in recent years has set out to draw on the agency of things.  This can be seen in the increased interest in material reuse in Brooklyn Bridge Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and carpenter Hector Ducci or the mappings of Anu Marthur and DIlip DaCunha that work to highlight the generative agency of specific species or material practices, and in the writings by the Research Dredge Collaborative which look to understand dredging operations and the acceleration of sedimentation processes as a sort of duel between US Army Corps, maritime commercial interests, river hydrology, and clastic sedimentation from the pleistocene.

As landscape architects continue to evolve an authentic landscape practice and to break away from the hegemonic influence of architectural technique, it seems incumbent on us to grapple with the agency of materials and humans, of all classes of objects.  To do this it seems we will need specificity and technique, and ability to realize that just as concrete and steel and compacted earth and platanus occidentalis saplings are not dumb inert matter waiting to be given meaning by the intentions of people, they are also not the same as people, or each other, and cannot be treated as such.  As designers we need methods of representation, modeling, and experimentation that can deal with specificity, an understanding of the topological aspect of any landscape.

The development of new drawing techniques, building on the work of those mentioned above as well as people such as Bradley Cantrell, seems necessary for the next step in developing an instrumental theory of landscape.  It seems possible to understand that indeed everything in the landscape is an instrument, a tool/broken-tool as Graham Harman puts it.  If a space is a landscape, and not some other type of space, then all of its objects and their changing relations are instruments; but not dumb inanimate drills, retaining walls, and land use policies, but rather objects receiving the intentions and being acted upon by other objects while simultaneously asserting their own autonomy and agency, even if only for a moment.

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