Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 27, 2005
Edward S. Casey Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 392 pp.; 16 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (0816637156)

The intersection of space and place occurs on shifting sands at the borders of philosophy and aesthetics. This is not to suggest a lack of clarity about either way of knowing, but to make a claim about the fuzziness of the epistemological boundaries that the debate about space and place must necessarily engage. Edward Casey’s book Representing Place situates itself within the din of geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, architects, and philosophers rallying under the postmodern banner of place over space. For some time now his work has entered the fray. This, the third in a trilogy of books that includes Getting Back into Place (1993) and The Fate of Place (1997), extends his thesis that the Heideggerian notion of Gebild, or that which makes the world “a structured image that restructures the world of which it is an image” (234), reveals a fundamental tension between the abstract geometry of space and the phenomenology of place. This friction between the abstract and universalizing tendencies of modern life and the healing potential of topos is critiqued within the context of an Enlightenment-era worldview that extends Cartesian space and time outward from the modern subject. Representing Place is an assessment of the loss of a sense of place in modernity, the experience of which Casey associates more closely with a pre-modern medieval cosmology. His book proposes to recover the idea of place through a careful reading of representations, specifically landscape painting and maps.

Organized into three parts, the book considers how “representation bears on place” (Prologue, xvii), and specifically the potential representation of land through painting and maps to recover or, as Casey terms it, re-emplace the human subject in the lifeworld. The first part, “Painting the Land,” traces the development of the importance of landscape painting beyond its purely decorative role and into a medium for the representation of a Kantian sublime emblematic of the nineteenth century. The second division, entitled “Mapping the Land,” proposes that early maps also re-present and, in Heideggerian terms, enframe both the lived world and the measured site, thereby offering a model for how to think about place. Parts one and two are historicized to the extent that neither presents material outside of what Casey argues is a premodern sensibility—even if their chronology extends into the nineteenth century. Additionally, a general assumption is made about the unique role of space as a universal precondition for human experience. Part three synthesizes the previous chapters, but focuses specifically on the idea of enframing (also referred to as re-presentation) that Casey argues is peculiar to mapping and painting.

Maps, which Casey spends a good amount of energy discussing, are instructive here. In the conclusion he outlines four particular difficulties with mapping, which are reminders that unlike most language land or “landscape” is, as William James argues in Essays in Radical Empiricism, a “palmary instance of the ambiguous” (New York: Longman Green and Co, 1912; 153). Ambiguous because as a thing-in-itself it cannot be grasped in one instance—not through history or prose, not through imagination or sense or experience. Casey makes an argument that the following four conditions constitute the modern era “as an age in which everything exists together in order to be represented: indeed, exists only as represented” (273). First, the world-as-picture is the same as the world-as-image, and as such is malleable and make-able. Second, the image world is framed or frameable; and just as with maps and paintings, the viewer determines the limits and inclusions. Even in narrative, the sequence or ordering of memories is determined. Third, the world is populated by objects that stand in continual reference to a horizon, either as an event-horizon that is the objects’ history or a visual horizon that is literally the axis around which perception unfolds. And finally, human beings are the source of all re-presentations, or, as Kant writes in the Critique of Pure Reason, “appearances in general are nothing outside our representations” (St. Martins Press: New York, 1965; 443). Thus our maps are always an approximation of reality, a notion that becomes even more radical when we consider Heidegger’s assertion that what we believe is reality is itself only an approximation, an image we construct for ourselves.

I would not claim to cover all the finely articulated arguments in Casey’s book, and I do not want to do it a disservice by suggesting that the aforementioned ideas are the only provocative issues covered. The book encompasses a wide range of material both textual and visual, yet Casey’s primary sources are paintings and maps. As a result, his book is richer than most humanist geography because it does not shy away from a visual analysis of aesthetic objects, namely paintings that typically are outside of the canon. (He particularly references chorographic maps, which are a qualitative mapping of site, as opposed to cartographic maps, which are quantitative.) The visual content of the book is vivid and rewarding, and the arguments for a humanist geography compelling. In this way, the book is an instructive and important contribution to the interpretation of representations in the historiography of geography. Oddly, it is in its philosophical claims that the book encounters a complexity: namely, its desire to reclaim a phenomenological ground for place is also by inference to make claims that there is a transcendental notion of place-ness to which the human condition is inter-subjectively sensitive. That is, to register the effect of the map or painting we must have an a priori awareness, in the Kantian sense, that there is such a thing as “place.” The role of the representation is thus to mirror. It reflects back to us our innate experience of the difference between space and place. This is not to say that the book rests only on this argument; that would be both too strong and inaccurate. Rather, I suggest it in order to acknowledge the difficulty inherent in any discussion about space and place either through experience and representation or the representation of experience. The sands are ever shifting.

Winifred E. Newman
Ph.D. Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University