Representing Global Capital
tv globe icon link to home Landscapes: the geography of capital

"Landscape" has become widespread as a metaphor in our media culture. The press routinely refers to "landscapes of popular music," "sports," "politics" and so on. What has a "landscape" to do with any of these spheres of meaning? The landscape concept serves as a trope, a way of turning the topic to make it conceptualizable within our frameworks of knowing. Faithful to traditional meanings of landscape, it still connotes a panoramic view as surveyed by an omniscient viewer - a viewer who stands outside and above. Since our cultural history of landscape pictures has been so heavily influenced by the painting and photography of spectacular natural scenes, the concept may still be weighted towards a naturalistic point of view. Yet its adoption as a popular metaphor for grasping the whole of any subject matter, whether it be terra firma, or the current organization of the fashion industry, suggests that the concept has become unmoored from its necessary relationship to Nature. Hence we now longer restrict ourselves to topographic and geographic maps, but now move on to map a cultural geography. What must not be lost in adopting the landscape metaphor, is that the concept of landscape always presupposes a point of view - a vantage point.

From a sociological perspective, Sharon Zukin sees landscapes as a "symbolic representation" of "an ensemble of material and social practices" (1991:16). Here, landscapes are not merely limited to nature's scenes, but also the ways in which society and culture transform nature into social formations - these formations may be urban or technological or bureaucratic or architectural. Landscapes, she argues, are constituted by "ways of seeing," such that if we know how to 'read' them, we can perceive in landscape representations the relations of power that underlie and constitute them. For Zukin, urban landscapes present contested terrains that express the opposition between the market and place.

In a narrow sense, landscape represents the architecture of social class, gender, and race relations imposed by powerful institutions. In a broader sense, however, it connotes the entire panorama that we see: both the landscape of the powerful--cathedrals, factories, and skyscrapers; and the subordinate, resistant, or expressive vernacular of the powerless--village chapels, shantytowns, and tenements. A landscape mediates, both symbolically and materially, between the socio-spatial differentiation of Capital implied by market and the socio-spatial homogeneity of labor suggested by place. (Zukin, 1993:16).

The landscapes we map in this project are second-order landscapes. These are landscapes another step removed from materiality by the process of representation. In their advertising, Capital gives shape to material landscapes, framing symbolic visions of the materiality that surrounds our relations of consumption.

Abstracted, aestheticized, and decontextualized, the signifiers of landscape in corporate advertising have been cleansed of the ravages of Capital -- the shantytowns and barrios, unemployment lines, soup kitchens, polluted air and water, or IMF austerity measures and ensuing riots. What remains is less a contested terrain than a reflection of the wonderment brought on by Capital. Advertising produces an imaginary landscape. Heavenly light illuminates the skyscrapers of financial institutions transforming them into cathedrals; worm's-eye view shots signify the urban grandeur of corporate office towers; urban skylines both real and virtual connote economic progress; and communication grids superimposed atop shots of the earth from satellites demonstrate global connectedness.

By imaginary we do not mean to say that these landscapes are wholly fictitious, but rather that they are ideological in the sense that Louis Althusser once referred to: "what is represented in ideology is... not the system of real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of these individuals to the real relations in which they live" (Althusser, 1971: 155).

The primary conflict located in the concept of the landscape between market forces and the lived reality of places that Zukin refers to disappears in the advertising landscapes. While the architectural and technological landscapes of Capital symbolically express wonderment of human achievement, the determinism of market forces and exchange relations are absent. In Capital's self-portraits (which is what these landscape representations are turned into) social costs and political-economic contradictions cannot be found. In attempting to conceive of global landscapes, these ads mythologize Capital's relationship to place. "Anthropological place is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living 'know-how'" (Augé, 1995:101). If, as Augé argues, place designates the cultural geography of adaptation to locality, then non-place designates the landscape of supermodernity, where place succumbs to the abstracting, universalizing power of Capital and technology and is converted into spaces that we pass through without any sense of relation, history or identity. The expansionary logic of Capital and the diffusion of global electronic media coupled with institutional imperatives for speed disempowers local economies, uproots organic communities, and transforms cultural texts into commodity signs.

It is precisely here that we find advertising landscapes so interesting. On the one hand, the corporate landscapes that appear in ads seek to dissolve the conflict between Capital and place. But on the other hand, what these representations do the best is depict the presence of non-places - universal spaces - as a social and cultural proxy for the presence of Capital in our world. Hence while the same ads ideologically falsify the impacts of Capital - inverting the relationship between Capital and place, such that Capital does not destroy place, but appears to enhance it - they also convey the emerging hegemony of non-places in capitalist globalization processes.

In Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai (1996) links globalization with de-territorialization, and affixes the suffix scape to create words that reflect the flows of media, peoples, ideologies, technologies, and finances across national boundaries. For Appadurai the global cultural economy is disjunctive - comprised of overlapping flows and ruptures of mediascapes, ethnoscapes, ideoscapes, technoscapes and financescapes. Advertising omits the disruptive side of these flows by fashioning an aesthetic coherence, but it does nonetheless attempt to depict these flows as essential to Capital's identity. Such aestheticized flows become the defining features of Capital's landscapes - beams of light traverse the globe; night-time city scenes shot with stop-action photography create light trails of speeding automobiles on highways; editing practices compress frames to pack in the maximum amount of information possible while upbeat music creates a sense of the inevitable flow of progress.

In the imaginary landscapes of Capital that are assembled in advertising the transformative force of Capital appears always to enable and never to disrupt. And while power, exchange, and labor magically disappear in the production of Capital's symbolic landscapes, we shall try to show in the following pages how ambivalence and contradiction are less easily abolished from the traces left by these scapes.

link to mapping global capital theme
link to global capital theme
link to semiotics of advertising theme
link to grand narratives theme
link to geography of capital theme
link to conquering time and space theme
Abstraction and Deterritorialization
Cultural Geography
The Architecture of Capital

© Copyright 1998-2003
Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, Noah Kersey