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The Future of Landscape: Doreen Massey

Interview by Andrew Stevens.


3:AM: Firstly, can I ask how you came to be involved with The Future of Landscape? I am aware that Patrick Keiller had interviewed you for his Dilapidated Dwelling project but could you say something on how these actual collaborations came about?

DM: We had exchanged ideas a number of times over the years. On Dilapidated Dwelling, as you say, but also more than that. Patrick quoted me in Robinson in Space. I was interested in his collection of early urban film tracks. Our paths crossed on a number of occasions – at the Serpentine Gallery Marathon, for instance. It seemed right that we should have a more sustained conversation. And landscape is an ideal subject to share. I had also known Patrick Wright for ages (his work a lot, and personally a little) so the opportunity to team up was intriguing. It wasn’t so much an ‘interdisciplinary’ conversation, as it might be characterised, but rather a collective focus coming out of different trajectories.

3:AM: What’s your actual involvement with The Future of Landscape, both in terms of the project and the Robinson in Ruins film? I understand that the project almost segues on from your 2005 book For Space? How does this relate to the project’s stated aim of exploring notions of belonging and displacement?

DM: We have all been involved in thinking about ‘landscape’ and, if you like, reading the landscape politically. So it’s been an exchange of ideas, of learning from each other. That involves a lot of listening, and thinking. I’ve certainly learned a lot. Out of this, each of us is producing a different contribution. Mine is an extended essay on Space/landscape/politics that engages with the film, and the form of the film, as well as with the landscape, through the perspective of my own long engagement with concepts of space and place.

The point you make about following on from For Space is really important. (And insightful on your part because I don’t think I realised the full significance of this, in all its aspects, until we were immersed in the project.) There is a counterpoint between concepts of space and concepts of landscape, and I investigate that. So, for example, I explore how I think the film, in the politics of its form, evokes a concept(ualisation) of landscape that coheres brilliantly with the concept(ualisation) of space that I’d been after in For Space.

I also elaborate some of the political issues that are raised by this landscape, and by Robinson’s journey through it. So I take up the question of how to understand landscape and the question of what we can learn (or be provoked into thinking about) from this particular landscape and this mode of filming it.


3:AM: The précis (or prospectus, even) of the project sets out to explore the peculiar evolution of Anglo-Saxon capitalism as an inquiry (“As the project progressed, similar preconceptions were disposed of.”) Is there some sort of dialectical process involved in this? I mean the idea that preconceptions are disposed of (if they’re disposed of, where do they end up?)

DM: Peculiar yes, but also exemplary of the more general rise to dominance of the notion (and real power) of market forces. This is why Polanyi is so central. There is widespread idea that market forces are somehow ‘natural’. This is challenged in the film, and I try to draw out some of the implications of that argument.

As to ‘disposing of ideas’… this is RESEARCH! It is a process through which one learns. If you never ‘dispose of’ an idea you might as well pack it in. Where do they end up? They are reformulated. A lot of enquiry consists in reformulating the initiating question. Here what I have found engrossing is ‘thinking through the landscape’. One reformulation is of the terms of ‘belonging’: from the question of our belonging to a landscape to that of whether a landscape belong to us.

3:AM: Patrick Keiller cited your ‘A Place Called Home’ essay in Robinson in Space: “Much of life for many people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes.” We’ve since seen business class airline commercials saying ‘Precious thing, time’ – does this ‘framed difference’ connect to your writings on “Davos man” and the new global elite whose ‘flat’ world is presented as the only one? What do you make of globalization cheerleaders like Phillipe Legrain and their arguments that globalization frees the world from the tyranny of geography?

DM: Well, one thing I object to is the very notion that they have of ‘geography’ being a tyranny. To begin with: why is distance always negative, something to be overcome? There could be a whole thesis countering this but at the most simple of levels, what of the pleasures of travel? This inattention betrays a deeper attitude. Our overvaluation of speed (time here as only money) has robbed us of many things that are at least equally precious. But, second, ‘geography’ is more than distance. What an impoverished view of the planet! What of the variety of place? What of specificity and difference? If time is the dimension of change, then space is the dimension of coexisting difference. And that is both a source of nourishment (something that the globalisation gurus seem altogether to have foregone), and a challenge (how negotiate difference, how to address inequality, and so forth). So I don’t accept the terms of debate, that ‘geography’ is just a negative tyranny.

And that critique is before we get to the more standard criticisms of neoliberal globalisation – that it has produced a world even more unequal than the one it inherited. Incidentally, I don’t think there is a non-adjectival ‘globalisation’. What we have now is a particular form: dominated by finance and multinational corporations and by a rhetoric (though not a reality) of ‘free trade’ and market forces. So I’m not a localist. I’m an internationalist, but one who believes (a) that such a thing is really only possible through a prior grounding and (b) that the terms of our present globalisation have to be challenged politically. I did a Radio 3 lecture on this, for Nightwaves. It must be on the internet somewhere.


3:AM: You were, alongside other Soundings editors, one of many co-signatories to a letter in support of Ken Livingstone’s re-election ahead of the 2008 mayoral elections. One review of World City remarked that it was “an impassioned love-letter to Ken Livingstone”: what was it about Livingstone that appealed to you? Was this a kind of nostalgia for the period and certainties of the GLC?

DM: Were you around in the days of the GLC?! There were certainly no certainties! It was a period of exhilarating, contested, precarious, exhausting, experimentation. And no nostalgia, no (I’ve actually written of my antipathy, from a time/space perspective), to nostalgia.

3:AM: World City as a study of London was published pre-crash in 2007, just as the sub-prime crisis was hovering into view. In the book you cite Livingstone’s sole flaw as his being in hock to the City of London and its centrality to the UK economy, he’s a Labour politician so why should he be expected to behave any differently? The revised post-crash edition also counsels against any return to “business as usual”, but what alternative do you envisage for London?

DM: World City is a critique of the dominance of the finance sector, over London, over the UK economy as a whole, and internationally. The three sections of the book treat each of these in turn and document the damage that dominance does. The fact that the book first appeared just before the crash enables it to carry an important message: that the problem with the finance sector is not that it has crashed (though that has done enormous damage around the world) but the damage that it did even in its pomp. It is for that reason that we must not go back to business as usual. Most of all it is imperative we reduce the dominance of finance. And that means economically, ideologically, and in terms of political voice. It is now widely agreed that we must have a strategy for the development of other sectors, including green industries. There is a lot of economic writing about this. And I set out some ideas in ‘The Political Struggle Ahead’ in the last issue of Soundings (number 45).

3:AM: In World City you talk of the “establishment of place identity… framed within a geographical imagination of London as a world city”. I am interested in how the notions of belonging and displacement occur, as probed by The Future of Landscape, within the context of this place identity? World City also questions what London “stands for”, but why does it have to stand for anything? Shouldn’t London see itself as more than the Square Mile writ large?

DM: I’ve spoken a little about ‘belonging’ already. And that already disturbs some of those romantic (and nostalgic, if you like) notions of place identity. For me, places are articulations of ‘natural’ and social relations, relations that are not fully contained within the place itself. So, first, places are not closed or bounded – which, politically, lays the ground for critiques of exclusivity. Second, places are not ‘given’ – they are always in open-ended process. They are in that sense ‘events’. Third, they and their identity will always be contested (we could almost talk about local-level struggles for hegemony).

You ask why London has to ‘stand for’ anything. One response is that in fact it always inevitably does. One could say at the moment it stands for a complex mix of multiculturalism and financial power. Interestingly, that is a political mix of progressive and oppressive. What I’m arguing is simply that we should take responsibility for the effects of ‘our place’ around the world. To take responsibility for our embeddedness. If you don’t want to, so be it. It does demand an imaginative engagement with our planetary interdependence and that can be quite challenging.

3:AM: You began your career with the Centre for Environment Studies, a largely Wilsonian outfit established to advise on the built environment and so on, before Thatcher closed it down (as per the Tories’ intentions now with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment).

DM: Golly, that really was another era. Optimistic modernism. CES was quite a radical centre, abolished by Thatcher/Joseph immediately once they got into power.

I worked on urban modelling, on questions of landownership in Great Britain, and on industrial location and regional inequality. I also took a year out to do an MA in, basically, microeconomics at Pennsylvania. The main books I wrote from that work were Capital and Land (with Alex Catalano) and Spatial Divisions of Labour.

At CES there was work on planning and participation, on the local state, and a whole range of urban issues. When it was abolished there was a diaspora of folk, into the academy, planning, and trades unions. In the current climate, when universities are so often seen as training centres and where research should be primarily for commercial economic impact (I exagerate, but it’s a tendency), centres such as CES – free-thinking, lots of discussion, moving between theory and concrete engagement – would be a real boon.

Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 29th, 2010.