Making Sense of Our Places With the Idea of Landscape
Making Sense of Our Places With the Idea of Landscape
  • Lee Jae-youl
  • 승인 2017.05.03 17:29
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Landscape is a tract of land with particular features, which are usually products of human modification, and it exists and transforms in diverse forms and scales from a single statue, monument, and building to a sum of human-made structures such as rural settlements and particular urban sections. In addition to denoting tangible material settings, the term is also used in metaphorical ways (e.g., political landscape in popular and media discourses). Landscape comprises an important research theme in cultural geography, a sub-discipline of human geography concerned with cultural artifacts, practices, and politics in diverse geographical contexts, and let me introduce two important ways of how cultural geographers study, understand, and explain landscapes with close and familiar examples (including what I have observed and learned here in Pohang since I moved to POSTECH in February).
To some cultural geographers, landscape is an organic product that a particular group of people create by transforming ‘natural’ landscape, and such cultural geographers are attentive to how cultural landscapes are made through the human colonization of ‘pristine’ natures. The history of human settlement in the central part of Pohang offers a great example for the perspective. The city center area was composed of five alluvial islands (including Jukdo, Haedo, Sangdo, Hado, and Bundo) in the end of the Hyungsan River, but immigrants who moved to the city in search of job after the establishment of Pohangchang (which deposited grains for the purpose of social relief) in 1871 started to reclaim and transform the wetlands into human settlements. In a historical account, the Compilation Committee of Pohang City History states that the island reclamation in the late 19th century and the creation of the land of current Pohang city center exhibits the idea of 'Pohang Spirit' composed of pioneering, cooperation, and unity. In this interpretation, the reclaimed city center area is understood as a ‘symbolic landscape’ that represents intangible moral cultures in Pohang.
However, such a landscape representation is problematic as it defies well-established historical knowledge about the sociocultural and political process of wetland reclamation in the Chosun Dynasty. It is widely known in academia that new settlers were normally disallowed to live in preexisting villages at the time, and thus that they had to dwell in undesirable and even risky environmental conditions such as riverine and shoreline wetlands. If such territorial politics were also true in Pohang, the reclaimed cityscape can be interpreted as a landscape of discrimination and exclusion, rather than that of pioneering, cooperation, and unity. 
This way of understanding the landscape can be called ‘landscape semiotics,’ in which cultural geographers are attentive to cultural meanings, values, and beliefs inscribed in landscape. In this interpretative tradition, landscape is understood as a ‘text,’ and analysts are expected to examine symbols and signs with aim to uncover a variety of meanings that particular landscapes are intended to convey. A simple strolling of POSTECH confirms the viewpoint’s relevance for our understanding of places. This campus is certainly used to unleash creative/innovative potentials and generate new knowledge and human capital, but it can be also thought to be a landscape designed to naturalize and normalize the importance of science and scientists in the social, economic, and national development. Inscriptions in statues, monuments, and buildings, texts in electronic screens, and street and place names (e.g., Nobel Circle and MC2) are important clues to the characterization.
In the meantime, it is also important in the semiotic interpretation to examine whether naturalized sociocultural and politico-economic ideals inscribed in symbolic landscapes generate “others”, and how they are disagreed, challenged, contested, negotiated, and reshaped among diverse landscape stakeholders. The above-noted possibility of reclaimed Pohang city center as a landscape of exclusion and discrimination is considered in such an effort, and if a critical landscape semiotician visit POSTECH, s/he might be interested in unveiling and discussing an overemphasis of western science and related figures and criteria, and an underrepresentation of minority and female scientists and their achievements.
To put together, cultural geographers employ and utilize the idea of landscape in order to examine the relationship between human, nature, and culture, and interpret inscribed semiotic meanings and understand related cultural politics. These are competing views, but they invariably (but in varying degrees) emphasize the role of human subjectivity in the making and the transformation of our places and environments. In so doing, influential social actors such as heroic founders and architects, politicians, and entrepreneurs are considered, but an equal attention is paid to ordinary people. Thus, by taking the idea of landscape seriously, we can learn place-based human creativity and social innovation, as well as emergent cultural politics.