Particular Points of Loss or Hope: Ecologies of the Road

American Fence, Prescott 2010 (Neil Campbell)

A whole history remains to be written of spaces – which would at the same time be the history of powers… – from the great strategies of geo-politics to the little tactics of the habitat …  It is surprising how long the problem of space took to emerge as a historico-political problem.  Space used to be either dismissed as belonging to “nature” – that is, the given, the basic conditions, “physical geography”, in other words a sort of “prehistoric” stratum; or else it was conceived as the residential site or field of expansion of peoples, of a culture, a language or a State.

(Foucault 1980:149)

To appreciate the history of spaces then, one must cut through old prejudices and narrow visions, shifting attention away from monumental concepts alone towards the inclusion ‘alongside’ of details, the ‘taken-for-granted’ – ‘the little tactics of the habitat’ – from where some different and new insights might emerge. Space is multi-faceted, multi-layered – real and imagined – telling many stories simultaneously and yet it tends to be represented selectively with its parts and relations isolated from each other as though they are unconnected.  In trying to understand the world, we divide it up into separate spaces, simplify its stories, misunderstand its powers and are blind to its details. William Carlos Williams (writing Patersonbetween 1946-58) –  put it:

‘To make a start,

out of particulars

and make them general’  (Paterson) 

From the everyday and the near, look down and beside AND outwards and beyond.

Felix Guattari argues that new ecological thought or ‘ecosophy’ has to bring together the ‘three ecologies’, as he terms them: environmental, social and mental in its efforts to truly alter the way we relate the world.  Foucault’s assertion of spatial history and Guattari’s attention to the inter-connectedness of the ‘earth’ and ‘human modes of life’ – ‘between subjectivity and its exteriority’ (Guattari 2000:27) – informs this paper’s brief examination of some shifts in American perception in the 1970s.

Just as in Paterson, Williams wrote of ‘an interpenetration, both ways’ – a dialogic relation between the ‘blank faces of the houses and cylindrical trees’, between human and non-human, city and country, I will be arguing for a ‘social landscape’ as dynamic, complex, relational and simultaneous, recognizing that space is not ‘innocent’ and ‘natural’ but ‘produced’ through all kinds of complex relations.  Williams refused to divide off or shut out the interplays of space and encourages us through his art to look again, finding hope in his descent into the very particulars, the nitty-gritty, banal ‘things’ that surround us –

‘The descent

                        made up of despairs

                                                and without accomplishment

realizes a new awakening  :

                                                which is a reversal

of despair.’

My encounter with the American roadscape is, to borrow from Felix Guattari, my ‘dérive’ (or drift) into nomadic thoughts about ecologies and how in the liminal, particular spaces of the roadscape, mental, social and environmental ecologies collide.  The roadscape is what Foucault termed ‘heterotopic’,  ‘juxtaposing in a single real place different spaces and locations that are incompatible with each other’ (in Leach 1997:354) and offers an iconic American focus for this study.

We might use the road, but mostly it’s invisible as we pass by to ‘better’, ‘purer’ nature, looking for the monuments and sights that promise an Edenic moment that will lift our spirits, whilst excluding what is all around us.  Such paradisal spaces tend, however, to ‘lift’ us beyond the ‘here and now’ and our responsibilities as living beings within a web of ecologies, and allow us a nostalgic grasping after some imagined, lost time of harmony and freedom.


The ‘ecological’ space of the roadscape provides particular points of loss and hope and the locus for my contribution to the ‘history of spaces’ through which I grasp not for the idealized past but for ‘new futures’ and different ways of seeing.  Guattari’s ‘tri-ecological’ approach, bringing together the environmental, social and mental so as to comprehend ‘issues as a whole’ (Guattari 2000:41) completely uproots and re-thinks our approach to living together in the world and resists all forms of reductionism, standardization, pollution and consensus in favour of a more critical, fluid, creative response ‘more like those of an artist’ (ibid.:35).  Guattari wants to give ‘otherness’ (altérité) back its ‘asperity’ – its rough, abrasive harshness (ibid.:27).

The roadscape can have a certain harshness (asperity) that makes it commonly repressed or it can be overly romanticized within a discourse of freedom and flight, so to reinscribe it in art and literature serves to jar the reader-viewer into confronting types of ‘otherness’.   Many of the photographs I refer to utilize the roadscape as a provocative site where the ‘social’, ‘mental’ and ‘environmental’ ecologies intersect.  We are required to see differently and therefore think differently about these three-way relations, to re-view, recognize and confront these complex, contradictory relationships whilst simultaneously questioning our existing positions.  To gaze upon the hidden and disregarded ‘histories’ of the road rather than repressing or ignoring or idealizing it, reminds us of all that which we ‘edit’ out of our ecological frame of vision leading us to wider questions about subjectivity and space. Roads are ‘topographies of transition’ (Tatum 1998): borders, frontiers, lines of flight, traces, tracks, and trails left by humanity as it encounters nature in complex, interactive contact zones.

These thoughts were provoked by looking again at some of the photographs once claimed as neutral, passive and emotionless representations of American ‘social landscape’ in the age of technology – The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975) (Adams, Baltz, Deal, Shore, Nixon, Bechers, Shott, et  SEE al).  William Jenkins, its curator, claimed they were images of  ‘man-made structures within larger contexts such as landscapes’ (Jenkins 1975:5), but statements by the exhibitors suggest a far more complex, multi-faceted relation between these ‘contexts’ and representation: Nixon wrote ‘I love the contradictions of photography’ and Baltz said ‘There is something paradoxical in the way that documentary photographs interact with our notions of reality’ (ibid. – my emphases).   In the ‘history of spaces’ it is through such unsettling contradictions and paradoxes that we might be engaged with new problems, new recognitions, new relations and new potentialities.  Here is the kind of ‘asperity’ Guattari sought to assert to jar us out of our consensual passivity.   Beyond the ideal, mythic landscape, the roadscape, as produced space, provides a focus for this reconsideration and creation of ‘new topography’.  [show New Topographics slides  – Robert Adams, etc]

These photographic ‘new topographies’ re-map a way of seeing and thinking that may help us reach far beyond their supposed collective purpose as photographers and to realize an ecological vision neither dismissive or utopian, but attempting to contemplate space as multiple, contested and inter-relational.  Statements in the exhibition catalogue begin to suggest this, but none more so than Joe Deal’s and Robert Adams’:

The elimination of the vagaries of sky and horizon is partly an attempt to fill the frame and create a self-contained, undifferentiated space, and is also the elimination of a familiar clue to scale and orientation, and to that extent indicates the degree of ground-directedness of these photographs.

By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet … Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil… What I hope to document, though not at the expense of surface detail, is the Form that underlies this apparent chaos (Jenkins 1975:7 – my emphasis).

Both suggest the disorientating asperity of these images requiring the viewer to let go of old expectations about nature and ways of ‘framing’ reality by emphasizing ‘undifferentiated space’ where many things happen simultaneously, and ‘ground-directedness’ emphasing the actual, complex juxtapositions of the roadscape.  Adams’ notion of ‘Form’ indicates not a perfect order or unity, but the recognition of inter-relatedness – a dialogical connection – Nature here includes and ‘cannot be separated from culture’ (Guattari 2000:43).  In Guattari’s own radical thinking, it has been written that ‘the old topographies of the psyche have been abandoned’ (Genosko in Guattari 2000:152) in favour of his new triple mapping of ecology.

This ‘new [photographic] topography’ interrupted the easy flow or ‘lure’ (Guattari 2000:39) of mythic landscape images inherited from nineteenth century painting and Ansel Adams [slides  ], shifting the eye from the distant horizon ‘out there’, from epic monumentalism and the grand, eternal narrative of ‘Nature’ (as God-given, ‘natural’, and independent of humanity), to ‘here’ and near-at-hand, to ‘ground-directedness’, and to the hybrid relations between them both.  Guattari claims that from the mythic, ‘sedative discourse’ (Guattari 2000:41), we might instead ‘apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses or points of view of the three ecologies’ (ibid.:42 – my emphasis).  Guattari’s apposite use of a metaphor of perception relates to the specific contribution of these photographers engaged in their own ‘reconstruction’ of the environment and in altering the viewer’s own assumptions. [NT slides] 

Although human beings don’t figure in these images, their traces do – the roadscape is a trace – and the photographs deliberately confront the viewer with these spaces of collision and contact, as human presence is inserted into the once mythically envisioned landscape devoid of people.  What Ansel Adams cropped out of his images returns like the repressed to remind us of a more complex, relational existence, of our responsibilities in a living, changing environment of growth, despoilation, and survival.  Togetherness is the key. Simultaneity.  We see, within the frame so much that is usually separated out and kept apart: Nature / Culture / Technology / Excess / Beauty / Horror / Waste / Growth / Death / Life / Motion / Stasis / Commerce.

Henri Lefebvre has written: ‘it is precisely because [Space] has been occupied and used, and has already been the focus of past processes whose traces are not always evident on the landscape’, that it might appear ‘neutral’, and yet ‘Space has been shaped and molded from historical and natural elements … Space is political and ideological.  It is a product literally filled with ideologies’ (Lefebvre in Soja 1989:80).  The ‘New Topographics’ – almost despite themselves – demonstrate this ideological process in their images, ‘running counter to the “normal” things, a counter-repetition, an intensive given which invokes other intensities to form new existential configurations’ (Guattari 2000:45).

Timothy O’Sullivan’s ‘Rock Carved By Drifting Sand’ (1871) taught Robert Adams, in ‘Along Interstate 25, 1973’, [slides    ] a radical inclusiveness intensified by low angles that draw us as participants into a landscape where the foreground matters, the ‘near’ is simultaneously viewed with the ‘far’ and the relations of the human and the non-human are unavoidably involved in the image. Adams once wrote of the ‘national misunderstanding of space’ (1985:7) as Edenic and sought, along with other New Topographics a different vision of inhabited nature where the roadscape became emblematic of interaction, forming an ‘iconography of the disregarded – or “unphotographable”…’ (Haworth-Booth in Baltz 1990:78), engaging us in a potent new tri-ecology.  It’s about how we live in the environment, live with others and about how we think and feel in doing it.

Contemplating New Topographic roadscapes is to break out of the ‘stupefying and infantilizing consensus’ (Guattari 2000:50) of landscape imagery in challenging, multifaceted ways forming part of a wider post-1960s shift across many different disciplines questioning the notion of ‘whole’ systems, meta-narratives, mythic representations and ideals.  It was no longer enough to think of a singular, monolithic nature, pure and ordered, aspirational and distanced for these images challenge perception, assumption and ideology in  similar ways to two other radical, ‘dissensual’ thinkers of the 1970s; John Brinckerhoff Jackson and Robert Venturi.

Jackson and Venturi

Cultural geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s notion of ‘odology’ (the study/discourse of roads) argues that the road’s

potentialities for trouble – aesthetic, social, economic – are as great as its potentialities for good, and indeed it is this ambidexterity which gives the highway and its margins so much significance and fascination (Jackson 1970:58).

Ambidexterity is Jackson’s version of Baltz’s ‘paradox’ discussed earlier, with the roadscape as his ambiguous site between good and bad, human and non-human, loss and hope.  Despite the blight and the relentless spread of strip mall, suburban sprawl and edge cities Jackson refused to reject these facets of the landscape and sought instead to analyse it as complex interpentration: where ‘a landscape like a language, is the field of perpetual conflict and compromise between what is established by authority and what the vernacular insists upon preferring’ (Jackson 1984:148).   Jackson’s terms reveal his optimism that the roadscape as contact zone might prove a space of ecological ‘compromise’ where humanity and nature co-existed, a hope shared with architect Robert Venturi, who wrote

I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure’, compromising rather than ‘clean’, distorted rather than ‘straightforward’, ambiguous rather than ‘articulated’, perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting’, conventional rather than ‘designed’, accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than simple, vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.  I am for messy vitality over obvious unity.  I include the non sequitur and proclaim duality … I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or’, black and white, and sometimes gray, to black or white.  A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once (1966:22 – my emphasis).

His provocative study of Las Vegas brings many of these concepts to life, finding in the roadscape the ‘messy vitality’ and simultaneity that challenged comfortable norms and ideals.  Surely, like the New Topographics and Jackson’s cultural geography, the emphasis in this work was upon unsettling our modes of perception and urging a dissensual re-thinking of accepted practices.  Standardized thought was the danger for it squeezed out originality and difference – whereas these works of the 1970s require us to see and think differently.    [SLIDES FROM LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS]. 

The ‘social landscape’ in these examples, in all its ‘messy vitality’ and hybrid, formal fusions, asked that as readers and viewers we looked beyond the set lines of standard thought and opened our minds to other possibilities whilst recognizing our responsibilities within the landscape.  Guattari wrote in 1989 that ‘It is this praxic opening-out which constitutes the essence of “eco”-art’, for accordingly  ‘Ecology … questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations …’ (Guattari 2000: 52-3).


Jackson’s and Venturi’s visions of the anarchic roadside spaces were clearly seen as alternative landscapes outside the control and discipline of the State grid’s institutional, corporatized status.  On the roadside the public and private blurred, overlapped just like humanity and nature, in strange uncontrolled encounters.  In his most utopian mode, Jackson interpreted the roadside as a space in which ‘shared interests and mutual help’ was possible (1984:153) and in which creative energies found expression before the onslaught of corporate territorialization.  The roadscape was the site for alternative traditions, for new diasporic ‘languages’, often ugly and banal, but rarely lacking in surprise or energy, where the layers and anomalies of history could be ‘read’.  The road is the heterogeneous space of ‘exchange’, ‘transshipment’ and ‘contact’, of interactions and encounter where the ‘uniformity of taste and income and interests’ is countered by ‘this ceaseless influx of new wants, new ideas, new manners, new strength’ and where ‘Variety is essential not only as a source of delight and inspiration; biologically and socially, it is essential to our well-being’ (Jackson 1997:23-7).  The roadscape ‘is a dialog, not a monolog’ (Jackson 1970;147) where many voices encounter each other as ‘a jumbled reminder [or ‘messy vitality’?] of all current enthusiasms – atomic energy, space travel, Acapulco, folksinging, computers, Danish contemporary, health foods, hot-rod racing, and so on’ (ibid.:149-50).  The danger was in fact ‘a kind of impatience with nonconformity’ and the federal highway Program’s urge towards ‘sterilizing our roadsides’ (Jackson 1970:72) and the corporate monotony’s standardization of space.  Guattari’s rage against ‘dullness and passivity’ Guattari 2000:69) under-pins his belief in ‘the tri-ecological vision’ – ‘To bring into being other worlds beyond those of purely abstract information … to dare to confront the vertiginous Cosmos so as to make in inhabitable’ (ibid.) and to formulate a ‘new ecosophy, at once applied and theoretical, ethico-political and aesthetic’ by moving away from the ‘old forms’ through a ‘multifaceted movement … that will simultaneously analyse and produce subjectivity’ and ‘open itself up on all sides to the socius’ (ibid.:68).


For me there are exquisite traces of this radical agenda in the 1970s’ rejections of ‘old forms’ found in the works I have examined, works which re-direct the eye in demanding, confrontational, contradictory texts that encourages the reader-viewer to step outside their normalized systems of thought and perception in a process of ‘transversality’.  This means an ‘undisciplined creativity’, an ‘in-betweenness’, a ‘bridge’ across dimensions, a rhizomatic, multiple, mobile process resisting reductionism and fixture, ‘the tool used to open hitherto closed logics and hierarchies’ (Guattari 2000:151, 119).  In so doing these lines of image and thought might present particular points of loss and hope as a ‘catalyst for a gradual reforging and renewal … starting at the most miniscule level’ (ibid.:69) – with critical ‘ground-directedness’ and anarchic variety – at the roadside itself – and direct us, ultimately, towards the possibility of broader ecological thought and justice.

Works Cited


Cronon, W. (ed.)  (1996) Uncommon Nature.  New York:  W.W. Norton

Foucault, M.  (1980)   ‘The Eye of Power’ in Power/Knowledge.  London:Harvester Wheatsheaf

  —-                 (1997)  ‘Of Other Spaces’ in Leach, N. (ed.) Rethinking Architecture.  London:Routledge

Guattari, F.     (2000) The Three Ecologies.  London: The Athlone Press

Haworth-Booth, M. in Baltz. L. (1990) Rule Without Exception. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press

Jackson, J.B. (1970) Landscapes: Selected Writings.  Amherst: University of Massachusetts

  ——-             (1984) Discovering the Vernacular Landscape.  New Haven: Yale University Press

   ——–           (1997) Landscape in Sight: Looking at America.  Ed.  H. Lefkowitz Horowitz.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jenkins, W.  (1975)  The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.  New York:  George Eastman house.

Lefebvre, H. in Soja, E.  (1996)  Thirdspace.  Oxford: Blackwell

Tatum, S.  (1998)  ‘Topographies of Transition in Western American Literature’, Western American Literature, v, February, xxxii, pp. 310-52

Venturi, R.      (1966)  Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.  New York: MOMA

Venturi, R., Scott Brown, D. & Izenour, S.  (1996) Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge: MIT

Williams, W. Carlos  (1963)  Paterson.  New York: New Directions


‘Spring and All’

By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast – a cold wind.  Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines –

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches -…


My wider purpose was to review the three ‘ecologies’ of the road, as I term them, (i) its absence or abomination, (ii) its romance and celebration and (iii) its hybrid, dialogic potential as a meeting place of human and non-human. This latter, or ‘third ecology’ I wish to examine in photography and words (see Appendix for ecologies 1 and 2).


Roads can be reminders of expansion, marking the earth like vast sentences inscribed across the land, etching Manifest Destiny into the very earth itself and creating a language of control and discipline defining space as linear, gridded order.  These are traditionally the sentences we want to forget, for as William Fox writes, the highway ‘allows no point of view but that of progress along the road itself’, unless we take the time to stop and observe, to see the intimate relations of the roadscape. We can’t erase these lines from the land, but we can erase them from our picture of the world. We can attempt to make them absent. They are utilities, used but ignored, traveled but rarely studied, permitting us to consume landscape through the windscreen at speed, or to move towards our desired pristine Eden, but conveniently they are consigned to our mental ‘blank spots’.  They are an everyday ‘language’ that we would rather not dwell upon.  We repress the road, like Ansel Adams’ photographs that consistently look to the horizon and the monumental landscape, out and beyond, up and over, to present a timeless, preserved vision of nature’s sublime glory without human presence, without the roads that carried him and his camera to the ‘wilderness’.

But look at the stories roads tell if only we trouble to read these broken, disregarded black-top, vernacular sentences and follow their jumbled ecological histories strewn along their margins.

From the everyday and the near, look down and beside AND outwards and beyond.

There is a common response to the road as a necessary evil of visual and ecological blight riddled with the hideous corporate architecture of excessive capitalism – the ‘Golden Arches’ economy/monotony of signs and waste. The roadscape is an ugly, chaotic, brutal emblem of environmental neglect and ecological horror, a reminder of tamed nature and technological obsession, and yet they run through the very heart of our lives.  We are in relations with the road but pretend we are not, converting them into an absence.

Ecology here is taken to mean the relations between human and non-human – ‘Everything connected to everything else’ (Barry Commoner’s 1st law of ecology, 1975) and in a wider sense articulated in Felix Guatarri’s The Three Ecologies in which he specifically argues for mental and social ecologies.  In re-focusing on the road with all its hybrid conditions and its heteroglossic potentialities, we can begin to appreciate the complex matrix of relations it represents. There are specific challenges presented by the road as it runs through and into ‘nature’ – but, of course, has to be seen as part of the whole not separate from it.  The road brings us to this ‘Other’, takes us out of the domesticated everyday and carries us into specific relations with the non-human; at its edges, along its verges, by streams and tree-lined medians, amid road-kill, distant horizons and the expanses of forest, prairie and desert beyond.

The grid system represents a controlling of the environment, or what Jackson termed ‘planned, specialized organization’ (in Conzen 1990:368), encouraging an ‘over-powering’ ‘all-pervading sameness’, ‘ignoring all inherent differences’ (Jackson 1994:153,154).  The grid’s disciplining of the land with its monotonous rectangular patterns was contrasting by Jackson with ‘the auto-vernacular landscape’ of the roadside with its ‘obsessive wandering … casual attitude toward the house and other institutions, and above all, its habit of sharing or borrowing public spaces’ (in Groth and Bressi 1997:152).


Cronon writes of the wilderness ideal in terms we might apply to this sense of the road: ‘In its flight from history, in its siren song of escape, in its reproduction of the dangerous dualism that sets human beings outside of nature … wilderness poses a serious threat to  

responsible environmentalism’ (Cronon 1996:81).  He goes on to say that ‘the wilderness dualism tends to cast any use as ab-use, and thereby denies us a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship … The middle ground is where we actually live’  (ibid.:85-6).  The wilderness ideal puts us at a distance from the things we are trying to preserve.




Beyond the New Topographics

Lewis Baltz Near Reno (1986) is a good case study for its very title is a play on the word ‘near’, suggesting both the ‘at hand and close’ as well as the fact that the images are taken not in Reno but ‘near’ it, at its edges and in its marginal spaces.   Baltz’s ‘forensic objectivity’ creates framed moments of simultaneity in which the layers of ecological life are revealed to us as a dramatic dialogue, a juxtapositional hybrid.

Photographs such as those of Lewis Baltz or Mark Klett represent some of these ideas by juxtaposing within one frame a set of complex relations and apparently contradictory elements.  By simultaneously relating within the roadscape a series of jarring images they engage us in a process of recognition built on the inherent spatial tensions.  It is as if the first and second ecologies of the road are superimposed upon one another to show that they cannot and do not exist separately but rather co-exist to construct a ‘third’ vision of the road.  In this new consciousness of the roadscape, one defined by ambiguity (ambidexterity), tension, irony and contradiction the simultaneous elements work on us as challenges to our assumptions and refute any safe position.  Humanity is implicated in nature, not distinct from it, and the products of the human-world have to be judged in relation to the non-human.  The waste is our waste, the garbage spills from our lives into something often represented as the Other – but it no longer can be.  The roadscape encapsulates the dilemma.

The challenge is expressed by Jackson when he wrote of ‘creating a new nature, a new beauty’ (1984:155) out of the hybridized spaces of the road.  In this he realized the flawed dualism of ecologies 1 and 2 seeking to define the road as bad and good, and instead seeing the necessity for a ‘third’, ‘a “between” formed only in the simultaneous presence of the two’ (Burgin 1996:185).  In the photographs seen here a third ecology of the road is represented, a ‘space between’ where a real responsibility is shown for the multiple relations of human and non-human and where a possibility emerges for the beginnings of the articulatiuon of what Klett once termed ‘new wilderness values’ (Klett   ).


American Fence, Prescott 2010 (Neil Campbell)


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