Humans are surrounded by cultural landscapes, yet we seldom question their meaning and purpose. We also dedicate little time to considering which cultural traits make people navigate through landscapes, particularly why they love and/or fear them.
In Cultural Landscape and Geography of Conflict, I described an importance of landscape:
“Cultural landscape is a tangible imprint of human activity. As all human actions and reactions occur in space (geography) and time (history) the landscape can record their manifestations. In regard to conflicts, cultural landscape analysis—looking at land and people—allows us to better understand why people do what they do, comprehend their problems, and find answers and solutions.”
In Sense of Place in a Space of Conflict: Israel (Part 1), I have expanded the definition of landscape to C.F. Gritzner’s
“Landscape, rather than being defined as the visual portion of the environment (as “a picture representing a view of natural scenery”), should be defined as the totality of the sensed environment: Landscape is the totality of one’s seen, smelled, heard, touched, or tasted environment.”
In the context of totality of one’s seen, smelled, heard, touched, or tasted environment, an individual may like or fear the surrounding landscape, despite the fact that a landscape does not selectively change to a person’s liking. Landscape is simply what it is, a manifestation of culture in its totality.
What each one of us, however, experiences and feels while operating in a particular landscape varies greatly and depends on one’s cultural background. As a result, we can experience emotions of fear (negative) or love (positive). If we love the landscape of places our actions toward that place and people residing there can be much different than if we fear it. Imagine, for example, religious cultural landscapes (e.g., a pilgrimage) that can be positively overwhelming to the adherents of that religion. Similarly, imagine the feelings of people who may have nothing but negative feelings about that religion; they may have a highly negative feeling about an entire environment there.
Minimums and Maximums
Love for landscapes ultimately minimizes geography of conflict. In Traces of Places in our Mind and Service to Global Awareness, I noted:
“The key is that once aware of how the locals conceptualize their opinions and views, and why they do it in such a way, we are free to not rely on a third party to design our individual viewpoint. We can grasp the differences between manufactured information and cultural, including social and political, reality.”
The local’s opinions and views, and why they act in certain ways, are all manifested in cultural landscape in their areas of residence, because the landscape is an imprint of their way of life. Thus, the more we know about people, the better we comprehend why they create particular landscapes. By so doing we are learning about each other and minimizing potential for conflict.
On the other hand, fear decreases interest about people and places and landscapes they create, and increases cultural apathy. Fear also persuades us to rely on a third party to help us build our own individual viewpoint about people and culture. Think about visiting a place for the first time, after watching and reading a series of negative reviews and commentaries about it.
Cultural fear is not inherited; rather, it has to be learned. We learn to fear landscapes, people, and places. But do not mistake cultural fear as being the same as normal human fear! The latter is undoubtedly an inherited human defensive mechanism, designed for the purpose of survival similar to that of other animal species. Fear of cultural landscapes, however, is a learned human behavior and a product of cultural interaction. It begins at childhood and lasts throughout one’s lifetime.
Figure 1. A sea of satellite dishes in an inner-city neighborhood. To some observers this is a lovely sight indicating the existence of an immigrant ethnic neighborhood, while others may fear it for exactly the same reason. (All photographs were taken by the author.)
Figure 2. A view of landscape of the region from which TV stations broadcast the programs viewed in ethnic neighborhoods similar to the one in the previous figure. To some this is the landscape of nostalgia, love, and community; to others, it is a landscape of fear, destruction, and despair.
Figure 3. Landscapes in northern latitudes can generate calmness and love for a place, despite its harsh climate. It also can also produce feelings of fear and desolation, remoteness and detachment from comfort.
Figure 4. Desert landscapes can generate feelings similar to those described in Fig. 3, except that the fear may replace love and vice versa.
Figure 5. Foodways and culinary customs are among the most important cultural traits that make us become (or not!) fond of particular people and places. This is not surprising, considering how much cultural and social interaction occurs during food preparation and consumption. How would a vegan enjoy the totality of seen, smelled, heard, touched or tasted environment in this instance?
Figure 6. Or in this instance, how might a non-drinker of whiskey react to its production and maturation? Combined, hundreds of millions of people around the world do not eat pork (Fig.5) or consume alcohol, yet not necessarily both and not for identical reasons. A landscape of pork sausage production, for example, may be a heavenly experience to the same people who see a whiskey distillery as a place of devil worship.
Topophilia and Topophobia: the Paradox of Proxy
Geographers and other scholars have spent decades studying love (topophilia) and fear (topophobia) of places, producing a number of publications worth reading. In the context of how these studies relate to the geography of conflict, the numbers are much lower. A stronger interest in this topic should be encouraged, because of the emergence of a cultural paradox: despite unprecedented access to mediums that greatly assist our learning about places, fear of their landscapes remains widespread.
As the satellite dishes depicted in Fig 1. illustrate, people now can have a world in our hands. It is possible to “visit” any corner of the globe in matter of minutes, and to explore any landscape via help of an electronic device. Interactive maps, street views, and attached digital photographs and videos can provide an interrupted of cultural landscapes.
The problem, however, is that all this is generated by proxy; what lacks in the exploration equation is a real-world experience, i.e., one’s personal sensing of the totality of an environment. Partial understanding of landscapes has resulted in the compartmentalization of feelings. Compartmentalization of feelings leads to compartmentalization of opinions. One of the compartments in this arrangement is fear of places, which, paradoxically, can increase despite actually knowing about something somewhere. It happens because we learn from a second-hand experience.
Present Ain’t No Past
Comparing topophilia and topophobia of the past with their contemporary forms is like comparing social media and interaction then and now. In the past, a fear of places was mostly bounded to areas an average person was familiar with. Beyond-horizon was too far away to worry about; immediate surroundings, and interaction with landscape in the vicinity of local residents, was of much higher priority.
Today it appears to be exactly the opposite. Social media has allowed us to have thousands of “friends” across the globe and explore landscapes where they live, then build feelings and opinions about places and landscapes we only know via a proxy. Potentially useful, yet in many instances a form of fool’s gold, an exploration via proxy can easily be a double-edged sword; it can, and I would argue it certainly does, contributes to a significant rise in geography of conflict.