Posted by: Johan Normark | September 14, 2011

Space and the political landscape

In his book The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities, Adam T. Smith takes on several interesting perspectives to explain the emergence of complex polities. His main critique is directed to the lack of spatial explanations in social and political sciences. These disciplines have focused too much on the temporal dimension. The temporal privilege began with Hegel. Later, Marx transformed the spatial problems of material production into primarily historical/temporal problems. Space has been held constant as an explanatory variable in various social evolutionary models that still affects archaeological modelling.

Smith argues for a relational ontology of space that focuses on the social production of landscapes. Landscapes are not expressions of political order, they are the order itself. Authority must be described in terms of the space it assembles. Smith’s book focuses on how political practices work through landscapes (p 77). In his view the built environment is the very stake of political struggle. Built features evoke affective responses. For example, the storming of the Bastille was the expression of the hatred people felt towards the monuments that were their true rulers (p 6-7).

I do have some critique of his book. It is anthropocentric in its outlook, despite the example I have given above. For Smith space relates to extension and dimension whereas place relates to how locales becomes incorporated into human action and meaning. Landscape is what ties together space, place and representations (p 11).

I suspect that Smith sees the Bastille as a place filled with human meaning manifested in its physical appearance. Hence, it affected people only because it was meaningful from a human perspective, not from its own properties. From my viewpoint, the storming formed new assemblages/objects and these entities must be studied differently than the parts separately.

Smith, A. T. 2003. The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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