Speaking Volumes: Landscapes of Power

April 21, 1995

Susan J. Smith on Sharon Zukin's Landscapes of Power .

In an era where it is more fashionable to know everything about something rather than something of everything, I have appreciated being in a discipline where eclecticism is a virtue and making connections is as prized as specialisation.

While I envy the specialists their detail and dedication, their life's work and their Nobel prize, the more I see of the information explosion, the more I value the work of the synthesisers and integrators - those whose powers of reflection and imagination help us understand how the knowledge we produce fits together, and make us appreciate what it means for our lives and futures.

Because of this I was tempted to write a column on Ulf Hannerz's Exploring the City (1980). This work was the first to whisper into the ear of my sensitive intellectual ego "dilettantism rules OK" - range widely, read avidly, reflect and speculate, and you will make new knowledge and break fresh ground. That is certainly what Hannerz achieves. By roving around the great works of 20th-century urban anthropology he not only provides a new perspective on the experience and interpretation of urban life, but also stimulates our imagination sufficiently to allow us to do the same ourselves.

In the end, however, Hannerz's book, while always inspiring, is not quite satisfctory. It spans half a century and several continents in its discussions of urban life and culture, but never really tackles the thorny question of how or why cities work the way they do. So I read the book, enjoyed it, drew inspiration from it, and based some of my work on the ideas it contains. But, notwithstanding its enormous and much deserved success, I remained suspicious of the intellectual credentials of something so uncompromisingly delightful.

Sharon Zukin's Landscapes of Power (1991), on the other hand, exploits all the qualities of the approach I associate with Hannerz, but turns her imaginative powers to the forces that shape the landscape and constrain our use, experience and enjoyment of it. Zukin's text is about the pulling together of threads in a way which forces us to think not just about how the world is, but also about how it ought to be. I bought the book because this, for me, is one of the most fundamental reasons why we pay people to think and write.

Zukin provides a synthesis of the experience of economic restructuring across the United States, from steel city to Disneyworld, from milltown to shopping mall. What links these places together is the "creative destruction" of local landscapes - in different ways and for different reasons - by forces embedded in an international economy. These forces are behind a shift of economic momentum from the organisation of production to the process of consumption, and they account for the empowerment of some and the exclusion and displacement of others.

Zukin's book is an eclectic review of the impact of the greatest social transformation of the 20th century. Her achievement is to specify the cultural dimensions of the economic imperative, and to argue that shared meanings and cultural values also have the power to shape local life. She shows that although the landscape is manipulated by capital, it is by no means inevitable that market cultures should emphasise consumerism over citizenship. By infusing detailed case studies with personal experience, intellectual imagination, and high standards of scholarship, Zukin shows that economic restructuring is always about beginnings as well as ends, and that we may have more control than we think over where we go from here.

Susan J. Smith is professor of geography, University of Edinburgh.

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