48. Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape”

by breavman99

ingold temporality of the landscape

I decided to read Tim Ingold’s essay “The Temporality of the Landscape” for two reasons. First, Doreen Massey mentioned it as an example of thinking about space and temporality, and second, in my experience, I’ve always found that Ingold has interesting things to say. It’s an odd essay, though, and while I don’t agree with everything in it, I think it’s a valuable example of phenomenological thinking about space and place.

Ingold begins by stressing what he sees as two central themes in both archaeology and anthropology:

First, human life is a process that involves the passage of time. Second, this life-process is also the process of formation of the landscapes in which people have lived. Time and landscape, then, are to my mind the essential points of topical contact between archaeology and anthropology. (152)

That contact between archaeology and anthropology is really the thing Ingold is interested in exploring. He states that his purpose in writing this essay is

to bring the perspectives of archaeology and anthropology into unison through a focus on the temporality of the landscape. . . . such a focus might enable us to move beyond the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space. (152)

Rather than those oppositions, Ingold argues that we need to adopt what he calls “a ‘dwelling perspective,’ according to which the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing, have left something of themselves” (152). That perspective is what connects archaeology and anthropology together; anthropology, he suggests, is about “knowledge born of immediate experience,” but archaeology isn’t knowledge about people who are now dead; “the practice of archaeology is itself a form of dwelling” (152). The use of the word “dwelling” suggests that Ingold’s argument is based in Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which he cites halfway through this essay (162). I really would have to re-read “Building Dwelling Thinking” if I wanted to get the most out of Ingold’s essay. 

According to Ingold, for both anthropology (knowledge provided by “the native dweller”) and archaeology,

the landscape tells—or rather is—a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around on it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past. (152-53)

The methods used by archaeologists and anthropologists are different, as are the stories they tell, but “they are engaged in projects of fundamentally the same kind” (153). He gives, as an example, an imagined experienced hunter, who knows about the land and has learned about it through experience and being taught. If asked to communicate this knowledge (by an anthropologist), that hunter may do so in the form of stories. Such stories would be different from the anthropologist’s site report, Ingold notes, but

we should resist the temptation to assume that since stories are stories they are, in some sense, unreal or untrue, for this is to suppose that the only real reality, or true truth, is on in which we, as living, experiencing beings, can have no part at all. Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it. A person who can “tell” is one who is perceptually attuned to picking up information in the environment that others, less skilled in the tasks of perception, might miss, and the teller, in rendering his knowledge explicit, conducts the attention of his audience along the same paths as his own. (153)

I might not be interested in the relationship between archaeology and anthropology, but I am interested in stories as the result of being perceptually attuned to an environment, and so, despite the disciplinary framework of Ingold’s essay, I decided to keep reading.

Ingold notes that his essay is divided into four parts. The first is a defence of his use of the term “landscape.” Landscape, he suggests, is not “land,” or “nature,” or “space” (153). The term “land,” he argues, “is a kind of lowest common denominator of the phenomenal world, inherent in every portion of the earth’s surface yet directly visible in none” (153). We can ask how much land there is, he contends, but not what that land is like (153-54). “But where land is thus quantitative and homogenous,” he continues, “the landscape is qualitative and heterogenous” (154). Landscape is what we see all around us; it is “a contoured and textured surface replete with diverse objects—living and non-living, natural and artificial” (154). “Thus,” he writes, “at any particular moment, you can ask of a landscape what it is like, but not how much of it there is” (154). 

Nor is landscape “nature.” For Ingold, “nature” is a concept “whose ontological foundation is an imagined separation between the human perceiver and the world, such that the perceiver has to reconstruct the world, in consciousness, prior to any meaningful engagement with it” (154). That separation between humans and the natural world suggests that it is “out there,” while we are “in here,” “in the intersubjective space marked out by our mental representations” (154). That dualism, he contends, leads to a conception of nature as a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing one’s surroundings—a division between inner and outer worlds that Ingold rejects: “The landscape, I hold, is not a picture in the imagination, surveyed by the mind’s eye; nor, however, is it an alien and formless substrate awaiting the imposition of human order” (154). Landscape, he continues, is not identical to nature; nor is it “on the side of humanity against nature” (154). “As the familiar domain of our dwelling,” Ingold writes, landscape “is with us, not against us, but it is no less real for that. And through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we are a part of it. Moreover, what goes for its human component goes for other components as well”—in a landscape, that is, “each component enfolds within its essence the totality of its relations with each and every other” (154). 

Landscape isn’t space, either:  “To appreciate the contrast, we could compare the everyday project of dwelling in the world with the rather peculiar and specialized project of the surveyor or cartographer whose objective is to represent it” (154). Space, then, for Ingold, is the result of the surveyor’s measurements, which “produce a single picture which is independent of any point of observation” (154-55). In other words, space is a particular form of representation. However, Ingold shifts from a discussion of space to one of place over the course of a complicated analogy between what geographers and anthropologists mean by space, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim that there is a homologous relation between thought and sound (155). “Just as the word, for Saussure, is the union of a concept with a delimited ‘chunk’ of sound,” Ingold writes, “so the place is the union of a symbolic meaning with a delimited block of the earth’s surface” (155). Place is associated with landscape in this argument, rather than with space. In its relation to place, landscape is different from space:

For a place in the landscape is not “cut out” from the whole, either on the plane of ideas or on that of material substance. Rather, each place embodies the whole at a particular nexus within it, and in this respect is different from every other. A place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there—to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its particular ambience. And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people’s engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance. Thus whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape they are gathered from it. (155)

In addition, “while places have centres—indeed it would be more appropriate to say that they are centres—they have no boundaries” (155-56), a suggestion that seems to contradict Ingold’s earlier assertion that places are delimited. No feature of the landscape is, of itself, a boundary: “It can only become a boundary, or the indicator of a boundary, in relation to the activities of the people (or animals) for whom it is recognized or experienced as such” (156). “In short,” he continues, “the landscape is the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit is places and journey along the paths connecting them” (156).

Ingold’s suggestion that a place is a nexus reminds me of Massey’s suggestion that places are “the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated” (71), but I think his sense of place is much closer to Yi-Fu Tuan’s than Massey’s, since he is suggesting that place is the product of a phenomenological or sensory engagement with the world, and that it is also the result of the activities of its inhabitants. Place, for Ingold, is what is known and experienced, I think, rather than, as for Massey, a location of coherence in identity formation (71). It is difficult to bring together writers working from such variant intellectual starting points, and should I try to bring Tuan and Massey together, I think I’ll discover that such a rapprochement is nearly impossible. I’m still convinced that Tuan and Massey, or for that matter Ingold and Massey, do have points of connection regarding place, but making that argument is going to be hard.

Landscape isn’t environment, either, according to Ingold. An environment is an organized system of dynamic functioning (156)—like an ecosystem—while landscape, in contrast,

puts the emphasis on form, in just the same way that the concept of the body emphasizes the form rather than the function of a living creature. Like organism and environment, body and landscape are complementary terms: each implies the other, alternately as figure and ground. The forms of the landscape are not, however, prepared in advance for creatures to occupy, nor are the bodily forms of those creatures independently sustained in and through the processual unfolding of a total field of relations that cuts across the emergent interface between organism and environment. (156)

The notion of a “processual unfolding of a total field of relations” suggests the ways that the inhabitants of a landscape, both human and nonhuman, play a role in constructing the forms of a given landscape. Landscape is about processes and relations which shape that landscape.

It doesn’t really matter to me that Ingold prefers the term “landscape” over nature or environment or land or space, but I would rather avoid it, for several reasons. I recall that, years ago, reading about landscape in course I was taking on the sublime at York University, I read an essay that argued that landscape is a visual and aesthetic term, typically modified by adjectives like “sublime” or “picturesque.” Ingold’s ekphrastic recourse to Pieter Brughel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Harvesters in the fourth section of his essay suggests, ironically, the connection between the term “landscape” and aesthetic representation. I prefer to use the term “land,” partly because that’s the term I’ve heard Indigenous people use to describe their relation to the territory where they live and work. I don’t accept Ingold’s argument that the word “land” is necessarily “quantitative and homogenous” (154); there’s no reason to assume that it cannot be “qualitative and heterogenous,” terms he applies to “landscape” (154). I understand why he avoids “nature,” a term that is a cultural category, an imagined space free of human activity—a definition that has led to Indigenous people being forced off their land to make way for national parks in this country. 

The term “environment” leads Ingold to think about life-cycles, and he wonders whether it might not be possible “to identify a corresponding cycle, or rather a series of interlocking cycles, which build themselves into the forms of the landscape, and of which the landscape may accordingly be regarded as an environment” (157). Before he can answer that question, he suggests, it’s necessary to define temporality (157). I suppose that’s because the existence of such “interlocking cycles” suggests things happening in the landscape over time. Temporality is not chronology or history; it is not “a regular system of dated time intervals, in which events are said to have taken place” (chronology), nor “any series of events which may be dated in time according to their occurrence in one or another chronological interval” (history) (157). Rather, according to Ingold, “temporality entails a perspective that contrasts radically with the one . . . that sets up history and chronology in a relation of complementary opposition” (157). Temporality is about “time immanent in the passage of events,” events which encompass patterns of “retensions from the past and protentions for the future” (157). I remember a course I took at the University of Ottawa about the connection between temporality and literary texts, and the idea that the present involves both memories of the past and anticipations of the future, an idea derived from Heidegger, has stayed with me. History and chronology, unlike temporality, treat events “as isolated happenings, succeeding one another frame by frame,” events which are “strung out in time like beads on a thread” (157). However, “temporality and historicity are not opposed but rather merge in the experience of those who, in their activities, carry forward the process of social life,” Ingold contends. “Taken together, these activities make up what I shall call the ‘taskscape’” (157). 

The taskscape is inherently temporal, and Ingold sets out to distinguish task from labour as a way of clarifying what he means by taskscape. The distinction is not unlike the one he drew between land and landscape; “labour is quantitative and homogenous, human work shorn of its particularities,” whereas tasks are “the practices of work in their concrete particulars” (158). Tasks are, he continues, “any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. In other words, tasks are the constitutive acts of dwelling” (158). Tasks are not, however, individualized, or suspended in a vacuum, any more than features in a landscape are: “Every task takes its meaning from its position within an ensemble of tasks, performed in series or in parallel, and usually by many people working together” (158). The taskscape, then, is inherently “qualitative and heterogenous,” as well as social (158-59). Participants in the taskscape perceive its temporality as they perform their tasks, Ingold argues. “The notion that we can stand aside and observe the passage of time is founded upon an illusion of disembodiment” (159). The taskscape, then, must be embodied, but that embodiment involves both past and present—in other words, it is temporal:

Reaching out into the taskscape, I perceive, at this moment, a particular vista of past and future; but it is a vista that is available from this moment and no other. As such, it constitutes my present, conferring upon it a unique character. Thus the present is not marked off from a past that it has replaced or a future that will, in turn, replace it; it rather gathers the past and future into itself, like refractions in a crystal ball. (159)  

“The temporality of the taskscape is social, then,” Ingold continues, “not because society provides an external frame against which particular tasks find independent measure, but because people, in the performance of their tasks, also attend to one another” (159-60).

For Ingold, “music mirrors the temporal form of the taskscape”: orchestral musicians play their instruments, attend to the conductor, and listen to the other players, all at the same time. These activities are inseparable parts of the same action (160). And music, he continues, is simpler than social life, in which “there is not just one rhythmic cycle, but a complex interweaving of very many concurrent cycles” (160). Therefore, “the forms of the taskscape, like those of music, come into being through movement” (160). Just like music, which only exists as it is being performed, the taskscape only exists “so long as people are actually engaged in the activities of dwelling” (160). But if landscape and taskscape are not to be opposed, the way nature is to culture, how are they related? How can we distinguish between them?

To answer these questions, Ingold turns to another art form: painting. Painting, he claims, is the “most natural medium for representing the forms of the landscape” (161). The work of creating a painting is subordinated to the final product, the painting itself, because (at least in Western cultures) painting is not performed; therefore, the painting itself becomes the only object of contemplation, with the labour of creating the painting hidden (161). For Ingold, a painting, like a landscape, is not given to us, “ready-made”: the landscape, he argues, is a living process, making and being made by human activity:

the landscape takes on its forms through a process of incorporation, not of inscription. That is to say, the process is not one whereby cultural design is imposed upon a naturally given substrate, as though the movement issued from the form and was completed in its concrete realization in the material. For the forms of the landscape arise alongside those of the taskscape, within the same current of activity. If we recognize a man’s gait in the pattern of his footprints, it is not because the gait preceded the footprints and was “inscribed” in them, but because both the gait and the prints arose within the movement of the man’s walking. (162)

Because “the activities that comprise the taskscape are unending, the landscape is never complete: neither ‘built’ nor ‘unbuilt,’ it is perpetually under construction” (162). This notion of the landscape as a work-in-progress is the reason why the “conventional dichotomy between natural and artificial (or ‘man-made’) components of the landscape is so problematic”:

Virtually by definition, an artefact is an object shaped to a pre-conceived image that motivated its construction, and it is “finished” at the point when it is brought into conformity with this image. . . . But the forms of the landscape are not pre-prepared for people to live in—not by nature nor by human hands—for it is in the very process of dwelling that these forms are constituted. (162)

This claim is interesting, but surely we can distinguish between, say, biological components of a landscape (in this province, the presence of a grassland or a forest) or geological components of a landscape (hills, valleys, glacial erratics, different soil types) and components that are clearly the result of human activity (from tipi rings and medicine wheels to fences and buildings and pumpjacks and cell towers). That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the way that biological components of a landscape are shaped by human activity—by the use of fire by Indigenous people, for example, to clear undergrowth in a forest or to renew a grassland—but it seems to me, particularly as human activity (suggested by the word Anthropocene) is destroying the biological components of the landscape, such as birds or grasslands, that we live alongside, we need to see the difference between our activity and the activity (or even work) of the nonhuman world.

The taskscape, Ingold continues, “exists not just as activity but as interactivity,” because it “must be populated with beings who are themselves agents, and who reciprocally ‘act back’ in the process of their own dwelling” (163). This interactivity involves both humans and animals (163). It also involves what we might consider inanimate forces, because we resonate to cycles of tides, of light and dark, of vegetative growth and decay, and of seasons, resonances which are embodied, “in the sense that they are not only historically incorporated into the enduring features of the landscape but also developmentally incorporated into our very constitution as biological organisms” (163). “It would seem, then,” Ingold writes, “that the pattern of resonances that comprises the temporality of the taskscape must be expanded to embrace the totality of rhythmic phenomena, whether animate or inanimate” (163-64). If we think of the world “as a total movement of becoming which builds itself into the forms we see, and in which each form takes shape in continuous relation to those around it,” he continues, “then the distinction between the animate and the inanimate seems to dissolve,” and the world takes on the characteristics of an organism itself (164). “This means that in dwelling in the world, we do not act upon it, or do things to it,” Ingold contends; “rather we move along with it. Our actions do not transform the world, they are part and parcel of the world’s transforming itself. And that is just another way of saying that they belong in time” (164). Again, I’m not sure how, in a context where human activity is reshaping the planet—by, among other things, driving at least a million other species to extinction—that anyone could argue we aren’t doing things to the world. We are changing its climate, for instance. Okay, I can see how Ingold is arguing that our activity is not separate from the activity of other species, but really, our effect on the planet is so outsized, compared to other species, that it is different—if not in kind, then in impact. I mean, isn’t there a big difference between a tipi ring and a tar sands tailings pond?

“[I]n the final analysis,” Ingold writes, “everything is suspended in movement”: “What appear to use as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside, are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are constructed” (164). This is a point of contact between Ingold and Massey; both emphasize the importance of geological time, glacial activity, continental drift, and erosion. “[T]he rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life,” Ingold continues, “which in turn nests within the pattern of activity for all so-called living things, which nests within the life-processes of the world” (164). If we place “the tasks of human dwelling in their proper context within the process of becoming of the world as a whole,” he suggests, “we can do away with the dichotomy between taskscape and landscape—only, however, by recognizing the fundamental temporality of the landscape itself” (164). This statement may be the reason Massey cited this article, given her insistence on the temporality of space. It would be interesting, though, to see how she would respond to Ingold’s choice of “landscape” over “space.” 

Having defined landscape and taskspace, and having used the notion of temporality to construct a relation between them, Ingold now moves on to his conclusion, an ekphrastic discussion of Brueghel’s The Harvesters. He invites his readers to imagine themselves in the landscape depicted in the painting, watching and listening to the scene unfolding (164-66). This section of the essay is odd, but there are parts that I find useful. For instance, Ingold argues that the division between hill and valley is “not spatial or altitudinal but kinaesthetic”:

It is the movements of falling away from, and rising up towards, that specify the form of the hill; and the movements of falling away towards, and rising up from, that specify the form of the valley. Through the exercises of descending and climbing, and their different muscular entailments, the contours of the landscape are not so much measured as felt—they are directly incorporated into our bodily experience. (166)

This is one of the arguments I would make about walking as a way of perceiving the land: it is a kinaesthetic perception, through the activity of our muscles and joints as we climb and descend, as we experience “the contours of the landscape” with our bodies. But even standing still, the same principle applies: our eyes move, or we tilt our heads in accord with our attention, as we follow its course through the landscape (166). He notes that we move through the landscape (typically) on paths and tracks, which are “the accumulated imprint of countless journeys that people have made . . . as they have gone about their everyday business,” imprints that reflect their “muscular consciousness,” as Gaston Bachelard would have it (there’s another book to read: The Poetics of Space). “In this network is sedimented the activity of an entire community, over many generations,” Ingold writes. “It is the taskscape made visible” (167). I wonder if my friend Matthew Anderson, who is so interested in historical paths in Saskatchewan, has read this article; he might find the notion that paths and trails are “the taskscape made visible” very suggestive. Ingold discusses the tree in the painting, and the field of wheat the harvesters are reaping, and the church in the background. Both the church and the tree are what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “chronotopes,” he suggests: places charged with temporality, where temporality “takes on palpable form” (169). Both the tree and the church are also subject to temporality through change: the tree grows, while the church is subject to processes of weathering and decomposition, of maintenance and repair (169-70). That is an example, I suppose, of the similarities (if not the lack of a distinction between) the natural and artificial in the landscape.

For Ingold, the landscape “is not a totality that you or anyone else can look at, it is rather the world in which we stand in taking up a point of view on our surroundings. And it is within the context of this attentive involvement in the landscape that the human imagination gets to work in fashioning ideas about it” (171). “Meaning,” he concludes,

is there to be discovered in the landscape, if only we know how to attend to it. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning rather than a vehicle for carrying it. This discovery procedure, wherein objects in the landscape become clues to meaning, is what distinguishes the perspective of dwelling. (172)

Since dwelling “is fundamentally temporal, the apprehension of the landscape in the dwelling perspective must begin from a recognition of its temporality,” he continues: 

Only through such recognition, by temporalizing the landscape, can we move beyond the division that has afflicted most inquiries up to now, between the ‘scientific’ study of an atemporalized nature, and the ‘humanistic’ study of a dematerialized history.  (172)

“And no discipline is better placed to take this step than archaeology,” which is, he concludes, the study of “the temporality of the landscape” (172).

As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in creating connections between archaeology and anthropology, and I wonder if archaeologists would accept Ingold’s definition of their field of inquiry as “the temporality of the landscape.” Nevertheless, “The Temporality of the Landscape” was worth reading, even though I disagree with aspects of its argument. I particularly like the phenomenological emphasis on attending to the land, and to one’s embodied experience of land by walking in it. I also like the way that Ingold arrives at the notion that the land is spatial and temporal, although he gets there through a very different intellectual trajectory than Massey. Who knows? I might end up returning to this essay in future writing about walking and about attending to the land. 

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstader, Harper, 2013, pp. 141-60.

Ingold, Tim. “The Temporality of the Landscape.” World Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 152-74.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.