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  • The Working Landscape: Between Founding and Preservation
  • Katherine Young (bio)
Cannavò, Peter F. The Working Landscape: Founding, Preservation and the Politics of Place. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0-262-53292.

Over the past decade, questions related to the environment have become a central focus within the field of political theory, inviting scholars to explore and critically engage the relationship of nature to the political world. Of course, this call to negotiate how ecology relates to contemporary politics revisits the nature of political agency, spatiality, capitalism, democracy and many other familiar points of departure within political theory. With nature actively represented within the polis, established boundaries between humanity and nature are blurred, and the following kinds of questions emerge: Is nature a pristine place, something to be discovered and preserved? Or is it a text, a playful and open space for human creativity? In the process, familiar theoretical rifts – modernism vs. postmodernism, critical theory vs. post-structuralism – color these dilemmas, circumscribing active engagement of the nature question in politics. And it is these kinds of theoretical impasses that Peter Cannavò attempts to bridge in his book, The Working Landscape: Founding, Preservation, and the Politics of Place.

More specifically, Cannavò argues that contemporary American land use policies have contributed to a crisis of place, in which extreme and opposing concepts of “founding” and “preservation” stifle our relationships with our surroundings, others and ourselves. For Cannavò, the solution is to design working landscapes, which resist the excessive nomadism of founding and the rigid parochialism of preservation in favor of inclusive land use policies that promote democratic governance. The Working Landscape reveals the intrinsic interrelatedness and diversity of our environment, whose value is brought to bear via the working landscape, thus effectively challenging the schizophrenic and destructive impulses of commodification that characterize our contemporary crisis of place. Our identities are linked to a sense of place, and it is through a conscious ballet of founding and preservation–whether in the form of collaborative conservation, enlightened New Urbanism, or remobilized mixed communities–that we create meaningful places for the multiplicity of voices within our contemporary world.

Cannavò begins with Iris Marion Young’s open conception of “home,” as both a stronghold of agency and a place for fluid identity, to initiate a new politics of place. Contrary to postmodern and feminist critiques that frame the concept of home as fictive, universalizing and deeply inaccessible to marginalized persons, Cannavò instead argues that “home” is an inclusive concept, one that productively straddles the public and private realms, spilling from comfortable living rooms to neighborhood streets (and even into wilderness areas, as Cannavò later explains): “In short, the outer boundaries of home, like most boundaries, are indistinct. However, the concept of home as domicile requires some core personal space under the control of its inhabitants” (30). “Home” does not simply represent a blank canvas of privatized space, existing independently of the communities that encompass it; rather, places take on rich and complex meanings only within the context of these public realms. This private and tentatively unmarked home-space provides a creative locus and refuge against the vast forces of commodification.

Cannavò’s target is less post-structuralist theory per se, and more the perfunctory postmodern renderings that reduce places to abstract, expendable spaces. As Cannavò notes, “Places are always unfinished” (39). It is his keen awareness of the bracketed mutability of places that makes Cannavò’s working landscape a powerfully productive concept, aligned with other productive theorizing in the tradition of Gilles Deleuze, Judith Butler, etc. Cannavò does not proffer an escape from our complicity with a larger structure of domination (or -- in this case -- the unnamed capitalism), but a instead proposes a strategy of critically engaging such a structure in order to put it to strange, new uses. Following Young’s lead, key to Cannavò’s re-figuration of the contemporary landscape is his abatement of seemingly exclusive acts of “founding” and “preservation” in favor of working landscapes built within the dynamism of natural/cultural and private/public spheres.

Using examples of the Northwest Timber War, suburban sprawl, and Ground Zero, Cannavò acutely demonstrates how reactive strategies that favor one concept to...

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