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  • Afterword: Improvement and Overburden
  • Jennifer Wenzel (bio)

“The mouth of this river forms the best harbour I have yet seen; being wide, deep and free from shoals, with a fine situation for a town and fortifications where ships may lie close along the shore, the land high, with a good air and fine streams of water”: so observed Christopher Columbus on November 12, 1492 (124–25). The report of this promising scene concludes Columbus’s inventory of the resources he found at the newly-named Rio de Mares: gold, spices, cotton, aloe, and mastic to be traded, as well as pliant souls to be converted. It’s a curious kind of inventory, not so much a list of current stock as a vivid projection of what could be. I take it as a seminal instance of what Mary Louise Pratt has aptly called an “improving eye,” in which a European explorer’s survey of the landscape offers a prospect both spatial and temporal: a vision of a “Euro-colonial future,” with “resources to be developed, surpluses to be traded, towns to be built” (61). What both Columbus’s inventory and Pratt’s analysis of eighteenth and nineteenth century travel writing tell us is that a resource logic is also a resource aesthetic. From the “beginning,” if you will, Columbus’s judgments—the best harbor, good air, fine streams and situation—are at once economic and aesthetic. You can just picture the scene, no? (Perhaps you’ve seen it in a vacation brochure.) The profitable and the beautiful are brought into alignment, envisioned as one and the same. This emphasis on aesthetic rather than merely economic value in the logic of improvement serves to “presuppose — naturalize — a transformative project embodied in the Europeans” (Pratt 59). Europeans might not have been the first to gaze upon these beckoning landscapes, but they were (so the logic goes) the first to discern in them what they were meant to become. The gap between the actual and the possible is bridged with a teleology. In this Afterword, I trace a kind of pre-history of (post)modernity, taking the improving impulse evident in Columbus’s prospect as a blueprint for capitalist modernity—a map of the future that, in its very immateriality, bears a complex yet instructive relation to the uneven territory of our present.

Anatomizing the forms of desire and coercion at work in the improving eye, Raymond Williams puts the link between economy and aesthetics more baldly than Pratt when he observes that, in reading conventional histories of English landscape,

you might almost believe—you are often enough told—that the eighteenth-century landlord, through the agency of his hired landscapers, and with poets and painters in support, invented natural beauty. And in a way, why not? In the same ideology he invented charity, land-improvement and politeness, just as when he and his kind went to other men’s countries, such countries were ‘discovered’.


Elsewhere in The Country and the City, Williams links the agricultural and infrastructural aspects of “improvement” or “cultivation” more explicitly with their social, cultural, or moral aspects, “which were historically linked but in practice so often contradictory” (115). He identifies the false promise in the tautology: “improvement is or ought to be improvement” but seldom is (116). Thus the anger with which Aimé Césaire tallies the murders, stolen resources, and ruined lifeworlds attributable to the European “civilizing mission” in his Discourse on Colonialism: “They throw facts at my head, statistics, mileages of roads, canals, and railroad tracks…. I am talking about millions of men torn from their gods, their land, their habits, their life (43). In the exchange from which this passage is excerpted, Césaire offers a counter-inventory of what Columbus and his successor-improvers have wrought.

Although he was concerned more with morality than with aesthetics (and, above all, with economic value), John Locke was another key theorist of “improvement” in its manifold senses. “In the beginning,” Locke writes in “Of Property,” “all the world was America” (V.49), by which he means that the entire earth was unimproved waste land gifted by the Creator to humankind for them to labor upon and...

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