Monday, April 8, 2013

124: Duncan & Duncan: Landscapes of Privilege

In Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb, James Duncan and Nancy Duncan examine the landscape of Bedford, a wealthy community in Westchester County, to understand the relationship between aesthetics and the production of place and identities, and to think through the "wider social consequences of such an aestheticized view of the world."  Via interviews and first-hand landscape observation, they explore several interrelated issues:

  • "the ways people produce their identities in and through places, especially homeplaces, such as houses, gardens, and home communities," particularly some of the more “conservative, defensive attempts at using one’s surroundings to establish individual, family, and community identities…. against and in contrast to an outside world” or ‘constitutive outside.’
  • the effects, intended and unintended, of a virulent, reactionary politics of anti-development in Bedford in response to all the stars moving in and buying up properties
  • the role of Bedford landscapes as symbolic resources used in the quest for social distinction: how residents are invested in Bedford socially, psychologically, economically
By focusing on the creation and maintenance of exclusionary landscapes in Bedford, Duncan & Duncan show that "such a high degree of attention on the part of suburban residents to the visual, material, and sensual aspects of place and place-based identity leads to an aestheticization of exclusion.  A seemingly innocent appreciation of local landscapes and desire to protect local history and nature can act as subtle but highly effective mechanisms of exclusion and reaffirmation of class identity."  In other words, making a landscape look a certain way always excludes some people even as it includes others.

The particular landscape that Bedford residents work to maintain is that of a pre-globalization rural village, with rolling hills, manicured lawns, horses, wealthy gentlemen's estates, a quaint village downtown, and a self-contained community that is economically independent.  Unfortunately for them, this nostalgic landscape derives its meaning (and its economic sustenance) from the global economy: against the placelessness of globalization, it claims to have roots in the past, an air of authenticity and a whiff of history; it's more an aestheticized landscape than a living one, and anyway, it's only 44 miles from New York.  No wonder movie stars buy houses in Bedford, and no wonder residents are so virulently anti-development: Bedford is both a retreat from the world and an integral part of it, a way to escape the present by consuming the past.

Scratching the surface of this aestheticized landscape reveals just how much work (and how much contradiction) goes into its production.  While the Bedford newspaper happily conflates Jeffersonian farmers with aristocratic estates and celebrates the beauty of Bedford's "natural" environment, Central American laborers from nearby Mount Kisco maintain the lawns and gardens; highly restrictive zoning laws regulate lot size and types of construction; the Historical Preservation Committee maintains the white wooden shops in Bedford Village; and conservationists have worked to create nature preserves around Bedford that restrict future growth.  Creating this aesthetic of local privilege requires both integration with the global economy and exploitation of the very people Bedford seeks to exclude.

While Bedford can't truly stand for all small country towns, the contradiction between the aesthetic of rural, pre-globalization wealth and the ways that landscape is constructed surely speaks to many places, as does Bedford residents' treatment of the laborers from Mount Kisco as unwanted, but necessary, eyesores. 

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