I met Elizabeth Fowler at the Dumbarton Oaks symposium, “Sound and Scent in the Garden”. I asked Elizabeth to write a blog about her paper, Audio Delay: The Hortus Conclusus and Body Technique. This blog post will be divided into 3 parts. I am pretty sure you will find it fascinating reading.
PO: How did I get started thinking about gardens?
In my work as a scholar and teacher, I’m interested in how we get to be the people we are and what role art plays in that process. I like to think of the garden as a nursery of “body techniques,” to use Marcel Mauss’s term. He was a French writer who worked at the beginning of what we now call the modern social sciences. He noticed that people from different places move differently — they walk differently, swim differently, eat differently. That’s because we learn how to do those things. He called such learned behaviors “body techniques” and investigated how they were half-conscious, half-unconscious ways of adopting social positions. When we see someone for the first time, we read these body techniques — together with clothing, speech, grooming — in order to figure out
what kind of person we’re meeting and how to treat her. We try to fashion our own way of being so people will understand how to read us, and we imitate people we admire. The meaning of culture is — literally — embodied in the way human beings practice our everyday lives.
The idea of a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks on Sound and Scent in the Garden came together through the efforts of Dede Ruggles, the historian of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and John Beardsley, the DO chief of Garden and Landscape Studies. When I heard about it I decided I wanted to think about the senses as a set of body techniques, as practices like walking or eating. How do we learn how to smell and listen? Sensory experience means different things to different cultures at different times, and it’s nearly impossible to capture — but perhaps this is true not so much because the actual sounds and smells are gone (after all, we can simulate those in garden recreations), but, more profoundly, because the practices and so the very meanings of smelling and listening are gone, because the people who lived them are dead. The meanings of our own, present-day techniques have evolved into something different. I thought that gardens must be one very important way that the meanings and techniques of practicing the senses are passed on to each new generation.
How can historians of culture track these fundamental components of meaning and find out how body-techniques change over time? Our grandparents don’t quite move the way we do, and moving in the way we do seems to them to mean something we might not want it to mean. Get your elbows off the table! Put your knees together! Reading Mauss, I thought, how do we learn to walk like a man (as Bruce Springsteen says) or throw like a girl (as the philosopher Iris Young wrote) or eat like a lady (think of Scarlett O’Hara at the party)?
Well, partly it depends on your shoes and your baseball mitt and your dress, partly on whether you imitate the men and women around you and how they attract and pressure you, partly on your sense of your body — but partly also whether you spend time hanging out on a baseball field or a street or in a house or in a park or a garden. How can we know about the meaning of walking and throwing over centuries — is the history of body techniques available to us at all? Can we make body techniques visible in the era before film? If the social meanings of life are embedded in our bodies like a kind of choreography, then are they lost when we die?
My hypothesis is that our body techniques are not just in our bodies, but also knit into the environment around us, registered in its built and living parts, and so historical gardens may present us with a kind of fossil record. The built landscape we live in shapes, invites, and resists our body techniques, and we learn from it, develop in step with it.
We learn what it means to smell in places — it’s an encounter with the environment that is strongly shaped by material culture — by where we are in relation to the furnishings, architecture, infrastructure, and all the stuff of the world. Smelling something in a vase is much different than smelling it in a pot or a bed or a wastecan or the woods. What it means to us to hear things is very tightly regulated by walls, machinery, instruments, voices, public or private space, as well as by our specific movements through our surroundings.
This is where the garden becomes crucial for me. Of all the arts it solicits the most broad experience of all five senses, and that should make it a great source for a history of body techniques. Our ways of doing things bind us to our biome and to the social environment and its networks of meaning. So when landscape architects and gardeners create places, they create playgrounds and canvasses for body techniques to work with as we develop the meanings of human sensory experience. A garden teaches us the meaning of doing things as well as to do them; it shows us how to move, to smell, to hear. How far away should we stand to receive the volatile chemicals that plants exude? We are told by the width of the path and the height and pungency of the planting — a bit in the way that a Seurat painting tells us how far away to stand so that we see people near the water rather than just colored dots.
The floor cleaners must see exactly where on the floor the painting instructs us to stand. Like a painting, a garden might seem to be still, but it is constantly inviting us to body techniques. Move closer, turn to the right, lift your head, sit down. You can see this action of gardens brought out by artists like Hugh Livingston, who did a special sound installation for the Dumbarton Oaks symposium, or Patricia Johanson, who has done fabulous,surreal things with paths. These artists make us especially aware of how all gardens are nurseries of body techniques.