Landscape in America 1850-1890: Dreaming of Paradise

By Elizabeth Bryant



For the prescient cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan, the most significant change, for societies as well as for individuals, occurs on a neurological level. For McLuhan, the issue of a vanishing wilderness, a change of economic mode, the decay of a national symbol or myth, or even the shaking of a belief system, is less momentous than the completion of telegraph systems and the railroad. These are changes of modes of communication which change perceptions of time and space; they transform even the neurological structure of thought, he said. Powerful social explosions can occur with changes like these, as cultures move from oral to literate, or from literate to electronic. A powerful reorganization of being itself takes place, releasing a level of energy he compared to that of a nuclear weapon.

In contemporary society, the changes in literacy modes ushered in through computer technology are even greater than what McLuhan contemplated in his best-known book, Understanding Media, in 1964. What the telegraph and railroad began as part of the Industrial Revolution, digital technology has accelerated in the information revolution of the twentieth century: reorganizing work patterns and expectations of the future, making traditional jobs obsolete, changing the organization of labor, collapsing the sense of distance, time, space, place and perhaps effacing the way back home for a whole generation of Americans. Our trail of crumbs has been eaten by birds and we are lost in a strange woods.

We've already seen the kind of violence McLuhan predicted. We've seen bombing, read anti-technology manifestos, heard ranting against advances in science and technology from splinter groups in the "wilderness" states of the West seeking to blast the country back to a more direct relation with Nature, and calls for a return to the core family values of an imagined past. We've watched the reactions against the influence of foreigners. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that at this time we too turn back to a dream of nature, to a vision of the world as pristine and inexhaustible, to a time when we knew the way back home.

Eden, we are told, is an image drawn from childhood, an image of the world when new. Eden is a place where space and time are comprehensible and we know who we are. It's where home is. As images of Eden, these landscapes can still function as they did for their original viewers, even if we do not see the same thing when we look at them as they did then. Our memories are different; our references have changed. But perhaps we can feel the same dream, constructing from selected memories the best of what we think we were, and what we'd like to be again.



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