The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present

The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present


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ISBN-13: 9780226031118
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/18/2015
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Bernard Debarbieux is professor of geography and regional planning at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Gilles Rudaz is a senior lecturer and associate researcher of geography at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and a scientific collaborator at the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. 

Jane Marie Todd has translated some seventy books, including Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Mountain

A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present

By Bernard Debarbieux, Gilles Rudaz, Jane Marie Todd

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03125-5


The Mountain as Object of Knowledge

Popular Conceptions of the Mountain

The city of Reims in northern France was founded on a rolling plain on the banks of the Vesle River. To the south and west a geographical formation blocks the horizon. Contemporary geologists and geomorphologists call it a cuesta, an escarpment that turns quickly from a limestone plateau to a clay-marl plain. It is typical of the Paris Basin but also of many of the world's sedimentary basins. But the residents of Reims did not wait for geologists and geomorphologists, or even for eighteenth-century naturalists, to identify and name the landform. They baptized it the Mountain of Reims. That "mountain" does not display any of the attributes now associated with such a landscape: its highest elevation is very modest (about 280 meters); the difference in altitude, though apparent from Reims and the surrounding area, remains unremarkable, since the city is located only 200 meters below.

Although that Mountain of Reims may have been a mountain in the eyes of the city's residents, it is not so for specialists in the natural sciences. To be precise, it is no longer so. Even in the mid-eighteenth century the term was used at the Académie Royale des Sciences to designate geographical formations of modest scope. A report published in 1755 refers to a "Mountain in the area of Étampes." We would now say that Étampes, about fifty kilometers south of Paris, lies at the foot of a plateau escarpment. In the Encyclopédie edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, which is roughly contemporary with that report, the word "mountain" is used to designate many different things, at least by our current criteria. The Encyclopédie mentions the "Mountains of Rome" to refer to landforms we would now call hills. It is said that Angoulême is on a mountain; Cape Town, South Africa, has its "Table Mountain"; as for the Cordillera de los Andes, it is characterized as a group of mountains. The meaning of the term does not seem to have been fixed at the time or held in common by the many authors of the Encyclopédie. The only definition of "mountains" that appears in it, attributable to the baron d'Holbach, leaves the door open to a large number of different things: "large masses or irregularities in the ground, which make its surface uneven."

We may therefore wonder what the word "mountain" is supposed to circumscribe, and in the name of what worldview and what form of knowledge. In popular toponymy, Reims and Rome are not isolated examples. On the contrary, "mounts" and "mountains" (the two terms were long synonymous) abound near ancient cities: Paris has its Montagne Sainte-Geneviève but also its Montmartre and Mont-Valérien; Montreal has its Mount Royal, which its residents have tended to call la Montagne ever since the city's origin as a colony. Elevations and differences in altitude are as modest there as in Reims and Rome. In Germanic countries, many cities have their Berg, like Maastricht and its Maastricht Berg, though both are located in what are called the Low Countries. In English-speaking regions, Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, in a setting of large mountain slopes, has its "Little Mountain" near the city center. The Mountain of Reims is therefore not a local whim. It is one instance of a very common way of using the term, in French, English, and a number of other languages, to refer to external reality.

That practice depends on a single point of view, in the literal sense of the term: that of city dwellers constantly exposed to a contrast in the landscape. The designation exists independently of any easily circumscribable physical object: although Maastricht Berg and Mount Royal constitute forms clearly differentiated from their physical surroundings, that is not the case for the "mountains" of Paris and Reims. The terminology also exists independent of elevation — and for good reason. The concept of elevation, which emerged in the seventeenth century, became stable only in the following century, after most of these "mountains" had already received their name. The mountain of popular conception is thus not a natural object in the sense that the term is now understood, namely as an entity in the external world that can be characterized by its intrinsic form or content. It is primarily one of the terms that take into account a contrast, both in the landscape as perceived from below and in modes of use: for a long time the "mountains" of Reims, Montreal, and Maastricht were wooded areas used as a source of timber for the residents of the region.

Similar ways of differentiating one's surroundings through language, on the basis of a point of view and predominant uses, can be found in many regions of the world. In Nahuatl, the principal language of the Aztec empire, communal territory was traditionally called altepetl. The root alt means "water," and petl, "mountain." The petl is a component of local territory, and in particular the counterpoint to the inhabited and cultivated places located near the alt. In Ladakh, the term closest to "mountain" as it is used by people living in Reims and to the Aztec petl signifies etymologically "the other of the village." Sometimes the contrast in use prevails over the contrast in form: the Basotho of present-day Lesotho, immersed in an environment with a complex and omnipresent jumble of landforms, seem to possess no generic term for a family of topographical forms. By contrast, they do have a word for the rangelands that abound at high elevations, and they use it to differentiate these lands from those used for cultivating corn and sorghum. On the whole, their approach is not very different from that of the Alpine populations in the area of Mont Blanc: in Savoy, Valais, and Val d'Aosta, farmers long used the term "mountain" not to designate Mont Blanc itself or the glacial or rocky peaks surrounding it, but to refer to the high mountain pastures where their cattle grazed in the summertime. Here as well the mountain is "above," as designated from "below" — an elsewhere and an other useful for conceptualizing the complementarity of resources and locales. It seems, therefore, that mountains have repeatedly been designated in vernacular French on the basis of a phenomenal experience — that of a topographical contrast or of a contrast in use, and often both at once. People were thereby led to conceive of the highest part as a thing entirely different from the place from which it was observed.

A Class of Natural, Objectified, Purified Objects

Eighteenth-century natural history and geography proposed a far-reaching alternative to the traditional and popular conceptions of the mountain. They engaged in what aspired to be a radical objectification: the mountain became a category of comparable and commensurable physical objects characterized by a set of attributes, all purportedly objective and hence independent of the particular points of view from which the inhabitants of one place or another might see and describe their surroundings.

Unlike cosmogonic notions, the concepts of modern natural history and geography were supposed to be empirical — guided by the facts. The distinction Michel Foucault proposed between prescientific and scientific knowledge certainly applies to the change in the concept of the mountain. From the eighteenth century on the natural sciences, using methods of systematic comparison, strove to understand the identity of things, the differences among them, the causal relationships that connected them, their transformation over time, and the spatial arrangements characteristic of them. The notion of the mountain became from that point on a component of a "universal science of order and measurement" — referring to a class of physical objects, to evidence about the history of the earth, and to a setting in which a number of diverse phenomena interacted. The mountain, because of the magnitude of what it allowed one to think about, became one of the privileged categories of scientific knowledge, linked to a number of fields of knowledge about the natural world.

Thanks to that change in status, mountains were stripped of their intrinsically human dimensions. Prior designations, which gave priority to the criterion of economic utility (in the high mountain pastures in the area around Mont Blanc, for example), were discredited. A mountain was no longer a mountain by virtue of the use made of it, but rather by virtue of the characteristics proper to it. Discredited as well were designations valid only from a local and perceptual point of view, as in Reims, Paris, Montreal, and Maastricht. A mountain was no longer a mountain based on the criterion of its appearance in the eyes of an observer located below. It became so through instrument measurements and intermediary representations (primarily maps and statistical tables) that claimed to provide proof of its objective existence. Following Bruno Latour, we could say that the category was purified: placed on the side of nature, set aside from culture, the term "mountain" was used to designate a family of supposedly objective entities, and therefore a collection of natural objects. The human dimension of mountains became a secondary characteristic, independent of their definition.

Although the modern episteme can be identified by these shared characteristics, recognizable in the great majority of scientific works from the eighteenth century on, these works did not all enlist the notion of the mountain in the same way. That notion gradually came to designate a single type of object for all moderns, but it belonged to heterogeneous projects of cognition. Although we cannot be exhaustive here, let us present a few of these variants, giving particular emphasis to the scientific conceptions to be found in the following chapters, placed in the service of the political figures under study there. In that exploration Alexander von Humboldt will be our guide, not only because of the decisive role he played in the emergence and affirmation of a modern conception of the mountain, but also because of the diversity of his own research programs.

The Casiquiare Controversy

On May 20, 1800, Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, both lovers of science and exploration, disembarked in the port of Cumaná, east of Caracas. Their itinerary and the length of their journey were not firmly set. They had negotiated with the king of Spain for permission to explore that part of the empire, between the Caribbean and Lima.

From Cumaná they traveled up the Orinoco River and slipped into the Amazon Basin; they then continued up the Casiquiare, a tributary of the Rio Negro. From there, without setting foot on land, they rejoined the Orinoco, thus proving that the Orinoco and Amazon basins communicated via that odd waterway, an imposing natural canal leading from one basin to the other. Humboldt was actually sure of his facts before leaving Cumaná: his readings and his local informants alike had persuaded him of the existence of that communication route. Nevertheless, anxious to record the event and make later verification possible, he plotted the geographical coordinates of the site of his observation: "3°10' of north latitude, and 68°37' of longitude west of the meridian of Paris."

In his notes and in several later publications, that unique observation is cited in support of a general reflection on the locations of mountains and the method that ought to be used to determine them. Humboldt was challenging a theory, very popular in his time, developed by Philippe Buache: that of the continuity of mountain chains. Buache was a mathematician and architect by training and since 1730 had been an "assistant geographer" at the Académie Royale des Sciences. On November 15, 1752, he presented a paper with a title as colossal as his ambition: to propose a new planetwide theory about the location of the seas, mountains, islands, and waterways. His thesis held that the earth was traversed by chains of "mountains" connected to one another from one end of the continent to the other; these mountain chains separated enormous "river basins," which opened onto the four great "seas," which he names the Ocean (the Atlantic), the Sea of the Indies (Indian Ocean), the Great Sea (Pacific Ocean), and the Arctic Glacial Sea. Each of these expanses is split into maritime "basins," three per "sea," which are separated from one another by "marine" mountain chains. These are merely the extension underwater of the land-based chains, invisible to the observer except when these chains approach or extend above the surface of the seas as "islands, reefs, or shoals."

That organizational principle, when applied to South America, assumed the existence of several mountain chains of major importance: those, like the Cordillera de los Andes, of which Buache already had many descriptions; and those deduced from his theory. These chains ought to have run between the basins of the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Rio de la Plata. In reality, Buache knew that an impressive mountain chain between the Orinoco and the Amazon had been drawn on many maps from the seventeenth century on. He also knew that some doubted its existence, on the basis of information provided by the native populations and by a few explorers. But Buache did not take these eyewitness accounts seriously, since their conclusion invalidated the entire theory he was defending.

Humboldt was quite familiar with the existing theories. He wanted to end the controversy once and for all by making observations on the ground. His report is not lacking in irony: "I was fortunate enough to reconnoiter this chain on the spot. I passed with my boat in the night of the 24th of May, along that part of the Oroonoko, where Mr. Buache supposes the bed of the river to be cut by a Cordillera." He goes on to mock the ways of thinking characteristic of mid-century geographers. "This bifurcation, which has so long confounded the geographers who have constructed maps of America," gives him the opportunity to denounce simplistic arguments: "The chains of mountains [in the New World] do not rise like walls on horizontal plains."

He also takes the opportunity to cast aspersions on an overly theoretical and speculative form of science and to promote, as an alternative, a science of observation and empirical argument. Indeed, the account of the trip up the Casiquiare is no mere anecdote. The journey was much more than a way of deciding a controversy definitively by presenting evidence. Rather, Humboldt's narrative illustrates two different ways of conceiving of science and two contradictory ways of enlisting the notion of the mountain.

The Mountain According to Buache: An Element in a Connected System of Objects

In the eighteenth century it was customary to distinguish at least three branches of geographical knowledge: mathematical geography, sometimes also called "astronomical," which was primarily concerned with measurements, geographical coordinates, and cartography; physical or natural geography; and historical or political geography. Until the early part of that century, a specialization in political geography was often considered the most noble, the best able to enlighten kings and princes and to account for the diversity of the known world. Physical descriptions of the surface of the earth were therefore usually associated with the territory of a nation-state.

An alternative was proposed in 1726 in a little book written in Latin, in which its German author, Polycarpus Leyser, promoted a "true geographical method" (vera geographiae methodo). Unlike the proponents of "state geography" (Staatgeographie) from whom he wanted to differentiate himself, Leyser believed that a knowledge of natural facts must precede any historical or political considerations and must be conceived independently of them. That knowledge of natural entities and natural boundaries, whether "dry" (mountains) or "wet" (seas and rivers), must stand on its own. For the geographical description Leyser was promoting, such boundaries, because they are fixed and tangible, had a higher value than political boundaries, which fluctuate and are perceived as being largely arbitrary.

Buache was one of the most illustrious representatives in France of that physical geography which aspired to be independent of political and historical considerations. An "armchair geographer" for the king of France, he used travel narratives, accounts of explorations, and various maps to support his general theory. In fact, the location of mountain chains across the surface of the globe was one of the major questions troubling scholars in the modern age. It was still common in the mid-eighteenth century to claim that landforms were randomly distributed over the earth's surface. The comte de Buffon, whose curiosity prompted him to seek a law on the location of mountains, reflected on the subject: "This immense globe displays in its surface heights and depths, plains, seas, marshes, rivers, caves, chasms, volcanoes, and upon our first inspection we can see no regularity, no order to it." In that context, the interest of Buache's proposal lay in its great simplicity and extreme coherence. A connected system of mountains and basins was appealing because it was consistent with common sense: the waters of rivers flowed from high elevations to the sea; logically, then, the principal eminences ought to be found near streams. The theory also had the advantage of suggesting that geographical arguments could be deductive, even predictive, and hence closer to scientific methodology, while still responding to practical questions. It was possible to deduce the location of mountains from that of rivers, which were better known because they were the principal circulation routes of the time: "I thought that ... I had to use the clues left by the rivers. We can't deny that the origins of rivers and streams naturally indicate the height of the terrains where they source their water to nourish and fertilize the lands they cross as they descend from the high places, whether it be by steeper or shallower slopes, until they empty themselves into the sea. Neither can we doubt the liaison and the relationship that mountains have with rivers." In the end, the argument effectively rested on the mediation of maps. Mountain chains were in fact deduced from drawings, representations of the known hydrographic networks. That method constituted a further sign of scientificity. In the first place, then, Buache's system was a logical and visual arrangement of natural objects in space, objects classified within a system of fairly simple and complementary categories (fig. 1). The simplicity of Buache's argument, the deductive and supposedly predictive character of his theory, and the maps to which it gave rise together explain the great popularity of his proposal and the remarkable influence it had for many generations. Traces of it can still be found in geography textbooks and peace treaties (see chapter 2) at the start of the twentieth century.


Excerpted from The Mountain by Bernard Debarbieux, Gilles Rudaz, Jane Marie Todd. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Martin F. Price

One / The Mountain as Object of Knowledge

Part I: The Mountain of States and Nations

Two / The Mountain and the Territoriality of the Modern State
Three / The Mountaineer: The Other in the Heart of the Nation, or Its Emblematic Figure?
Four / Politics of Nature
Five / The Mountain as Living Environment

Part II: The Mountain on a Global Scale

Six / The Mountain and Colonial and Postcolonial Territoriality
Seven / Exporting and Acclimatizing Regional Planning Models to the Tropics
Eight / The Globalization of Mountain Issues
Nine / Mountain Men and Women of Globalization
Ten / The EU Mountain: Nowhere to Be Found?
Eleven / The Unifying Mountain


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