28 Pages

Reproducing Yosemite: Olmsted, Environmentalism, and the Nature of Aesthetic Agency

WithRichard Grusin

In this article I address the origins of America's national parks, particularly as they figure in the environmentalist discourse surrounding the institution of Yosemite Valley as a public park. Although technically speaking Yosemite did not become a national park until 1890, its cession to the State of California in 1864 provides an important cultural site for the emergence of environmentalism as part of a broader concern with the relations between aesthetic, social and natural agency. In mapping out these relations in Frederick Law Olmsted's 1865 report on the management of Yosemite, I claim that the preservation of Yosemite reproduces nature as a public park in which human agency can be simultaneously produced and elided by means of the aesthetic agency of nature. I read Olmsted's report as a discursive site on which we can trace the structural parallels between the preservation of Yosemite and several related cultural practices in which the origins of American environmentalism are embedded. I also read it as sketching out the configurations of human and natural agency within which these parallel practices are articulated.

My study operates from the assumption that science and technology need to be understood not simply by explaining how they are socially or culturally constructed, but also by looking at how certain fundamental ideas of metaphors (like natural agency or the reproduction of nature) are worked out at the same historical moment in different discursive practices. In taking up the idea of America as it both defines and is defined by the network of relations among science, technology and culture, I outline certain myths of American environmentalist origins as played out across a number of diverse and heterogeneous discourses and technologies of representation and reproduction. I hope also to illuminate the way in which 333American cultural origins are simultaneously constructed and destabilized through the act of reproducing nature.