The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism Michael Hannis



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Positive Aesthetics, Ecology and Relationship

Allen Carlson's "positive aesthetic" of nature (Carlson 1984) claims that if we perceive the natural world competently we cannot but have a positive aesthetic response to it- we find it beautiful, awe-inspiring, and so forth. If we find it ugly or dull, he argues, we are not perceiving "correctly", or perhaps just missing something. What competent or correct aesthetic perception might consist in, and whether there can meaningfully be said to be such a thing, is the subject of considerable debate in its own right. For Carlson, the essential ingredient is knowledge of the constitution and context of the specific part of nature in question; such knowledge, he claims, is furnished by science, and more comprehensively so as our scientific understanding of the natural world advances:

"The positive aesthetic appreciation of previously abhorred landscapes, such as mountains and jungles, seems to have followed developments in geology and geography. Likewise, the positive aesthetic appreciation of previously abhorred life-forms, such as insects and reptiles, seems to have followed developments in biology." (Carlson 1984, p.33)

In the present day, he continues,

"the positive aesthetics position is most evident in the writings of contemporary individuals especially concerned with ecology and ecological issues....The position has seemingly come into its own with the development of ecology and seemingly continues to grow in the light of it."(ibid., pp.33-4)

This connection

"..is understandable in light of the fact that ecology not only is in certain respects all-encompassing, but also puts considerable emphasis on qualities such as unity, harmony and balance- ones we find particularly aesthetically good."(ibid., p.33)

This seems plausible- but if ecology can really persuade us to take a positive aesthetic attitude towards nature by revealing "qualities" within nature which "we find aesthetically good", then surely it is awareness of the presence of those qualities which has persuaded us, not possession of the minutiae of ecological knowledge. Science may be one means to the end of this awareness, but Carlson makes no convincing case for its being the only one. The unity, harmony and balance which ecology emphasise are aspects of its central theme- the interrelatedness of organic life-forms with one another and with their inorganic surroundings. Awareness of this interrelatedness can come in other ways, not least from direct personal experience.

The indigenous inhabitants of those mountains and jungles did not need to wait for European geographers, geologists, or indeed aestheticians to explain to them that in the light of new scientific discoveries, positive aesthetic appreciation was an appropriate response to their homeland. We may fairly assume that they already found the familiar world around them, from which their whole lives were constructed, to be beautiful.

The role of relationship in aesthetic appreciation is clearly seen in the inter-human realm. Can a human face be ugly? Well, we do undeniably speak of ugly people. However we also speak of "coming to see the beauty in people"- I may get to know a person whom I initially find highly unattractive and come to feel understanding, friendship, compassion or even love for them; and in the process, to revise my aesthetic judgement of their appearance. To be fair, we must also note the undeniable truth that an initially attractive person may come to seem less so; in either case, the process is not simply one of acquisition of factual knowledge about the person, but of the development of familiarity, and perhaps of emotional involvement- in short, the establishment of relationship.

Perhaps then the same will be true if we return to consideration of aesthetic appreciation of non-human nature. If I develop a relationship with an apparently unattractive animal over time I may well come to appreciate qualities I had not initially been aware of, and quite possibly to find it beautiful. I would argue that the same is true of a piece of apparently uninteresting land, whether a yard square or a hundred miles across. If, for instance, I know what a place is like in all the different seasons of the year I have quite a different relationship with it than if I have only experienced it in the winter. If this knowledge has been gained in the context of growing my food on it this will add a further depth to the relationship.

There is a world of difference between, at one extreme, the perception of a place by a passing tourist who goes there once for ten minutes and, at the other, the perception of the same place by a person who has lived there all her life. Recalling my earlier discussion, I would say that their stories of the place's character will be quite different. A poet for whom the place has triggered an experience of "sublime nature" may have a third version- not to deny, of course that the resident or even the tourist may also have had such an experience; but the point is that all three have differing degrees and types of involvement and engagement with the place and thus perceive its total character in different and essentially personal ways. This will be reflected in their aesthetic appraisals of the landscape, and of isolated features or creatures within it.

I agree with Carlson that ecological knowledge can lead to positive aesthetic appreciation of nature; although, with Noel Carroll (Carroll 1992, in Kemal & Gaskell 1992) I would see this as only one route to it (perhaps one particularly relevant to ecologists), to which must be added other varieties of knowledge and experience, emotional, relational and contextual. I would in fact suggest that for most people, most of the time, it is these other intensely personal knowledges of character that are most influential.

Following on from this, I find it hard to agree absolutely that positive aesthetic appreciation is always the "appropriate" reaction; I would not like to be the one to tell an Eritrean, or even an Irishman, that if he knew more about the barren landscape before him in which his entire family had starved to death, he would find it beautiful. Even if he is well aware that responsibility for the famine lay not with the land but with politicians or generals, his version of the character of the place in which the tragedy happened will be overwhelmingly influenced by those events, and it would be nothing but blind dogmatism to consider him somehow mistaken or uninformed when he said it was an ugly place.



Ugliness, appropriateness and necessity.

Given the highly personal and relational quality of aesthetic appreciation of nature, then, we cannot realistically say that it can never be ugly. This may seem like the loss of a potentially valuable argument for environmentalists- but we have importantly not said that it can ever be valueless, just that aesthetics cannot always be invoked to express its value. In any case, if everywhere was always to be considered as "potentially beautiful" (whatever that may be), then the beauty of a place could never be considered a special reason for its protection. When we say a place is beautiful, we want it to mean something, without having to make a dubious claim to objectivity. This requires, as I have argued, a more contextualised understanding of aesthetic appreciation: in what ways do we find things ugly or beautiful? And if we ask this question, we find at least one sense in which a reduced version of Carlson's claim can be substantiated, at least one way of being ugly which nature cannot exhibit.

One thing nature can never be is "inappropriate to its surroundings" in the way that human buildings or activities are often perceived to be- almost by definition, what naturally (in the sense of not by human agency) arises in a place is what is appropriate to it- it is part of what that place is. This claim may at first sight seem tautologous or even meaningless; does nature have "surroundings" in the same way that a building does? Care is certainly needed here, as usual, in distinguishing between the different possible uses of the word nature. When we speak of aesthetic appreciation of nature we usually mean appreciation of a perceptible natural phenomenon or place, a part of "nature as a whole", rather than appreciation of that whole, just as "aesthetic appreciation of art" does not mean appreciation of art in general, which could only be an abstract sort of appreciation, not an aesthetic experience arising out of immediate perception. Yet unlike art, in appreciating nature the idea or awareness of "nature as a whole" is an important element in understanding what is in front of us. We do not tend to perceive nature as a random collection of discrete and independent objects; whether we think in terms of ecosystems or of divine design, some notion of coherence is usually present, not only within what we are perceiving but extending out into the rest of the world, giving context and continuity to the perceived foreground. This organic coherence is part of the character of a mountain or a river, or of any wild plant or creature in its natural habitat; this is what I mean by the claim that nature cannot be inappropriate to its surroundings. (Obviously this would not apply to "pieces of nature" that have been moved into artificial surroundings, such as a caged leopard in a zoo-these obviously can be dramatically out of place, although perhaps in the case of the leopard it would be the surroundings that were inappropriate.)

Talk of animals in their natural habitats reminds us that we are perhaps the only species whose natural habitat we cannot define; and here is the link between the idea of appropriateness and the earlier observation that in the real world, consideration of aesthetic value in nature is usually linked to consideration of the aesthetic "disvalue" of our own effects on the landscape. When cherished rural landscapes are altered by roads, quarries, industrial agriculture and so forth, emotive terms such as vandalism and disfigurement are often used to describe the actual or potential results. The perceived ugliness comes not only from the appearance of the "developments" in themselves but from jagged discontinuity, from damage to the coherence of the place's character. Certainly this happens in urban settings as well, when old buildings are demolished to make way for new ones; but in the city the loss is a loss of history, whereas in the countryside it is often also experienced as a "loss of nature". Not only the actual square feet covered by the tarmac are lost to a new airport, for instance; many surrounding square miles may lose their aesthetically (as well as ecologically) coherent character. Of course it is easy to point to the fact that most existing countryside is not really "virgin nature" at all- (although we should not forget that there are still cases like the new trans-Amazon highway in Brazil where it genuinely is)- but this is irrelevant to the widespread perception that areas lose aesthetic value along with their "naturalness" with the arrival of visible modern "development". What we are doing to the world, our aesthetic sensibilities seem to suggest, is ugly because it is inappropriate; and it is inappropriate because it is "not natural".

This, of course, begs the vexed question of what it would be for us to "act naturally". Indeed if, as I have argued, we are culturally bound to a conception of nature as dualistically separate from us, is such action even conceptually possible? The aim here is not, thankfully, to answer these questions but simply to demonstrate that they are inevitably raised when we attend to our aesthetic responses to our environment. However at least one possible approach to such questions does also seem to arise from this attention.

Faced with a "greenfield site", sensitive architects, builders and civil engineers may strive to emulate or complement the effortless coherence of the surrounding landscape, or alternatively to cunningly disguise or screen their workings and structures; but even their best efforts will not win over an objector who does not accept that there is a need for what they are doing.

Human presence in the landscape does not always appear ugly or destructive. Not only "raw nature" is beautiful- human habitation and activity in scale and harmony with its surroundings can evoke a positive aesthetic response not only by virtue of its form (judged as art) but by its appropriateness to its environment. The artifacts, structures and settlements of traditional indigenous peoples, and of our own pre-industrial past, seem aesthetically appealing not only because of nostalgia, anthropological curiosity or post-colonial guilt; they are qualitatively different from most of what we build today because they express a quality of connectedness with their physical setting. This connectedness is certainly enhanced by the almost exclusive use of very local materials, but there is a subtler sort of appropriateness which they exemplify, and which contrasts even more strongly with our modern developments. This is, quite simply, that their purpose is to satisfy the genuine physical and spiritual needs (for shelter, warmth, security, food and religious practice) of the local people. A farming village, built of local stone and nestled in a south-facing combe, can seem part of the landscape whereas a similar-sized cluster of modern commuter housing on a nearby greenfield site seems incongruous: this is not merely the shock of the new but also a reflection of the fact that one speaks of humanity as embedded in a place and the other only of a distant economic imperative. The small local quarry from which the stone came may not be attractive, but is rendered at least comprehensible by the sight of the sturdy nearby farmhouses, cottages, churches and barns its excavation made possible. No such mitigation is present when peering over the vast rim of a modern industrial superquarry like Whatley, whose endless truckloads of crushed limestone hillside travel hundreds of miles to build distant motorways because of the economic arithmetic that makes virgin aggregates cheaper than recycled rubble. Macroeconomic justifications for such activities may be satisfactory on an intellectual level, if we accept their premises, but they have no impact on intuitive aesthetic judgements of appropriateness.

Part of this appropriateness is to do with respect of the existing landscape- although grandiose projects can indeed sometimes be very beautiful (witness the Taj Mahal) these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and in general any such principle of respect will suggest that we alter the face of the earth only to whatever degree is necessary. This is obviously going to be a very hard thing to define, but seems to be a reality in our experience. Persons responsible for the "public image" of construction, mining and other projects which radically alter existing environments will usually be at pains to convince objectors of the existence of a need for their activities, beyond the benefits to their own shareholders; there is an implicit acceptance that something more than profit is generally thought to be required to offset the loss of a meadow or a mountain. Superfluous greed-driven "development" offends against this principle and thus, whatever its architectural merit, can never be said to be appropriate to its environment. The appropriate thing to build or excavate, where nothing is needed, can only be nothing.



Conclusion

Aesthetic responses to nature, and to our impact upon it, thus constitute a powerful challenge to the modern imperative to subordinate all other considerations to economics, and to accept what we are told is economically necessary rather than what seems intuitively to constitute the good life. They demonstrate the manifest reality and value of the subjective, intangible and resolutely unquantifiable dimensions of our experience of the world. This is a valuable role and should not be downplayed; nor should aesthetic values be subjected to futile exercises of quantification which will always make them appear to vanish like a conjuror's rabbit. An exclusive focus on "objective facts" leaves value frameworks unchallenged; and the daunting task facing environmentalists today is precisely to see through the blizzard of conflicting facts and information to discern and question the underlying values which drive our ecologically disastrous behaviour. Intuitions such as whether what we do to our surroundings is beautiful or ugly, appropriate or incongruous, have an essential part to play in envisioning and creating a gentler, more sustainable way of life.

There is no need to disguise aesthetic motives as other "more rational" ones. We should not be ashamed to be guided by our desire to live in a beautiful world; we will never achieve this if we do not act to create or protect what we find aesthetically valuable. As Theodore Roszak has pointed out, environmentalists need something more appealing than doom and guilt to counter the thrill of our Promethean industrial adventure (Roszak 1993, p.40); what better than the promise not only of worthy ecological prudence, but of wild, life-affirming beauty?

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END

Michael Hannis



Copyright 1998



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