Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 2001 The Role of Culture in the Perception of Nature in the United States Martin J. LeBlanc Acknowledgements



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MAVE Dissertation,

Lancaster University 2001




The Role of Culture in the Perception
of Nature in the United States


Martin J. LeBlanc




Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank everyone at the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change at Lancaster University for their support and encouragement during my wonderful year of study. Bronislaw Szerszynski, John Foster, Marjeta Cevc and Phil Macnaghten provided valuable insight and constructive criticisms throughout the year that have helped my ideas evolve. I would especially like to thank my dissertation advisor Mark Toogood for always challenging me to improve and opening my eyes to an entirely new world.


This dissertation would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of Mandy Wright who constantly provides me with inspiration.
I would like to express my deepest thanks to both of my parents for their love and support. This work is dedicated to my Father Ronald LeBlanc for his patience and unyielding tough love no matter what the circumstances. I would not be at this point without you. Thanks.

Cover Art: Thomas Cole The Voyage of Life: Youth 1839



Introduction……………………………………………………………………… 5

Ideas of Nature……………………………………………………………………..7

Nature/Culture Paradox……………………………………………………...8



The Ways Humanity Perceives Nature…………………………………………..10

Sight and Cultural Identity…………………………………………………11

The Use of Language in the Perception of Nature…………………………14

Idea of Wilderness………………………………………………………………...16

Definitions………………………………………………………………….16

Modern Perceptions of Wilderness………………………………………... 17

Historical Transformation in the Conception of Wilderness………………. 18



Nature and the Cultural Landscape………………………………………………20

Modernity……………………………………………………………………21

Romanticism…………………………………………………………………21

The Sublime and the Picturesque…………………………………………….23



The Social Construction of Nature in America……………………………………25

The American Conservation Tradition………………………………………..23

The Rise of Idealised Nature through Cultural Modes………………………..29

James Feminore Cooper……………………………………………………….30

Hudson River Painters…………………………………………………………31

Romantics and Transcendentalists……………………………………………..33

Urban America…………………………………………………………………36

The Symbolism of the Natural…………………………………………………38



The Modern American Cultural Landscape………………………………………41

Environmental Perception and Cognition…………………………………….41

American Pop Culture and the Symbolism of Nature………………………...42

Changing Landscape of the Suburb…………………………………………...43

The Cinematic Portrayal of Nature……………………………………………44

A Case Study in the Changing Cultural Perception of Nature in America………46

Falling Down…………………………………………………………………..50

The Artificial American Landscape……………………………………………53

A Model for the American Cultural Landscape…………………………………….55

Conclusion: The Role of Mediated Forms in the Perception of Nature…………...59

Bibliography…………………………………………………………………………...63



Introduction

In this dissertation I show the direct influence culture has had on American perceptions of nature from settlement to the present. This influence has become stronger in the post-industrial era as most American interpret nature through artificially created, mediated forms such as television or from inside an automobile. This, in turn, has created a modern American culture that for the most part embraces the idea of nature without truly experiencing it firsthand or understanding its importance to the very survival of humanity as we know it. In order to reestablish a connection between humans and nature, I advocate experiencing nature through direct contact and with the least number of mediated forms possible. This process has the potential to create an understanding within each of us of the integral connection between humanity and nature.


As we shall see, American perceptions of nature do not fit one single definition and culture has been the central factor in shaping American awareness of their natural environment. I will begin by examining the varying concepts around the word “nature” and its duality with culture. I then proceed to a discussion of the different ways in which humanity perceives nature, focusing primarily on visual and linguistic forms. Next I look at the idea of wilderness, exploring and its various definitions and perceptions in American life. This brings me to an analysis of nature and the cultural landscape as well as their impact on society. I look at how man and nature have interacted throughout history by an examining different ideas and movements, from the biblical era through Modernity, Romanticism, the Sublime and the Picturesque. I look through a historical lens at the American understanding of and identity with nature through cultural modes. My examination outlines the role played by literature (James Feminore Cooper), painting (Hudson River Painters) and philosophical movements (Transcendentalists) in the change in perception of nature in America from a negative model to a positive one. I show the American transformation from a rural nation to an industrialized, urban one and its part in the growth of the cult of nature. I then use specific examples from pop culture and their role in separating the everyday American from nature by the use of mediated forms that blur the line between the artificial and the natural. These examples include:

  • a look at the changing landscape of America

  • the impact pop culture has on American environmental perceptions

  • cinema and different cultural modes of nature

  • a case study on the movie Falling Down (1992), which highlights the ‘urban’ wilderness theory

  • a survey on environmental perception in two disparate American groups (sawmill workers and EARTHFIRST! Members)

I conclude my dissertation by calling for Americans to seek out experiences with nature that are not directed and influenced through mediated forms. I maintain that culture plays a powerful role in how Americans perceive their natural environment; that perception, in turn, creates their value system towards it.



Ideas of Nature

The sense of the natural has always correlated with our understanding of human culture and history. People have interpreted nature in countless different ways since the beginning of time. Nature, many theorists maintain cannot be constructed as one singular nature, but must be interpreted as a diversity of contested natures (Macnaghten/Urry,1:1998). Philosopher Raymond Williams observes that the term ‘nature’ is perhaps the most complex and difficult word in the English language; that the idea of nature contains within itself an enormous amount of human history; and that our current understandings of nature derive from an immensely complicated array of ideas linked to many of the key concepts of Western thought, such as God, Idealism, Democracy, Modernity, Society, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and so on (Macnaghten/Urry,8:1998). These assertations may be true, but have we put too much emphasis on the different interpretations of nature and failed to explore if there is one definition of nature that is above any cultural constructions. Ulrich Beck has declared that “nature itself is not nature: it is a concept, a norm, a recollection, a utopia, an alternative plan (Beck, 21:1992). Bill McKibben, in his widely read book The End of Nature, outlined with numerous examples that we are living in an artificially created nature that is controlled by us. While both of these interpretations have validity, why does nature, artificial or not, still play a major role in the consciousness of the modern day American citizen?


In looking at the idea of nature we must take into account all of the different meanings that have been placed on it throughout time. In modern usage, landscape and scenery can be used almost interchangeably with nature. But this confluence is achieved at a price for by sharing company with scenery and landscape, nature is ceding most of its semantic domain (Tuan,132:971). In the United States, the word “wilderness” is used presently to describe ‘pristine’ nature, but many contest this supports the illusion that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of our past and return to the natural. It is interesting to note that the idea of wilderness being pristine nature has come to be the very antithesis of its meaning during the formative years of American society where it was seen as evil and was pushed out to the margins of society. This illustrates the dichotomy of the “word” nature and our many perceptions of it.


Nature/Culture Paradox

The sovereign theory of nature in our time has been one of process, struggle, unending variation (Eagleton, 94:1999). Just as our perceptions inform us that there is more to the world than our perceptions, an attentive reading of culture suggests that there is more to the world than culture.” Karl Marx argued that a “will to power was prior to culture” and what gives birth to it is not meaning but need. Does this argument work in defining nature? Has nature been created by humans because of our need for aesthetic pleasure and a subculture that is outside the everyday perceived cultural norms which are rigidly structured and controlled by us? Nature is just not the other of culture. It has a weight within it.

Nature and society throughout most of time have been looked at as rivals. Modernity involved the belief that human progress should be measured and evaluated in terms of the domination of nature by society, rather than through any attempt to transform the relationship between the two. This theory created a culture that believed humans are fundamentally different from and superior to all other animal species; that societies can determine their own destinies; that a singular nature is vast and presents unlimited opportunities for exploitation by human societies; and that the history of each society is one of unending progress through overcoming the resistances of the natural world (Glacken:1967). The present day perception of nature is dominated by capitalist technocentrism and the authority of countries intent upon establishing themselves in a world dominated by the free market and the notion of globalisation. The antithesis of this technocratic outlook towards nature would be the Marxist political economy interpretation of nature, which views labour as the centre of society-nature relations: it is labour that allows both the use and exploitation of nature, it is labour that produces environmental transformations, and it is labour that creates human consciousness (Phillips,236:2000)
But this theory has been disputed by many, including Habermas, who argues for a reconstruction of Marxist theory away from an exclusive emphasis on labour towards a recognition of the communicative aspects of social life (Habermas,1979).. Here lies the key in the cultural/natural divide. Social institutions and social interaction have helped us frame the way we look at nature in a certain context. To quantify the worldview on nature into capitalistic or socialist theory is to miss the point that forms of our created cultures may help us ignore the true power that nature holds over us. We live in a world that gives us enough artificial pleasure to last a lifetime and help create a divide between humanity and nature. But this construct obstructs a simple truth: if the degradation of the earth’s resources does not stop, we will follow the path of many other species and find ourselves extinct.
The Ways Humanity Perceives Nature

Nature is filmed, pictured and talked about everywhere. From whale murals that dot cities throughout North America to popular television shows like the Crocodile Hunter that take us to natural wonders around the world. Alexander Wilson writes that in “the broadest sense of the term, landscape is a way of seeing the world and imagining our relationship to nature. It is something we think, do and make as a social collective” (Wilson,14:1992). But how do humans come to know what any such nature is like? Ulrich Beck argues that in many ways in modern society we are unable to use our sensory powers to grasp the effect of the natural on us. The illustration of such natural risks can be seen in the form of nuclear radiation which is an artificial creation made by us in just the last seventy-five years. It is a risk that cannot be directly touched, tasted, heard, smelled or especially seen. As Beck argues about Chernobyl:


We look, we listen further, but the normality of our sensual perception deceives. In the sense of this danger, our senses fail us. All of us…were blinded even when we saw. We experienced a world, unchanged for our senses fail us. All of us…were blinded even when we saw. We experienced a world, unchanged for our senses, behind which a hidden contamination and danger occurred which was hidden from our view(cited from (Macnaghten/Urry, 106:1998).

This natural risk, while not realistic to us by our sensory capabilities, has been played out in the heavily watched television movie The Day After (1984), which told the story of a nuclear war and its effects on people and the natural world in gruesome detail. This provides the perfect example of how in a modern society ripe with artificial pleasure, we can create a visual simulation of a natural risk that cannot be directly sensed by us.


We sense nature not just by our sight, but also by touch, smell, hearing and even taste. Macnaghten and Urry argue that “different ways of sensing are organized around the modalities of space and time, which form, mediate and refract the senses” (Macnaughten/ Urry,106:1998). They highlight the importance of human senses and their role in the perception and interpretation of different natures. A human being perceives the world through all of his/her senses simultaneously. The information about the world potentially available to humans is immense.
Sight and Cultural Identity

In modern society man has come to depend more on sight than in the past (Tuan,11:1970). Sight has long been regarded as the noblest of the senses, as can be seen by observing the colorful outfits of royalty throughout the Middle Ages. American wilderness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was observed through a visual lens, that put God at the center looking down at the natural world he created. There have been intensely complex interconnections between a visual discourse and the understanding of nature as something that is separate from human civilization. Philosopher Michel Foucault claims that “man is an invention of recent date and that man is one who sees, observes and classifies as the notion of resemblance gives way to that of representation of what Augustine terms the ‘lust of the eyes’ (Macnagten /Urry,112:1998).


The idea that humanity lusts through its eyes can be seen in the commercialisation of nature in the modern era. While humanity continues to drive more and consume more, people also have nature scenes as computer screensavers and demand to visually observe the sublime. A good example of this can be seen in the state of Texas, which ranks 49th out of the 50 states in environmental spending on preservation of land, but spends the most money of any state in the United States on a highway cleanup campaign so people who are driving and polluting the air can have a beautiful landscape to observe. This paradox shows the true power that the visual plays in shaping our understanding of the natural. Lake poet John Ruskin claimed that the ‘the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something’ (Lang,153:1999) But this power of the visual overwhelms in many cases the true ecological damage that is taking place that cannot be observed through a simple glance.
The way that many of us observe nature in the modern era is through a strong visual stimulus. Standard environmental images now shown on television include oil slicked birds, traffic congestion and smokestacks. The world is fast becoming consumed and used up by our appetite for visual images (Sontag:1978). Andrew Ross has established the connection between the environmental movement and the use of scenes of degraded nature to mobilise sympathy, support and action for their causes. These images may be the most successful way of rousing and generating a public outcry. The word “Exxon Valdez” in the late 1980’s became synonymous with environmental degradation when that ship ran aground at Prince William Sound in Alaska. The outpouring of public outrage was stirred up by graphic images of oil-slicked birds and beautiful purple sunsets scarred by dirty tar coming in wave after wave. The environmental movement welcomed the media in to examine for themselves the disaster by meeting them with packets outlining the tragedy and showing images of the first dead birds and seals. This caused the media to focus right away on the emotional appeal of nature being disturbed. As Susan Sontag points out, “images are more real than anyone could have supposed (Sontag:1978)”.
Our cultural identity in turn, has so influenced our perception that a person may be able to see things that are non-existent. A native of Prince William Sound may not have seen the Valdez incident through such an emotional lens but rather an ecological one. This lens may have been formulated from a native’s complex attitude towards images that derives from their total immersion in their local environment (Ross,1994:175). A visitor, in this case the media and their viewers or readers, used just their eyes to compose pictures. These pictures provided the lens through which the Middle American (and, for that matter, all viewers) perceived the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The influence of sight plays a major role in our society and has been a basis for epistemology and Western scientific thought. Sight is what has led us to have an aesthetic appreciation of nature. Vision has had an enormous influence in the disembodying of people’s relationship with nature (Macnaghten/Urry,132:1998)
The Use of Language in the Perception of Nature

Language also plays an important role in shaping how humanity reflects upon and observes nature. It is both the reflector and shaper of social (and possibly natural), reality. Historian Richard White has argued that the use of scientific language in describing nature has led humanity to suffer from a “failure to recognize the role of value judgments and beliefs; according to White, we are in danger of turning “culture into superstructure in the old vulgar Marxist sense” (White:299). While scientific writing in most cases does not allow the reader to render value judgments on the natural, the opposite can be said about modern nature writing. Aldo Leopold, the forester turned philosopher, who has become in some circles a prophet for the modern environmental movement, expressed the natural in a poetic prose which can be considered as the antithesis of scientific writing. A good example of this can be seen in one of his most famous passages:


When our rifles were empty the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the fierce green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain would agree with such a view (Leopld,130:1949).
Leopold uses the device of personification here to render a biota, itself represented by the mountain, to be more sympathetic to the reader than it otherwise would be. The passage turns on the creation of an individual “old wolf” with whom the narrator bonds and whose death affects him and us because she has become a subject (Shumway,262:2000).
This use of descriptive language in describing nature follows the tradition of the Romantics and Transcendentalists who first introduced Americans to graphic descriptions of nature’s sublime beauty. This was a significant development in the United States since their artistic use of language in describing nature entailed a deployment of an image repertoire (American Adam) that could interconnect an exceptional national subject with a representative national scene (Virgin Land) and an exemplary national motive (errand into the wilderness). The composite result of the interaction of these images was the creation of a mythological entity-Nature’s Nation-whose citizens believed, by way of a supreme fiction called natural law, that the ruling assumptions of their national compact (Liberty, Equality, Social Justice) could be understood as indistinguishable from the sovereign creative power of nature (Mazel,xvi:2000). From the beginning of the formation of the United States, culture has played a major role in establishing nature’s identity in the minds of its citizens. The lenses may vary but the surface of the landscape is not passive, it is given a constitutive role as the stage set for the human drama itself. (Cosgrove:1990).


The Idea of Wilderness

Definitions

The word “wilderness” has been used throughout time to explain natural phenomena. Its meaning has at times been as complex as the word “nature”. But in the modern day its definition can be ascertained from the US Wilderness Act of 1964. Rarely will one find a political and even further legislative definition that adequately describes modern humanity’s definition of a word, but in this case it works:


A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain (Callicott,123:1998).
The origin of the word wilderness is very likely wil(d)deorness, which means the place of the wild deer in the Old English version of the word. In this word and in its Germanic predecessors, such as Wildern, the meaning approximates our current definitions of wilderness as a savage and uninhibited place left to nature (Simmons,160:1993). While these are the working political and linguistic definitions of wilderness, it is harder to describe individual perceptions of wilderness. Roderick Nash explains the term wilderness as “designating a quality that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual and as a consequence may be assigned by that person to a specific place. Because of this subjectivity a universally acceptable definition of wilderness is elusive” (Nash,1:1973). This outlines the paradox of the word wilderness: it can be designated or perceived differently by anyone but maintains its status as ‘ideal’ or ‘pristine’ nature in the modern era. In the wilderness, the non-human world is undefiled and even paramount. This can lead to another polarity, that of human attitudes towards an unaltered state of nature (Simmons,162:1993).
Even in the modern political definition of wilderness there has been a change in what can be seen as '‘wilderness’. When the Wilderness Act was written into law in 1964 there was no debate about whether the Bureau of Management land should be designated as wilderness. BLM land was made up mostly of arid dry Western lands that lacked the majestic landscapes of mountains and rambling rivers that fit perceptions of wilderness at the time. By the time the next major bill discussing wilderness appeared, the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, desert lands were vehemently argued by many as ideal wilderness areas. What this stark contrast makes clear is that the meaning of wilderness is not a fixed one, but a changing one, evolving as values within Western society change (Hays,44:1998).
Modern Perceptions of Wilderness

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word wilderness can be associated with several different meanings, but the majority of them, derive it as a source of pleasure. Pristine and solitude are just two words that are used to describe the modern day perception of wilderness. “Pristine” suggests that wilderness is seen as nature in its true form, free from humanization. Solitude and wilderness have come together more in the modern era as many now search for the peace and tranquility an untouched wilderness can offer. Eco-tourism is a booming industry today as humans look to isolate themselves from each other by finding their ‘true’ self in pristine nature (wilderness). This conception of wilderness lies in stark contrast to how it was perceived by humans in the eras before the modern one. It is described in the Bible, for instance, with a sharp negative bent. On the one hand, it is a place of desolation, the unsowed land frequented by demons: it is condemned by God. Christ was tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Tuan,110:1973). On the other hand, (and interestingly in line with the modern era perception of wilderness) it could be used as a “place of refuge and contemplation.” But, in general, wilderness has been seen until the modern era as separate from man, a roadblock to his attainment of success. If paradise was humankind’s greatest good, wilderness was its greatest evil (Nash,1968:9).


Historical Transformation of the Wilderness

This ideology that shaped early Christian thought and led to the taming of the European wilderness was critical in shaping the minds of the first settlers of America. For the first hundred years of the American nation, wilderness was still seen as a barrier to the development of the state. This attitude has changed during the twentieth century as pop culture has embraced the ‘cult’ of wilderness. Why do humans and specifically modern middle class Americans, identify with wilderness and demand that it be protected? It is an interesting paradox that we identify wilderness as ideal nature while urban areas, once embraced as the epitome of a successful civilization, are now identified by many as ‘scary’ and ‘unforgiving’ places where one should not attempt to be. It seems that we have now classified our once proud urban areas as modern wilderness wastelands. But what this paradox shows is that wilderness cannot be defined objectively: it is as much a state of mind as a description of nature. As a state of mind, does true wilderness exist only in the sprawling cities? In order to understand this transformation in human perception we must look back at how humans have interpreted nature and interacted with it throughout history.



Directory: users -> philosophy -> awaymave -> onlineresources
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onlineresources -> Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 1995 Being and Everythingness? Aspects of Freedom and Identity in the Thought of Sartre and Others, with Reference to 'Environmental Ethics'. Nick Hunt ma values and the Environment: Dissertation
onlineresources -> Mave dissertation, Lancaster University 2001 Social Ecology and Feminism: Can Socialist Ecofeminism be the Answer? Megan Salhus
onlineresources -> The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism Michael Hannis
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onlineresources -> Corporate Nature
onlineresources -> Foucault's Discourse Karl Rogers
onlineresources -> What might it mean to say nature has “intrinsic value”? Do you think it has? Introduction


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