Friday, March 09, 2007

I just had a think


And I think it is a thinky think, so I am going to think it here.

Which "nature" do we appreciate when we appreciate nature aesthetically?

"Nature" is one of the most complex nouns in the English language. The OED lists 26 definitions in 5 categories. Environmental philosophers tend to focus on two definitions, mostly "nature as a physical space unmodified by humans" and "nature as all that is," in other words, the nature that includes us and the one that doesn't. More interesting, though, are the horde of meanings of "nature" that refer to some kind of hidden order, purpose, or structure. When the hidden order is teleological, we get the sense of the word nature used to condemn various sex practices as "unnatural." When the hidden order is physical and causal, we get "nature" as in natural science.

Most of the environmental aesthetics I have read has focused on the appreciation of natural environments, meaning large physical spaces unmodified by humans. There is also some talk of appreciating natural objects, like rocks or trees. I think a more interesting kind of nature appreciation is the appreciation of natural processes, of nature as a hidden order. I know some work has been done along these lines, but mostly I think I'm just remembering seeing "natural processes" in lists of things we can appreciate, along with natural objects and environments.

Of course, appreciating natural processes was very important for nineteenth century romantics. Paintings like Cole's The Ox Bow, above, didn't just show nature, they showed parts of nature where the natural processes were visible. (I think I learned this from Allen Carlson or Gene Hargrove when I was at the Alaska NEH.)

So what happens to the aesthetic attitude when the process is the object of appreciation? Is there a way we can privilege the appreciation of processes over other things? I need to look at Carlson and Hargrove again to see if they've already covered this, along with some others. Focusing on the appreciation of processes would fit a Carlson, science based aesthetic attitude. It also fits with a modern environmentalism, a movement quite different than ancient pastoralisms. It fits with the rational for a lot of Chinese parks, which are geological rather than say wildlife preserves. It also makes sense of the Martian environmentalism of Kim Stanly Robinson's Mars books. (Not that anyone was really demanding that philosophers make sense of this obscure fictional movement.) The process aesthetic has a strange relationship to the Buddhist aesthetic I've been working on. They fit together because they are both so much about time and change. But the process aesthetic is more cognitive, more material.

hmm.

7 comments:

Thomas said...

"So what happens to the aesthetic attitude when the process is the object of appreciation? Is there a way we can privilege the appreciation of processes over other things?"

I'm not sure if this is helpful, but it occurred to me that there might be some analogies with the aesthetics of music, or film, or other non-plastic and time-based arts. Or at least, there might be some interesting comparisons or contrasts to be drawn, in that aesthetic appreciation in the lively arts involves engagement with a process, although in this case one that is presumptively at some remove from nature as such.

C.A. said...

I'm not sure what you would mean by "privilege the appreciation of the processes over other things."

One problem is that we don't perceive most of the processes in any direct manner (unlike, perhaps, film and music). We perceive the results. (Of course, this isn't true in all cases, but if we want a category of "natural processes" that is encompassing enough, then the vast majority of natural processes are not directly perceptible). Or at most we perceive stages of the process of which we then provide a causal/narrative account (some similar things could be said of art I suppose).

Sure, it is really cool that the Andes are the result of millions of years of subduction of one of two geological plates, but if that process had resulted in something less mind-boggling cool---a pile of uninteresting uniform gravel perhaps---I'm not sure we would feel that the process should be aesthetically privileged over the seemingly uninteresting product. (hmmm, this might be a bad analogy with your point).

The weaker claim, that the process is an essential dimension of the [full?] aesthetic appreciation of the natural object, seems more plausible.

This comes close to that great article: "what's wrong with Plastic Trees." There the author (if I remember the article correctly and am not confusing it with something else) argues that
just as provenance matters in valuing artistic works, so natural provenance matters in valuing natural objects.

This doesn't require privileging the process above other things, but at least, acknowledging that the object is only the object as a result of that process. Or that it is impossible to conceive of the object (as a natural thing) apart from its essential history.

Maybe another route into it is old-school Aristotelianism (minus the unchangeable species-forms). Nature understood as the inner principle of change and being at rest (Physics 2.1 I think). Processes are presumably something like ordered changes of natural objects? The Metaphysics Z account of ousia argues that what a thing really is is its essential species form, form, in instantiating the individual (not separate from the individual). Since the form is also the "final cause"--the form is not a static structure but something like the unfolding articulated directed characteristic change of the natural being. Here we come close to "building" the process into the object as its nature.

Of course, it isn't obvious to me that natural processes should be more aesthetically valuable than processes that have been altered by human action. Though I think, if they are, then something like the point about provenance must be true.

[No more soy cappuccino for me this morning.]

c.a. said...

Whoops, Robert Elliot's "Faking Nature" I meant.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

aesthetics of music, or film, or other non-plastic and time-based arts.

Clearly these are going to be a good source of analogies. More precise analogies would be found in watching processes that unfold on their own. I'm thinking about certain kinds of chance-based music, where the composer lays out certain ground rules, and no one knows what is going to happen. Also, John Conway's game of life

Of course, it isn't obvious to me that natural processes should be more aesthetically valuable than processes that have been altered by human action.

Actually by switching to a "nature as hidden order" understanding of the concept of nature, I am distinctly not saying that processes not designed by people are more valuable than those that are. In fact, it may be that the exact same form of appreciation is at work in looking at natural processes and The Game of Life.

as provenance matters in valuing artistic works, so natural provenance matters in valuing natural objects.
Yeah, Elliot is clearly right about this, but I'm looking for something deeper, which is why I run into this problem

we don't perceive most of the processes in any direct manner (unlike, perhaps, film and music). We perceive the results.

My first thought was that in looking at the ox-bow, we are keenly aware of slow processes of sedimentation that made it, and in some way are appreciating that directly. I want to avoid making strong claims about the nature of perception, though, such as the idea that we can directly perceive causation, or some such.

I think there is work on artistic content which argues that you still count as perceiving certain aspects of the content, even though you wouldn't be aware of it without background knowledge (for instance, of how ox-bows are formed.)

We could also talk about natural processes that do unfold in perceivable stretches of time, like the changing of the seasons. How are these cases like or unlike the perception of implied natural processes?

I'm going to avoid thinking about Aristotle for now, and just work with contemporary philosophy of perception.

joel hanes said...

Leopold's "Land Ethic" tells us how to achieve beauty in natural objects.

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.
It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

_A_Sand_County_Almanac_, Aldo Leopold, 1948

http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/landethic.html

Lori Witzel said...

Stumbled across your thoughtful gnawings while wandering Google searching for the confluence of Buddhism and aesthetics.

Nothing useful to add (barely able to rub a brain cell or two together to get a spark) -- but WOW, fab post and discussion.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Thanks Lori!

I've got a number of things going on Buddhist aesthetics. The main bit was a paper that began with this idea continued to a conference presentation I blog here and at another conference, blogged here. Notice that the paper had been accepted is here. The paper itself is offline for a while, but will return as I start working on the final draft.