Session 14

Friday, June 4

17:30–18:30 (Helsinki, EEST, UTC +3), Congress Room 2

Chair: Remei Capdevila-Werning

Aaron M. Ellison & Eric Zeigler (Harvard University/ University of Toledo, USA):

Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Aesthetics of Environmental Balance and Change

We address combining ecological thinking and photography-as-art to promote an aesthetic of environmental balance and change that is ecologically informed yet not human-centered (anthropocentric). However, we must first grapple with two significant challenges in defining a non-anthropocentric environmental aesthetic.

First, aesthetics is the philosophy, system, and underlying principles of the beautiful or of art. Because aesthetics requires perception, appreciation, and high-minded critique, it is decidedly anthropocentric. However, Hagi Kenaan argues that “photography’s inner logic has no sense of the contingent values, practices, or forms of meaningful involvement that constitute the human world.” (154) This inherent detachment provides an opening to non-anthropocentric aesthetics.

Second, ecology has become an anthropocentric discipline. In its 19th-century origins of studying nature absent humans, ecology was still anthropocentric (the characterization of “nature” presupposes a human [i.e., “unnatural”] observer), the increasing emphasis in ecology on human protection, conservation, and management of nature is quite distinct from the initial “pure” intellectual foci of ecologists. This shift is apparent in new language: our perceived departure from the Holocene and arrival into the Anthropocene has been marked by the replacement of “biomes” by “anthromes,” declarations of a “climate emergency,” and pronouncements that humans are destroying the planet.

These perceptions reveal an unbearable future, but we argue that photography can make the Anthropocene beautiful. Can a photograph reveal the terrible, breaking through beauty’s shield that Byung-Chul Han has characterized as “the unbearable that has been made bearable [by beauty that] shields us from the terrible.” (2018: 43)

Our approach also is in opposition to Montaigne’s assertion (ca. 1580) that [a]insi fera la morte de toutes choses notre mort (our death will bring about the death of all things), which is deeply embedded in Western philosophical traditions and contemporary environmental thought:

One of the pranks played by anthropocentrism is to suggest that the end of our species will bring about the death of animal and vegetable nature, the end of earth itself. The fall of heavens. There is no eschatology that doesn’t assume man’s permanence is necessary to the permanence of anything else. It’s accepted that things might have been before us; unthinkable that they could ever end after us. (Morselli 1977:53)

We propose that photography informed by testable ecological forecasts can reinforce an aesthetic ideal of environmental transience that recognizes our own viewing of it as a disturbance.

M. Joseph Aloi II:

Nonanthropocentrism in the Anthropocene: Participation in the Epochal Play of Nature

What Cheryl Foster describes as “the ambient dimension of environmental value” is one where we are encouraged to dwell in our multisensory experiences, attending to the sound and smell of nature, attending to the connections between one’s sensing body, and that which one’s body is sensing. Thinkers as diverse as Arnold Berleant, Jack Turner, and David Abram have defended this sensuous aesthetic engagement with nature, arguing it can help move us past the disruptive prejudices inherent in our tradition – provided only that we allow the experiences themselves to speak, and hold in abeyance the narratives of tradition. The jarring character of an experience of ambient aesthetic engagement in nature disrupts unhelpful narratives. This paper describes ambient aesthetic experience using terms borrowed from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s phenomenology of play. It argues that any aesthetic appreciation of nature involves a participation in the play of nature. Ambient aesthetic experience can hardly be understood as a subject appreciating a natural object; instead, it should be understood as participation in a natural event of play, even of being carried away by that play. Furthermore, sensuous participation in natural play is a necessary element in any aesthetic experience of nature. This participation in nature’s play is how aesthetic experience can lead to care for specific natural environments, objects, or events. As we join along in the natural event of play, we become part of the natural community, and feel a sense of belonging with specific places. The challenge of climate change to this dimension of aesthetic value is the manner in which the climate in general – and its human-induced warming in particular – is almost entirely imperceptible in these multi-sensory moments of engagement. Accordingly, the narrative dimension of aesthetic experience must come into play, encouraging us to see, for example, the sublimity or horror of a hurricane as an instantiation of climate change. But in order for this narrative element to not intrude upon and disrupt the ambient experience, it needs to remain in the background of the experience, as what Gadamer calls a “productive prejudices” from which the circular movement of aesthetic understanding begins. In order for an understanding of climate change to become internalized and backgrounded in this manner, I suggest we follow the advice of David Wood and work to understand ourselves as geologically human.