Tuesday 16 March 2010

two views across the mersey

In this guest post, Wallace Heim, co-editor of the Ashden Directory, spends a day in Liverpool - first with philosophers, then with artists.

Two weeks ago, in sight of the Mersey, and within a 100 yards of one another, you could find two very different ways of looking at human relations with nature. At Liverpool University's Philosophy Department, a dozen professors and lecturers exchanged ideas on alienation and the environment. Across the street, High Tide’s latest exhibition of work by 11 artists opened at the Art & Design Academy.

The philosophers talked in a plain room around a table. We dived into meticulous explorations of how the human relates to the natural, and whether our perceived loss of touch from the natural world is justifiably the grounds for our current situation, or whether there is something in that estrangement which is vital, productive, even necessary.

A grappling with how to describe the experience and feeling of alienation moved alongside the historical and analytical exploration of it, through the Romantics, Marx, environmental ethics and new views on the built environment as ‘natural’.

Seeing the gallery with those ideas still swimming in my mind made me look for a similar prodding of that sore zone between human and nature, wanting to see more than a rush to represent the effects of the estrangement, or to show a better or more ecological connection, as valuable as those are. I wanted to be taken, through art, into that suspension where not everything is known and already given, a place of sideways, even dangerous, questions.

This wasn’t the theme of Mersey Basin, which was an exploration of rising sea levels, flooding and the ebb and flow of that shoreline. Works were composed of driftwood, mud, string, plastic detritus and woven wool. Some were juxtapositions of waste and beauty (Robyn Woolston, Gordon MacLellan), some had provocational intent (Àgata Alcañiz). Many artworks represented past conversations or performances, or long periods of attending to an environment, or of collaborations with scientists (Scott Thurston & Elizabeth Willow, James Brady & Stuart Carter).

Maps represented not only the present, but the ancient fluctuations of changing shorelines melding into projections of an uncertain future (Tim Pugh), and the visual pleasure of proposals forward for the Mersey Basin as a forested refuge for migrating species (David Haley).

The walking, marking and storytelling of the exhibition brought the materiality of the changing edge between sea and land into view. But the littoral could also describe the continually changing gap between the ‘human’ and ‘nature’, and it was the philosophers who excited this most sharply, almost painfully, and pushed against the shortcomings of current knowledge as our environments change.

Pic: 'Trees of Grace: Draughting Change': David Haley shows our blogger a map of the Mersey Basin and Pennines that illustrates how it would look with a changed shoreline and re-forestation. (Yvonne Haley)


  1. When you discussed if there was something in the estrangement between humans and nature "which is vital, productive, even necessary" what kind of examples did people come up with?

  2. Comment is in two parts: Part 1

    The 'vital, productive, even necessary' were ideas I teased out from the papers and discussions; they weren't overarching themes discussed directly. The discussions started with people's papers, and ranged over a plurality of ideas about alienation and the environment.

    To answer your question, it helps to start from somewhere. The definitions of 'nature' and the human were short-handed to those one could find in ordinary language: to an acknowledgement that if 'nature' is understood as the living systems and biosphere in which humans live, there can be no separation of the human and that whole. We cannot live without the 'natural' systems of which humans are a part. 'Nature' is more complex than human
    comprehension and manipulation, and is affected by but is not within human control.

    And an acknowledgment that, because of various capabilities humans have as a species, like language and the development of technologies, our conceptions of nature have been created socially - for a very long time - and these affect our relations to the other-than-human, or to nature. There is a separation or differentiation, already, between a part and a whole from
    which it is different but inseparable.

    'Alienation' adds another layer to the unresolved complexity of 'nature'. 'Alienation' has its own history and multitude of definitions. Generally, it was viewed as an estrangement, a separation, a loss of recognition, a losing touch, or a change in relation that makes one feel one doesn't belong any longer. There was an acknowledgement that 'alienation' from nature is too easily seen as negative, or attributed to the effects of the Enlightenment, or Cartesian philosophy separating the human from nature, allowing the natural to be commodified for use by humans. Too, ideas of alienation bring up problems of how one has access to nature, whether there is a 'natural' state of being or mode of contact that is somehow less or more alienated.

    With that context given, here are three pared-down examples which delve into alienation and the environment in ways that could be 'vital, productive and necessary', in my view.

    Alienation can be used to explain the environmental crisis, and this explanation disposes us to certain behaviours which are intended to overcome alienation, such as reconciliation (or the imperative to 'only connect'). Reconciliation can be seen as the attempt to overcome opposites. As understood by Hegel, it is a state of being 'at-home-with-oneself-in-the-world', which could mean that to be reconciled with nature means to absorb it into a view of humanity, to use nature as a means of reflecting humanity back to itself, to make the world in the image of the human. There's no restraint or humility in this; no autonomy for 'nature'. Conversely, as with the Romantics, the human can be absorbed back into that 'natural' whole, as either the highest 'achievement' of nature, or as if all human activities were 'natural'. Reconciliation needs to include a dimension of alienation. A sensibility of alienation is not one that has to be solved, but can be a sensibility of difference and limitations, restraint and caution, meaning that we cannot be always 'at-home-with oneself'. (from paper by Alison Stone (Lancaster University): 'Alienation from Nature in Early German Romanticism')

  3. Part 2

    Alienation can be seen as a separation or distancing from something that had come before, and depending on the values and force of that experience, it may not being a negative experience. Alienation may be necessary to separate oneself from a relation or a situation which was constraining or unquestioned, unproductive. An example is the ways in which feminism
    questioned patriarchal systems, and differentiated other forms of relations from that. In this sense, relieving alienation doesn't imply a return to a 'better' relation, or the preservation of those relations. Rather, it is an experience that can lead to a critical process of change. (from paper by Ute Kruse-Ebeling (TU Dortmund University): 'Alienation from nature - some conceptual difficulties')

    On another tack, there was a strong questioning of whether alienation referred only to some kind of wildness or nature apart, and whether humans aren’t similarly alienated from the built environment, strip malls and brutalist architecture as examples. But, also, the built environment is, in the materials of its construction and in its deterioration, 'natural'. We fail to grasp how it is part of the natural world, not only in the sense that the planted urban square is, like a farming landscape, 'built' by social processes but we also fail to notice the 'nature' embedded in the
    materials of buildings, furniture, appliances, technologies. The distinction between 'nature' and the 'built environment' is an artificial one; alienation, then, is not confined to landscapes, but also expresses something of how one is distanced from nature in the urban everyday. (from
    paper by Steven Vogel (Denison University) 'On Alienation from the Built Environment’)

    These are very stripped down, almost desiccated snippets. The papers were given within a discipline and with the familiarity of a canon and shared language. There was an acknowledgement that there was something urgent, political and ethical about considering the force of alienation, but to go about it as if it were a simply explainable experience wouldn't be effective or coherent. Just assuming that it implies a kind of pathology isn't enough.

    What was also not enough from the two days was, for me, an affecting description of what alienation from nature feels like, not just how it can be explained and used, but the range of emotions that this particular kind of experience brings into being.

  4. I can see in the case of feminism that alienation would be an active critical engagement with a dominant way of thinking. But surely a parallel there would be with another dominant mindset - consumerism. Easy to see active critical engagement there. But alienation from ‘nature’ might be seen as the opposite, as drifting away, loss of engagement, and indifference.

  5. The comparison with feminism came up in the discussion, not in the paper itself. Alienation in this sense is, as you say, from a dominant mindset which is so prevalent that it can be seen as 'natural', and that this would have potential for change. It's not advocating an alienation from 'nature'. (Although ideas about how one 'should' be connected with nature can always be questioned - but I think that's a healthy questioning and not so much a kind of alienation). That dominant mindset could be consumerism, capitalism, the view of nature as commodity and so on.

    What does it means to become alienated from, for example, consumerism - not just resisting it, or critiquing it, or playing against it, or momentarily feeling nauseous when up against it (American strip malls) but profoundly estranged from it, while still having to exist within it. How to articulate what it feels like, not just a description of what you didn't buy. How to articulate these feelings in a way that also includes one’s relations with nature, whatever those may be.

  6. Sure, in terms of causes and responses, a sense of alienation from consumerism is going to be different to a sense of alienation from nature. One might be an act of defiance, the other might be an act of mourning or healing or (as you say) reconciliation. But you also mentioned that during the discussion there was an acknowledgement that 'alienation' from nature ‘is too easily seen as negative’. As I understand it, the argument is that alienation from nature is (to varying degrees) part of the human condition and if this is accepted and understood it can encourage an awareness of the difference and the responsibilities that go with that. This sense of alienation might even heighten the relationship making it, from our point of view, richer and more complex.

  7. I’d like to agree - that considering alienation from nature in different ways could lead to sensibilities of caution and responsibility and to relations with nature that are more complex. But that’s making a big, fast leap, and the conclusion may owe more to what one wants to be the case than to a sound argument or to reflection on experience.

    The idea that humans are alienated from nature can also lead to conclusion that nature is an inert commodity for human use. Reaching a different conclusion depends on what this particular alienation is, and on how it’s understood. This isn’t yet well-articulated, and is what I find exciting and full of potential, for philosophy and art. Coming too soon to a conclusion may obscure what could be learned and could reinforce existing views or positions, however positive they are.

    One of the reasons that the days with the philosophers were so affecting was because they were taking time to think together. It was a slow process of inquiry into a shaded area that has been filed away as already understood, and it was shown that it’s not. There’s more to be done. So I want to keep the general direction towards those richer relations, but argue for keeping attention on how you get there.