Jos de Mul. The Earth Garden: Going Back or Going Forward to Nature? Frontiers of Philosophy in China. Vol.12 (2017) 2: 237-248.
Abstract Against the background of a short meditation on the contrasting ways in which landscape has been represented and idealized in Eastern and Western painting traditions, the article will try to show, using some striking examples, that the development of landscape painting in the last two centuries reflects the changing relationship of humanity and nature, leading in both the East and in the West to either the expression of a nostalgic longing for nature to be back as it once was, or to a gloomy expression of the vanishing of nature amidst the modern, technological world. Connecting to both the concept of “harmony,” which is a key concept in Eastern aesthetics, and to some recent reflections in Western philosophy on the relationship of nature and technology, a post-nostalgic conception of nature and natural beauty is defended, in which nature and technology are no longer seen as opposing categories, but rather as poles that are intertwined in an ever-lasting process of co-evolution. It is argued that we should not so much strive to go “back to nature,” but rather to go “forward to nature” and establish a new harmony between human and non-human nature and technology. The article ends with some reflections on the role artists and aestheticians may play in this transformation.
Keywords environmental pollution, environmental aesthetics, philosophy of nature, comparative aesthetics, philosophy of technology
Lovers of Chinese landscape painting know how beautiful Chinese landscapes can be. However, present-day travelers to China will be inclined to support Chen Wangheng’s claim in his recently published book Chinese Environmental Aesthetics that the beauty of the Chinese landscape is under severe threat from China’s explosive industrialization, urbanization, and massive environmental pollution (Chen 2015). Although many other countries face similar problems because of the astonishing pace of economic development during the last decades,the environmental problems in China are among the worst in the world. If we compare, for example, air pollution in the world’s major industrial zones—EastAsia, Europe and North America it becomes immediately clear that environmental pollution is one of the biggest problems China faces today. According to Zhong Nanshan, the former president of the China Medical Association, in the near future air pollution could become China’s biggest health threat (Watts 2012).
In this article, I would like to present some ideas about how art, philosophy, and the connecting discipline of aesthetics may contribute to the solution to these severe environmental problems. Of course, I am fully aware of the fact that artists and philosophers do not reduce factory emissions and vehicle exhausts with their artistic and philosophical reflections on the human condition. However, both may be able, by implanting ideas and stirring the imagination, to change the attitudes and actions of people, which may eventually lead to a healthier and a more beautiful world. In the following I hope to contribute to this task by combining some fruitful ideas from Eastern and Western art and philosophyThe first part of this article consists of a short meditation on the contrasting ways in which landscape has been represented and idealized in Eastern and Western painting traditions. I will try to show, using some striking examples, that the development of landscape painting in the last two centuries reflects the changing relationship of humanity and nature, leading in both the East and in the West to either the expression of a nostalgic longing for nature to be as it once was, or to a gloomy expression of the vanishing of nature in the modern, technological world.
In the second part of this article, in connection to both the concept of “harmony,” which is a key concept in Eastern aesthetics, and to some recent reflections in Western philosophy on the relationship of nature and technology, I will plea for a different, post-nostalgic conception of nature and natural beauty, in which nature and technology are no longer seen as opposing categories, but rather as poles that are intertwined in an ongoing process of co-evolution. For that reason, we should not so much strive to go “back to nature,” but rather to go “forward to nature” to establish a new harmony between human and non-humannature and technology.
In the third part I will give some examples of how this post-nostalgicconception of nature can guide us towards a more healthy and beautiful environment, both in China and in the rest of the world.
I will end the article, in the fourth part, with some reflections on the role that artists and aestheticians may play in this transformation.
1 Crisis of the Eastern and Western Landscape
Asia has an impressive tradition of landscape painting, which has its origins in the 7th century, and which, especially since the Song dynasty, has played a dominant role in the visual arts. The overall atmosphere in Chinese landscape painting is one of harmony; human figures do not so much oppose the landscape, but are rather part of it. When we look at Zhang Zeduan’s 張擇端 famous painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河圖), our attention is drawn towards the social character of human beings and the harmonious relationship between the human figures, the buildings, and their natural surroundings. Although human activities certainly are the main subject of the painting, they merge smoothly with the world of nature in which they take place. And although the painting focuses on human activities, the human beings in the painting are relatively small in comparison to the natural surroundings.
This is even more prominent in later shan shui 山水 paintings, such as Lofty Mount Lu (廬山高圖) (1467) of Shen Zhou 沈周. Here we have to look carefully in order to even see the miniscule human figure standing below the waterfall (see Figure 1). This painting also displays another key characteristic of the Chinese landscape tradition: the aim is not so much a truthful representation of outer reality, but the depiction of an inner reality, an expression of a felt harmony with nature (showing the influence of Daoism). In addition, the mastery of the painter aims at perfecting earlier models.1
Figure 1 Lofty Mount Lu (1467) by Shen Zhou
How different was the development of landscape painting in Europe! To take an example, when we look at Rogier van der Weyden’s Maria Magdalen, which was probably painted around the same time as Shen Zhou’s Lofty Mount Lu, we see a self-confident individual, who occupies a big part of the available pictorial space, and, moreover, has her back turned to the landscape behind her (see Figure 2). The Dutch philosopher Ton Lemaire in his Philosophy of the Landscape, comments that, “[t]he perspectival representation of the world as landscape is an act of liberation and emancipation by the individual, or, more sharply expressed: it is via one and the same movement that the individual places himself as an autonomous subject and the world appears as environmental space.” What we witness is “the awakening of the self-conscious person against the background of the world, the self-differentiation of the subject who separates himself from the world in order to be able to see it in overview and to control it” (Lemaire 1970, 24–25)
Figure 2 Maria Magdalen (1450) by Rogier van der Weyden
On the one hand, this new control over nature has resulted in a spectacular increase of prosperity in the Western world; on the other hand, it has resulted in an alienation from nature, as well as environmental damage and the exhaustion of natural resources. This can be seen in the subsequent development of Western landscape painting. As the subjection of nature by modern technologies increased in the 18th and 19th centuries, along with a corresponding disenchantment, we see both a nostalgic longing for nature as it once was—and a gradual isolation and alienation of the modern subject. It is especially in the Romantic tradition that we see both aspects united. Casper David Friedrich’s famous Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) is a sublime example. However, as industrialization came to increasingly dominate the experience of the landscape since the beginning of the 19th century, European landscape painting itself either vanished along with nature, or began to darkly reflect the technological worldThese developments can also be seen in the Chinese landscape tradition as a response to industrialization and technologization. On the one hand, as in, for example, the work of contemporary painters like Lu Yushung, we see a kind of nostalgic continuation of traditional shan shui painting, on the other hand, we come across Guangzhou painter Yu Huijian’s 於會見 gloomy depictions of modern, industrialized China (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 Modern China (2012) by Yu Huijian
The dichotomist worldview that lay behind the modern Western painting tradition holds that nature and human culture are opposing or even contradictory domains. Although traditional Chinese landscape painting is based on a worldview that emphasizes a more harmonious relationship between these two domains, as a result of rapid modernization the Chinese worldview and the art that expresses it now seem to be adopting a relatively dichotomist position as well. Within that dichotomist context, art seems to be rather helpless. The best that art can do, as Meng Yanqin has expressed it, is to offer us “an imaginary paradise in which the human is an integral part of nature,” “a perfect world of freedom, peace, satisfaction, and pleasure […] that cannot be encountered in the real word” (Meng 2013, 319). Although escape from an unpleasant reality can bring pleasure and may even implant a desire in us to change this unpleasant reality, the question is whether a nostalgic return to nature as it might have been in the past can produce real alternatives to our present industrial and technological predicament. Maybe we should rather try—as philosophers and as artists—to rethink and reimagine the unharmonious relationship of nature and technology and attempt to find new models of harmony.
2 Nature, Technology, and Biofacts
The idea that the domain of nature is radically different from the domain of human culture and technology has a long history in Western philosophy. Aristotle, for example, writes in On the Soul (De anima) that whatever grows, produces itself, is part of physis, nature (starting with the activity of plant soul), whereas in his Physics, he states that whatever is moved externally does not grow, but is considered technè (Aristotle 1984, 413a, 25; 184a, ff). As human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems due to modern technology, geologists often call the age that started with the Industrial Revolution “the Anthropocene” (Waters 2016, 351).
However, the question is whether humans really are unique in technologizing nature. When we take Aristotle’s definition seriously, we should admit that, for example, a beehive is also technè rather than physis. And humans, although partly standing opposed to nature because of reflectivity, never cease being part of nature (physis) as well. After all, as the German philosopher and biologist Helmuth Plessner rightly puts it, human beings are artificial by nature (Plessner 1981, 383 ff; de Mul 2014, 11–37). We regard agriculture and cattle breeding as activities that are unique for Homo sapiens, but, actually, farmers milking cows are doing something akin to ants milking aphids. We should also not forget that farmers and cows, and ants and aphids, are mutually entwined in a co-evolution.They are part of one gigantic biotic network.
There are more reasons to doubt the dichotomist opposition of nature and technology. In present-day biotechnology, for example, nature and technology are increasingly merging. On the one hand, this is because technology increasingly mimics nature. Bionics, for example, applies biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technologies. On the other hand, we witness biologists increasingly perceiving nature in an explicitly technical way, namely, as a biotechnological “laboratory” of enormous complexity and immense proportions (Zwart et al. 2015), talking of “molecular machines” and “biological motors” in a manner that is more than metaphorical. As a whole new domain beyond the opposing domains of nature and technology, these so-called “biofacts” are hybrid objects that are both nature and artefact (Karafyllis 2008, 185–98). An example would be species that acquire genetic characteristics of another species by means of transgenic modification, such as a transgenic sheep that produces human hormones. Since the beginning of this century artists have also started to create (or imagine) biofact artworks. One of the first was GFP Bunny, an albino fluo-rabbit by the Brazilian-American artist Eduardo Kac, that glows in the dark because it received a gene implant from a fluorescent jellyfish.
These biotechnologies seem to be recent inventions, but they have a very long history. Horizontal gene transfer, as realized in GFP Bunny, already existed more than three billion years ago, in a very early stage of the evolution of life on earth—long before the origin of species—when bacteria freely exchanged their genetic material (Woese 2004, 173–86; Goldenfeld & Woese 2007). And, when we look at the history of our own species, the intentional modification of other species is as old as human agriculture and cattle breeding, which originated 10,000 years ago in the New Stone Age (Neolithicum).
Take, for example, the tulip, the national flower of the Netherlands despite its non-Dutch origin. (It was imported in the 16th century from Turkey, where it arrived some centuries earlier from Afghanistan.) In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan explains that it was due to artificial selection in 17th century Netherlands that the Turkish tulip, with its masculine, sharp petals, was transformed into a Calvinistic flower with prudish petals that cover its genitals (Pollan 2001, Ch. 2). Here again, natural and cultural history are inextricably merged.
However, whereas traditional breeding was restricted to the improvement of one single species, present-day biotechnology does not cross only the boundaries between species, but also those between different between biological kingdoms—for example, by recombining genetic material from plants and animals. Even the recombination of organisms and technological artifacts is now possible, ranging from artificial limbs and organs to nanotechnological genetic pathway engineering on a cellular level.
What we can learn from these examples is that biotechnology, the fusion of nature and technology, is not unnatural, but a phenomenon as old as life on earth. Nature and technology have always co-evolved and likely will continue to do so in the future. After all, the only constant in nature is its eternal flux. With regard to the environmental problems that we are facing in the Anthropocene, the most important lesson that we can learn from these examples, as well from Chinese aesthetics, is that we should not try to swim against the stream of evolution, and, motivated by nostalgia, focus on the conservation of little pieces of “past nature” in natural reserves. We should instead move along with the stream of evolution and contribute to this process by creating new nature. Not going back, but forward towards nature.
3 Not Going Back, But Forward towards Nature
In addition to the pollution caused by our brute technological exploitation of nature, the accompanying exhaustion of fossil fuels stands as one of the largest problems for the human future. In the future, we will increasingly be dependent on alternative sources of energy. Without doubt solar energy is one of the most promising candidates, as the sun each day radiates 20,000 times the amount of energy that the entire world population consumes. The problem, however, is obtaining access to this almost inexhaustible source. Although solar technology is becoming more and more popular, it is still not very efficient, and for that reason it remains expensive. Moreover, from an aesthetic point of view, this grey (or even black, given the color of the solar panels) technology is not very attractive.
Here, however, we have a splendid opportunity for a more harmonious and aesthetically attractive solution. Why not cooperate and co-evolve with nature for mutual benefit, instead of exploiting natural recourses as a kind of “standing reserve”? This might sound like science fiction, but it is not. Plants photosynthesize organic matter using solar energy; a significant part of this organic matter is released into the soil. Plant-E, a spin-off of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has developed a technology which makes it possible to integrate living plants and microbial fuel cells in wetlands to create large-scale green power plants. Electrochemically active micro-organisms break down organic matter producing electrons which are transported to the anode of the fuel cell. The energy-rich electrons flow through a load to the cathode to generate electricity around the clock. Sunlight and water are all that is needed. In 2014, to commemorate the occasion of the National Tree Festival, the city of Zaandam in the Netherlands planted a large number of trees which will produce energy for street lamps. This is what we might call a win-win situation for both trees and human beings.
Of course, this is only a modest beginning. We could think of a combination of this new green power plant with another recent technology: wireless electricity. This technology is not entirely new, but until recently the problem was that the distance that could be bridged was rather small. However, recent innovations make it possible to bridge larger distances. Wireless charging for e-cars and buses is arriving soon. If these distances extend further, it would, for example, be possible to charge one’s mobile phone during a walk through the park. But there are more important applications! I imagine a future in which highways are surrounded by forests that charge self-steering electric cars while they drive.Why is this harmonious fusion of the preservation trees, and human technology such a good idea? If we think about present-day biofuel, we should realize that its production is harmful for both trees and human beings. Biofuel is made of crops like corn, coleseed, soy, and palm oil, and, as these crops are also needed for human consumption, humans in the regions where biofuels are produced may suffer a shortage of these crops. Or, as we see, for example, in Indonesia and Brazil, this “solution” takes the form of large-scale deforestation in order to produce more arable land.
The “bionet of things” I imagine, on the other hand, will lead to exactly the opposite: a massive reforestation, and precisely in those places where energy is most needed. For organizations dealing with the conservation of nature, this innovative protection of nature will offer an excellent business case, as sales of this superlatively sustainable “tree energy” would enable them to continue reforestation and the development of other harmonious green technologies. Moreover, the increase of biofacts would also enhance biodiversity.
In the course of evolution, at certain moments there have been massive “explosions” of new life forms. During the Cambric explosion, for example, which took place about 500 million years ago, most major animal phyla appeared in a relatively short time (Gould 1989). For that reason, it is sometimes called “the Big Bang of present life” I expect that the coming centuries might come to be known as the time of the “Anthropocene explosion,” the Big Bang of biofactical life. In spite of this name, though, the question will be if there still will be room for human beings in this “brave new world.” Being part of nature, Homo sapiens cannot escape its flux and fluctuations, its ebbs and flows. However, the course of this flux is not fixed, but will, at least partly, depend on human choices and actions.
4 Towards a Beautiful and/or Sublime Future
An important task is waiting, both for artists and philosophers of aesthetics. In their millennia-old histories, art and technology always have been closely related. The Greeks, not without reason, used the same word—technè—for craft and art. Artists always have explored new technologies in creative ways, s disclosing new worlds and, in doing so, new life practices. This was already the case regarding the cave paintings, which not only disclosed a completely new world of visual representation (a kind of prehistoric virtual reality), but, in doing so, also paved the way for new social and religious practices (cognitive exercises, bonding, rituals). And it is no less true for modern technology. Avant-garde artists, rejecting an “art for art’s sake” attitude, have played an important role in the exploration of the possibilities of new technologies like photography, film, hypermedia, and virtual reality (de Mul 2010). In doing so, they disclose new worlds and image new life practices.
In the age of biofacts artists, together with scientists and technicians, should explore the creative potential of the newest biotechnologies. In order to create a livable and sustainable world for the next generations, the world not only needs scientific research and technological innovation, but artistic imagination as well. Starting from a long tradition of creating harmonious and sublime images of nature, in the age of biofacts the task of artists is to imagine and create a harmonious and sublime next nature itself. The goal will be to establish a new harmonious relation with nature, not by a nostalgic conservation of “old nature,” but with the resolute creation of a “next nature.”2 Only such a hybrid kind of harmony between nature and technology may be able to transform our planet back into—to use Chen Wangheng’s powerful image—a genuine “garden of life,” a “Lofty Mount Lu.”
For philosophers of aesthetics, the present task is to reflect on this creation of “next nature” and to invent concepts that enable us to understand the transformation of the Earth garden in which we live. For example, this can occur through an investigation of the way “beauty” and “sublimity” transformed during the 20th century from natural categories into technological categories (Nye 1994). It could also occur by reflecting on how, in our present century, natural categories are transforming again, now into “next-natural” categories, disclosing new realms of aesthetic experience and pleasure (de Mul 2013, 32–40).
Of course, redesigning the Earth Garden is not without risk. Creating sublime environments and biofacts can be especially dangerous, as “next nature,” as all nature, may have its own agenda. For that reason, artists like Floris Kaayk, who in 2016 launched The Modular Body, a “science faction” project about creating artificial life from scratch, focus on the ambivalent nature of sublime technologies.3 However, since Prometheus, mortals have always been playing with fire (Dworkin 2000, 446; de Mul 2014). Moreover, we should not forget that we are not only mortal as individuals, but as a species as well. Perhaps we should heed the words of Nietzsche, that “all great things bring about their own destruction through an act of self-overcoming” (Nietzsche 1968, Section 27). The he choice we are facing at this moment in the evolution of the Earth Garden may be the one between fostering our “next nature” and loosing human nature all together.
This article is based on a paper presented at the conference Environmental Aesthetics and Beautiful China, organized by Chen Wang at School of Urban Design of Wuhan University, China, which took place from May 20th to 24th in 2015.
1 For a more detailed interpretation of these characteristics of Chinese landscape painting, see Pohl (2004) and Meng (2013). With regard to the emphasis on inner experience, there is an interesting parallel with the theory of beauty advanced by the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus (205–70). Unlike Plato, who accuses the painter of making of “copies” of the outer world, Plotinus argues that in the experience of beauty the soul experiences its place in the cosmic order.
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