Toward a Holistic Environmental Aesthetic
Toward a Holistic Environmental Aesthetic
- Nathalie BlancNathalie BlancUniversity of Paris
Environmental aesthetics encompasses aesthetic relationships to and in the environment, including an urban aesthetic and an aesthetic of nature—which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries both from the sciences and from the distinction from the scientific in the aesthetic observations of nature. Environmental aesthetics notably comprises philosophical, artistic, and geographical work. Increasingly since the 1990s, the social and environmental crisis, and particularly climate change, is and has been causing shifts within this field of research and reflection. As of the 2020s, the admiration humans can bear toward nature is not without fear of its disappearance caused by their own activities. Ethics is more and more linked to aesthetics as humans are morally affected by this catastrophic environmental degradation. Thus, a certain anxiety quickly reveals itself in the face of planetary transformations. What can the geographer do? Since the 1990s, the discipline has been inviting thought about the environment from the aesthetic experience, challenging or interrogating the perception, understanding, and relationship to the natural surroundings. The geographer has been attempting to apprehend through creative research—such as “psychogeographical” situational walks (dérive, situation of inquiry, influence map), and, more generally, artistic works firmly rooted in the whole landscape question—the ways of redefining local situations and places. The need is to face three major challenges. First, there is the necessity to explore how planetary threats transform the perceptions of the environment. Anxieties reflect the difficulties of politics. Second, an aesthetic of the ordinary should be investigated as an ordinary environmentalism, meaning that which is related to the daily creation of environments. Third, the importance of research creation and ecoplastic forms of art needs to be highlighted (art and environment-making processes).
- Environmental History
After having been classified as a “science of sensibility” and theorized by Kant in the 18th century as a basis for the subjective relationship to nature and art, “aesthetics” has come to designate—in a general way and by reversing subject and object (often forgetting that aesthetics cannot do without a subject)––formal configurations themselves which are supposed to produce an aesthetic feeling, particularly in the arts where academics refer to classical, romantic, naturalist, and other aesthetics to specify works that share a certain number of graphic or formal qualities. So what exactly is environmental aesthetics? Distinct and sometimes competing research agendas come together under the environmental aesthetics banner (Schaeffer, 2018). Does it concern pleasing or unpleasant environmental agency (a meaning that was expanded and inverted post-Kant) or a particular relationship to nature and the living world underpinned by sensibility? The current environmental crisis highlights the need to appreciate nature on its own terms and requires a root-and-branch transformation of environmental aesthetics, which is currently focused on human perceptions. Moreover, the current crisis requires a re-examination of the aesthetic privileges of human subjects as theorized by Kant.
First, a brief history of environmental aesthetics is provided—which has been written many times (Brady & Prior, 2020; Carlson, 2019)—as well as the practicalities of an aesthetic treatment of nature and its separation from art. According to Schaeffer (2018), environmental aesthetics is a general aesthetic based on the hypothesis that everything that is part of the living world can become the object of an aesthetic experience. In practice, this agenda translates above all into an extension of the domain of aesthetics, directed to encompass nature, certainly, but also to encompass the environments created by humans (urban aesthetics, design, minor arts, daily practices, etc.). If one begins from Kant to qualify the aesthetics of nature, the presupposition is of a distance to nature, this while environmental aesthetics in its various forms considers human beings as living beings, taken in their terrestrial ecosystems, of which culture and its creations are part (Schaeffer, 2018).
Second, two research pointers could potentially reconfigure environmental aesthetics. First, can aesthetics concern living beings or entities other than humans? The place of aesthetics in analyzing socio-natural agency is discussed. Indeed, humans are dependent on living environments, both in terms of history and geography. Their descriptions of nature which surrounds them are nurtured by aesthetic and sensitive terminology. In addition to an aesthetic appreciation of the environment, it is also bound up with taste judgments that draw upon knowledge and history within collectives. Can interactions between living beings and nonhuman entities be described as aesthetic, and if so, how? Second, environmental aesthetics covers ordinary aesthetic experience, and, taking this into account, ordinary aesthetic experience from a political perspective. Ordinary environmentalism implies an environmental aesthetic that draws upon the ordinary and the usual. There is routine behavior in the environment that gives us self-knowledge and implies an aesthetic perspective.
Finally, in the third section, how environmental geography can enrich aesthetic perspectives is considered. Geography—the discipline that describes relations between society and nature—has a strong focus on reflections on all things sensitive: bodies in space and in the environment, and the place of art. In this case, “sensitive” means “the life of sensations” (Howes & Marcoux, 2006), which includes the sensorial (what our senses make us feel), the feeling that emerges from sense, and the symbolic and experienced direction given to these sensations. Environmental aesthetics includes taste judgments in respect to the feeling and the sensations that relate to elements of the environment.
State of the Art: Histories
Eighteenth to 21st Centuries
Although environmental aesthetics can be traced all the way back to the ancient philosophers—Greek and Latin, Stoics, or Pythagoreans—the 18th century was a watershed period for the aesthetics of nature. Kant was one of the great philosophers who made the distinction between the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art in his third Critique of Judgment, which rounds out two other works: Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Practical Reason. He inherited a new approach developed around the middle of the 18th century that was termed aesthetics by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. This author, born in Berlin in 1714, published the first two volumes of a monumental Aesthetica in 1750 and 1758, which was still unfinished at his death. He described aesthetics as the science of sensitivity, that is, the ability of living beings to experience sensations (aisthesis in Greek means sensation), a lower state than knowledge, or a theory of sensitive knowledge.
In Critique of Judgment, published in 1790, Kant treated aesthetics as a specific judgment not circumscribed by experience but dealing with the reflexive moment that gives the individual concerned an understanding of what they “taste” in nature. The philosopher Hume was more focused on standards of taste and the arts. However, Burke developed a whole discourse around the sublime and opposed the imposture of the artist against natural grandeur without really going into any great depth. What is interesting about Kant, therefore, is that he allowed aesthetic judgment a power of autonomy and individual reflexivity. He was a visionary when he described the emancipation of humans from nature as one of the great projects of modernity. Many interpretations of Kant’s theory call for a “human-centric” sublime, where humans appear to acknowledge their power over nature through an experience of their own freedom and autonomy (Schaeffer, 2018). However, Brady and Prior (2020) challenged this interpretation of the sublime as self-admiration and demonstrated that for Kant, the position of humans, as distinct from the rest of nature, revealed a deep connection and a nature that is metaphysically greater than themselves. Nevertheless, aesthetics remains a uniquely human project. Aesthetics in the 19th century is thus essentially focused on art. Hegel (1835–1838/2017) even made aesthetics a product of human history and a demonstration of the human epic narrative. However, the German, English, and American Romantics seized upon aesthetics in works that thematized this new relationship between humans and nature: The poet, geologist, and mineralogist, Novalis (1772–1801), dealt with earthly beauty and its mysteries; in the 1818 painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich placed the human being far above the cloudy fray; artist Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, demonstrated a fine appreciation of the American wilderness, somewhere between romanticism and naturalism, while the great traveler Frederic Church depicted enormous landscapes inspired by Alexander von Humboldt, among others.
In the 19th century, there were also many authors who blended aesthetics and science. von Humboldt, the Prussian geographer and naturalist, wrote and drew accounts of his expeditions to South America and the Andes from a dual scientific and naturalist perspective, as stated by Marston and De Leeuw:
The creative practices and objects produced by Humboldt and other geographers of this “naturalists-and-gators” period often took form as floral and fauna collections or painted or sketched representations of the landscape, plants, animals and birds, insects and people—including their dwelling, dress, and significant objects—of exotic places.
Productions such as watercolors, diagrams, maps, and drawings were part of an aesthetic empiricism (Marston & De Leeuw, 2013) designed to illustrate scientific production and to convince and to serve as supporting visual proof. Ernst Haeckel, German artist, thinker, and biologist, also produced significant artistic output for his scientific research, and many of his works were exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2021 at the exhibit The Origins of the World—The Invention of Nature in the 19th Century. In his 1894 essay, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” John Muir (1894) developed an aesthetic interpretation of the sciences, especially geology, as part of an aesthetic qualified as positive. The aesthetics of nature was therefore enriched by early ecology and the development of the sciences of living environments. Despite all these developments, and in parallel with modern science and art, it took until the middle of the 20th century for an aesthetics of the environmental domain to appear with Ronald Hepburn’s seminal article, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” (Hepburn, 1966), which inspired many subsequent late 20th-century developments in environmental aesthetics (Berleant, 2015; Carlson, 2014; Saito, 2008; Sepänmaa, 2010). International interdisciplinary conferences in Finland, organized by Yrjö Sepänmaa between 1994 and 2009, as well as a succession of international conferences on environmental aesthetics at various universities in China in 2003, 2004, and 2009 contributed to the deployment of environmental aesthetics.
Aesthetics and Corporeality
In any case, contemporary environmental aesthetics is strongly influenced by its origins, which includes an aesthetics of nature. Many authors who analyze it emphasize the legacy of a Kantian aesthetic that incorporates a disinterested and noninstrumental approach to nature. Therefore, environmental aesthetics stresses distance from landscape elements, a distance that emphasizes the importance of optics at the expense of the other senses, especially touch. Environmental aesthetics is also very strongly influenced by the history of art to the extent that Roger (1997) made “artialization” a basic framework for understanding aesthetic approaches to nature. Carlson (2019) explained that in both the 18th and 19th centuries, the aesthetic quality of the “picturesque” was what mainly influenced views of nature rather than the beautiful or the sublime, other categories singled out by philosophers of aesthetics from the early 18th century.
What place does bodily presence have in the field of environmental aesthetics and what are the arguments around human and nonhuman bodies engaged in living environments? As a prelude to this question, it should be remembered that environmental aesthetics is structured by two main currents of thought.
The first concerns the importance of scientific knowledge in a sensitive approach to the environment. Far from Kantian perspectives that turn aesthetic judgment into a subjective judgment, these approaches invite one to consider how the conceptual framework overdetermines any aesthetic appreciation of nature. These cognitive approaches place knowledge at the heart of aesthetic perspectives. The value of aesthetic appreciation then depends on the objective relevance of the knowledge developed under this scientifically based perspective. Carlson (1979, 2000) is an advocate of this aesthetic, which is also supported by many naturalists, based on an appropriate aesthetic appreciation underpinned by the natural sciences. For example, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, draws upon the knowledge of forestry managers. But what are the specific features of knowledge that guide the aesthetic dimension of perception if its foundations are of a scientific nature? For Cheng (2013, p. 221), ecological aesthetics may be defined based on ecological knowledge as follows:
In a nutshell, the argument of environmental aesthetics centers on the issue of the aesthetic object: is the object for the study of aesthetics artwork or the environment? By the same token, the argument of eco-aesthetics concentrates on the issue of the aesthetic way (or manner) and asks how to engage an aesthetic activity governed by an ecological awareness. In other words, it asks how to form an ecological aesthetic way (or manner) by letting ecological awareness play a leading role in human aesthetic activity and experience.
It is neither the study of a perception of the environment nor a taste judgment, but a sensitive ecological appreciation of nature. In this case, the term “ecology” signifies ecological science, synonymous with interdependency and relationships to be characterized (e.g., free-riding or commensalism) as well as the vernacular culture of living environments.
However, according to Kant, the aesthetic quality of a perspective is what drives humans to present themselves as subjects. Aesthetic encounters are therefore an invitation to seek out knowledge and commit human beings to redefining themselves as life goes along, whether talking about food, trees, or even landscapes.
Therefore, a second environmental aesthetic current needs to be advanced that stresses, on the contrary, the engaged aspect of aesthetic experience, to use the language of Berleant (2010, 2013). In addition to being engaged, this relationship embraces all of the senses and the body and essentially results from an experience and a history. Brady and Prior (2020) also distinguished between the content of aesthetic experience and its structure, which qualifies its specific character (e.g., Dewey, 1934/2005). Aesthetic experience is considered the source of aesthetic value and characterized by a sense of pleasure, admiration, or displeasure in response to perceptive qualities, forms, and meanings linked to objects and environments (Levinson, 2016). Certain authors have emphasized the intimate emotions experienced in relation to aesthetic appreciation that express its evaluative content in circumstances where content judgment is not enough (Carroll, 2015). These emotions, which emerge in contact with nature, also testify to the power of the imagination (Yusoff & Gabrys, 2011). In a way, these approaches—which are also markedly different from the disinterested approach of Kant—deal with a direct relationship with nature. However, although this second school of thought advocates a rapprochement with nature and criticizes Kantian disinterestedness, research remains focused on a human subject and neglects the aesthetic experiences shared between humans and nonhumans.
In short, despite the focus on engagement with the environment and the emotions born out of contact with it, aesthetics has divested itself of the whole issue of bodies in the environment, with the exception of phenomenology, and especially Merleau-Ponty, who made the body the basis of experience (Merleau-Ponty, 1945). The turning point came in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, particularly in philosophy. For Richard Shusterman, an American aesthetics philosopher, “Somaesthetics can be provisionally defined as the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning” (Shusterman, 1999, p. 302).
The work on atmospheres, that is, the sensitive effectivity of situations, to which Böhme (2018) has substantially contributed, essentially of phenomenological inspiration, has been taken up by numerous architectural and urban research as well as in geography. It is a question of studying the relations which one can establish between the qualities of an environment and the human dispositions. This aesthetic of atmospheres refers to an immersion in the situations and the riddance of an aesthetic of the judgment.
In the context of the living arts and performance studies, aesthetics becomes individual, the narration of an experience that involves the subject in reappropriating its feelings and freedom of projection within nature (Budd, 2002; Godlovitch, 1998). This aesthetic may be qualified as romantic insofar as it pushes back against any distancing from nature that would transform aesthetic appreciation into an artificial or scientific gesture devoid of its emotional and personal significance. This latter current may be linked in particular to the impulse of poets, dancers, musicians, and visual artists to try to “replay” nature instead of representing it.
Aesthetic and Mediations
However, art itself has something to say about the perception of nature and invents its own perspective independently of the way philosophers deal with it. This is not about making aesthetics a branch of “general anthropology” (Rochlitz, 1988, p. 22), and it is important to factor this into the relationship of art to the whole question of nature and, more generally, the importance of artistic mediations vis-à-vis nature. According to Adorno in Aesthetics (1958–1959), art restores a part of the truth of nature. Artistic practice is essential to understanding nature, independently of scientific conceptualization, which requires some sort of translation. There is therefore an irrevocable shift away from the study of aesthetic appreciations of nature, as the emphasis is on the work of mediation and representation. This significant current calls for a study of representations and “ways of being artistic” in relation to nature. Whether talking about marshes, mountains, or insects, the aesthetic appreciation of nature is captured somewhere between images and science, narratives, folklore, culture, and technology. The importance of “nature art” is the legacy of a history in which art and science work in concert.
As early as the 16th century, many artists were contributing to naturalist expeditions and their work was sometimes even crowned with success that masked the scientific results (Daston & Galison, 2007). The separation between science and the arts was not fully established until the 18th century. Indeed, the sciences were transformed by their relationship with the arts. Photography favors more objective science than drawing to render the forms of nature. The relationship between the sciences and the arts is changing, particularly in the early 21st century.
Without going into the place of the sensitive and the aesthetic in all of the various scientific disciplines bound up with nature, the aesthetic turning point in geography concerns the environmental issue and points up the need to get beyond the usual disciplinary boundaries. The interest of geography for aesthetics—understood in terms of aesthetic experience and engagement with the environment—underpins criticism of a science that encouraged a split between subject and object, nature and culture. This critique reflects a scientific approach that leverages forms of description and sensitive analysis, far from a purely optical universe of meaning. It cannot be part of a distanced and reasonable perspective of environmental forms. Thenceforth, geographical and environmental issues strive to depict other forms of experience (e.g., touch, hological, somatic), aside from purely scope-based ones (Clavel & Nous, 2020). Moreover, according to Auer (2019), environmental aesthetics is now grappling with climate change. Aesthetic judgments are morally determined by the feeling that humanity has failed to preserve the richness, beauty, and diversity of this world. Ethics and aesthetics have together become stakeholders that help structure climate change effects. A geography of corporeal, imaginative, grounded, and situated effects is needed to analyze sensitive relationships to the environment (Sundberg, 2014).
This story plays out in a multifaceted theoretical context. Defending a noninstrumental relationship to nature and a contemplative attitude were central to 18th-century aesthetics of nature, especially that of Kant (Schaeffer, 2018). The environmental aesthetics of the 20th century were characterized by debates around these same relationships. Today, however, the opposition between cognitive and noncognitive aesthetics is becoming difficult to sustain. Perception is always structured by a given culture. Knowledge of all sorts permeates the way lives in the present are lived. Although knowledge of the object detached from the subject has long been a feature of Western culture, this interpretation of nature is now crumbling in the face of the extreme risks posed by environmental upheavals. There is a need for a re-examination of the links and interdependencies between living beings and environments and for a dramatic narrative that renews environmental aesthetics. The interpretation of Whitehead (1929/1978), in particular, rounded out by the analysis of Shaviro (2009), allows for an environmental aesthetic that gives ecological relations their rightful place. For Whitehead, Kant envisaged aesthetic experience from the human subject to the experienced object. The philosophy of organisms developed by Whitehead reverses the perspective, starting from an analysis of the external world—this world whose inherited transformations are the object of the subject’s experience—and treats the subject as something that is becoming something else. The subject is projected from a history and a geography that transform it and are transformed by it. This generalized aesthetic of the environment is based on a staging of events and temporalities and concerns all living environments. Human beings build concrete and symbolic environments in alignment with the ecological feelings they develop toward their living environment—an aesthetic of ordinary life.
For an Environmental Aesthetic of the Ordinary
The shift in environmental aesthetics as it grapples with the environmental crisis goes hand in hand with a progressive awareness of criticism of an anthropocentric aesthetic. Relational approaches are developing that focus on the interactions of living and nonliving elements within hybrid communities (Lestel, 2008). According to Lestel (2015, p. 3), “A hybrid community is a community in which living beings (subjects, individual persons in varying degrees) live together, and share: meanings (semiotics), interests (conflicting spaces), affects (emotional and psychological dimension). It is a cultural ecosystem.” Environmental aesthetics is concerned with the interactions between living beings when it is not focusing on the characteristics of human perception of works of art or nature or on the resulting judgments. However, if sensibility concerns interactions between living beings and their environments, then what happens to the aesthetic subject? Recently, there has been a massive increase in academic and scientific reflections as well as artistic practices promoting a detailed understanding of nature–culture alliances and their contributions to ecosystems. Biosemiotics, a discipline that examines communications between living beings, makes it possible to rethink environmental aesthetics as a multiscalar and perspective-based perception of environments (Seobok, 2001). Far from its origins (i.e., an exclusively anthropocentric philosophy) and before biosemiotics, which developed in the wake of 20th-century ethology, an evolutionary approach to aesthetics was developed, starting with Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871). This naturalistic aesthetic, which is part of the adaptation of the species, involves selecting particular traits (color, plumage, etc.) with a view toward functioning more effectively in a changing environment (Welsh, 2004). In addition to animals, this naturalistic aesthetic concerns human beings who compete for beautiful-looking people, which guides sexual selection. Aesthetics qualify the forms of living beings and of natural and built environments. Body shapes send out a signal: characteristics of faces and bodies, structure, skin texture, gender, body movements, hair color, skin color, etc. These studies on the role of beauty in reproductive selection concern living beings, animals and humans, but they also concern all elements of the environment selected based on aesthetic characteristics. Beautiful natural elements promise happy environments. In other words, they are endowed with specific possibilities for living in and reproducing within them. For Whitehead, a connoisseur of the sciences of his period, aesthetics or the art of feelings also fundamentally characterized all relationships to the world. Debaise (2019, E1317) explained his interpretation of Whitehead, The Lure of the Possible:
Aesthetics becomes the locus of all ontology; the plurality of ways of doing, of ways of being, of ability to be affected—in a word, the basis of “feeling” lies at the center of a theory of subjects of nature.
In Process and Reality (1978, p. 176), Whitehead put feeling—this capture-like movement, this affirmation of the self-worth of each entity by socio-natural coproduction, by transformation of itself and its world—at the heart of his thinking:
The jellyfish moves forward and back, thus proving that it perceives a causal relationship with the world beyond itself. The plant grows downwards towards the damp earth, and upwards towards the light. There is thus a clear reason to attribute to them a weak and obscure sense of causal nexus even though nothing allows us to attribute to them definite percepts in their manner of presentational immediacy. We become enlightened participants insofar as we develop ecological sensibilities that help us to realize our union with nature.
Furthermore, the sensitive relationship makes it possible to perceive space and time which, according to Whitehead, do not exist in principle outside of the content of the experience of the learning entity. Whether it is a question of emotions or a taste judgment, the aesthetic relationship basically invites people to feel, interpret (and even imagine), and meditate on the aesthetic experience. In this sense, aesthetics has considerable social, moral, environmental, and even political power to shape, although it must be valued based on a description of a world and ecologies (Berleant, 2010; Irvin, 2008; Mandoki, 2007). For humans, people’s interactions are constituted not so much by what is said or done, but by how it is said or done that elicits a responsive reaction (Saito, 2017). Aesthetically determined and driven by diverse interests, people prove capable of sensory discretion vis-à-vis the world around them and agree on the definition of this environment from a pluralistic perspective. Whitehead’s aesthetic reflection, based both on and against Kant (Shaviro, 2009), transforms the notion of the subject into the entity that aesthetically perceives its life universe and ecologically constructs itself through sensitive interactions. The object becomes an environmental form as it is experienced and associated with singular affects. However, the interest of this aesthetic resides in the importance accorded to inherited, event-based, and causal trajectories—in other words, to time.
What place does this relational aesthetic have in ordinary behavior? Does extending the field of aesthetics to various ecological entities not actually end up reducing it? In truth, the same question arises for aesthetics of the ordinary.
Urban Aesthetics of the Ordinary
Environmental aesthetics is most often about moments or objects of an exceptional character. In contrast, a relational aesthetic may be associated with attention to the ordinary, or at least to everyday, familiar experiences of the environment. Saito (2017) wrote that aesthetics is about experiencing the ordinary as what emerges from the familiar. It is not about turning an ordinary moment into something exceptional. It is about paying attention to what qualifies the ordinary or rendering visible what is often invisible and irrigates human daily experiences. Becoming aware of the present in the course of one’s life and getting out of habits dictated by routine does not necessarily make the experience extraordinary. Similarly, Berleant (2013) stressed the importance of active engagement, which transforms the person concerned into an agent contributing creatively to the structure and content of their own experience. Aesthetics is not just about the spectator, but the artist as well. Is a work of art not an environment? Art corresponds to a form of nonconceptual knowledge and secularized transcendence, to the need to forge relationships with horizons of expectation greater than oneself and with a simple human destiny. The outcome is sensitive experience, vivid imagination, and bodily engagement. Aesthetic experience is neither passive nor inactive. In particular, it is about drawing attention to a nature that makes it possible to renew culture and preservation.
Rather than aesthetics of the ordinary, this discussion is about ordinary environmentalism (Blanc & Paddeu, 2018) that gives humans an appreciation of the environment as something that helps construct them and allows them to be and to exist. It can therefore be qualified by the way in which, by becoming aware of its values, humans strive to protect and even enhance its reproduction. The latter implies factoring in the process-based materiality of the environment, of biogeochemical cycles and their feedback (some of which may still be unknown but are definitely being felt), of the decomposition of organic matter, and of the cycles of the biosphere. It is these materialities that everyone has to deal with and that embed humans de facto within diverse temporalities and overlapping spatialities, localities, and globalities, both near and far, from the cyclical to the dynamic equilibrium of the Earth. This materiality embeds behavior so that people must learn to recognize the ethical and aesthetic values to which environments contribute as well as objects that forge situations.
Regarding cities, numerous works have discussed how they constituted as often human environments as negatively experienced ones (Berleant, 1986, 2019), and this even though they are also strolling places (Paetzold, 2013) and places of symbolic meaning—something crucial to a renewed understanding of the environment (Blanc, 2013). Berleant wrote (1986, p. 5):
Urban places produce an exuberance of sensations, sometimes stimulating, sometimes oppressive. These sensory environments may be fertile places in which a creative culture grows, or they may be maelstroms of sensation that overpower and drown any perceptual sensitivity. Thus, the city, whatever else it may be, is an aesthetic environment and, like any human environment, it is the product of human agency.
There are amateur urban beekeepers renewing the meaning of beekeeping through narratives that magnify the existence of domestic bees, forest protectors working to restore forests’ primary form in the city in the name of their beauty, women looking after stray cat populations that they describe as “free” (Blanc, 2003), or even those people who, unable to bear the waste of living things, plants that are manhandled or thrown away, leaves that are not composted, or animals that are abandoned or killed without consideration, discreetly become their champions, acting at their own level, quietly reoccupying the public space close by in order to enjoy it aesthetically and collectively. It is therefore about the role of ordinary inhabitants who forge an environment tailored to their expectations and resources, who confront the visions of others, and the difficult task of putting sustainability into practice, while in turn being confronted with the contradictions of their own actions. What naturalist knowledge underpins the ordinary? It is the commonplace of nonhuman life, the vernacular species—vulgaris—domestica—that the naturalist sciences such as conservation biology have long contrasted with “remarkable” species that are less abundant or more specialized in terms of their ecological niche. These are the species that are part of the scenery, whose extinction or disappearance often goes unnoticed.
An aesthetic interpretation of the environment predisposes people toward concern for the environment and then accompanies the action taken on its behalf; it dramatically changes the perception of its agency and creates new relocation opportunities and new sharing of responsibilities concerning what happens to it (Saito, 2008). Thus, from an ethical perspective, there can be no question of ignoring the environment in terms of what surrounds human beings or even what ecology has produced in terms of a collective representation of the latter. Ordinary environmentalism is ultimately an awareness. One’s wellness is linked to the protection of an environment, with its irreplaceable beauty, as well as to resistance to the degradation it suffers. It is ordinary resistance insofar as it concerns the elements of daily life, regardless of the spaces and species. It is participation in a common good, qualified in particular in the political sphere. The real question is how to demonstrate, in a completely invisible or “invisibilized” way, how people act day in and day out for the environment to which they are attached, to a life qualified in terms of geographical, cultural, or affective proximity. It is clearly a question of feelings and sensibility or even, as Rancière (2000), the French philosopher, put it, of “sharing the sensitive,” which defines a common sensitivity, offered as part of sharing: “This system of sensitive proof that simultaneously depicts the existence of something in common and the boundaries that circumscribe the respective places and parts.” Indeed, where sensitivity and taste judgments define people in common, aesthetics is not a supplement of perception, but the most fundamental characteristic of reality.
The phrase ordinary environmentalism refers to the way in which practices qualify or disqualify certain parts of the environment in favor of others, and to the fact that public space is divided into what is valuable, because it is clearly visible, and what is not, because it is largely invisible. The role of affects and feelings, of aesthetics, in other words—these facts and studies of sensibilities—needs to be considered in the judgment and action of ordinary actors vis-à-vis their environments. With its focus on these sensitive and everyday relationships with the environment, environmental geography deploys methodological processes combining research and creation.
From Space to a Lived Environment
What is the aesthetic dimension of environmental geography and what practices and objects are used to understand this dimension? It is at least twofold: It involves the object of study, that is, the specificity of a geographical analysis of environmental art as well as the research methodologies that amount to new ways of studying environmental geography. At the epistemological level, themes relating to the environment, territory, or place are important in the production of an aesthetic reflection. Sensitivity is involved in the thought and production of natural and built environments. “Scales of life” are also key to an environmental aesthetic. These scales imply a geographical imagination that links concerns born of a presence forged in the here and now with representations and feelings linked to the Earth, to globalization, and to the very feeling of being human in a world in crisis. As regards geographical renewal, the history of the discipline needs to be taken account of. Indeed, the enhanced role given to space in geography from the 1950s onward, with spatial concepts such as distance, accessibility, network, territory, place, location, site, situation, spatial interaction, spatiality, proximity, variance, and contiguity, has favored the development of a positivist realism in geography (Volvey et al., 2021). Similarly, the preeminence of space in the discipline has relegated physical and human geography to the point of no longer dealing with the sensitive, experienced dimensions of the environment (Blanc, 1996). From the 1980s on, the notion of “lived” space in the work of Lefebvre (1972, 1974) challenged this neopositivism bound up with a modernist (mainly positional) conception of space. Beginning in the 2000s, the more general challenging of positivist realism in geography posed real epistemological questions for the science of space and spatiality that is geography. There was also the issue of renewing the sensitive approaches of environmental geography (Blanc et al., 2008).
In the view of Hawkins (2011, p. 178):
As the geographic discipline has become more self-critical about its traditional claims to document at determined scales and with scientific objectivity patterns and processes on the earth’s surface, especially for the social world, a significant opening towards the roles of creativity and imagination in making and communicating geographical knowledge has developed. At the same time a greatly expanded number of practicing artists have moved away from the conventional confines of aesthetic production, visual media and gallery display to engage directly with the world, with the intention of researching, documenting and representing in challenging ways its environmental and social conditions. . . .The traditionally separate disciplinary projects of geography and art thus overlap and converge in exciting ways . . . .
This aesthetic geographical perspective attempts to give precedence to complex descriptions and artistic and sensitive experiments involving space, place, landscape, etc. These experiments reflect the importance of social constructs in the domain, but remain aware of possible aberrations due to considering geographical objects and natural materialities only as representations. Included in the face of positivist objectivity, this work shifts toward a relational geography and reflects the epistemic subject transformed during the process that learns self-awareness (Rose, 1997). According to nonrepresentational approaches (Thrift, 2008), space is always becoming something else. Rather than space, the environment is a production shaped by encounters of varying and sometimes unconscious intensity. The environment is defined by its forms, which are so many ways of depicting and being depicted by elements of a geographical nature such as mountains, hills, rivers, coasts, and landscape elements of all kinds, such as plants, animals, and human settlements and works. Built with numerous human and nonhuman collectives (rocks, water, land, air, living beings, etc.), including intra-agency (Barad, 2007), the environment is therefore a given insofar as it is the product of numerous intra-actions that go beyond individuals, as well as being a stakeholder endowed with agency vis-à-vis the collectives of which it is composed. For example, the presence of certain insects, mammals, and urban birds (cockroaches, rats, pigeons, etc.) exacerbates perceptions of these places as being dirty. Creative geography deals with the constitution of a piece of land together with the aesthetic, emotional, cultural, as well as the biological, cultural, political, and economic underlying processes.
Therefore, beyond studies of art and artistic practices in territories (Blanc & Benish, 2017), or even elements borrowed by geographers from artistic practices, geographers are turning to art and proposing redefinitions of the geographer as a researcher–creator of situations, places, and “ways of being” (Blanc & Legrand, 2019). These geographer–artists borrow in particular from the work of Guy Debord and the “psychogeographical” situationists (dérive, situation of inquiry, influence map), and, more generally, from artistic works that were firmly rooted in the whole landscape question (About et al., 2021). In the 1950s, the actors and writers of the Situationist International defined psychogeography as a science that highlights the effects of the environment on the emotions and behavior of individuals (Debord, 1955). This method takes the form of a meandering journey through the city. Several types of retranscriptions of these adventurous wanderings have been attempted in the form of narratives, maps, or film images. These research practices force geographers to enrich their research methods and tools, beyond maps and images, with note taking and commented interviews. They also forge a stronger relationship with the field, even though geography has been rooted in the development of this notion from the outset, strongly impregnated with visual observation and an idiographic empiricism. Thence, the common practice of the field geographer and certain artists is to manufacture meaning, beginning with a theorized approach to the field and continuing with a pragmatic approach to gathering information, before culminating in the fabrication of meaningful objects, subject to the scrutiny and judgment of others.
Beyond the so-called nature–culture and substance–form divides, geographers and artists bring together the cognitive and the sensitive. Pursuing sensitive reason, these researcher–creators attempt to rethink the creative dimension of cognitive processes, far from the dominant assertions of science as being only a discourse based around tried and tested objectivity. For example, along with the association COAL, they created Laboratoire de la Culture Durable [Sustainable culture research lab], and the first theme tackled in concert with artists and scientist residences concerned sustainable soils.1 The exhibition was presented in the spring of 2016 at the Orangerie du domaine de Chamarande. The aim was to highlight different joint art and science research processes around a contemporary environmental theme—in this case soils—by addressing a broad section of the public. The collective exploration around which the exhibition was organized takes form in a series of questions designed to tackle the complexity of relations with subterranean environments without doing this in an exhaustive manner. They lead to the production of installations and performances in art and science pairs or groups of three. The approaches are so intertwined that visitors to the exhibition may wonder aloud: “Is this truth or fiction?”2 Meetings with the public at the Sols fictions exhibition thus raised questions about the status of the exhibits: Were they works or documents? This ambiguity demonstrates the significance of the ordinary distinction usually made between the sciences (on the side of reality and documentation) and the arts (on the side of fabrication and fiction). By doing this, it paves the way for discussions on a different level from that of understanding (“Did I get the message?”) in the first case, or of appreciation (“Do I like what I see?”) in the second case: These do indeed lead to to-ing and fro-ing between the cognitive and the sensitive dimensions, preparing the way for a connection between personal experience and global phenomena.
In a nutshell, these types of practices between geography and artistic experimentation are forged out of hybridization, the meeting of different types of knowledge and the interdisciplinary backgrounds of the stakeholders, to identify the roles of environmental entities more effectively. This bias goes hand in hand with the idea that environmental aesthetics has a responsibility to help understand and even produce situated ecological interventions through research–creation practices. These contextualized and contingent ways of being creative help to define research–creation stakeholders as joint actors of experienced places. Gathering in given environments and retracing the contours of these environments and how they are produced amounts to identifying the underlying social and political issues (Blanc & Barbe, 2018). In sum, to borrow from Rancière (2000), who speaks of “sharing the sensitive,” environmental aesthetics refers back to the collective configurations of environments, places, spaces, and landscapes to the repertoire of forms and uses to which these environments refer, and to the associated feelings and sensations, as to an urgent question of the material and ideal organization of societies in their rapport with surrounding nature.
Until now, environmental aesthetics has been excessively restricted to the philosophical domain of the exploration of perceptions and their singular character. However, the fields of exploration of the sensitive have developed unceasingly in different disciplines and along different registers, testifying to the vitality of the aesthetic challenging of the environment and to the need to include this in any analysis of the social and environmental crisis and how to overcome it.
Aesthetics is central to defining ecological relations which are often invisible or unconscious. It is important to broaden the field of environmental aesthetics to develop research and highlight the importance of this field of reflection in the necessary revision of human relationships with the environment. The research pointers are exploratory.
First, the transformations in environmental aesthetics need to be explored in the light of climate change. It should be asked how doomsday imaginary scenarios respond to the inability of governments and international organizations to promote consistent mitigation and adaptation strategies. Anxieties reflect the difficulties of politics. For humans, feeling bound on a global scale is a measure of powerlessness, and possibly the desire to withdraw into national spaces, reflecting the rise of overtly nationalistic politics. Another characteristic of the transformation of environmental aesthetics in the light of climate change is the importance taken on by the Earth and meteorological data, as underlined by Paul Virilio in Exit, an installation exhibited at the Fondation Cartier during the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21), which heralded a disastrous future of forced displacement of a billion people over the next 50 years. Effective artistic installations accentuated the impression that disasters were an integral part of the communication universe specific to a “showbiz society,” commented on by Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle.
Second, while the shows are spectacular, climate change disrupts the productive routines of day-to-day life. For many inhabitants, the disaster is not a show, but an experienced reality. For example, the 962 inhabitants of Tuktoyaktuk in Canada are facing a dual threat: rising sea levels associated with coastal erosion and melting permafrost. People who make their living from fishing are also witnessing changes: Salmon are now present in these regions.3 The aim is therefore to expand environmental aesthetics into the most anodyne environments (Brady & Prior, 2020; Saito, 2017) to promote understanding of these changes. It is also about focusing on the different marks of aesthetic experience, whether it is the way in which this enables human beings to reflect on the content of the object concerned, or to characterize a type of experience with a specific structure, or the way in which aesthetic experience characterizes the agentive and interpretive analysis of all sorts of encounters. Biosemiotics and zoosemiotics (Sebeok, 2001), disciplines inspired by the work of Charles S. Peirce, focus on communication issues where signals or signs are a form of symbolic, biological, physical, or chemical exchange between two elements or two living entities, whether or not these signals are produced intentionally. Wheeler (2008, p. 140) defined biosemiotics as:
a semiotics not only of verbal human and nonverbal communication, but also of the communicative nature of all living organisms as they forge . . . meanings in their environments. . . . [It] involves [a] semiotic widening, . . . [and the] . . . framing [of ways] of seeing the world—both human and nonhuman.
Are these exchanges and communication methods part of the aesthetic? The idea here is to reformulate aesthetics in relational terms. Environmental aesthetics is all about forging the relationships that govern the environment of groups of entities. Ways of “sharing the sensitive” are also an aspect of the production of communities.
Third, the importance of research–creation and ecoplastic forms of art requires being highlighted (Blanc & Ramos, 2010) (art-environment-making processes). Research–creation has become important for environmental aesthetics. In a similar vein to Luigi Pareyson (1918–1991), the Italian philosopher of aesthetics who dealt with transformativity, the intentional and aesthetic transformation of environments, or ecoplastic art, is focused on. Ways of “making the environment,” involving a variety of sensitivities and sensorialities, have become an art, and even a craft (Pareyson, 2007). Even within Western philosophical discourse, this hierarchical dualism between art and craft is being increasingly challenged, whether by feminism, environmental ethics, or comparative philosophy. This new art involves novel research methods and initiatives that go against regulated discipline-based approaches, particularly in the name of enlarging the experience of local ecologies (Manning & Massumi, 2014). The objective of research–creation is to make it possible to deploy research methods aimed at renewing the perception and production of knowledge (Dewey, 1934/2005). As regards environmental aesthetics, research practices seek to question the appreciative act itself. Indeed, the investigation sheds light on an environment experienced as a means of changing course, far from the idea of straightforward gathering of data on the nature of places. It is therefore important to consider how these environment-related methodologies are renewing investigative approaches in the social and human sciences. Conversely, how can the tools of environmental aesthetics nurture research–creation? The term “investigation” covers a variety of research methods. It is about testing hypotheses in the course of a knowledge acquisition approach. How do the practices of poets (Blanc et al., 2008), photographers, painters, dancers, and choreographers deal with these issues? Or how do traditional investigative practices in human geography, for example, or mapping of lived-in space make it possible to produce an artistic work? What is the status of art and science in these hybrid approaches? In any case, forging ties between research and creation and between researchers and artists in a given context puts disciplinary limits and traditions to the test, giving free rein to forms of improvisation or exploration. It is no longer merely a question of representation, but of engagement with the environment with the aim of coproducing the environment and oneself as well.
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2. A series of visuals from the exhibition may be viewed online.
3. Climate change on the precipice. In the Far North, an Inuit village is at risk of being swallowed up by the Arctic Ocean. Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk, where the coastline is being eroded so fast you can almost see it and where the residents may well become Canada’s first climate refugees. Report by Isabelle Hachey. Available online.