Seeing and Being Seen

Aesthetics and Environmental Philosophy

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Joshua Coleman
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Hamilton Books
    , December
     182 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reflections about the aesthetics of nature represent a dynamic field in the history of (Western) philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Increasing awareness about anthropogenic impacts on our environments and the whole of planet Earth provides strong reason to investigate these early modern approaches and to explore how aesthetics and arts can shape our common future in a more sustainable way. As the field of environmental (or ecological) aesthetics is still fresh and rather unstructured, new experimental contributions are more than welcome. Needless to say that scholars in religion and theology also have much to offer here due to our longstanding and intense discourse on “religion and the arts.” Therefore, the book’s subtitle and its six well-written essays raise expectations, which it both lives up to and belies.

Convincingly, the authors object to simple materialist and reductionist presuppositions towards nature and suggest a relational conception of an aesthetics of nature, where one not only seesbut also experiences and understands oneself as seen by nature. Drawing on a large range of thinkers ,such seeing is depicted as a two-way sense of iconic dwelling. The reader is encouraged to become “an icon through which nature sees in and through the seer” (vii). A golden thread running through the chapters is to ”let trauma traumatize” (Frank Seeburger)—that is, to regard the environmental crisis as a self-induced trauma in need of healing. The recognition of this trauma is for the authors necessary for finding alternative paths to respond to the crisis.

Another central idea departs from the criticism of totalitarian conceptions of the whole of being that leads to seeing nature in fragments. Not earth as space in general but places in particular can open eyes, a theme aptly expressed in Rilke’s famous lines: “... for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” Even if religion, faith, and spirituality are not explicitly thematized in this volume one can find an implicit admiration of “noetics” and the Eastern Orthodox theology of contemplation. Following Coleman and Porter’s thought-provoking interpretation, Van Gogh’s paintings of the poor can in this sense reveal inspiring noetic insights into both the victims of environmental (and capitalist) degradation and the mechanism of nature destruction in general. Even animals appear on the stage, where Donald Turner develops an intriguing dialogue between early Paleolithic cave paintings and French philosopher George Bataille in order to envision a new deep entanglement of our images of animality, humanity, and divinity.

The authors, all at home in philosophy, religious studies, and theology, offer an overwhelming range of interlocutors in (Freudian) psychology, philosophy, and the arts, where classical giants alternate with more or less well known thinkers, and where Aristotle, Maximus, and Nietzsche converse with Lacan, Rosenzweig, and Heidegger. Nevertheless the book dwells in a somehow solitary life. With the exception of Bruce Foltz’s essay, it does not connect to any other voices in advanced discourses about environmental aesthetics, environmental ethics, and religion/ecology and the arts. Awareness about and a dialogue with other approaches would have undoubtedly increased the relevance of the authors’ ideas. Even more surprising is the absence of references to the longstanding dynamic and steadily increasing field of ecotheology and studies of religion and the environment. One therefore gets the sad impression of a lone voice in the wilderness (which in fact rather resembles a growing scholarly civilization). For example, it would be extremely exciting to explore how Coleman and Porter’s demand for “cathartic ecology” that is an aesthetic purification of the heart and eye, might relate to Ernst Conradie’s reflections about ecologic sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It would even have been interesting and relevant to see how these authors would discuss how environmental aesthetics can connect to or even relativize environmental ethics (for example, following the lines of my proposal of an ecologic “aesth/ethics”).

A reviewer should of course not ask too much about what might have been there but instead stay with what in fact is there on the desk. The discourse about nature, aesthetics, and religion is, as mentioned above, still uncultivated (and should in my view also continue that way for a while). Therefore, this somewhat lonely volume deserves its place as a genuine creative contribution where the clear demand to accept the depth of death and our human “self-induced trauma” of ecologic devastation remains an important contribution to environmental philosophy. And, no doubt, the arts need to play an essential role—in addition to science, ethics, and politics—to make us aware, sensitive, and empathically careful as we start to move into another (not yet seen) world, a world where we learn to see as those who are being seen.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sigurd Bergmann is Professor of Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua Coleman teaches Philosophy and World Religions to seniors at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Austin, TX. He has also taught Social Justice at the same school. Dr. Coleman is currently publishing an article on Philosophy and the music group “The Band,” as well as writing a book on the relationship between Religion and College Football in the Deep South.


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