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A Crisis of Relationship: Natural Beauty as Antidote to Instrumentality in the Anthropocene

Authors: Matthew John*, University of Kentucky
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Social Theory
Keywords: Anthropocene, beauty, nature, relationship, ecological crisis
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Anthropocene — our epoch in which the earth is literally keeping record of humanity's objectification of it — is nothing if not a crisis of relationship. Heidegger referred to this crisis as the "technological mode of being." Adorno named it "instrumental rationality." More recently, Rosa has called it a "crisis of resonance," a "muting" of humanity's relationship to the world. However we name it, such are its scale and intensity that technological, scientific, or political solutions alone are unlikely to suffice. Also necessary is a fundamental shift in humans' mode of relating to the world. Toward that end, in this paper I experiment with the emancipatory potential of engaging with nature as beautiful. Beauty is theorized not as an aesthetic quality or as a gripping experience (à la the Romantic sublime), but in terms of relation: beauty as a mode of relating to the other not out of self-interest, but — akin to Buber's "I-Thou" relationship — out of self-gifting other-interest. I also experiment with autoethnographic and first-person (post)phenomenological methods in relation to my time thus far doing fieldwork in Southeast Alaska to examine the potentialities and potential pitfalls of relating with nature as beautiful as a means of emancipation. Is it clear that to avoid further environmental ruin, nothing short of a wholesale transformation in how humans relate to the earth is necessary. This paper explores the possibility of engaging with nature as beautiful as a step in that direction.

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