Ecological Aesthetics of Nature: Gernot Böhme’s Concept of Ambience

The following is an excerpt from my Thesis “Relating to Nature: Approaching the Ecological Crisis through Embodiment in Design”. A lot of it works well in a bite-sized format, so I’m going to post some parts of it.


Intro

Ambience (Atmosphäre) is a concept by Gernot Böhme, who did a lot of work in the domains of aesthetics and philosophy of nature. With “ambience”, Böhme tries to tie aesthetic appreciation to the realm of ecology. The purpose of his theory is to analyze how things, situations, and surroundings appeal to us.[1]
Böhme’s conception of aesthetics originates from a critique on the classical philosophical notion of aesthetics, that (in his view) degenerated to solely describing the form and “beauty” of art pieces. Therefore, it is finding its primary use in the artistic discourse of the art world. However, this limited notion of the term does not fulfill his requirements for a term that can be used in an all-encompassing theory of perception, which he needs for addressing the natural world. On this account, his definition of aesthetics stems from the Greek word “aesthesis”, meaning sensation or perception. Rather than a word that describes the qualities of an object, Böhme uses aesthetics as a way of perceiving the world.

Aesthetics and the Body

Böhme sees the imminent threat of global warming and the urgency of the matter as a call to propose possible resolutions from within his field of expertise: philosophy. Similar to the view of Richard Shusterman, who criticizes that philosophical theories often lack useful insights that can be applied practically, Böhme aspires to change this. He wants to provide a conceptual framework that can be used in practice. Since it is his utmost concern to tackle the ecological problem, his concepts are a way to connect the human directly to this issue. In his argument, we are ultimately going to experience the consequences of the ecological crisis with our own bodies. Today, this can be observed fairly well, with massive droughts on one side of the world and widespread floods on the other. Ultimately, events like these threaten our livelihood – our bodily existence. But even on a smaller scale, the ecological consequences that we experience will first concern the body – for example, having an incredibly hot summer or the shift of seasons. Every change in the environment directly affects our felt condition. For Böhme, this is a matter of the human “being in an environment”, which has to be approached through aesthetics – not aesthetics in the classical sense, but as Böhme uses it, as a theory of perception.[2] The ecological component of aesthetics makes him speak mostly of ecological aesthetics of nature (ökologische Naturästhetik).

Ecological Aesthetics of Nature

His concept of the “ecological aesthetics of nature” is concerned with the relation of the human to nature. According to Böhme, humans are seen as natural beings that are not distinct from the rest of nature. The ecological part of the term concerns the human within the ecological system. We as humans have an influence on the environment, which in turn also has an influence on us. The destruction of the biosphere will subsequently redound upon ourselves. In former times, when the imminent threat of global warming was no topic of concern, we were able to distance ourselves from nature. A lifestyle that was mostly driven by the intellect was possible – centered around the mind, not the body. However, the consequences of the ecological crisis are inescapable and will inevitably involve our bodily existence directly. Based on this argument, we have no other choice than addressing the issue as a bodily being. The purpose of aesthetics in this context is to be the connection between us and nature. It helps us to explore our relation to nature and search for ways of coexisting with it.

Ambience

Based on his concept of “ecological motivated aesthetics” and its purpose of dissecting the affective qualities of an environment, Böhme builds upon Schmitz’s concept of ambience or atmosphere (Atmosphäre). Schmitz realized that “feelings do not originate ‘inside’ the self; rather they are given to experience as ‘unlocalized, poured forth atmospheres […] which visit (haunt) the body which receives them […] affectively, which takes the form of […] emotion.”[3] His atmospheres are a “space of feeling”; they carry a certain mood. Böhme defines this further: “Space of moods is the space which, in a sense, attunes my mood, but at the same time it is the extendedness of my mood itself.”[3] Similar to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the “collective flesh”, ambience is the tissue, which incorporates the qualities of the environment as well as inner state of the subject – the clear boundaries are blurred. It is important for the understanding of atmospheres that an atmosphere is not equated to the objective characteristics that belong to an environment – at the same time, they are also not something that is solely on the subjective side of the person who is experiencing it. The atmosphere is the shared reality of the perceiver and the perceived.[4] However, the properties of an object incorporate and generate an atmosphere. Or rather, the sum of objects in an environment generates an atmosphere that meets with our subjective mood. For Böhme, it is important that the atmospheric should be understood as a specific kind of natural phenomenon.[5] The following translation by Mads Nygaard Folkmann of one of Böhme’s passages explains the relation of subjectivity and objectivity:

Obviously, ambiences are neither conditions of the subject nor characteristics of the object. Still, however, they are only experienced in the actual perception of a subject and are co-constituted in their being, their character, through the subjectivity of the perceiver. And even though they are not characteristics of the objects, they are obviously produced through the characteristics and interplay of objects. That is, ambiences are something between subject and object. They are not something relational, they are the relation itself […] For us, the ambience is the first reality of perception [Wahrnehmungswirklichkeit], out of which subject and object can be separated.[1]

Folkmann concludes that the model of ambience describes the main conditions of perception. Ambience is the “primary object of perception.” An atmosphere is the first thing someone experiences in an environment. Every object that is perceived directly is perceived within the frame of the given atmosphere; this is what Bö̈hme calls “the first reality of perception”. The impression of anything that is perceived is affected by the prevailing atmosphere.

Weather Project
The “Weather Project” by Olafur Eliasson is an example for the production of ambiance, with the intention of affecting the visitors [affektive Betroffenheit].
 Photo by Nathan Williams on Flickr

In order to clarify the concept a bit, I will paraphrase one of Böhme’s examples: “The experience of brightness is something different from seeing a light source. The perception of brightness is a fundamental experience of seeing, which is not bound to an object. The perception of grades of brightness determines our ‘sense of being in a room’.”[5] In addition to brightness, atmospheric phenomena are things like wind, autumn, or the evening. However, these classic examples of atmospheric qualities are not representing the full spectrum of the atmosphere.[2] Additionally, people, things, and places “tincture” the environment in which they are perceived.[3] Böhme describes atmospheres as synesthetic characters that are composed of many different parts.[5] For the experiencing person, the crucial part is how the sum of all impressions of an environment (the atmosphere) is affecting her. The matter of “how a person is affected” illustrates the constitution of a feeling in an environment, and the present “mood” of a person meets the “mood” of an environment. Böhme exemplifies this with an evening which is appearing particularly melancholic, if one’s current mood differs greatly. Through the contrast, the prevailing mood appears more clearly, to the extent that one gets into a melancholic mood as well.

Folkmann distills the core question that emerges from Böhme’s work by stating: “[…] what is important to aesthetics is the ‘reality of appearance’, which emphasizes how (perception of) ‘reality’ is mediated through ambiance, the effect of surface and form, and the value of staging meaning”. Folkmanns’ focus lies especially on the classic aesthetic values of form, but the main idea can be transferred to a broader scope:

How and to what extent have qualities of our environment an effect on our mental state and the constitution of meaning?

Can we use the insights from the concept of ambience to construct certain atmospheres that influence our subjective experience? Is it possible to recreate the atmosphere of a natural environment? Or will it lose its authentic appeal by doing so? In any case, Böhme’s ideas might prove to be a good starting point for approaching questions like these.

References 

[1] Mads Nygaard Folkmann. The aesthetics of imagination in design. Page 35. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2013.

[2] Lukas Egger. “Ästhetik und Ökologie in Gernot Böhmes Konzeption der ’Atmosphäre’” – Philo wiki, 2009. Available Online.

[3]Catherine E. Rigby and Axel Goodbody. Ecocritical theory: new European approaches. Under the sign of nature: explorations in ecocriticism. Page 143/144. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2011.

[4] Andreas Rauth. Jitter Magazin: Rezension zu Gernot Böhme Atmosphäre, 2013. Available Online.

[5] Gernot Böhme. Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Ästhetik. Page 79. Bd. 927 in Edition Suhrkamp. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1. Edition, 1995.

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Fools and Fiction

Earlier this month was that day of the year again, where every firm that thinks of itself as creative does some fun April fools’ project for publicity or to briefly increase their stock value…

Interestingly, many of these projects can also be seen as a form of design fiction. The products often stay in the realm of the possible or plausible in order to fool people  — even though through their exaggerated presentations they hardly fool anyone. However, this new tradition of corporate April fools’ projects is opening a space that allows a bit more imagination into the daily practice of these companies. The employers doing these projects still have to distance themselves by depicting the ideas as completely ridiculous, but it is a space where they can work completely imaginatively. And might be able to tap into a creative potential that is repressed most of the time.

Sometimes, the boundary between the April fools’ speculations and real research is becoming blurred. IDEO.org created a Guide to Cat-Centered Design, which even fooled Anne Galloway of the more-than-human lab shortly into thinking IDEO was starting to take part in the field of design for non-humans. It’s not like IDEO is taking the idea seriously, but still, they engaged with a fair amount of empathy with the needs of an animal and created a pretty comprehensive guide. I’m intrigued by the potential of exposing the public to speculative ideas and have them engage in a lighthearted way, which is not likely with academic niche projects.

Jay McDaniel had an interesting idea concerning humor and novel ideas, which fits perfectly in this context:

“One function of laughter in human life is to relinquish the familiar in openness to the New. Indeed when we laugh at and with Reggie Watts in his Ted talk, delighting in his creative nonsense, we are, for the moment, responding to the lure toward comedy. A space opens up in our heart so that we can become more open-minded and open-hearted.“

I’m not sure if this applies to the design fiction of April fools’ because the projects always have this cynical undertone. It’s not like Louis C.K. ruminating about why he hates cell phones, where we laugh about his rhetoric and unique way of telling a story, but don’t instantly dismiss his message. Maybe the April fools’ projects work better as critical design by commenting on the current state of society. This year there was a whole bunch of jokes doing just this, addressing the prevailing selfie obsession: There was an Honda HR-V Selfie Edition, Selfie Shoes by Miz Mooz and a Wooden Selfie Stick by Motorola.

If companies would recognize the potential of this April fools’ design practice to expose the public to more imaginative ideas, it could be an interesting tool to facilitate public discussion about our possible futures. But as long as the projects remain so uninspired, this will probably not happen.

Story Worlds as a Hook for Connected Learning

I have been thinking about the pervasive power of storytelling and its capability to act as a starting point for Connected Learning scenarios. Connected Learning is an interesting model for designing learning experiences. The approach is pretty straight forward: Making a learning experience relevant by connecting it to existing interests and embedding it in a peer network. Basically it tries to relate as many aspects of everyday life as possible to learning. Have a look at connectedlearning.tv for the complete model. The site lists some great case studies for successful Connected Learning scenarios. One of them is the story of the Harry Potter Alliance, which is summarized as follows:

“The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) is a nonprofit organization, established in 2005 by activist Andrew Slack. Inspired by the student activist organization “Dumbledore’s Army” in the Harry Potter narratives, the HPA uses parallels from the fictional content world as an impetus for civic action. It mobilizes young people across the U.S. around issues of literacy, equality, and human rights, and in support of charitable causes.”

It is interesting how the power of a story can have an impact on the real world. I believe what made this happen, was the rich story world created by J. K. Rowling, which allowed the fans to build a strong emotional relation to the characters and the whole fictional universe. The fact that a lot of fans grew up with the story and were engaged with it over a decade is probably another important factor. The emotional attachment to the story and the need to fill the void it left behind can be a great hook for Connected Learning. (Fun Fact: There is a resemblance to a phenomenon that has been dubbed the Netflix Hangover: “The feeling people get after finishing a show, not quite knowing what to do with their lives anymore.”) My theory is that when a story comes to an end, the emotional attachment can still be pretty high and people try to continue being engaged with it.

This may result in reading up on Wikipedia or starting to listen to the soundtrack, etc. In some cases this leads to fans becoming creative themselves: by learning to play the music themselves via YouTube or starting to create fanfiction in order to keep the story going and preserve the intense engagement. Remaining with the example of Harry Potter: Fanfiction.net lists over 705,000 pieces of Harry Potter fanfiction. These are a lot of people engaging in creative writing for fun. Part of the success of fanfiction is probably due to the given framework of characters, story world and main narrative, which makes the creation of new stories accessible and less intimidating. Other forms of intense fan activities like cosplay (costume play), where people literally become the characters, might be in part due to the same need of trying to stay within the story world.

Less intensive activities like listening to a soundtrack could be attributed to the same mechanic — often soundtracks become appealing not before one has seen the accompanying movie. The music becomes relevant and enjoyable through the connection to an experience. Music can be really powerful in allowing someone to tap into the feeling of a past real or fictional experience. This connection adds up to the given ability of music of impacting ones emotions, which is due to its very visceral nature — soundwaves literally touch us through the auditory system.

It gets interesting when a story and the accompanying soundtrack is also connected to an activity. Listening to a soundtrack can put one in a certain mood, which then can act as a trigger to do something. Think about the urge to get into a Rocky workout montage when listening to Gonna Fly Now. But even when the music is not directly connected with an activity within the story, a new connection has to be established. By restricting the music that is emotional charged (through a story, a vacation memory, etc.) to a specific activity, it might be used as a trigger. The idea is to listen to the emotionally charged soundtrack exlusively in conjunction with the activity. People might even crave to do the activity in order to stay in the specific emotional space.

This mechanic of emotional persuasion could be useful especially in the early “getting-over-the-hump phase” of starting a new habit or activity. As Hartmut Esslinger stated: “People want to be convinced by emotion, not by rational.” Using the classic example: People know they have to work out, but until it has become a habit it is a constant struggle, which is rarely won by thinking about rational health benefits. Another opportunity is the possibility of showing people things beyond their horizon or comfort zone. Considering Cal Newport’s notion of “passion follows skill” – the idea that passion is not something innate, but develops by doing (e.g. working on the perfection of a craft or skill.) – this can be immensely important for exposing students to a variety of useful activities or career possibilities. There is a nice example for such a Connected Learning scenario from Japan. When the Anime series Hikaru no Go was released, it ignited a boom and kids all over the country started playing the historic board game Go, which had become forgotten and not been very popular with younger age groups. See here for a short TV feature about it. I wish this would happen in the west with chess.

Fandoms in general seem to be a good starting point for Connected Learning scenarios. They offer a secure environment, where people can play around without worrying about consequences. A perfect place for building creative confidence and casually “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out.” A place without any pressure to perform and deliver. The HPA works so well because it has Harry Potter as a foundation and activism just sits on top of it. This lowers the entry threshold immensely and keeps the members engaged with something fun, instead of having solely the serious subject of their activism as a topic to talk about. HPA cofounder Andrew Slack put it quite nicely: „It’s time to go beyond the technocratic rhetoric that we hear too often from activists and nonprofits that keep things intimidating and inaccessible.” I think there is just no place for things like elitism that discouraging people from contributing and engaging — we simply can’t afford to lose the potential of all these people.

This is still just a rough outline, but it offers some entry points for further exploring the possibilities of story worlds in the domain of Connected Learning and thinking about the design of engaging learning environments.

Looking into the Future with Ethnography

Recently, I have become interested in ethnographic research and in the question of how it can be used in the context of design. Introducing ethnographic methods into the design process has some clear benefits, like being able to base design decisions on a more thorough set of insights — for example, by taking the local culture into account. What I’m intrigued by is the possibility of using ethnographic studies as a starting point of designing for the future – or rather designing with the future in mind. The idea is to use ethnography to inform the design process and thereby foreseeing the impact of new technologies or services. Ethnographic studies could provide an opportunity to take a look at the future. I’m thinking of this quote of William Gibson: “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

There is an immense number of ethnographic studies available, that describe a variety of different forms of being and living. The descriptions include people living in tribal communities, in uprising economies or highly technological societies. If we look at states like South Korea or Singapore, which are high on the scale of the digital evolution, we can foresee a lot of the social implications that accompany the spreading of certain technologies. Similarly, we could also look at (online) subcultures, who have adopted contemporary mindsets and practice them in the unrestrained space of the internet. For example, the idea of Open Content has been tested in the web and proven to be a viable model that could be applied throughout different parts of society.

What if we did the user research not with the intended user group, but would look at people in the “future?” The rigor of ethnographic studies allows us to see the lived experience of an (ethnic) group in a complex social, cultural and political context. By differentiating the reasons for a change in society, it should be possible to identify if it really stems from the influence of a new technology or is rather due to the interplay of a new development with the cultural background.

Designing like this is still pretty speculative, but might be a bit more grounded in reality than a purely imaginative, anticipatory design approach. The results might be more suitable for real use in contrast to speculative design, which is often aimed at igniting a public debate. To what extent findings from ethnographic studies can be used in a seemingly unrelated context remains an interesting question. However, through globalization a lot of the cultural boundaries are blurring anyway and many societies are confronted with similar challenges.

Creating a new Narrative
After listening to episode 40 of The Conversation with Mary Mattingly, I thought about the idea of seeing first world countries as a testing ground for new developments. Just like Chile was used as a testing ground for neoliberalism in the 20th century, we could see developed countries as a laboratory for consequences of consumerism or digitization in a society. Thereby, we could create a narrative that frames the path of unlimited growth and blind progress as a failed experiment. The general dissatisfaction and diseases of affluence in first world countries could be seen as a cautionary tale for developing countries. Instead of chasing the wealth and well-being through consumer goods (like the dream of owning your own car), these societies would benefit if they’d skip directly to a more sustainable way of living. A lifestyle that might incorporate the spirit of the maker movement and relies on community, decentralization, and the likes. Ironically a lot of developing countries are currently not far from these ideals out of pure necessity. Not every society has to learn things the hard way and make the same mistakes as other countries in order to provide citizens a good life worth living.

I think this is an important topic, because a big challenge in fighting global warming is convincing huge populations of countries like india or china not to chase after a faulty idea like the “american dream”. “Convincing” sounds very patronizing in this context. Of course, this should not happen through heavy influence of the west, but in a more organic fashion from the inside of these societies.
How this kind of narrative could be created and enter the social imagination is still a big question to me. Maybe through pop culture, or something.

A Research Journal

This site is my new research journal. It is about design and its relation to topics like ecology, philosphy or learning and literacy. I will use the blog to help me make sense of stuff I stumble upon and as a place to structure my research findings.

Let’s see where it will go.


About Design After Now
As Timothy Morton has stated: “The ecological catastrophe has already occurred.” We don’t need to wait till the day after tomorow to see its impact. The sixth great extinction is happening. Ocean acidification is increasing. The exploitation of people and the planet for the sake of economic growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down. The list goes on and on. This is the new normal. This is the reality of the now.
What is the role of design in this new age, we call the anthropocene? Will it keep on contributing and fueling consumer culture? Or can it offer approaches that will help us face the challenges of the present? These are the questions I want to explore. Since design has an immense potential for shaping the world, it is worth having a holistic look at the interrelated environment in which it operates. Learning and literacy is another interesting topic in this regard, because a well educated and engaged, young generation might be our best answer to an unforseeable future.
So much for my intention for the site.