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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