Seeing in High Definition
“Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
-John Berger from Ways of Seeing
There is nothing like watching our favorite sports teams on our over-sized, high definition televisions or revisiting our favorite old movies now re-formatted for HD. The clarity is startling; we are engaged more than ever in our beloved programs and tend to reject older technology that does not allow us to see as clearly. Even our smart phones, iPads, and iPods allow us to see vivid images with clear lines of distinction like never before. We have become obsessed with the idea of definition, for both of its connotations. First, we have come to relish in the idea of seeing in HD, not just with our technology, but also in our lives in terms of categorization and specialization. We crave distinction. Secondly, definition of course means significance. Words, ideas, and objects are only relevant if we can discern exactly what they mean. Our brains jump to find meaning before we know it is happening. Perhaps this is why we can find shapes in the clouds and a face on the moon.
But what happens when we go to the extreme with our love of seeing the world in high definition? It seems there is an inherent danger in over-categorization that rears its ugly head when we try to form distinct categories to define complex ideas, like, for instance, ourselves. John Paul Sartre would call this our existential crisis. How often do we distinguish between “us” and “them,” “black” or “white,” or even “democrat” or “republican” without stopping to consider all of the complexities that are obscured by this either/or mode of thought. Do we really want to be reduced to simply a label, a neat organized and pre-packaged existence? When Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes,” he seemed to have already given this a thought or two.
When we define a term or a concept, once of the easiest ways to do so is to determine what its opposite is. I would call this being lazy. Words are rich in meaning and connotation and often their conceivable opposite can not be found in such limiting terms. One of the greatest instances of the failure of our either/ or, high-definition logic is the long-held binary between nature and culture. When we unpack what these words actually signify, we can begin to see the repercussions of thinking in binaries and often even in absolute terms. If the opposite of “natural” is “unnatural,” then in this binary between nature and culture, we are calling culture something like artifice, something I find uncomfortably close to artificial like cans of sprayable cheese and plastic bottles sitting on mounds in a landfill. Culture of course comes from human life and community. Are these really unnatural? The last I checked we are biological beings just like all of the other creatures we share our local communities with, even for us in New York City. Why, then, do we insist on seeing ourselves as so distinct from nature? If there is a single root cause to the degradation of the environment, I would call it high definition. The American conception of our relation to nature and the “wild” is very much a part of our environmental ignorance, misconception, and perhaps even crisis.
One of the most important broader studies of the changing conception of the American landscape is Roderick Frazier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind. This book is an exploration into the changing perspective of wilderness in America as strong ties to the larger western tradition were slowly unraveled. Nash points out that it was actually civilization that created wilderness; in fact, it would later be those in the city, the “literati” and scientists of the nineteenth century that first began a real appreciation for the wild, open landscape. The first lines of distinction between the civilized and the wild began with the dawn of agriculture and the comparison of controlled or domesticated space to that which was not. These areas not plotted out for agriculture, herding, or town space were initially viewed as a wasteland. A complicated perspective of the wild that began in the ancient Greek and Roman world and continued in the Judeo-Christian tradition was pervasive throughout early American settlement. It would take a long time, perhaps until the Romantic era, until the wilderness began to become separate from the negative connotation as the anti-Eden of uncultivated space. With the advent of Romanticism came a celebration of nature and the primitive. Furthermore, with American independence followed pride for the landscape. With concerns of legitimacy the celebration of wild land followed in which“…wilderness was actually an asset. Of course pride continued to stem from the conquest of the wild country…but by the end of the nineteenth century wilderness was recognized as a cultural and moral resource and a basis for national self-esteem.”
American artists and thinkers of this era began searching for something particularly American, and they found it in the wild. Where the problem lies, here, is that lines of distinction are clearly drawn between wild and cultivated, between nature and culture. In the same vein as Nash, Peter Coates writes of our nature/ culture binary:
“If, following the original Greek definition in all its catholicity, nature is deemed to be everything material that exists, then, strictly speaking, nothing can be unnatural. However, the distinction between the natural and unnatural (artificial) is invariably made, and while nature has no conceptual opposite, we usually think of it as human culture.”
It is this same limited view of either/or that has caused so many of our social problems. Why, then, has it been so hard to recognize that to think of our natural world in binary terms in which nature and culture and pinned against one another would be just as problematic and misleading? In writing about the conception of our American landscape, William Cronon can be considered a pioneer. While Cronon’s article, “The Problem with Wilderness,” has many important points, the main argument is that the existence of wilderness—or at least how we conceptualize it—reinforces the false idea that man and nature are two distinct and separate entities. Cronon makes the important distinction between “wilderness” and “wildness.” He quotes Thoreau at the beginning of the article, claiming, “ In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” To Cronon, “wildness” is anything that is natural, while “wilderness” is the mythologized and often even fetishized portrayal of nature that we in cities came up with.
In many ways the perspective we have of nature is a problem of language and of definition. As Nash has pointed out, the idea of wilderness was actually a result of civilization, its antithesis. Therefore, to view a certain landscape as wilderness is to deem it uninhabited by humans. Cronon points out, even worse still, that “any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature—as wilderness tends to do—is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior.” Cronon believes that it is our very identification with the land that is integral to forming responsible environmental practices. He believes it is our challenge and our task to stop thinking of the world in binary terms such as natural and unnatural, but to understand the continuum of nature of which humans are a part; this will have great consequences for the wild spaces we seek to preserve along with the inhabited places we call home.
In case I haven’t said it enough, I would argue that our misconceptions, our disconnection from the physical reality of landscape is precisely a result of our tendency to view the world in binary terms that in turn has seeped into many different avenues of our culture. This mode of thinking has found its way into our educational system, which by overspecialization fails to show any real, practical connections to our physical world. As David Orr writes of the modern curriculum:
“We have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines, hermetically sealed from other such disciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad, integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and the planet are large.”
Since the environmental movement that became mainstream in America in the 1970s, there has been a renewed interest in the landscape and the idea of wilderness conservation. While the effort to maintain wild areas of America is certainly a noble cause, in some ways it has encouraged a larger separation or distinction between the spaces we live in and the wilderness. The spectrum, which Nash calls “from primeval to paved,” can be a helpful way to imagine this. In other words, the primitive or pristine is on one end while the paved, civilized, or urban is on the other. What has resulted from this mode of thinking is a clear disconnection in the American mindset that has found itself trapped in the postmodern world of abstractions. As David Orr urges:
“It is time, I believe, for an educational ‘perestroika,’ by which I mean a general rethinking of the process and substance of education at all levels, beginning with the admission that much of what has gone wrong with the world is a result of the education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination, fragments instead of unifies, overemphasizes success and careers, separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical…”
It is precisely the anthropocentric notion of human domination that we’ve carried along with us through centuries of thought which has caused us to get in our own way when it comes to understanding the world around us. Even our domination of language and of definition have left us in a world that is in great need of integration over specialization. The postmodern abstractions literally have no grounding in the land—a perspective we so desperately need to dismantle in regard to how future generations and we today understand our position in the natural world.
In the case of New York City, Philip Lopate has said, “New York’s granitic environment promotes living in your head, a cerebral, landlocked state just this side of paranoia, but perfect for an information capital.” The very design of this city, particularly anywhere north of Houston, is a clearly defined grid of easily navigatable streets and avenues. I’ve never been one for grids, for numbers, or order, but I can be accused, as Lopate says, of living too much in my head. New York City will never shut up or slow down, but it will always challenge us to reconsider the life force it emanates and the uncanny way it becomes a character in our lives. I think more of us need to get to know that person and understand New York, like the rest of us, is so much more complicated than it seems.