Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Worry?

As the year draws to a close, I have been looking back over my various posts on the tragic outlook, to draw together the main threads of the discussion and to set a research agenda for the new year.

It strikes me that I have left an essential question unanswered, though I posed it in my post of 11/11/11.

I raised two question at the beginning of that post:
First, what has the tragic outlook to do with ethics in the built environment? Second, what do I mean by 'outlook'?
I suggested, very briefly, that
[t]he quick answer to both of these is to say that I propose to consider the city in its cosmological context.
At the time, I developed an answer only to the second question:
I take an outlook to be a basic orientation to the cosmos, a basic set of beliefs about how and to what degree the world is ordered, how and to what degree it can be expected to make sense.
More specifically, I connect a tragic outlook to a skeptical approach to cosmology:
When considering the city and the cosmos, I am aware of the possibility that things may go very badly wrong, and that there is little reason to believe there are any built-in safeguards against the logical consequences of our folly.
Implicit in this is an answer to the first question, regarding the relevance of a tragic outlook to ethics in the built environment: it is a matter of what we expect and what we hope for as we carry out our particular projects in particular places, how prepared we are - as individuals and as communities - to respond to uncertainty, change, and the possibility of loss.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Bizarrely Incomprehensible Post

As long as I am acknowledging my intellectual debts, I should pay tribute to a writer who had an early, deep, and not entirely explicable influence on my outlook on the world: Douglas Adams.

Yes, it does seem strange to be writing this. The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is not exactly part of the canon of essential philosophical treatises.

It's very funny, of course, and has tremendous appeal to people of a certain culture who went through adolescence in the 1980s, but is it really worthy of serious tribute from someone who claims to be a serious philosopher?

Well, that's part of the point, of course.

Friday, December 16, 2011

From the Archive: From the Margins (1991), part two

With my presentation at the Earth Day Forum in 1991, I took a few, tentative steps toward a phenomenology of place intended to inform a practical environmental ethic.

I mainly focused on a pervasive theme in Berry's work, a theme made explicit in his essay, "Preserving Wildness" (1987): the intertwining of the domestic and the wild in the landscapes we inhabit, and even in our own bodies. Wildness pervades our experience, at the margins of the domestic realm, the boundaries between landscapes.
Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. the margins are of utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins - lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like - are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are placed on human intention. (Berry 1987, p.151)
Berry dubs this alternative to monoculture a "landscape of harmony" (Ibid.). To get there from where we are, we must move from an exploitive attitude to a nurturing attitude, a profound cultural shift that cannot originate within the exploitive attitude itself.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


This past Saturday, I traveled with my family up to the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. We go to Brasstown fairly regularly: my wife and daughters have attended classes there, and I have played fiddle and my wife has called for contra dances in the excellent dance hall in Keith House.

The occasion this time was a dance party to honor our friend, Bob Dalsemer, who coordinates music and dance programs at the Folk School. At the event, Bob was awarded the Lifetime Contribution Award from the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS).

Dancers and musicians from around the region and beyond converged for an evening of contra, square, and English country dances, punctuated by performances of traditional clogging and English ritual dance, including Morris, rapper, and garland.

While I danced, and listened, and watched, I began to think about the geography of traditional dance, starting with the odd fact that Brasstown, which barely amounts to a crossroads in the mountains of far-western North Carolina, looms so large in the imagination of people in the traditional dance community. The programs at the Folk School draw together dance and music traditions from the southern Appalachian region with those from New England, the British Isles, and elsewhere.

Friday, December 9, 2011

From the Archive: From the Margins (1991), part one

Following up on my last post, I dug deep into my files to find the notes from a presentation I gave at the very beginning of my work in environmental ethics. Doing so has brought me around to acknowledging one of the oldest and deepest of my intellectual debts.

For giving shape to my thought in environmental ethics, and for raising questions about place and character with which I still grapple in every aspect of my life, I owe a debt of gratitude to Wendell Berry.

I first became aware of the field of environmental ethics in 1988 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I enrolled in a course in the subject offered by Stan Kane (to whom I also owe a debt of gratitude). One of our readings for the semester was an essay by Wendell Berry, titled "Preserving Wildness," which had just been published in his collection, Home Economics (1987)

The essay had a profound influence on the direction of my thought but, until this last trip to the archives, I had forgotten just how profound and pervasive was that influence.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Wild

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my family on our way home from visiting friends in another part of Decatur. It was well after dark.  I was stopped at an intersection when I was surprised to see a large canine loping up the middle of the street, moving quickly away from us.

Something about its size and proportions, and about the way it moved, the way it owned the street, suggested it was not a domestic dog.