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Yi-Fu Tuan: Passing Strange and Wonderful: Aesthetics, Nature, and Culture

©1993, Island Press
– Mar. 24, 2014

Perhaps I am being simplistic in making this distinction, but I believe it is a fairly safe one, and it offers me two terms I can use here forward to reduce clutter: American-pragmatic thought is centered upon a rationally defined and definable understanding of being and universe; continental thought accepts pragmatic thought but points out its limits, and recognizes also that which lies beyond (or, more accurately, that within which pragmatic thought lies). I use the terms pragmatic and continental, but want to recognize the two ideas can be said to encompass all philosophical thought. Socratic and Enlightenment philosophy is American-pragmatic in nature; Eastern thought, as the term is generally used in the U.S. (e.g., as with Taoism), usually falls into the continental side of things

Tuan’s Passing falls solidly in the pragmatic body of thought. I write this review here not to critique the pragmatic/rational nature of Tuan’s ideas, but to demonstrate it within the text, for, even within pragmatic/rational thought, Tuan would be considered somewhat extreme in his positioning. Also, there are great difficulties in the presentation itself: mostly in the lack of philosophical coherence and depth.

Also, I write for a second reason (which I address first): a presented misconception as to the nature of the text itself, even if garnered only from such as the blurbs on the back cover. Says the publisher’s blurb: “Yi-Fu Tuan explores the meaning of beauty and the implications of aesthetic experience.” Says Simon Schama’s offered praise: “It is high time that Yi-Fu Tuan was recognized as one of the most remarkable and creative figures in the intellectual life of our time.” The effect is to create the idea that what lies within Passing will be an intellectual if not philosophical exploration of the relationship between the aesthetic and culture (and nature, to complete the subtitle). But that is far from the case.

To note, this is the only work I have read by Tuan. To note also, while I stand within the continental side of the argument, this could as easily have been presented solidly from within the pragmatic side, coming to the same conclusions

On reading Passing it is difficult to defend the idea that Tuan has a functional concept of the aesthetic anchoring his discussion. While it is definitely a grounded definition – as I will show below –, that definition does not seem to have been thought out beyond simple definition. Many dropped conclusions – if not most – are quite spurious, and ultimately function mostly to blur underlying ideas rather than to coalesce them. There is also a sense that Tuan is trying to speak a concept of the aesthetic that is all encompassing: that is, that would be able to accommodate nigh anybody’s previous statements as to the notion of beauty – something anyone working in the idea of aesthetics would immediately reject as nonsensical, not only because different philosophical approaches to beauty can be wholly oppositional, but also because the term “beauty” itself is extremely broad, with many uses stemming out of many contexts

The primary cause of this failure of philosophical coherence is that Passing is not at all a philosophical presentation. Rather, I would call it more a meditation, though not on philosophical concepts of the aesthetic and culture, but upon the aesthetic as Tuan sees it manifest in the world. If I can say this and avoid categorizing the book as coffee-table, Passing reads very much like a photo essay, only in words. There are many interesting ‘scenes’ presented. Some were new to me; a couple quite interesting. But were they ever brought together into a discussion? No. Even the core concepts of culture and the aesthetic are never presented with any solidity, and what is presented is often betrayed or contradicted, mostly because the ideas are never flushed out beyond blunt, underived statements of Tuan’s personal position, statements that rarely move beyond merely that: statements. No development, no argument, rarely explication. Just statements

It should also be noted that for a supposedly intellectual text there are moments that leave me dumbfounded. For example: “A modern meaning of myth is that it is a fanciful story of superheroes, whose doings and achievements bear little relation to the real world” (p. 195). As an ‘intellectual’ statement it is plainly ridiculous, and would not survive two minutes in the ring of contemporary scholarship on myth, or on the aesthetic, even among those who are opposed to any relationship between the aesthetic and the mythic. One might say that what Tuan actually intended was to be describing myth as it is perceived by Joe Public (specifically, U.S. Joe Public). In context, though, that does not seem his intent. And what am I to do with this, which follows seven words later?: “Many myths remain purely oral or, as in the case of the American Constitution, textual.” Is Tuan somehow equating the U.S. Constitution with the doings and achievements of superheroes that bear little relation to the real world? Perhaps Tuan, while writing this passage suffered from a momentary brain seizure, or slipped under the shadow of a passing stupid cloud. I read it, though, as showing that he is speaking about something (specifically, myth, but more generally, the aesthetic) of which he has little deep understanding.

Tuan’s use of quotations, and there are no few, also speaks to Tuan’s rhetorical inadequacies. There a number of people quoted, which I enjoy. A few of them names I do not at all recognize – and I’m fair broadly read, but that’s not a terrible issue. The problem is the quotations have been isolated from both their textual contexts and the ideas of their speakers. As such, they are wholly co-opted by Tuan, and exist solely to service Tuan’s ideas and definitions: which is a major problem when those people quoted carry ideas of the aesthetic different from each other, and hugely a problem when, I am sure, few, if any, of them would speak an idea of the aesthetic as Tuan conceives it.

Turning to my main intent: what of Tuan’s ideas of the aesthetic and culture? “Beauty is ‘the order of the world,’ manifest in mathematics, where lawful and necessary relations rule” (p. 45). You might think Tuan is speaking of how beauty manifests, but he is not. This is not Aquinas. There is no pure divinity revealing itself through physical reality. The statement is to be taken straight: the aesthetic is mathematical. As are cultures, which possesses an “aesthetic-moral aspect – as revealed by their drive toward significance and form” (p. 121). Not just ‘form,’ though, but rigidly mathematical form. And same with significance – which exists only in its mathematical reality. (The idea is presented over and again, so do not think I am teasing an idea out from one sentence.) One might say that Tuan does not fall far from Enlightenment rationality: which may be so, except for his continual insistence on a purely mathematical basis, and in that his presentation does not carry any notion of derivation from any philosophical body of thought. (It is, simply, not a deep enough conversation.) For example, Tuan doesn’t seem to understand how his mathematical origin of beauty removes the viewer from the concept of the aesthetic: which is something that is often discussed in aesthetics. Tuan does seem to be taking a page (whether intentionally or not I do not know) from Kant with his idea of distance, but Tuan’s concept of distance is never fully flushed out, and the purely mathematical nature of the aesthetic in the end creates a fissure between the object and the viewer that demands explication – which is of course absent in this book. (The problem is even greater when you get to culture, but I will leave that be here.)

One example of the absurdities that do arise when Tuan gives application to his core ideas is with metaphor, which Tuan calls an “intrusion of reality” (p. 170). It is an absolutely logical conclusion of Tuan’s premise: since beauty is based on the mathematical, and reality is defined by the mathematical, so beauty is reality. Note that: it is not that beauty is real, it is beauty IS REALITY, pure reality revealed through its mathematical essence. Since metaphors are beautiful, then metaphors must also be reality. Thus, metaphors are an intrusion of reality into the ‘fiction’ of straight denotational language. Which is an absolutely bizarre reversal, and I can not see how it can be carried forward from that start with any success against the laugh test. But there you go.

So, can I recommend this text? Not for anyone knowledged enough in the fields of aesthetics, or general philosophy, or even in the study of culture, so as to be able to read Tuan’s ideas as they are presented in Passing. Casual readers might not catch or recognize ideas such as beauty is “manifest in mathematics.” But how could you miss that? And then with someone new to the field but interested they would be looking for such statements but would not know enough to recognize that the ideas in Passing are in the least outlier. Will they see how problematic even the existence of a phrase like “of an Apollonian or puritan bent” (pg 184) is in a philosophical text? (How could you possibly conjoin those two words?) Yes, the photo essay aspect of the book is often interesting. Though, I will say even then it seems to betray a lack of depth of understanding of certain subjects (as with his discussion on aboriginal religion/myth). To be honest, because of the issues, I can not think of a person, if I saw them reading this book, I would not want to immediately barrage with warnings and corrections, if not simply say, “You should just put that away. There’s little to gain for your time except misconception.”