Geoaesthetics

7 March 2014

Geography, it has been noted, has as many understandings of aesthetics as there are theorists of the aesthetic (Harvey 1990). Such a ‘lively’ sense of aesthetics is of course not restricted to geography, for within the discipline as well as elsewhere, aesthetics – as a set of theories, ideas, practices and objects – have long offered a complex and provocative subject of and prompt to thought. Indeed, looking back to antiquity, Enlightenment science, or geography’s century long humanistic tradition, as well as the more recent movements within the subject is to find not only a discipline infused with aesthetics, but also a discipline in which, I would argue, aesthetics takes up a central place in its development.

Despite this, geography’s relationship with aesthetics is an uneasy one; aesthetics is at once both overlooked and yet also seemingly ubiquitous in disciplinary scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st century. Indeed, the basis of geography’s relations with aesthetics has often been described in binary terms, as Matless (1997: 399) explains, to ‘either reject or embrace, suspect or believe’, and even a cursory examination suggests those geographers with a more accusatory view unite around the dismissal of the aesthetic as superficial, the opposite of the real and substantive.

In placing the terms ‘aesthetics’ and ‘geography’ my research responds to a gathering pace of calls from within geography to develop a more nuanced understanding of aesthetics, making questions of the interplay of geography and aesthetics a substantive concern. For, if dialogues between geography, visual culture, art history, performance studies and new media have long taken aesthetic objects (films, art works etc.) as common empirical entry points, more recently, we see a new attention being given to shared analytic coordinates. These take form in questions we might note to be aesthetic, namely queries concerning worldly encounters with site, the body and the senses, and around materiality and practices. Furthermore, such discussions meet head-on the resurgence of interdisciplinary interest in conceptual and empirical questions around environmental aesthetics, as well as the spaces and spatialities of the aesthetic. The latter would include the place of geographical sensibilities and imaginaries in our understanding and application of the aesthetic, and how it is that we can think, research, and write about things, their qualities and capacities.  More about geo-aesthetics can be read in the edited collection I have developed with Elizabeth Straughan.