周一星 教授 北京大学城市与环境学系
丁希贤 教授 北京大学环境学院
李 平 教授 辽宁师范大学城市与环境学院
史培军 教授 北京师范大学资源与环境学院
赵 济 教授 北京师范大学地理学与遥感科学学院
谢 云 教授 北京师范大学地理学与遥感科学学院
朱阿兴 教授 美国威斯康辛大学
Humaninistic Geography: a Personal View
Prof. Yi-Fu Tuan, 段义孚教授
Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Fellow of the British Academy
Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Department of Geography
University of Wisconsin-Madison
55 North Park Street
Madison, WI 53706
U. S. A
Thank you for inviting me to speak. I am deeply honored. As you notice, I am speaking in English rather than in Chinese. I feel I owe you an apology and a word of explanation. I was born in Tianjin, but left the city at a very early age to live in Nanjing and Shanghai, and eventually in Kunming and Chongqing. My family and I left Chongqing, the wartime capital, in 1941 for Australia; and except for a brief stay-over in Shanghai in 1946 on our way to England, I have not returned to the country for my birth. I have been away, in other words, for more than sixty years. During that time, I have lived among English-speaking people as Australians, Brits, an, since 1951, Americans. Sad to say, though I can still manage to carry on a social conversation in Chinese, I am not able to do so on topics of intellectual interest. And this is doubly regrettable because my are of competence, the one area in geography, I have done most work in is not physical geography, not even economic or human geography, but humanistic geography. As I hope to show in the following lecture, if humanistic geography is distinguished in one characteristic, it is in its extraction of meaning from the resources of language. A humanist geographer who is not skilled and sensitive to the subtleties of language, of at least one language—is therefore a contradiction of terms.
The Humboldt Brothers
Geography, as it is practiced in major American institutions, spans the entire spectrum of disciplines, from the physical and biological, through the social and economic, to the humanistic. It has always been weakest at the humanistic end, and I have often wondered whether my field might have been much stronger if geographers had drawn more inspiration from German scholars the Humboldt brothers: Wilhelm the humanist, who was born in 1767, and Alexander the explorer-geographer, who was born two year later. Alexander von Humboldt, as we well know, made lasting contributions to physical geography, biogeography, and even to the flow of capital, which today will be considered a sophisticated form of economic geography. By writing on the histories of landscape painting and nature poetry, he also added to our knowledge of what I call a humanistic geography. Yet, in his brother’s eye, he lacked something as a humanist, and that was a quiet contentment in himself and in thinking. Geographers today still show this lack, for although we can boast many accomplishments, these are all too often unleavened by quiet reflection, which is the god smile—produces insight (Y. F. Tuan, 1997).
But I exaggerate, for in the last ten years or so a number of books have been published by geographers that treat the nature of place, landscape, and wildness, as well as our understanding of the past, in subtlety and depth. I can present you with summaries of these works, but this seems unnecessary for you can read them for yourself. So let me try a more personal approach, which is to tell you something about my own small contribution to humanistic geography. The books I have written on the subject explore a variety of themes. Three, however, are central. They are: the felt quality of place, the psychology of power, and culture as imagination.
The Felt Quality of Place
One way to approach the felt quality of place is to evoke it in novelistic detail. Having lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for twenty years, I should be able to do that for Madison. But I lack the language skill of a novelist or poet to make a city’s social complexity and emotional texture into a real presence. Few geographers have that kind of skill. So I have not followed that path. Instead, I have chosen to address the felt-quality from the opposite direction—that is to say, from the universal human endowments of sense perception, synesthesia, and language.
By sense perception, I have in mind sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. We apprehend reality through these commonly recognized senses. In telling you this I am not, of course, saying anything new. What is new rather, what can see, new because any knowledge that is too familiar is easily forgotten—is that the reality geographers present in words, photos, and maps is a high abstraction, very far from the full-bodied one we know as ordinary human beings. Geographers depend on sight and, to a less extent, on hearing. These are distant sensors that inform us about the world there. Neglected is the multisensorial reality close-by, transmitted to us in day-to-day living through the proximate senses of taste, touch, and smell, and not just through sight and hearing. It is this rich reality close-by, rather than the cool picture beyond, that engages our emotions and makes us realize that we are more than spectators in the world, that we are embedded in its odors, sounds, and tactile qualities.
Ask the simple question, what is a tropical rainforest like? We may think we know, thanks to photos and texts. When we actually find ourselves in the forest, we may be shocked into the awareness of something far more alien and overpowering green, all-encompassing world of dense vegetation (yes, we expect that from looking at pictures), but also things we are unlikely to expect: the ceaseless screeching of monkeys, the chattering of birds, the trumpeting of elephants as they crush through the trees, the pungent odors of growth and decay, and the heat and moisture that wrap around us like a wet blanket.
Complex experience of this kind gives us one type of what I call the felt quality of place. But the senses are also able to operate in another, more mysterious way. I refer to the psycho-physiological phenomenon known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is the blending of the senses such that, for example, when one hears a sound one also sees a color. Generally, low pitched sounds such as deep voices, drums, and thunder produce dark and round images, whereas high pitched sounds such soprano voices, violins, and squeaks produce bright and sharp images. Language points to its synesthetic grounding when we say, in English, “What a loud lie you have” or “It’s bitterly cold”. In Chinese, I think of such common expressions as jin sang zi and the line xie feng si yu from the Song poet, Zhang Yuan-gan. No doubt you can come up with others.
Thanks to synesthesia, objects acquire a vividness and resonance that thwy would not otherwise have. It is an advantage to young children because it helps them to locate and fixate on the world’s objects. When strongly developed, however, it promotes hallucination. As children grow older and acquire a certain fluency in language, synesthesia weakens, its function to enrich the world being taken over by the metaphorical powers of language.
What is metaphor? Is synesthesia is the blending pf senses, metaphor is the blending of image-ideas or concepts. Metaphor enables us to make concrete what is diffuse, familiar what is unfamiliar. Nature, for example, can seem diffuse, complex, and threatening. It becomes less so when we predicated it on parts of your body that we know intimately. So we say, headlands, foothills, the mouth of a river, the spine of a ridge, the shoulder of a valley, an arm of the sea, and so on. Even the objects we have made ourselves can seem distant and coolly indifferent. To minimize that possibility, we blind artifacts to our anatomy and say: the eye of a needle, the spine of a book, the hands of a clock, the legs of a table, and the back of a chair.
These are, of course, English idioms, and I don’t know that they all have Chinese equivalents. Some do exist and some are not only equivalents but are identical. And so we Chinese say he kou, shan chio and this table yu szu ko t’ui. A worthwhile project in humanistic geography is to see how language differ in the ways they use metaphors to make unfamiliar objects more familiar.
Not just metaphors, but the full resources of language are available to us as poets— and we are all poets to some degree—-to firm up the emotional bonds between ourselves and the world. The world is made up of tangible things, but also of more abstracted entities such as space and spaciousness. How does language cope with spaciousness, making it more real and vivid to us? One way is to use the specialized vocabulary of numbers. For example, a popular medieval work (South English Legendary) conveys that vastness of space by saying, “If a man could travel upwards at the rate of more than 40 miles a day, he still would not reached highest heaven in 8000 years.” But more common is to use a geographical vocabulary that can simulate our geographical imagination. I am struck by the similarity between two poem—one composed by an anonymous Chinese poet in the Han dynast and the other composed by the English poet Wordsworth in the nineteenth century. The Chinese poet, rendered into English by Robert Payne, has these lines: “Who knows when we shall meet again? The Hu horse leads into the north wind and a bird nesting in southern branches”. In Wordsworth’s poem, called The Solitary Reaper, just how solitary is the Reaper? How vast is the space that envelops her? For answer, Wordsworth, like the Chinese poet, call up two contrasting images: to one side are the weary bands of travelers in some shady haunt, among Arabian sands, and, to the other, the cukoo-bird, breaking the silence of the seas among the farthest Hebrides (Y. F. Tuan, 2003: 135-136).
The Psychology of Power
My second theme is the psychology of power. Geographers are much concerned with the human transformation of the earth. Repeatedly, they seek to understand how forest and scrub land, steppe and swamp, have been turned into arable fields, towns, and cities. This transformation speaks of economic, political, and technological power. Neglected by both geographers and environmentalists is the exercising of power for pleasure—the pleasure that is to be had in making gardens and pets. Geographer, like most people, tend to see gardens and pets as belonging to an area of innocence, in sharp contrast to large works of engineering and economic development, which are tarnished by suspicions of greed and pride. Nevertheless, from a psychological viewpoint, playing with nature, restrained only the limit of one’s fantasy, may manifest an even greater urge to power,
Consider water. Water becomes a pet when we make it dance for us. But we can only make it dance through the exercising of irresistible power—the power of hydraulic engineering and of large labor terms organized along military lines. The fountains that are the pride of the great gardens of Europe were mostly built by autocratic rulers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many construction workers died in the effort, their bodies carried out in the middle of the night so as not to demoralize workers. Tourists who flock to these showpieces today, their senses drugged by beauty and charm, forget the raw power that lies behind them. We so easily repress the fact that fountains are blatantly unnatural. In a fanciful mood, I see obsessive hydrophiles of the future breaking into gardens and wrecking the fountains in the effort to liberate water from its servile state.
Water is alive only in a figurative sense. So let’s move on to things that are truly alive: plants, animals, and human beings. An outstanding example of the violent abuse of plants for amusement is topiary art. That art, which flourished in Europe between 1400 and 1700, sought to sculpture individual plants and whole hedges into extravagant geometrical shapes such as cube and spheres, and into all kinds of animals and even human beings. Nothing more perversely unnatural can be conceived. Another form of abusing vegetation for pleasure is the miniature garden. I am sorry to bring up this art form because it appears to be a Chinese invention, which the Japanese adopted and refined, and which other countries, such as Vietnam, also vigorously pursued. Is pen ching—or, to use the Japanese word bonsai—a fine art? What kind of fine art is it that regularly uses instruments of torture—knives and scalpels, wires and wire cutters, trowels and tweezers, jacks and weights—to distort the plants and prevent their natural growth?
Unlike making water and plants into pets, making animals into pets is a familiar story, and so I will not dwell on it, except to say the domination there takes two forms. One is through training and the other is through selective breeding. Training can turn a huge and powerful animal, such as the elephant, into a docile beast of burden. Training can also turn it into a plaything—an object of ridicule—as when an elephant is compelled to wear a petticoat and stand on its hind legs in the circus or zoo. An even more radical way of altering nature is through selective breeding. Applied over successive generations, it can transform an animal into something dysfunctional and grotesque, and yet appeal to the taste of jaundiced connoisseurs. Think of the goldfish. A certain breed is created to have large eyes shaped like fish bowls that impede movement and are easily damaged upon contact with walls of the water tank. Or think of the Pekinese, made into a bundle of hair, weighing less than five pounds, that warms the owner’s lap; or the Spaniel whose ears are deliberately bred to be long and hanging so as to produce a look of slavish devotion.
From a psychological viewpoint, power reaches a peak charged with sadistic-erotic pleasure—when human beings themselves are turned into playthings. In Europe, Renaissance princes kept dwarfs, which they dress up, slobbered over passed around at the dinner table, or presented as gift to influential friends. Household slaves and servants, if they were comely, enjoyed the status pf pets in slave-owning and other strongly hierarchical societies. In England, black boys were put in fancy uniforms so that they, along with pure-bred dogs, could sit for portraits with their masters and mistresses. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, so many duchesses and harder to come by, and so commanded greater prestige. And then there are the women. In despotic Eastern societies, they were the decorative objects and sexual toys of powerful men small, pretty, and helpless, helplessness made evident in China when women submitted to having their feet bound and deformed. Even in relatively enlightened Western societies, women were legally children—child-wives in doll houses, as put it—until a century or so ago.
Do I speak here only of the past? Have times changed? The answer is yes, but the desire to dominate or patronize is too deeply embedded in human psychology to disappear altogether. Today, this desire is directed mostly at racial minorities in our own country and at “our little brown brothers” in the rest of the world. More generally, it is desired at all subordinates. Dog owners like to order their dog to fetch and see the animal trotting off in obedience. But it is a pleasure available to all who have human subordinates at their disposal. The boss say fetch—though, of course, he uses a more polite language—and his subordinate goes to get coffee or a multimillion-dollar contract. Geographers, in my opinion, have focused too exclusively on economic exploitation. As humanists, we should also attend to the ways we toy with nature and weaker people for no purpose other than to indulge in our dark fantasies of total power and control.
Culture and Imagination
My third theme is culture considered as a product of imagination. By imagination I mean the ability to see what isn’t there. A carpenter looks at a wooden plank and sees a bench. This commonplace is as remarkable, in its way, and as when Michelangelo looks at a marble block and sees an immortal work of art—David. Another commonplace of knowledge is this. We all know that animals migrate when they are pushed, and that human beings do so likewise. But human beings also migrate under the lure of pull—that is, when they envisage a place out there—say, the New World—that is more attractive. Or they may decide to stay put in the Old World. The pull, then, is an image or plan in their minds, which they try to turn into a three-dimensional, material reality.
People are never wholly content with what already exists. Having moved to the New World, migrants may in time grows dissatisfied, make further improvements on it, or decide to redesign and rebuild an entirely new one. Even hunter-gathers, who lack the means to transform their environment materially, can do so with stories and rituals, and three changes and add up over time. Culture is thus potentially directional and progressive.
From this viewpoint, I raise a question that comes naturally to geographers, namely, what might be the relationship between the quality of environment and the quality of life? As swamps are drained and malaria is conquered, the quality of human life undoubtedly improves. Likewise, in a built environment, as peeling walls are repainted, drains are unclogged, rooms and household amenities are added. But at what point does adding more rooms and amenities cease to improve, and might indeed detract from, the quality of life—a life is not only materially but intellectually and spiritually rewarding?
I raise this question at the scale of a house. Urban planners have often raised it at the scale of neighborhood, as in neighborhood renovation, and at the scale of new towns and cities, built in the hope that entire, new communities will emerge, which, in human and social quality, match the quality pf their physical shells. Has this happened? No doubt there are examples of success, especially when the new towns are of modest size. The garden-city movement in England and Germany, inspired by Ebenezer Howard, might yield some examples, as also, a century later, the new-urbanism movement in the United States. But cities built from the ground up, designed to be showcases for a nation, have been more problematic. Think of St. Petersburg and Washington DC, built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and of Canberra, Brasilia, and Islamabad, built in the twentieth century. From the beginning, they there acclaimed to be visually splendid, but as settings for the development of a rich and vibrant urban life their histories have been checkered.
Material possessions can enslave rather liberate. We know that. But what about works or arts? Do they not enrich? What about nonmaterial goods such as philosophy and religion? Don’t they add to the quality of life? Take, first, the enlarging and enriching power of art; more specifically, or architecture. Consider an elemental aesthetic experience known to all human beings—-that of interior space. The quality of that experience—of what it means to be inside and enclosed—varies enormously, depending on a people’s access to great works of architecture. Ancient Egyptians knew the sublimity of exterior space (think of the pyramids under moonlight), but interior space for them was darkness and clutter. Ancient Greeks had the Parthenon on top of Acropolis to lift their spirit, but its interior was hardly more spacious than the interior of an Egyptian mortuary temple. Europeans had to wait for the construction of Hadrian’s Parthenon (A.D. 118-128) to acquire, for the first time, the sense of an interior space that was formally elegant, yet sublime—a vast hemisphere illuminated by the rotating sun. and, of course, this was not the end of the story. Architecture and, with in, the human appreciation of interior space continued to evolve.
This story of architectural/aesthetic progress leads me to ask, what about moral rules and systems? These two are products of culture, acts of imagination. All societies have moral rules, but only a few have elaborated them into systems—into what might be called moral edifices. Are the people who live under large and complex edifices better of f, more able to realize their full potential than people who live in structures of simpler design—moral lean-tos and huts? The answer is not at all clear. One reason is that large moral edifices are inevitably tied to sophisticated material culture. History is replete with examples of how the products of such culture, which include shrines, temples, churches, and mosques, and corrupt. Rather than inspire people to improve morally, they tempt them to vie for power and prestige. On the other hand, people whose moral edifices are as artless as their lean-tos and huts have been found to be gentle and caring, to value each other’s company rather than material goods. Understandably, educated urbanites in both East and West have been tempted to romanticize them, and see only virtue in their lives.
But this picture cannot be sustained. Hunter-gathers and other folks who live live close to nature are human, after all. They show behavioral traits that must be considered morally slack, if not by their own standards, then by standards that are now widely accepted. An egregious example of moral slackness is their tendency to be cruel to the deformed and handicapped in their own group and to be indifferent to the plight of all those outside their group. As for people who have been raised in elaborate moral edifices—in universal religions and philosophies such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Stoicism—they have glaring faults, which are well-known, but they also have distinctive virtues, an outstanding example of which is their willingness to help the stranger. Evidence of this virtue in the landscape are the inns and hospices for needy travelers, the indigent and the sick. The evidence goes beyond architecture, of course,. As immediate action, this virtue is most dramatically manifest in the way aid is extended to victims of natural disaster, even when they live at the other end of the earth.
The three themes that I have touched on are far-ranging, covering areas that human geographers do not morally address. What do they have in common? More generally speaking, what do humanist themes have in common? I would say that they all show a deep-seated desire to understand the complexity and subtlety of human experience, which in practice translate into paying more attention to quality than quality, the adjective than the noun, psychology then economics. Ideally, the humanist geographer is an Alexander von Humboldt, someone who has a vast command of the facts—the nouns. But he must also show a natural inclination to reflect on them and seek their meaning, as was the habit of Wilhelm, Alexander’s linguist brother. The question, what does it mean? What does it really amount to must always lies at the back of a humanist geographer’s mind, and it is this that males him also a moralist and a philosopher.
Y. F. Tuan, Alexander von Humboldt and His Brother: Portrait of an Ideal Geographer in Our time, a pamphlet published by UCLA Department of Geography, 1997.
Y. F. Tuan, Passing Stranger and Wonderful: Aesthetic, Nature, and Culture (Washington DC: Island press, 1993), pp. 35-118, 165-171; Y. F. Tuan, A Human Geographer, Daedalus, Spring 2003, pp. 135-136.
Y. F. Tuan, Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).
Y. F. Tuan, Escapism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 5-11.
Y. F. Tuan, Morality and Imagination: paradoxes of progress (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
Walter L. Creese, The Search for Environment: The Garden City: Before and After (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966); Y. F. Tuan, Topophilia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 159, 170-172, 197-199, 240-244.
S. Giedion, Architecture and the Phenomena of Transition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); Y. F. Tuan, Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 110-112.
Robert B. Edgerton, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (New York: The Free Press, 1992).
Y. F. Tuan, Progress and Anxiety, in Robert Sack, ed., Progress: Geographical Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp.86-89.