The Illumined Wastes: America's Forgotten Aesthetics
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Brown, Steven Collier
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CitationBrown, Steven Collier. 2018. The Illumined Wastes: America's Forgotten Aesthetics. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractWhat are today’s wastelands? The barrens of Ghana? The mega slums in Mumbai? The trash heaps of Rio de Janeiro? The frozen wilderness of Siberia? These are classic types of wasteland, featuring desolation on a large scale. But what such a scale misses is the daily encounter people have with miles of vacancy beneath power lines, the medians between highways, the capacious roofscapes of suburban shopping malls and emporiums, the narrow strips of dirt or grass between our yards and sidewalks, even defunct railroad corridors. Equal in importance to the question of what wastelands are is the question of who inhabits them—and not only who, but how they see possibilities beyond the wastes they occupy. And finally, how can those of us who live outside of the wastes replace the longstanding aesthetic and social stigmas that surround wasted places and the people who inhabit them?
This study reevaluates waste as a concept. The idea is to approach waste and wasteland from the bottom up, which is to say, from the perspective of those who, out of necessity, must also re-imagine their environments. Studies that focus on waste or wasteland aesthetics typically rely on traditional dichotomies of beauty and ugliness, appeal and disgust. This research complicates those binaries. It focuses instead on the issue of utility. Utility connects waste and wasteland conceptually, which is important to know when analyzing the use that the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised make of the wastes.
The assumption made in this study is that the problem of waste and wastelands requires more than economic and political intervention. It requires a radical reconceptualization of social ideals. This study also argues that aesthetics of waste are not twenty-first century anomalies but part of a much longer history of western literature. With that idea in mind, The Illumined Wastes looks backwards for precedent, starting with what the eighteenth-century English agrarian, Arthur Young, described as the “advantages” wastelands might provide the poor when threatened by enclosures and deprived of their commons. From Young, the study works its way forward into nineteenth-century American literature, history, and visual art. James Fenimore Cooper, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Henry David Thoreau are among the more well-known figures included. The Illumined Wastes pieces together a more cohesive and usable aesthetic past in the hopes of expanding current research to include the insider’s understanding of waste and wastelands rather than the outsider’s only. Modern analogies are made throughout the study in order to characterize aesthetics for which earlier writers had no language or context, only an intuition.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41129216
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