UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Severance and continuance—mimesis in relation to Sacha Kagan's "Art and Sustainability" Hoekstra, Daan


Sacha Kagan’s Art and Sustainability refers to four fragments from Heraclitus as exemplifying “an aesthetic sensibility to complexity.” Kagan’s book, however, deals mostly with art in the 20th-21st centuries, without addressing links between Heraclitus’ time and the present. This thesis addresses the historical gap by suggesting that Western traditions of mimesis in the visual arts provided continuity of the sensuous immersion in the environment, in spite of the severance that occurred, according to David Abram, when culture transitioned from oral traditions to written language, and from a pictographic mode into an alphabetic mode. I make legible the connections between the thought of Heraclitus, artistic practice in the Western tradition of naturalistic painting, and the work of John Ruskin, William Morris and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, contending that mimetic traditions retained the thought of Heraclitus and Pythagoras, in methodologies of practice that became a sort of proto-systems-thinking and proto-complexity-theory. Through Ruskin and Morris, these mimetic traditions, about a way of seeing, led directly to 20th century environmentalism and concepts of sustainability. Through Bertalanffy, knowledge from the mimetic traditions led directly to the genesis of 20th century systems theory. Discussion of these issues is nested within a broader analysis of the several narratives about how environmental problems are the result of multiple cases of severance, schism that separated humans, intellectually, psychically and physically, from the sensuous immersion in the “more-than-human” to which Abram refers. I emphasize both the need to take stock of the resilient strands of rooted pre-modern cultural traditions that continued in spite of severance and the need to understand and study severance as a recurring historical phenomenon. I point out the way in which ancient influences frequently revitalize culture, contending that pre-modern mimetic traditions carry important ecological knowledge.

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