The Work of Yi-Fu Tuan

Awhile ago Virginia Postrel pointed me to the work of Yi-Fu Tuan, a fascinating human geographer from the University of Wisconsin. Tuan thinks about issues of identity, geography, philosophy, and cosmopolitanism. He asks age old questions about the meaning of life from new angles — in particular, the role one’s relationship to place has in making sense of the world around us.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed called Tuan the most important scholar you’ve never heard of. Here’s a lecture he gave on his intellectual development. Here are brief essays (blog posts, really) from his web site on assorted topics. Below are excerpts via Postrel from Tuan’s book Cosmos and the Hearth:

Consider the expression "cosmopolitan hearth." The emphasis is on "hearth" rather than on "cosmopolitan" in recognition of a fundamental fact about human beings, which is that free spirits–true cosmopolites–whose emotional center or home is a mystical religion or philosophy, an all-consuming art or science, are few in number and always will be. The binding powers of culture are nearly inexorable: note that even the most highly educated people (the Bloomsbury literati, for example) can be as narrowly bound to a particular culture (English country house and afternoon teas), as xenophobic and intolerant of what they don’t know, as the provincials and primitive folks they disdain. So we are all more or less hearth-bound. We can, however, make a virtue of necessity. We can learn to appreciate intelligently our culture and landscape.

"Intelligently" is the word to underline. What does it mean in practice? A modest beginning would be to know the local geography, but this should include lived experience and not just impersonal facts. We need to remember how it is to wake up in the middle of the night to the crash of hail on the roof and feel, because the blanket has migrated up to our shoulders, the chill of exposed feet. Knowing places other than our own is a necessary component of the concept of "cosmopolitan hearth." The unique personality of our small part of the earth is all the more real and precious when we can compare it with other climes, other topographies. Perhaps this is another way of saying that exploration (moving out of the cosmos) enables us to know our own hearth better–indeed, "for the first time." Difference contributes to self-awareness, and that is one reason why high modernism is in favor of difference. But, curiously, awareness of commonality, rather than destroying local distinction, can subtly add to it by giving it greater weight. In a rowboat on Lake Mendota, in Madison, Wisconsin, I look at the moon. The same moon will one night enthrall someone in a rowboat on Lake Como, Italy. I do not feel diminished by sharing the moon with an Italian, nor does Lake Mendota seem less unique.

The next step is to get a firm grip on our own culture–the custom or habit that, stamped on habitat, produces a homeplace. If it is difficult to appraise habitat with the fresh and eager eyes of a visitor, it is more difficult to appraise–or even be aware of–habits, especially those that we repeat daily. I think here not only of such larger acts as getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, preparing and eating breakfast, and so on through the day, but also the infinite number of miniacts within them, such as how one squeezes the toothpaste tube, eats peas, pats the dog, smells the evening air. Miniacts (habits) have their own minihabitats, and these are even more likely to escape our conscious awareness. The recognition that living as such, in all its detail and density, is a terra incognita that eludes scientific probing is an instance of high-modern sensibility. One consequence is the wish to protect the warm core of living, so vulnerable in its inarticulateness, from aggressive rationality and modernism.

"Cosmopolitan hearth" is a contradiction in terms and this fact, perhaps, defines our dilemma–a human dilemma that has always existed but that becomes more evident as we move from traditional to modern, then high modern. The dilemma is captured by the observation, which George Steiner and others have made, that whereas plants have roots, human beings have feet. Feet make us mobile, but of course we also have minds, a far greater source of instability and uprooting. Consider such utterly commonplace experiences: while we are "here," we can always imagine being "there," and while we live in the present, we can recall the past and envisage the future. Stay in the same place, and we will still have moved inexorably, for the place of adulthood is not the place of childhood even if nothing in it has materially changed. Stages of life are sometimes called a "journey," a figure of speech that again vividly captures the condition of human homelessness. A paradox peculiar to our time and to Americans especially is that "searching for roots," which is intended to make us (Americans) feel more rooted, can itself be uprooting, that is, done at the expense of intimate involvement with place. Rather than immersion in the locality where we now live, our mind and emotion are ever ready to shift to other localities and times, across the Atlantic or Pacific, to ancestral lands remote from direct experience. We can be dismissive of what is right before our eyes–the local McDonald’s where our young children wolf down their hamburgers, the city cemetery where our parents were recently buried—in favor of some place at the other end of the globe where distant forebears lived, toiled, and danced.

The book concludes with the following:

Singing together, working together against tangible adversaries, melds us into one whole: we become members of the community, embedded in place. By contrast, thinking–especially thinking of the reflective, ironic, quizzical mode, which is a luxury of affluent societies–threatens to isolate us from our immediate group and home. As vulnerable beings who yearn at times for total immersion, to sing in unison (eyes closed) with others of our kind, this sense of isolation–of being a unique individual–can be felt as a deep loss. Thinking, however, yields a twofold gain: although it isolates us from our immediate group it can link us both seriously and playfully to the cosmos–to strangers in other places and times; and it enables us to accept a human condition that we have always been tempted by fear and anxiety to deny, namely, the impermanence of our state wherever we are, our ultimate homelessness. A cosmopolite is one who considers the gain greater than the loss. Having seen something of the splendid spaces, he or she (like Mole [in The Wind in the Willows]) will not want to return, permanently, to the ambiguous safeness of the hearth.

4 Responses to The Work of Yi-Fu Tuan

  1. Maxine says:

    Fascinating. On a side note, his name is probably correctly written as Tuan Yi Fu but has been reversed to accomodate western convention.

    It’s a pet peeve of mine, that we can’t accomodate different naming conventions – probably indicative of an indvertant form of xenophobia.

    I’ve know people who come from cultures with no tradition of a surname who have to invent themselves one to appease incredulous bureaucrats. C’est la vie I suppose.

  2. Akshay says:

    “and it enables us to accept a human condition that we have always been tempted by fear and anxiety to deny, namely, the impermanence of our state wherever we are, our ultimate homelessness.”

    Wow. What a great description of the act of thinking as being isolating. When thinking, we literally are not in that mode of “togetherness” because if conception is perspective, we are somewhere else entirely.

    Then again, thinking, in that “reflective, ironic, quizzical mode” can also breed community and membership in a variety of other communities.

  3. No comment really. Just a very sincere thanks for this and many other blogs that you take the effort to find, select, reflect and write. I am learning a lot through your pointers.

  4. Melanie says:

    Maxine has a good point, which Tuan discusses himself in his letter link to yifutuan.org

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