Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics
For Tony McManus, who we are here celebrating today, the study of geopoetics and living a creative life were inseparable, each enriching the other. He believed passionately that geopoetics, as a world theory-practice – as an approach to thinking and living – opens the way to creativity for everyone, and can create the possibility of experiencing and expressing the world in a livelier, more perceptive way. For him, geopoetics provides the hope and the basis for the radical cultural renewal we so badly need today.
This will be a lecture in 2 parts. In the first, I will reflect on my own journey into geopoetics, exploring the potential of my own field of ethnology as an emerging creative practice. This is the topic of my essay in the Stravaig journal, so a more in-depth account of this is there if you are interested (also here).
In part 2, I want to turn to the here and now, to the Earth, and to the challenges of the future. Just this week there was a letter signed by 100 academics calling for action to halt the ecological crisis we face caused by climate breakdown. The letter reads,
“The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.”
— The Guardian, Fri 26 Oct 2018
In many ways responding to a personal need to make some sense of the utter burach in which we have found ourselves, I will reflect on where we are now, how we got here, and where we might go next. I will introduce a map for navigating our way through, how we might ‘open a world,’ finding grounds for radical hope in geopoetics.
What I am offering here are by no means answers, but rather a tentative interpretation and some unfinished thoughts from a personal perspective, searching for the right questions to ask.
PART 1: A Journey into Geopoetics
My own journey into geopoetics began a long time ago, although I did not realise it at the time. This was during my PhD research – a study of the traditional ballad, based at the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Rather than focusing on a collection of ballad ‘texts’, I was interested in the live embodied encounter of song performance: the shivers, tingles, and chills we sometimes experience listening to unaccompanied traditional song. Many of us will be able to bring to mind such an encounter – perhaps listening to live music, reading poetry or discovering visual art, being in nature, a religious experience, being part of a political movement. These are often the occasions that we become aware, if only fleetingly, that we are here, that we are together, that we are connected. Ethnologists might call this experience communitas.
As a researcher, I am interested in these heightened moments that re-frame or affirm our perception of the world and our relationship to it. A ‘heightened aesthetic experience’ is understood here not in the sense of a matter of judgement or taste, but rather – as opposed to the anaesthetic experience – as one in which our senses are operating at their peak, when we are present in the current moment with heightened awareness, when we are and fully alive.
Often, in order to make sense of our experiences, we reach for metaphor, for poetic language, to create and re-create meaning. Metaphor has poetic power precisely because it re-connects abstract thought with embodied experience, providing a grounding we often fail to see precisely because it is so pervasive and fundamental. The philosopher Mark Johnson (2007) makes the case that all metaphors are grounded in our visceral experience and explains that it is through our bodily perceptions, movements, senses and emotions that meaning becomes possible. That is to say, all aspects of meaning-making are fundamentally aesthetic.
The central question, then, is this: what is the relationship between our embodied experience and perception, and the language we use to express it? I later came to realise that is a central question of geopoetics (McManus 2007). To find an answer, my own research turned to phenomenology – a research method that attends to the affective dimension of our embodied experience; and to hermeneutics – which is concerned with how we interpret and express our subjective lived experience in and through language as part of a process of meaning-making.
In truth, I found the experience of academic research both thrilling and strangely alienating; alienating in the sense that, in such an intensely cerebral environment, I felt disconnected from my own body. I discovered that it is quite possible to grasp or comprehend a philosophical concept but not understand it, bodily. Theoretical explanations quickly become removed from lived reality and from the infinitely rich encounters that cause us to want to think more deeply about our experience in the first place. In geopoetics, I found a way to reconcile – or perhaps reconnect, in a way that made sense to me – the rigour of cerebral, analytic work with the experience of being a body in the world. For me, this is what geopoetics was first about: seeking awareness and understanding both intellectually, by developing knowledge, and sensitively, bodily, intuitively using all our senses to become ‘attuned to the world.’ I visualise geopoetics as the rigorous pursuit of clarity of thought, chasing those flashes of insight, creativity and connection, but always grounded in my embodied, aesthetic experience of being-in-the-world.
I know most of you in the room will be familiar with geopoetics, but if you’ll let me, for those of you who are not, I’ll take a wee bit of time to outline some of the key ideas, as I interpret them. The difficulty here is is that geopoetics is not linear, and it is very difficult to find a thread through in such a short talk.
Geopoetics begins, then, with a ‘radical critical analysis’ of the ‘cultural mindscape’ we find ourselves in today. Kenneth White begins by rejecting the philosophical stances which underpin what he calls the ‘Motorway of our Western civilisation’ and our modern culture. He looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave this motorway, searching for alternative ways of looking at the world, and celebrating the figure of the ‘intellectual nomad,’ the poet-thinker, the artist-philosopher.
First, White rejects Plato’s idealism, which leads to the fundamental western belief that reality is to be found somewhere other than the here and now. He rejects Aristotle’s division of the world, and our experience of it, into separate categories. Their modern derivatives are similarly rejected – the dualism in Descartes’ separation of human from nature and mind from body; rationalism, which derives from this division of subject from object; and humanism, with its Hegelian notion of historical progress and its exploitative approach to nature.
This leads White to what he calls the central debilitating problem in our culture: a failure to ‘see life whole.’ Our worldview, dominated by a mechanistic, rational science that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed, has given rise to the loss of ‘a sense of world.’ This loss is reflected in the reductionist and atomistic division of areas of knowledge into discrete categories.
Geopoetics argues for the plural need to amend the excessive damage the environment, human consciousness, and being are experiencing as a consequence of this ‘loss of world.’ In search of alternatives, White engages with non-western traditions, and with traditions of European phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger and others. Husserl’s Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy (1936) criticises science’s objectivism as naivety and seeks to reinstate the thinking mind as one which can perceive reality as a whole.
From this radical cultural analysis, White finds grounds for a renewal of culture. By this, he means a new cultural perspective whereby the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics, which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. ‘The real work’ he writes, consists of ‘changing the categories, grounding a new anthropology, moving towards a new experience of the earth and of life’ (White 2004, 22). Like Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological ‘radical reflection’ or Heidegger’s hermeneutic drive ‘to get back to the beginning of thought’, geopoetics requires an openness and readiness to both recognise and consciously abandon inherited concepts, philosophical assumptions and the cultural baggage of language, ideology and discourse. It is, in many ways, a process of radical unlearning. It is about decolonising the mind. A ‘new mental cartography’ White called it. A re-mapping of our relationship with the world.
Crucially, White was seeking a local grounding for this new world-view. Geopoetics is very much a place-based praxis. This is not provincial, but parochial in the most expansive sense of the word. Parochial is universal: it deals with the fundamentals. In pursuit of this ground, Geopoetics traces structures, ideas, themes, expressions, lifelines back to the archaic landscape, and forwards into future developments, with critical reflection, outside of existing systems of representation. ‘We need minds’, writes White, that that can draw the ‘significant lines together – through geography, history, culture – and open up new ways of ‘inhabiting the Earth.’
If geography means earth-writing, geopoetics can be interpreted as means world-making. It is fundamentally about creativity.
McManus writes, ‘The word ‘poetry’ in these context does not refer to the current mass of more or less formulaic statements of personal-social angst which rarely goes beyond names and words. Poetry, here, is the expression of the human mind which has reached a perception of the world which it must express. When the human expresses the perception of being which opens up to this philosophical mind, he is not scientist, he is not even philosopher, he is poet: poetry says Heidegger, ‘brings being into the light.’’ That is to say that our capacity for intense perceptive experience, and the rich expression of it, is part of what it is to be human. Poetry, in this case, goes beyond the literary form to take in other forms of creativity, such oral expression, writing, visual arts, music, science. In other words, it is the natural and, potentially, universal expression of what White calls this ‘sense of world.’ The ‘poetic’, in this context, becomes synonymous with human potential for constantly ‘making the world new’ (Bachelard 1958).
I need to talk a little about this word ‘culture’ in this context. In geopoetics, ‘the fundamental questions is cultural,’ but in the most expansive sense. In White’s view, culture is ‘the way human beings conceive of, work at and direct themselves.’ If ‘agri-culture means working at a field to produce the best crop,’ he writes, then ‘human culture means working at the most harmonious growth of the individual and the collective in its environment.’ In the collective sense, culture is defined as to what is essential to the group. Successful cultures cluster around a central motif, a nucleus of interest, a poetics, understood here as basic language of experience, perception and expression.
Geopoetics is conceived of as a world culture; the Earth is the central motif. Caring for the earth is a fundamental part of geopoetics – a concern that is shared by all, north south east and west.
This is not a homogenous world culture, but rather a world culture that recognises the creative relationship between humans and earth in all its diversity and particularities. White himself called gepoetics an ‘intercultural movement’ in that it not only recognises linguistic, cultural, poetic, philosophic and scientific diversity, but demands a genuine interaction among its various components. It requires genuine interaction of different worldviews, philosophies, sciences, geographies, modes of being, for the enlargement of human understanding of the diversity the cosmos offers (Hashas 2017).
It is important to remember that geopoetics began in the 1970s. Theories on postcolonialism, feminism, multiculturalism, interculturalism, secularism, liberalism, environmentalism have all developed since, and so the geopopetic project is both part of this development and an interdisciplinary contribution to it. Keeping this context in mind, geopoetics can be read as a radical call for more critique, and more ‘opening up’ against dogmatic, ideological and religious discourses. In this sense, it is a strident challenge to all colonising homogeneities. Other disciplines can, in geopoetics, find similar potential.
I want to speak briefly about my own field of Scottish ethnology here. Ethnology is a form of interdisciplinary anthropological research and practice that, at its heart, seeks to understand how we, as humans, make life meaningful. We might describe it as the study of how communities make sense of themselves to themselves in particular places through cultural memory and creative expression. Often, the focus is our relationship with the past and how we make sense of it in the present, and so historically, ethnology has been closely associated with its sister discipline of folklore and the study of local traditional culture.
Ethnology values human relationships and emotional connections, recognises the diversity of human experience and understands the importance of our ecological connection to place. Through fieldwork, it bears witness to the experience of others and reflects the manifold and diverse ways human subjectivity and experience manifests itself, a celebration and appreciation of difference and diversity. With its emphasis on drawing global insights from consciously situated perspectives (‘Wisdom sits in places,’ Basso 1996), a Scottish ethnology is one of the world anthropologies in practice.
Here in Scotland – in part – in part a response to the cultural and political context in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum and ongoing debates in arts, culture and higher education – a group of ethnologists and creative practitioners have begun to explore the potential of a ‘creative ethnology’ outwith the strictures of the university. For some, the creative potential of ethnology is about finding more imaginative ways to share our research through creative output, such as performance or creative writing; for others the potential is in its interdisciplinarity: how we engage in vital dialogue with other fields, such as ecology or the arts. For others, this is not simply a question of drawing on the creativity of the category of ‘the artist’ in collaboration; there is a sense too in which we must become artists ourselves.
I was keen to explore what a creative ethnology as a form of geopoetics might look like – the ethnologist as the figure of the poet-thinker, the artist-philosopher – and so took this question to the Expressing the Earth conference in 2017 (this, as I mentioned, is the topic of my essay in Stravaig). Ullrich Kockel – whose writing has been an inspiration to me – and I later co-wrote a chapter situating a Scottish creative ethnology in a European context, drawing on the rich wells of tradition and critical thought in this place. We evoke the metaphor of Nan Shepherd’s ‘Living Mountain’ – the topic of last year’s annual lecture and of the carrying stream; Hamish Henderson’s ‘Carrying Stream’ – an affirmation of the living current of intergenerational transmission; and also Patrick Geddes. Described variously as a Victorian polymath and ‘synthesising generalist,’ Geddes was looking for connections and patterns, and the intellectual tools to bring disparate ideas into relation, cultivating what he called ‘sympathy, synthesis and synergy. I have written about this elsewhere.
In my own view, an ethnological sensibility or being-in-the-world speaks to the need for an activist orientation in practice.
“Beyond profession, my concern has been to find and follow a calling, a deeper voice. It finds its roots in who I am and a sense of purpose I have on earth ”
— Lederach 2005
Ullrich has observed that, in his experience, many of us working in this field are motivated by concerns ‘not unlike those that have inspired the work of artists, poets, theologians and campaigners’ (2010). This struck a chord with me. These shared concerns might include a desire to create and to connect, to seek and share knowledge, to raise awareness, to challenge the use of power, to bring people together, to search for meaning, to imagine and make manifest new ways of thinking and being. Ullrich also introduced to me the ideas of Joseph Beuys, an important figure to geopoetics. His famous words ‘every man is an artist’ is not claiming that everyone can ‘be an artist’ in a conventional sense; rather it is evoking the power of the human body to transform and be transformed in a constant, creative process. Beuys believed that we must bring our whole selves – our intuition and imagination, as well as our rational thinking, our will – to a conscious, active participation in culture, a form of what he called ‘social sculpture.’
“As we come to terms with the fact that [we] make, and are made by, the field that [we] study, [we] have a choice: either retreat into the safe realm of pure cultural theory, or get to grips with the messy business of trying to navigate the morphogenetic cultural field as it changes shape under [our] very hands.”
— Kockel 2011
My point here is that, while geopoetics may appear to be largely a personal and existential quest, it cannot be only so. Simon Springer, in an article called ‘Earth Writing,’ (2017) writes that geopoetics demands praxis. He calls for a theoretically informed, critically reflective scholar-activism. In defence of any anti-intellectual accusation of ‘esotericism,’ which is a charge often levelled, he argues passionately that we need theory for meaningful action as much we need meaningful action to refine our theories.
A geopoetic worldview, he writes, allows us to ‘replace the hubris that so often attaches itself to academia, with a modesty and humility that brings us into greater contact with the world.’ As ‘nomads of the present’ (Melucci 1989), we venture into the ‘unchartable terrain that is the mystery of life.’ As poet-thinkers, we acknowledge the ‘hidden enfolded immensities,’ ‘sheer physical messiness,’ and the ‘sticky materiality of practical encounters’ that can never be captured, pinned down, or fully understood.
When we approach theory-practice with an open, geopoetic mind that ‘expresses reality in different ways … [through] combinations of different art forms,’ a material space for radical transformation might follow. ‘Possibility becomes possible’ when ‘the scope of theory and the hope of creativity collide in kaleidoscope’ (Springer 2017).
I want to give the final words of part 1 to Tony McManus. He believed that
“Geopoetics holds out not just the possibility of, but the necessity for the fully human being as one who strives towards perceptive awareness of the world through experience, thought and action and who strives also to express that sense of world in his/her life and thought.”
— McManus n.d
In a sense, this is what I am striving for now, at the beginning of a journey towards an emerging geopoetic praxis.
PART 2: Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics
This part of my lecture really is an attempt to respond to the here and now, although these thoughts are very much unfinished.
We are living through a very strange moment in human history – distuWe face huge challenges: ecological and climate breakdown as a consequence of global capitalism and its environmental destruction; challenges to globalisation with the rise of right-wing populism and the retreat into entrenched ethnicities, Brexit, Trump, Brazil; Big Data… Our daily news cycle is a nightmare. Every conversation I seem to have these days finds its way back to this sense of disbelief, hopelessness, frustration, despair. All of these discussions hold up a mirror to our collective consciousness. In the face of it all, it’s an opportunity for reflection, and to ask again, why we are here, what does it mean to be alive? What can we do, how can we act? Where can we rediscover purpose, collectively?
I was born in the 1980s. Since that time, the ascendant and dominant neoliberal agenda of globalisation has deeply transformed the material conditions of our world. Capitalism entered a new phase with the Thatcher and Reagan governments in the UK and the United States. Our society today has been shaped by ideologies and epistemologies underpinned by anthropocentric, hetero-patriarchal, Euro/Western-centric, colonial and capitalist systems of power. This has brought with it devastating social, political and ecological effects, leaving many people deeply dissatisfied, estranged and disempowered and may yet bring about our ultimate destruction.
It is nothing short of cultural invasion on a global scale.
Our collective priorities are shaped not by a desire to ‘see life whole’ but by a mechanistic, atomistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed. Within this paradigm, macroeconomics, geopolitics and capital are valorised and social systems are built on a linear, machine-like approach. In such an economic system, every thing (and everyone and everywhere) becomes disposable, seen simply in terms of resources at hand, ready for exploitation, for profit. In this world, people are expected to make sacrifices for profit-margin, to accept environmental damage that threatens future generations, often for no reward beyond ‘improved economic indicators.’
In the face of such contemporary hegemonic forces, every aspect of our lives has been colonised, commodified, from birth to death. Our local and national government, cultural institutions, organisations, education system, universities have all been totally captured by this way of thinking. This reform of the public sector has been called the ‘era of New Public Management’ or NPM, where managerial practices used to run businesses are applied to the public sector. It is an ideology that many of us have been complicit in promoting, with or without choice, knowingly or unknowingly.
I can only speak from my own experience of work, in universities and in arts and cultural administration. Higher education and research have been forced to conform to the norms of ‘efficiency, value for money, customer service and performance targets’ where ‘everything has come to depend on audits and metric standards of so-called quality assessment (student satisfaction, pass rates, league tables etc.)’ (Winkler 2018). Academics have little, if any, say on whether departments should continue to exist, what degrees and courses should be on offer and even what kind of assessment methods should be used. Researchers are forced into competition with an ever-tighter funding regime that values short-term instrumental usefulness rather than deep, long-term understanding. This colonisation of higher education by neoliberalism is an absolute assault on academic freedom. We see the co-option of radical language. The casualisation and precarity of the workforce. And yet, within this system, there are wonderful people trying to do wonderful things.
Our arts and cultural policy, again, has been totally colonised, not by one perceived nationality over another (as in Alastair Gray’s now infamous essay of 2013, ‘Settlers and Colonists,’ a different argument altogether), but rather by the ideology of the ‘creative industries.’ This is defined by in the UK Government’s 2001 ‘Creative Industries Mapping Document’ as ‘the potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.’ Creative ‘production’ is about targets and outcomes, ‘value for money,’ anathema to the creative process. This name-making, logo-driven culture of neoliberalism demands of artists to ‘be a brand,’ to be a business, to ‘be our own export.’ Our role as cultural workers is to outflank or outmaneover the system, to be creative and agile, and yet all too often we are serving the very system that we seek to undermine, chained by our branded lanyards. Yet again, within this system, despite this system – many people still manage to create wonderful work and do wonderful things.
But at what cost?
It does not have to be this way. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014) writes,
“It’s a habit of mind. As such, it can be changed. Except that most of the time we cannot see this, because we are “locked in, politically, physically and culturally” to the world that capital has made.”
Geopoetics calls for decolonisation: of the mind, of our ideologies and our institutions, of our everyday lives. It calls for resistance and transformation.
Geopoetics reaches for a world culture where the Earth is the central concern. The point I am trying to make here is that our economic system and climate crisis are fundamentally linked.
Our current predicament has led some commentators to describe our time as a new geological era shaped by humans – the Anthropocene (Hamilton et al, 2015). In their recent report, the IPCC have stated we have twenty years before a global disaster is upon us due to the effects of global heating and climate breakdown. This was shortly followed by the WWF’s Living Planet report with 60% of species wiped out since 1970, as a direct consequence of human consumption. This past week, as I mentioned earlier, a letter was sent to Parliament demanding action on climate breakdown. On Wednesday, we saw the launch of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ in London – an act of civil disobedience where 15 people were arrested for protesting the government’s response to climate tragedy.
Hundreds of people showed up for a symbolic act of #ExtinctionRebellion against the UK government last week, accusing it of inaction in the face of #climate breakdown and ecological crisis. Photo – right. Source: DESMOGUK
“We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak.”
— The Guardian, Fri 26 Oct 2018
Climate breakdown is expression of a mechanistic worldview, an epistemology of conquest and an ideology of global capital – the whole point of which is to find resources and exploit them. Climate breakdown is an indicator of just how far our human psyche and culture has become divorced from our natural habitat. It is the conclusion of a culture and a worldview that separates man from nature, that ‘fails to see life whole.’ Our economy is destroying the natural basis of life. This the endgame: it is the very expression of the loss of ‘a sense of world.’
The West’s response to these environmental issues, since the 1970s, have been individualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic – responses which have failed to solve the problem (Bendell 2018). If we are to try to change the direction of our own destruction, we need to challenge the systems and structures that dominate our existence. To achieve such a vision, we need a fundamental transformation of our lives and an extensive cultural change: a radical cultural renewal.
Arguments about climate breakdown are really arguments about how and what we can think.
The significance of these devastating statistics can be difficult to grasp. The ecological philosopher Timothy Morton calls climate breakdown a ‘hyperobject’ – a thing that surrounds us, envelops us and entangles us, but that is too big to see in in its entirety (2013). Mostly, we perceive hyperobjects through their influence on other things – a melting ice sheet, a dying sea. Hyperobjects happen everywhere at once, but we can only experience them in the local environment.
I read a book recently, James Bridle’s The New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (2018), a brilliant book – as illuminating as it is unsettling – in which I discovered an alarming fact: carbon dioxide is literally dumming us down. If C02 levels reach 1000 parts per million, our human cognitive abilities drop by 21%.
“C02 clouds the mind: it directly degrades our ability to think clearly, and we are walling it into our places of education and pumping it into the atmosphere. The crisis of climate breakdown is a crisis of the mind, a crisis of though, a crisis in our ability to think another way to be. Soon, we shall not be able to think at all.”
— Bridle 2018
In July of this year, academic Jem Bendell, published a paper called Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy in which he offers a new framing for beginning to make sense of what we face. Bendell, himself a Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, believes that best-available science says that there is an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change, a process which has already started, and a process of which many mainstream sustainability professionals are in denial. This situation has led others to conclude that we should be exploring how to live in an unstable post-Sustainability situation, exploring post-growth or degrowth models. The current neoliberal system offers little hope for the kind of changes that will be needed and, further, it has the capacity to worsen the harm done to the Earth, and to impose greater suffering and oppression on the many in order to protect the power and wealth of the few.
As an invitation to enter a dialogue, Bendell offers Deep Adaptation as a framework for communities to explore how they might to prepare for collapse, both locally and globally (I will outline this below). Such an approach is seriously under-discussed because it has hitherto been taboo. His framework has already influenced community dialogue on climate change in Britain in the past two years, including in Peterborough and Newcastle, as well as being used by the Dark Mountain network which many of you will be familiar with. There are the beginnings of a movement in Scotland too.
Bendell recognises that this is a huge agenda that must involve diverse disciplines. Deep Adaption calls on nothing short of a world approach. There is much that geopoetics could contribute to such a framework – and perhaps we could discuss this later.
In pursuit of a conceptual map of Deep Adaptation, Bendell talks in terms of resilience, relinquishment and restoration. Of course, each of these words has different meanings in different contexts and discourses, but for the purposes of this framework, they are understood as follows:
Resilience is about developing our capacities to deal with change. The resilience of human societies is the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours. We need to think again, switch our mindsets. What do we really want to keep? What can we draw on to help us through? The question, however, is not just about what we want to keep or preserve, but what are we willing to give up, to let go? This is relinquishment. It is about giving up expectations for certain types of consumption, assets, beliefs. This includes material possessions, ways of life, cultural patterns, patterns of behaviours. The current discourse of ‘sustainability’ might see this as defeatist, but it can be re-framed as a positive action. Finally, restoration. This is about finding ways to restore life and community, something I’ll come back to at the end of the talk. Examples include re-wilding and re-people-ing landscapes, so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play and entertainment, and increased community-level productivity and support (Bendell 2018).
I want to discuss the second of these for a moment: relinquishment. In order to find new ways of thinking and living – of survival – we are going to have to let go of a whole lot of things. This is a question I have been asking of myself in recent months. In many ways it is a difficult personal process; it involves a something of a deconstruction of the self, of a previously held sense of identity and expectations. Who am I and how am I in the world? What is my role? What am I willing (or not) to be complicit in? How (and where) do I want to live? What am I willing to give up? What am I willing to let go of?
For me, this has involved some difficult life choices, and decisions to be made – both intellectually, critically, and sensitively, trusting my body. It involves both navigating and embracing tensions, contradictions and conflicts of trying to live as an activist (Erskine 2014). I am still in the midst of this unfinished process. The further I explore, it becomes increasingly difficult to work on projects that do not have some relevance to this wider interdisciplinary framework, this bigger picture.
As researchers, artists, writers, teachers, scientists, creative practitioners, we have an opportunity – some would say an obligation, a responsibility – not just to do what is expected by our employers and/or the norms of our profession, but also to reflect on the relevance of our work within wider society, and for the world. We might ask, from what position can we effect most change? Where are the pockets of resistance? Where are the openings, pressure points, connections, networks? Where are the spaces for freedom of thought, action, imagination and transformation? Where are the spaces for celebration and disruption? How do we connect and support each other? In my own wanderings, I have found many people who are desperate to have this conversation.
Geopoetics looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation.’ Many of us today are ‘nomads of the present’ (Melucci 1989), having left, in part, mainstream society, not knowing where we are heading but searching for what have not yet seen. Very quickly we might shed concern for conforming to the status quo and any desire for status, recognition or plaudits. Life becomes about finding and creating supportive networks and counter-cultural spaces in which individuals and groups can connect, think and act.
While this picture I have painted is bleak, we do not yet know what the future holds. There are opportunities for change and for alternative visions to emerge that may offer new hope. In geopoetics we find an optimistic project for the future, a grounds for radical hope, despite the deep anguish that lies behind it.
We need to understand and embrace our unfinishedness. To understand that we are always unfinished gives us radical hope that things can change, that transformation is still possible. Actvist Chris Erskine writes that this is a question of faith – not in a religious sense, but in the sense that ‘we must carry hope for things not yet manifest’ (2014).
“The body is always in a sense unfinished, open-ended, always capable of more creative activity than what it may be manifesting right now. ”
— Eagleton 2011
We each embody poetic power – the power of the human body to transform and be transformed in a constant, creative process. The power to make the world new. We must bring our whole selves – our intuition and imagination, as well as our rational thinking, our will – to a conscious, active participation in culture. David Harvey, in his book Spaces of Hope, a study on globalisation and the body, writes,
“There is a time and place in the ceaseless human endeavour to change the world, when alternative visions, no matter how fantastic, provide the grist for shaping powerful political forces for change”
— Harvey 2001
This idea of geopoetics, of ‘world-making’ has relevance for movement building; for creating and making manifest cultural renewal.
“At surface level, [cultural renewal] is a question of politics. At a deeper level, it’s a question of poetics…If you get politics and poetics coming together, you can begin to think that you’ve got something like a live, lasting culture.”
— White 2004 (my emphasis)
Lastly, I want to talk about this idea of restoration. Restoring a live, lasting culture. We might think of this, in geopoetic terms, as finding a new ground. Restoring life and community. Recovering ‘a sense of world.’ Seeing life whole. To be fully human, to be fully alive.
What practices might serve us, in advancing this collective-life-affirming cause? This might be to rediscover forgotten attitudes and approaches to life: ways of being, living, making, creating, crafting, eating. Living simply, living lightly. How did people celebrate and make meaning, prior to this hydrocarbon civilisation? What can we bring back to help us through this? Vital to this is conviviality. In conviviality, writes, Ian Wight, there is possibility. Anthropologist Edith Turner describes communitas as ‘collective joy’ (2012). It is ‘the sense of sharing felt by a group when their life together takes on deep meaning and collective awareness.’ It is ‘the gift of togetherness.’ Conviviality is the very foundation of community, of living together. It is more necessary than ever that we gather together and continue to explore how to live on this earth in more hopeful, joyful and life-giving ways.
In some ways I have now come full circle. I began by talking about about the materiality of aesthetic encounters and experiences that re-frame or affirm our perception of the world and our relationship to it. This is where the life energy is to be found, the impulse, the catalyst for change:
“We must find ways to ‘rekindle those transformative powers which are vital, not only in order for social, revolutionary change to occur, but to confront the challenges of the future”
— Walters 2012
Inviting us to consider the challenges of the future – collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible (Bendell 2018) – does not need to lead to apathy or despair. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we can enjoy community and conviviality with each other, something positive is possible – possibility becomes possible – and a radical hope can be found. On the macro scale, it can difficult to see the positives. On the micro scale, however, there are pockets of possibility all over the place. There are hugely positive stories to tell. There are glimpses of the future, of ‘a culture of possibility,’ right here in the present.
Ultimately, geopoetics calls for poeisis – the making, gathering, the bringing together. This is to participate in our collective human attempt to find meaning in its fullest realisation. Such a way of being has potential to re-energise individuals with a radical hope for the future. I give my final words to Tony McManus, in the The Radical Field:
“ Perhaps, eventually, a movement might arise which could revolutionise society, not from a standpoint under a banner (this is always exploited by a power group or class) but on the basis of knowledge and awareness – individuals sharing a grounding, living a shared culture of perception.”
— McManus 2004
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