by Kenneth WHITE
« Worlding »
Over the centuries, civilization has been carried by various powers : myth, religion, metaphysics. Although remnants of all these remain, usually in degraded forms, today civilization is carried by nothing — it just grows and spreads, like a cancer.
The last driving force was history itself, as put forward by Hegel, who claimed to see a Weltgeist (« spirit of the world ») at work in it.
From Hegel on, the conviction would be that history was reasonable, that it had a purpose, and that it was leading somewhere. The ideology of progress (with Growth and Prosperity as its motto) was born. The « somewhere » supposedly on the horizon differed according to the various ideological contexts. In Bismarck’s Germany, it was an all-powerful State, which would lead into the Nazi Drittes Reich (the « Third Empire » — after that of the Romans and that of Charlemagne). In Marxist Russia, it would be the creation of a great State whose mission would be to put an end to all States and usher in World Communism. In the liberal West, it would be some kind of immense Supermarket, offering a package deal of happiness to all (providing you kept in line and didn’t criticize the management). The Bismarck-Nazi project ended up among the smoking ruins of Berlin. The Marxist light faded into greater and greater gloom in the latter years of the twentieth century, and then suddenly sputtered out. Only the Supermarket still stands on the horizon.
And we have the Contemporary Situation. A hollowness, filled with more and more images, more and more noise. Mediocracy triumphant — the mediocre raised to a social and political power. Down the centre, a mindless helterskeltering. Along the rim, a literature, an art, that is little more than a reflection of this situation, this condition.
What is now evident — whatever people may have hoped, even in a passing or tangential way, from nationalism, socialism, national-socialism, communism, fascism, liberalism, or whatever — is that there is no strictly political solution to the condition described above. All politics on its own can do, and that is all we can expect from it, is try to cope with symptoms, in a more or less competent way.
The fundamental question is cultural rather than political, but only, as I have stressed, if the concept of culture be understood in a sense deeper than the one prevalent.
The sense of that word prevalent in our societies is strictly sociological. It covers everything that is done in the domains of theatre, cinema, literature, ballet and the visual arts. At times, some little distinctions are made, as between, say : « élite culture » and « popular culture », where the former means the products and activities of effete, disconnected minds, and the latter, not anything like the culture of a people, but the sort of pabulum certain social « deciders » with mediocratic minds consider fit for the populace, and an easy sell. But mostly it’s an indiscriminate hold-all term comprising the production of all kinds of objects, the exercise of all kinds of activities, outside the utilitarian sphere, and vaguely connected with the concept of « leisure ». Underlying this conception lies the conviction that the more books, films, plays, paintings, sculptures, installations, concerts and so on a society produces (the best and most necessary gets lost in the rush), the more evolved it is. This is hardly the case. Real evolution can do with less, a lot less. In fact, this object-ridden, activity-frantic consumer-culture gets nobody anywhere and its administration becomes a business in itself, blind to any deep purpose.
The question now is whether any « deep purpose » is still possible, whether anything like a real turning of the times is possible, anything like a new epoch of being.
This is where geopoetics comes in, saying : perhaps.
At the very least, it presents itself as a beautiful gesture (a final gesture of sentient-intelligent humanity ?) and as the most interesting thing around.
In order to see exactly where we now stand, and to see into the habitual contents of our mind, it’s necessary to make an analysis of the progress of our (Western) civilization.
I propose to see this civilization as a motorway, with various stages. All of the stages have left traces on our conscience. As I go through the various stages, I’ll be raising questions. It’s to these questions that geopoetics brings answering elements.
The first stage is represented by Plato and Aristotle, who are written into the very language we use, the way we think.
Plato invents metaphysics, that is, idealism. When we say that someone is « an idealist », it’s vaguely complimentary. This is a person interested in something beyond « mundane » concerns : the Good, the True, the Beautiful. At the same time, there is an implied criticism : this person needs to get his or her feet on the ground, and get back to « the real world » (where, again implied, nobody gives a damn about the Good, the True, the Beautiful).
Might it be possible to get outside the opposition of idealism and realism ? As well as outside the attempt to dialectize them (ideorealism, etc.) ? And also beyond the punky nihilism that comes to the fore when idealism falls flat on its face ? Might it be possible to get beyond the division of the intellectual and the sensitive on which metaphysics is based, a division leading, degeneratively, to empty intellectualism on the one hand and sentimentality on the other ?
As to Aristotle, his contribution to the Motorway (the march of Western civilization) was classification, taxonomy. Classification is a useful tool. With ten books in your library, you have no problem. If you have three hundred or three thousand, without some kind of classification, you’re going to waste a lot of time. Beyond that utilitarian aspect, there is an epistemological one : most of our knowledge is based on classification. We divide the real into parts, and we study the parts. A body, for example. We lay it, dead, on a table, and we cut it up. We learn a great deal that way about the respiratory system, the circulation of blood, the constitution of the various organs. And in cases of dysfunction, our medicine treats the various parts. The suspicion may arise, however, not only that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that the live whole may have a way of functioning that dissection cannot discover, but that health depends, not on the treatment of classified parts, but on a whole organism in an environment. Finally, if classifications are useful, they can become too narrow, the real living life of the world and the mind flows over them. There are, for example, books written which simply do not fit into the genre-systems of most histories of literature or the classifications of most bookshops. On a still more general plane, geopoetics is situated beyond the presently established and classified division of science, philosophy and poetry.
After the Classical Age come the so-called Middle Ages, stage 2 on the Motorway of West, marked largely by Christianity. Although life went on in the fields and gardens, as can be seen in so many of those beautiful miniatures in the Books of Hours, although St Francis talked almost paganly about Brother Sun and Sister Moon, although there were deviant movements and intellectual heretics, Christian culture tended to see the common-or-garden world as a vale of tears, to be passed through on the way to a life beyond. The accent was on a vertical relationship to a transcendence, as exemplified in those church towers and spires striving gothically up towards the heavens. In place of the Idea to be intellectually seized, there is God, to be adored and feared and loved via the Virgin Mary and the Christ. In place of Plato’s intellectual and Aristotle’s scientific field, you have a psychological theatre marked by the obsession of Original Sin : the world is agonizedly bemoralized. Another obsession is that of time. If Christ the Saviour rose to heaven after his sacrifice, one day he will return to earth. One hopes and waits for the Second Coming. When hope runs out, one continues to wait — for Godot.
Stage 3 on the cultural Motorway : the Renaissance. The renaissance, that is the re-birth — of what ? Of the Classical Age, of classical space. First of all, in the form of the works of Plato and Aristotle, lost in the Middle Ages, and preserved thanks to Arab scholars. Then, in the form of mythology : gods and goddesses, naiads and dryads. These mythical creatures were going to invade the mind massively. For long, no poem worthy of the name would be without its Venus, its Endymion, and so on, till, late in the nineteenth century, they were abandoned as an excrescence, an encumbrance, a nuisance. But these ancient mythical creatures served initially a significant cultural purpose. Before they became conventional, they were operative : the nymph of the forest aroused an interest in the forest, the muse of the mountain aroused an interest in the mountain. The natural world became again a focus of attention. Hence the rise of science : the attempt to probe into the secrets of nature. Hence an interest in this earthly world, and the desire to see beyond the boundaries of the small « known world » of medieval maps. New worlds are discovered — notably to the West, across the Atlantic. But look what happens. It’s much easier to impose a known system on the unknown than to expose oneself to that unknown. So that, in coming across an island, instead of taking a close look at it and naming it accordingly (a poetic, geopoetic act), as, say, « Sharp Rock Island » or « Palm Island », one dubs it « St John » or « St Martin », or tabs it with the name of some king, some governor, sticks a flag on it, and exterminates all former inhabitants, human or non-human. The result is that the so-called New World is never really a new world, only a blown-up caricature of some parts of the Old. At surface level, renaissances tend to be full of confused noise. Even at a deeper level, if some minds manage to reach into new-lighted, new-sounding space, most of what goes on is rehash : classical philosophy as taught in the humanist schools was only a pale reflection of the more radical areas of original Greek thought.
Modernity (stage 4 on the Motorway), as invented by René Descartes, was radical — both radical and ruthless. It reduced the whole world-complex to subject and object, and with that subject/object division went a project : mastery over Nature. With modernity, Nature becomes more and more objectified, considered exclusively as raw matter to be exploited. The disastrous ecological results of this are notorious. As to the subject, either it becomes completely robotized, wrapped up in some clinical, scientistic, astronautic, military uniform, or it ends up on the psychoanalyst’s couch, rank with frustration, fantasy, mind-cinema of every conceivable variety. Meanwhile modernity raves on down the Motorway.
The first reaction came from what has been called Romanticism. This was private individuals realizing they had been deprived of everything, and trying to do something about it. « What you’re looking for is a world », says Hölderlin’s hero, Hyperion (the man with hyper-demands), to himself. This meant, in the first place, a « return to Nature », sometimes only in sentimental terms. But it also meant an attempt to get at some kind of wholeness of thinking and being, which took the form of transversal research, reaching out beyond the established divisions of knowledge and the compartmentalisation of thought. Where psychology, biology and physics were separate departments in the « correct » epistemological establishment, the Romantic tries to think in terms of a complex synthesis : psychobiophysics. Carlyle has his caricature of a Romantic, Dr Teufelsdrökh (« Devil’s dragon »), lodged at a university called Weissnichtwo (« God knows where »), talking about transcendental anxiety, symbolism (windows into infinity) and natural supernaturalism.
The figures whom I’ve called « intellectual nomads » are not Romantics, but they share a point of departure in the same context, and they raise some of the same questions, while trying to find new answers, while trying also to go beyond reaction into a new action (activity).
These figures are difficult to define and impossible to classify. They are not professional, without being vaguely amateurish. They are not persons, they are subjects. The social person is a congeries of heredity, coded emotion and fantasy. The nomadic subject is an intention and a trajectory. The person is an identity. The subject is a field of energy.
At the beginning of this book, I went in some detail into the movements of two of such figures, Nietzsche and Rimbaud, the two that meant most to me in my own trajectory. In the context of the present essay, I’ll present only a rapid reminder, with maybe some additional flashes.
Nietzsche abandons his professional status as a classical philologist at the University of Basel, and thereafter nomadizes over Europe. We can trace his itinerary from Germany to Switzerland, and from Switzerland to France and Italy : « I decided to go away out into foreign parts, meet what was strange to me. […] Followed a long vagabondage, full of research and transformation, with no easy definition. […] You feel space growing all around you, the horizon opens. » In the course of those travels and on those heights, Nietzsche writes a series of electrically-charged books that analyse the context he has left behind and outline the new space in which he finds himself : Human All-too Human, Dawn, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo. His final word, in the face of all transcendental belief and of technological earth-destruction, was « Brothers, remain true to the earth. »
Close to Nietzsche, just as powerful a figure, being to poetry what Nietzsche was to philosophy, breaking out of bounds, desperate for new space, there is Rimbaud.
While he leaves two books on the literary scene, A Season in Hell and The Illuminations, Rimbaud’s life is mainly movement across various territories. His first move takes him across the region of the Ardennes, between Northern France and Belgium. Later, we find him crossing the Gothard Pass in winter (« only whiteness to think of ») between Switzerland and Italy. We can follow his journeys then through Germany and England. Thereafter, he leaves Europe for Indonesia. And at the end, we find him on the high plateau of Ogaden in Abyssinia. In one of his poems, he declares : « If I have taste left for anything at all, it’s for earth and stones. » I put this statement in connection with Nietzsche’s « Brothers, remain true to the earth », and see in both, as in the trajectories of these two figures, an approach to geopoetics.
It may be wondered why I was never interested to the same extent in any English writer. The simple fact is, in no English author (except maybe D. H. Lawrence in some rare passages) did I see the existential energy, the intellectual acumen and the poetic force I found in the German and the Frenchman.
It’s in this context that my own itinerary has to be read.
Out from Glasgow (then rife with symptoms of Western civilization’s latter phases), with early experience on the Atlantic coast of Scotland always in my mind, I moved across Europe in Travels in the Drifting Dawn, crossed over into Asia with The Face of the East Wind, and followed a path in the North of North America, with The Blue Road. Out of these areas (globally, « the most difficult area ») arose the poems of successive volumes, such as Walking the Coast, Handbook for the Diamond Country, Atlantica, Limits and Margins, gathered into the collected work Open World. After the itineraries and the poems came the essays, written for a long time mostly in French, of The Outward Movement, A Quiet Apocalypse, The Nomad Mind, The Plateau of the Albatross, which are attempts at a new poetic-theoretical cartography.
What I propose to do now is, not summarize these essays, but present synthetically the various affluents to geopoetics — scientific, philosophical, poetic — which they go into in more detail, and which the poems and waybooks incorporate and carry.
However infantile, nitwitted and irresponsible some techno-science will appear to the geopoetician, there is no doubt whatsoever that much of what has gone and is going on in science flows naturally into the field of geopoetics.
Among the first ancestors of geopoetics, I rank Alexander von Humboldt. In one of the notes to his Cosmos, Humboldt says that science, poetry and philosophy are not fundamentally separate, that they come together in the mind of one who has achieved a state of unity. It is this unity which characterizes a « complete work », in the sense I give that term. A similar unity can occur, in a more general kind of way, at certain periods in history. It is one of the theses of geopoetics that we may be able to open up such a period.
In many books on scientific thought published over the last ten years or so, the word « poetics » turns up in the final chapter. This is because science has entered an area in which « normal » language no longer seems adequate, and in which the structure of reality seems more poetic than mechanistic.
It all began with Einstein’s Cosmological Considerations (1917). Suddenly the word « cosmos » was back in human consciousness. Here was a scientist not content to simply measure and weigh, or hunt about for yet another particle, a scientist going against the established axiom that there is no science of the whole, only of parts, and who was not only talking about « the whole », but who was using that ancient Greek word meaning « the beautiful whole ».
This text undoubtedly marks a turning-point in science. But, for the purposes of this quick introduction to geopoetics, it’s useful to look rather into Einstein’s correspondence (notably with Max Born), where we get an insight into the working of this scientific mind, and see a scientist asking existential, cultural questions.
In the first place, there’s the sense Einstein has of his own life : « I find myself so much connected with all of life that it’s impossible for me to say where the individual begins and where he ends. » Then he goes into his dilemma as a scientist : the division he feels between logical schematics and « the loveliness of life ». If one aims at clarity, absolute clarity, the only efficient language is that of mathematics. But mathematics misses out on so much, the world becomes unsubstantial, one loses « the living context ». The question then arises : might it be possible, beyond this dilemma and division, which for Einstein amounts to a tragedy, to reconcile logical clarity and the « loveliness of life » ? For that, a new kind of thought is necessary. Einstein speaks of the « wildly speculative » nature of his own mind, and stresses the need to set aside « mechanical and specialized logic » and accomplish « a great intellectual leap ».
It’s this kind of « leaping » we see in the liveliest scientific thought since Einstein. Not the leap back into metaphysics, or religion, that we see in some scientists, but the leap, forward, into an uncertain, undefined field.
For a start, it’s the field of quantum physics where chance, chaos and the indeterminate are no longer considered as breaks in the order of things, but as part integral of the moving universe-multiverse. The grammar henceforth is not that of classical order, but one based on fluctuation, irregularity, complexity.
In biology, Varela and Maturana use the term « autopoetics » to indicate the work of a complex system able to use order and disorder in the structuring of a « self ».
Lastly (in this outline), there is the contribution of linguistics. Here the key-figure, the seminal mind, is the French linguist Gustave Guillaume. Setting aside most of the « scientific » work done on language as « maximal knowledge based on limited understanding », the linguistic scientist Guillaume makes the radical point that « the human being is present not only in the human context but in the context of the universe ».
In face of the mass of introverted complication that philosophy had largely become, many philosophically-inclined minds have tended, in the late modern period, to move over into ethnology, sociology and other human sciences, when they didn’t confine themselves, as so many did in the English language context, to logical positivism. But there has been a lot of interesting development and evolution within philosophy itself : a radical displacement, a topological transformation.
It begins with Nietzsche.
While knowing them thoroughly, Nietzsche abandons the precincts of academic and classical philosophy. Most philosophy, he says, is built on a blockage. Which is why, instead of posing heavy problems within a closed structure, instead of adding to the constructions (« Why is my intelligence so quick and sharp ? Because I don’t waste time asking questions that aren’t real questions »), he undertakes a radical culture-analysis, and, instead of writing treatises, writes books of essays, fragments, ongoing autobiography.
Beyond the figure of the philosopher, Nietzsche invents that of the philosopher-artist (the « poet-thinker », in my vocabulary), working both at a large concept stemming from « universal symphony » (the poet-thinker is characterized by « amplitude and diversity ») and in a field of immediate experience, immediate perception.
The philosopher-artist is first and foremost a solitary traveller, who can settle into no comfortable, homely context, while always looking for a place, a space, a ground, where he can experience « a humanly superhuman well-being ». Nietzsche moves across the no man’s land of nihilism, trying to work his way back up beyond metaphysics and enter into a landscape-mindscape dominated by no transcendental idol, no religious ideology. He’s moving out of the history of metaphysics and religion into a new intellectual-existential geography.
In one of his poems (while criticizing so much poetry, based just as much on blockage and sickness as most philosophy, this philosopher-artist writes poems, calling himself « a poet at the limit of the word »), Nietzsche evokes a band of crows flying raggedly out of town and calling over a wintered landscape. That’s an image of the initial ground and movement of the radical poet-thinker.
Nietzsche’s work has to be seen as a kind of wing-beat in larger and larger space. But the higher you go, as he says elsewhere, the less people will see you, just as they won’t understand the nature of your work, simply because it doesn’t fit into the usual categories. Nietzsche, then, was more or less resigned to being misunderstood in his lifetime and a long time after — until, I would say, the map of a new space could be drawn up, beyond an age, beyond a world (the Contemporary Situation) characterized by the ruins of idealism, remnants of Christianity, numb nihilism, shortsighted realism and various types of more or less wacky spirituality.
While looking to the opening of that new field, Nietzsche’s final message to other solitary travellers was that « remain true to the earth », along with an aesthetics of living and creativity based on « a sense of what is lasting and few means ».
Another philosophical affluent to geopoetics is Martin Heidegger, again a much misunderstood thinker, considered even by some, who have read little or none of his work, as anathema, because of a passing acquaintance with national socialism. We make no attempt to cover up Heidegger’s political mistake, on the contrary we try to see in his work exactly from what point that mistake stemmed. But we don’t take that mistake as an excuse for neglecting some of the most interesting thought going on in the twentieth century.
Heidegger’s starting point is the observation that the world, the world as phenomenon, the world as life-space, has been reduced to a universe of utensils, a stock of furnishings (a wood seen as so much timber, a mountain as a potential stone-quarry), and to a social context in which human beings have been left with no sense of world at all, no sense of deep being, no sense of presence-on-earth. So much has been lost sight of, lost sense of, that in some linguistic contexts there is no vocabulary available even to talk about such a condition (hence a multiplicity of confused debates), and in some ideological contexts not enough mental distance and perspective to see it for what it is, far less conceive of any worthwhile change.
For Heidegger, this condition is the end-point of a whole development of thought that can be traced back to the beginnings of metaphysics. Philosophy as metaphysics or ontology has never spoken about being deeply enough. Which is why Heidegger steps out of philosophy into what he calls a « beginning thinking ». This kind of thinking tries to begin again from the ground up, following paths with no obvious destination (leading « nowhere »), but which may potentially open out into a clearing. These paths are mental paths, but they are also real, physical paths. Heidegger spent his life between his seminar at the University of Freiburg and a hut in the Black Forest from which such paths radiated.
In his attempt to move out of the philosophical domain into « more original districts » that philosophy « has never heard of », in his attempt to find adequate language, Heidegger looks to the earliest of thinkers, mainly Greek (but he is also aware of Far-Eastern thought), and also to poets, in particular Hölderlin and Rilke. His own writing often approaches poetry, as in this note concerning the relationship between earth and world :
protect the beginnings
be awake to the soundings
be grateful to the earth
salute the world.
A text can be written with versecraft and pass for a poem, but have no real « sounding » in the sense just evoked in the quotation from Heidegger. Nietzsche was interested only in poetry that went « to the limit ». For Rimbaud, very little poetry was of any radical or general interest, whereas real poetry was always « out ahead » : he looked to « new theories penetrating into unknown places ». It’s in the context of this kind of theory-practice that I use the word « poetics ». While including poetry, it also has a larger application. It applies not only to poetry as literary form, but also to art and music, and can be extended beyond these domains into science and even social practice.
If, for Rimbaud, most poetry was fundamentally insignificant, it was because it had no ground : when it wasn’t mere verbal tiddleywinks, its context was no more than personal, socio-personal. It rarely broke into a larger space. It was, one might say, a poetry without poetics. One could also say (thinking back to an old Far-Eastern distinction between poetry that « has a world » and poetry that « does not have a world ») a poetry without world.
In its specifically poetic aspect, geopoetics breaks out of the platonist-aristotelian theory of poiesis as mimesis, which still lies at the basis of literary practice in general (reproduction, representation, reflection : mirror-writing) and moves over into presence-in-the-world, experience of field and territory, openness of style, in a relationship of configurational complicity with the cosmological « poetics » of the universe.
Although the field was not yet recognized as such, it is possible to see strong elements of geopoetics in many of the most powerful and radiant poets of the past two centuries.
It’s Novalis speaking of a « writing of the earth » that can be found on birds’ wings, on shells, in clouds, in snow, on mountain sides, in plants, in animals, in the lights of the sky, and which can be integrated into the language of human being.
It’s Walt Whitman declaring that he’s ready to abandon almost everything most people associate with the word « poetry » : personal sentiment, imagination, neat prosody, a clutch of metaphor, if only he can manage to express the undulation of a wave, the breathing of the ocean. In Whitman’s « ebb and flow of endless motion » emerges, by abstration, via a field of waves, a hydrodynamic power.
Another significant American proto-geopoetician of that time is Henry Thoreau, breaking out of identity ideology and common sense philosophy in his journey to Ktaadn, exercising a perpetual, day-to-day extravagance (in the original sense of the word : Latin extra vagare, to wander out) and, in his random trip to Cape Cod, moving along the Atlantic edge (« A man may stand there and put all America behind him »)
It’s Rilke speaking of « pure space breaking in from afar » and declaring that his poetic project is « to present the vastness, the variety, the completeness of the world in the form of pure proofs ». The language here is almost scientific-mathematical, in an Einsteinian way. The relationship with Einstein’s universal identity appears even closer when we hear Rilke saying : « I live my life in larger and larger circles. »
It’s there in Ezra Pound who, after his passeist nostalgias and his fascist futurism, comes to realize, in the wake of Whitman, that the aim of any poetry worth its salt is to « make cosmos ».
It’s there in Charles Olson moving along the Atlantic edge (« Headland over the sea-shore »), having started out from the white-whaling of Herman Melville, having studied city civilizations around the world, finally coming to the post-historical, the post-humanist, the beautiful open world thing, walking in « the openness the exploiters have not beat out ».
Slightly further inland lies the work-field of William Carlos Williams, reaching out, along the Passaic River, beyond the « staleness of most literature », to a new movement of poetic intelligence.
In Scotland, there has been Hugh MacDiarmid, descrying, out on his stony limits, from the heights of a raised beach, a field few in the English-language context had any notion of and into which he often, cogently and beautifully, enters.
It’s there in Saint-John Perse speaking of « the new writing enclosed in the schist » and asking the sea to teach him « the major verse of the greatest order », the « tone of the greatest art », the model of the « greatest text ».
Lastly, some question of vocabulary and language.
In the first place, why call this great cultural work-field « geopoetics » ?
If we look at the cultures humanity has evolved around the globe, it’s possible to discern that they all have at their centre a principal motif (inducive of motivation, conducive to action), a central concern. In paleolithic culture, it’s a relationship with animals (a whole range of concerns going from subsistence to myth). In Chinese culture, it’s a cosmic concentring of power. In Greek culture, it’s the platform of City-State politics. In medieval Western culture, it’s the Virgin Mary and the Christ. The question is : what could be the central motif, the central concern for a world-culture today, able to be shared by all, North, South, East and West ? A reasonable answer, an obvious answer one might say, would be : the very Earth on which we try to live. Hence the geo in geopoetics.
As to « poetics », that word is hardly prevalent (except in debased forms) at the end-stage of the Motorway we have described, and is, to say the least, not part integral of the vocabulary of Technocracy or Mediocracy. But if we look again at cultures round the world, cultures that have been live and enlivening, fertile and lasting, we find that they have a poetics at their centre. In paleolithic culture, we have the figure of the shaman, whose poetics are concerned with maintaining a contact between the human community and the larger, non-human environment. In Chinese culture, there is the Book of Odes, with « the wind of the territories » blowing through its pages. In Greek culture, there is the oceanic poetics of Homer, without which the culture would be lopsided, without which the platform of politics itself would become dry and brittle.
It was part of my individual programme from the beginning and integral to the geopoetics programme from its inception, to work out the equivalent of such poetics as have just been evoked for the world (the worlding) now. To give the word its full sense and force, I suggest we go back, here in the West, to Aristotle’s nous poietikos (« the poetic intelligence »). Which is to say that geopoetics is more than « poetry concerned with the environment », more than literature with some kind of geographical content (just as what I call « waybooks » are a lot more than travel literature). Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world.
Unless it is very clearly articulated, the word « geopoetics » will often be confused with the word « geopolitics », at present much more widely known and extensively practised. This phonetic juxtaposition provides another occasion for definition. Geopolitics is concerned with the power-relationships between State and State on a global scale, conceiving of space exclusively in terms of exploitable resources. Geopoetics is a deeper, more radical enterprise. Its concern is not territorial power-mongering among States, but the state of the human being in the universe, the relationship between human being and the planet Earth, presence in the world. Geopoetics is the antidote to world-poisoning.
« World » — there is another difficult concept, open to multi-layered and often indiscriminate usage. If we look to (Germanic) etymology, this Anglo-Saxon word may be seen as going back to something like wer-alt, meaning no more than « an age of man ». It’s this sense of « world » as some particular stage of civilization, some particular social set-up, that Wordsworth had in mind when he said : « The world is too much with us », expressing a desire for some larger sense of being, some more expansive contact with the universe. It’s from this kind of world, because it so often weighs heavy on them and hems them in, that people take refuge in personal worlds of fantasy, seek relief in other worlds of a religious nature, or just look around for the nearest amusement.
Is it possible (as soon as you start digging into meaning, the questions start) to conceive of a world that is not overcoded, an « open » world that is not merely personal, that is not otherworldly, and that offers more than distraction ?
Before attempting anything like an answer at this stage, let’s look at some more etymology.
In the Romance languages, latent in the word for « world » (monde in French, mundo in Spanish, mondo in Italian), there’s an aesthetic sense, going back to the latin mundus, indicating a focus of fertile interconnections, a nexus of communicative forces. It’s significant for the progress of civilization that this aesthetic sense has been preserved only in the negative, as in the French immonde, meaning « disgusting and repulsive », just as English has retained the mundus root only in mundane, meaning « platitudinous and uninteresting ».
The word « cosmos » also, originally, had an aesthetic connotation, meaning « a beautiful, harmonious totality » (Greek kosmos). We’ve retained that aesthetic sense only in the word « cosmetics ». But it may be time to get back to that larger context, those more extensive connotations.
With those definitions in mind, the question now is : how to get, in the first instance conceptually, into a live field ?
Moving from etymology to active terminology and working thought, I propose this : a world emerges from the contact between the human being and the cosmos, represented by the Earth. When that contact is intelligent, sensitive, subtle, you have a world in the full and positive sense : a satisfying context, an interesting and life-enhancing place. When the contact is unintelligent, insensitive, heavy-handed and clumsy, what you have instead of a world is a diminished context, if not a precinct of horror.
Of course one can get used to a diminished context (the human being, marked by versatile adaptiveness, can get used to almost anything), one can identify with it, out of inured familiarity, local patriotism, etc. One can even, out of perversity, and a deep despair of ever changing things and opening up a larger context, choose to exalt and multiply the horror.
With geopoetics, we are concerned with keeping the larger context open. Without a sense of that larger context, even the will to change society (reform, revolution) can proceed, as we have seen repeatedly, on overnarrow rails, this process leading often to situations actually worse than the original context.
A world is a place, a space that one cultivates. And in order to be up to that world-cultivation, one has to cultivate oneself.
This brings us back again to that vexed and much abused word : culture.
The working definition of culture, in the context of the individual (we begin with the individual, who can always move faster than a society), proposed by geopoetics, is this : the way human beings conceive of, work at, and direct themselves. Culture implies some conception of the human being. The human being has been seen, for example, as « made in the image of God » (as in Christianity), or as « master and possessor of nature » (as in Modernity). In place of these definitions, I propose « inhabitant of the Earth », and, more precisely (thinking here of Hölderlin’s « man lives poetically on the Earth »), « poetic inhabitant of the Earth ». After this general conception, comes work. There is no real culture without work. If agriculture means working at a field to help it produce the best crop, then human culture means working at the most harmonious growth of the individual. And then, lastly, there is a direction : some sense of a horizon of the possible.
A culture, in the collective sense, begins when, within a group of individuals — whether tribe, nation or community — there is consensus as to the essential.
In the ongoing debate between commercially high-powered, multinational globalism on the one hand, and, on the other, localism, geared to identity ideology, narrow nationalism, sectarianism, provincial complacency, geopoetics sides with neither party. « World » for geopoetics is open world. Open world begins with place, not with simple piety of place (from homey couthiness to spooky animism via racial rootedness), but with knowledge (informed, sentient, intelligent) of place. Thoroughly known, every place is open. From the smallest rivulet, via a network of rivers, one arrives at the ocean. A little geology allows one to know that not all the stones on the local beach are necessarily of local origin, that glaciers may have brought them in from elsewhere. Likewise, from a layer of local rock one can move across nations and continents. An informed look at the sky will see not only wind-driven cloud, but the tracks of migratory birds. To all of which must be added the movements of population and language.
There we come to another aspect of the world-culture potentially emergent from the great work-field : its grounded universalism. In the context of confusion, anxiety and emptiness that mark the end-stage of the Motorway, people, in the search for some more coherent space, will convert to practically anything., and we have all sorts and varieties. In this situation, there are those who think they are working for world-culture when they organize oecumenical jamborees. This may perhaps encourage a spirit of mutual tolerance, which, in a trigger-happy context, is not to be neglected — but it is somewhat short of active, radical work. The intellectual nomad who quits the monolinear, monocultural, monomaniac Motorway will pass through as many cultures as possible, but will go beyond the relativistic (« You in your own small corner and I in mine »), pluralistic (« The more, the merrier ») vision of things. The fact is that all cultures are partial. A culture will insist principally on one aspect of the human being, to the neglect of others. For example, Western culture will insist more on sociality (« No man is an island »), whereas Eastern culture will insist more on the potential development of the self (the Buddhist : « Be an island unto yourself »).
The passage through many cultures in order to arrive at a potential world-culture is the work of the intellectual nomad. The work of the geopoetician is to integrate aspects of many cultures into a new coherence. This new coherence is not colourless. There can be all kinds of local coloration and tonality. The sense of unity prevalent and operative in geopoetics is that of an archipelago.
Finally, it has to be said that for geopoetics, world is connected to earth. To some, this may seem so self-evident as to be hardly worthy of consideration, let alone thought. To others, it will seem myopic and retrograde. These are the people for whom the Earth is a small thing, a thing of the past, a thing of little or no account. They think in terms of cosmic space. They want to build cities in space. They want to colonize Mars and other more distant planets. Man may not be biologically adapted to them, but that is no great hindrance. On some planets, it may be convenient to be nine foot tall and skinny, on others three foot tall and rotund — no problem, genetic manipulation will do the trick. The geopoetician knows that, according to biology and other fields of knowledge, the optimal conditions for the harmonious development of the human being are here on Earth. This perspective neither ignores nor neglects the cosmos — an early word I used before coming to « geopoetics » was « biocosmopoetics ». But the fact is that by living on Earth, one is in the cosmos ; whereas one can be in the cosmos (in a capsule and a special suit) and totally disconnected. As to the connection between world and earth, between the human being and the earth-cosmic context, this has, as aforesaid, very rarely been fully experienced, fully thought out, fully expressed.
It is the aim of geopoetics to do so.