A theory? Yes. No need to be afraid of the word, which has been set aside of late, leaving space to be filled up with a mushy mass, a crazy mix, of bits and pieces. Without theory, thought goes round in circles, commentaries and opinions abound, the mind gets clogged up by imagination and fantasy, every gesture gets lost in the big showbiz, details pile up without perspective, life gets stifled in a daily routine that is more and more opaque and senseless.
But, to be valid at all, theory must be based on fundamental thought, must be connected to substantial practice, must remain open (which doesn’t mean open to anything).
Over the centuries and the millennia, culture (a force and a form that gives increased scope to life and sharpens the mind – nothing to do with pretentious, sophisticated chit-chat) has been borne by myth, religion or metaphysics. Nowadays, it’s grounded on nothing, it just proliferates, bound only to the law of the market. Everybody, well, let’s say an increasing number of individuals, feels that a basis is lacking. Any return to old foundations being either naïve, partial or caricatural, it’s a new basis we need. It’s such a new basis that geopoetics proposes.
For there to be culture in a deep sense of the word, there has to be a consensus in the social group about what is essential. In every grounded and vivifying culture, you find a central focus. Everyone (no doubt with different levels of discourse) refers to it – the philosopher in his study, the peasant in his field. In the Christian Middle Ages, it’s the Virgin Mary and Christ. In the classical age of Greece, it’s the philosophical and political agora. In a paleolithic tribe, it’s the relationship to animals.
At one point in my itinerary, after long years of research in history and comparative culture, I began to ask myself if, beyond all the religious, ideological, moral, psychological differences that exist in our world and sometimes create havoc in it, there was one thing – in the North, the South, the East and the West – we could agree on. I came to the conclusion that it could only be the Earth itself, that strange and beautiful planet, apparently rare in galactic space, on which we all try, mostly rather badly, to live.
Hence the “geo” in this neologism: geopoetics.
As for the « poetics » part, I don’t use that word in the academic sense, « theories of poetry ». We’re not concerned at all here with « poetry » in any of its traditional and habitual usages (personal poetry, pure poetry, etc.), even less with its degraded use (“poetic” applied to filmic fantasies, pop-song lyricism, etc.). Let’s move quickly over all this poor sociology, and get back, for example, to the “poetic intelligence” (nous poietikos) one can find in the writings of Aristotle.
By “poetics”, I understand a fundamental dynamics of thought. That’s why to my mind there can be not only a poetics of literature, but a poetics of philosophy, a poetics of science, and, why not, a poetics of politics. Geopoetics, and hence any consequential geopoetician, is situated in an enormous time-space. I use the word “enormous” not only in a quantitative, encyclopedic sense (I’m not against the quantitative, provided there’s a force present capable of carrying it into quality) but in the sense of “outside the norm”. By carrying an enormous amount of matter, earth-matter, with an enlarged sense of both the composition of « thing » and the nature of “being”, geopoetics opens a space of culture, thought and life. In other words, a world.
By the way, if I say « geopoetician » (on the model of « logician », « mathematician »), and not « geopoet », it’s so as, right from the start, to discourage any tendency to limit geopoetics to some kind of vague lyrical expression of geography. Based on the trilogy eros, logos and cosmos, geopoetics creates a general coherence – that’s what I call “a world”.
A world, well conceived, emerges from a contact between Mind and Earth. When the contact is sensitive, intelligent, subtle, you have a world in the full sense of the world. When the contact is stupid and brutal, you have nothing like a world, nothing like a culture, only, and more and more so, an accumulation of refuse, including a lot of « cultural products ».
It all began for me in an area of some twenty square miles on the west coast of Scotland, and in direct contact with Nature. It may be said that not everyone has access to such a natural context. I’m well aware of the fact. But the very recognition of the importance of such a context can be the starting point for a general grasp of things with repercussion in various fields: education, politics, via cultural politics. And even in the most ill-favoured urban contexts, there can always be found signs and traces that one will notice more easily, and be more sensitive to, once the mind is awakened and orientated.
So as to renew and expand my own initial experience, I’ve crossed many a territory, always with the idea of amplifying my sense and knowledge of things. And I continue to do so, because it’s essential to maintain the contact between idea and sensation, thought and feeling.
It was in 1979, as I was travelling, wandering, peregrinating (I use all these verbs, all those methods, according to occasions and contexts) along the north bank of the St. Lawrence on the way to Labrador, that the idea of geopoetics, with already a long background behind it, took form. I recount that trip, try to express all the amplitude of the sensations, all the layers of the idea, in the book The Blue Road.
Other books followed, that not only illustrate the proposition, but put forward new proposals.
It was in Le Plateau de l’Albatros (not yet translated into English, but that will come) that, from three points of view: philosophical, scientific and poetic, I drew up a complete map of the concept, whose contours I saw more and more distinctly in my own work, and whose validity was more and more obvious to me in our general context. Geopoetics is a theory-practice that can provide a basis and open up perspectives for all kinds of practices trying in these times to move out of overrigid disciplinary frameworks but which have not yet found a real ground and hence a lasting dynamics.
To those scientific, philosophic and poetic approaches in Le Plateau de l’Albatros, I added the existential and intellectual itineraries of proto-geopoeticians such as Humboldt, Thoreau or Segalen. In the first instance, to demonstrate, by other examples, how deeply thought is connected to lived life, and how live theory is rooted in the real, but also to show that the geopoetic idea was at least latent in certain minds across time and space. All idea without predecessors is liable to be just one more fantasy. Let me say too that the reading I do of the works of such predecessors is both erosive and dynamising. Those readings and analyses go beyond erudition and history, they open up a geography of the mind.
It was in order to maintain all the precision, all the perspectives of the geopoetics idea that I decided, in 1989, to set up the International Institute of Geopoetics.
Four years later, I launched the project of an “archipelago” of workshops situated all over the world, whose object would be to apply the idea to diverse local contexts.
The idea is being constantly expanded, the workshops operate in various ways, the Institute holds the course and keeps the larger perspectives in view.