Geopoetics: Mairi Macfadyen on how we put the planet at the centre of our thinking and feeling

Some ideas take their time to travel from the margins to the centre - the urgency of the times pulls them in, newly making them relevant. Such it is with the concept of geopoetics.

Formulated and promulgated by the Scottish-French philosopher Kenneth White for the last 40 years, supported by various networks and institutions, but only now - in an age where the “geographical” (in the form of climate crisis) needs to be newly imagined - really coming to relevance.

The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics defines it below:

Geopoetics is deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world.

It proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that 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 [thus the “geo” in geopoetics]

It looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’, (using Kenneth White’s words) in the past, in order to find a new approach to thinking and living. For example, in the writings of intellectual nomads such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Thoreau and Patrick Geddes.

It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy. This is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world. It requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.

It also seeks to express that sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics i.e. a language drawn from a way of being which attempts to express reality in different ways - for example, oral expression, writing, visual arts, music, and in combinations of different art forms.

You may recognise some of these positions from the work of Jeremy Lent - a regular contributor here - who is also alive to Western thought as a “pattern of meaning” that relies on a fundamental “splitting” between self and planet.

What is interesting about geopoetics in 2018 is the way it’s being taken up by a group of young scholars, artists and activists in Scotland, who want to use geopoetics (and Kenneth White’s work) as a way to frame and name their agency, facing hyper-capitalism and climate crisis.

The most eloquent articulator of this is Mairi Macfadyen, a “Scottish ethnographer” who has just delivered a lecture in Scotland titled “Finding Radical Hope in Geopoetics” (the slides are here).

It’s long, learned, but very readable, given that Mairi constantly wants to connect her scholarship with both her own experience, and looming presence of “the earth”. Here’s some of her opening thoughts:

Geopoetics begins with a ‘radical critical analysis’ of the ‘cultural mindscape’ we find ourselves in today… 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’…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)… 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 to mean world-making. It is fundamentally about creativity.

Tony 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 as 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’

From  lecture slides  of “Geopoetics and Radical Hope”

From lecture slides of “Geopoetics and Radical Hope”

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.

The second half of Mairi’s lecture moves into how relevant this outline of geopoetical thought could be to our looming climate breakdown: we’ll leave you to enjoy the rest.

But Macfadyen’s writing on these topics are becoming wide and varied - see her website here.