When a person has lived in one place for most of her life, she walks around thigh-high in history. The history of that particular place becomes indivisible from the history of her life. If she comes from that place and spends half a lifetime in a new place, she still walks in her old shoes — the ones that fit the grooves of a track in the hills of California or the sands of the Black Desert. I am not speaking here about early, formative years, and their attendant memories, but rather a reciprocal embodied relationship with place. It is based as much on sensory perception as memory; it takes time to accrue and is seldom lost. In today’s world, fewer and fewer people live where they grew up, and more and more of us are held captive by the algorithmic codes and signs on our screens: we have lost contact with our bodies and our places. The great literary and cultural theorist Edward Said says, “The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural, and its unreality resembles fiction.” (Harvard University Press, 2000) Salman Rushdie echoes “It’s not that there is no place like home, there is no longer any such thing as ‘home’.” (Greenwood Press, 2001)
Mass migration and overpopulation have contributed to a vast schism between natural history and human history, with globalisation contributing to growing divisions along gendered, religious, ethnic or racial lines, not to mention the increasing divide between rich and poor. Further, physical space has become evacuated in the digital age. Where touch used to be, in the virtual, that which can be felt and understood, cannot be touched. Or tasted, smelled, and often heard. Similar to and often driven by late-stage capitalism, communication is fast, fluid, relentless and knows almost no geographical boundaries. Further, information is compressed and shallow with 140 character tweets being the ultimate metaphor for our digital era. Though there are as many reasons to fear technological progress as there are to rejoice in it, the ramifications for almost every aspect of our lives — private, social, cultural, economic and political — are likely to be much more extensive and pervasive, and will happen much faster than in the past because the technologies driving them are developing with breathtaking speed. It seems the greater the speed of exchange and circulation of information, the more fragmented and compartmentalised the world becomes. Communication and connection, either virtually or in real time, has led to an impoverishment of the body.
As bodies and places are constructed both physically and socially, their counterparts, ‘disembodiment’ and ‘displacement’, become relevant both with the interior subjective spaces of the mind and body, as well as cross-culturally. We all live in bodies somewhere – but it often seems that place is seen as an incidental backdrop, a corollary to the important business of having a body. So why are we bipedal hominids in denial about our animality? And is it this denial that contributes to our inability to live sustainably? Western philosophy rests on the Cartesian binary split between mind and body (Cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”) emphasising the supremacy of sight as a cornerstone to rational empirical thought. With sight often noted as the most distanciated of all the senses, the polarisation of object and subject (objectification) happens through our eyes. Olfaction, tactility, taste and even hearing are demoted to a lesser status in the hierarchy of the senses. Further, these ‘lesser’ senses have been relegated to the imprecise and intuitive realms, which were assigned to ‘primitive’ cultures and to women due to their perceived greater connection to nature through child-bearing. Modern society regards instinct and intuition as throwbacks to the prehistoric and the primitive.
A more highly evolved form of bodily knowledge however might begin to offer us new perspectives on overcoming the rift between the scientific and the primitive, the object and the subject. Within the phenomenological tradition, Merleau-Ponty took the revolutionary step of theorising consciousness itself as embodied with self/other and subject/object relations regarded as reciprocal as opposed to oppositional. Here our subject-ness mitigates our object-ness, and vice versa. Eco-philosopher, David Abram explains, the human body is “a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth”. (Random House, 1996) Sensuous scholarship is enjoying new and profound applications in fields as diverse as psychology and neuroscience, arts and music, architecture and engineering, to name a few; where the lived and felt bodily experience takes centre-stage. The body’s experience can in many ways be seen as the great leveller; the ultimate unifying principle that all human beings share. More specifically, as our senses are the body’s inter-active and ‘reversible’ line of communication with the physical world, it may be seen as crucial to our continued evolution that these corporeal experiences are reflected upon and represented in their entirety. As corollaries of ‘sensuous scholarship’, the paradigms of ‘embodiment’ and ‘emplacement’ suggest an integration of mind and body and place. Emplacement also suggests an embodied cultural memory that can be passed down from previous generations.
Though under increasing threat, ancient and oral cultures as well as indigenous tribes throughout the world have maintained their rootedness to place and the earth. According to Aboriginal belief, the natural world — plant, animal, rock, river — was sung into existence via spirit ancestors that created a vast labyrinth of unchanging invisible pathways which cover Australia. These Songlines extend across land and sky, with descendants naming and describing natural phenomena as they are encountered; and like European ley-lines, they are navigable and laden with multiple meaning. Likewise, in Japan, a traditional garden or temple is designed as a carefully orchestrated sequence of felt experience much like a sensorially-led pathway, beginning with the crunching sound of pebble underfoot, to the scent of a strategically placed pine tree, perhaps leading to the indelible touch of a shoji screen made from rice and cedar. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, man is in reciprocal exchange with the natural world, his nature indissoluble from Nature’s. Maori society has a particular reverence for air and breath, a focus which is reflected in the wide variety of wind instruments they use in their music-making which is made not as a performance for others, but rather as a means to integrate with the sounds of the forest. As breath, air and wind are all essential to life, there is a spiritual dimension attached to music, with no discernible difference between the natural world and music for the Maori. The Navajo tribe calls air ‘The Holy Wind’ which includes everything from the sky to the air that we breathe. This invisible realm of air, wind, and breath is magical and sacred to oral cultures for whom words are merely sounds made from the breath and voice of the many creatures who inhabit the earth. And for those of us whose deep attachment to words and symbols often makes us forget our earthly selves, it is worth remembering that as we inhale and exhale, we are in a continual flow of both giving to and receiving from the world.
In an increasingly meditated world, the ‘call of the wild’ sounds like an anachronism with the term ‘landscape’ a mere stand-in for an ever-diminishing natural world. Our bodies are still located in ‘place’, but the sublime and even a sense of ‘home’, may now be more internal, elusive, and indeed connected to the primal. With globalisation, landscape is no longer something we perceive or belong to, nor is it something we can afford to see as an external surface for our projections and ideas. Instead, our reciprocal exchange with the world based on our sensibilities and corporal interaction with it may be the new fulcrum on which to balance our algorithmic leaps into a tech-dominated future. Our tremendous capacity for rational, empirical endeavour has led to the breach between our minds, our bodies, and the natural world on which we depend, but the quest for meaning, and the palpable
visceral sense of the mystery of our existence continues as it has done for millennia. The German sociologist Erich Fromm said that creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. If we are up to the task, perhaps the sacred can be found there.
Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars
The inner — what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.
Rainer Maria Rilke
1.Reflections on Exile and Other Essays
Edward W. Said (Harvard University Press: Boston, 2000)
2.Salman Rushdie’s Postcolonial Metaphors: Migration, Translation, Hybridity, Blasphemy, and Globalization
Jaina C. Sanga (Greenwood Press: Westport, 2001)
3.The Spell of the Sensuous
David Abram (Random House: New York, 1996).