The international community of cultural studies lost Kenneth White, one of its original voices of the second half of the twentieth century, on 11 August 2023, in Brittany (Bretagne), north-west of France, at the age of 87. White will be remembered as one of the major “intellectual nomads” of his time, a poet-philosopher, and dreamer of an open and intercultural world, a world the movement towards which he called “geopoetics” in 1979, and has become since then an interdisciplinary and international attractive field of study.
The current intellectual crises of especially national identities, phobias, and geopolitics need a challenging voice like White’s, a prophet of his time. If there is any alternative to warmongering geopolitics in current world affairs, it is geopoetics, and its equivalents in world cultures and ideas, for three major reasons: geopoetics cultivates an open self, for an open world, and inspiring Earth. These can be explored through three major means: poetry, philosophy, and science. Poetics culminates them all, in the sense that it is that natural disposition that uses language, systematic thought, and scientific knowledge (knowledge of human kind, earth, and the cosmos at large) to build a an open and harmonious world. This intellectual process is what White calls geopoetics, and which he worked to turn into a global intellectual movement. In this tribute, and after making some personal notes on my connections with White and geopoetics for the last two decades, I introduce the major aspects of this project, and its high relevance for human intellectual and socio-political well-being.
I first heard of the term geopoetics in intellectual history and poetry courses as an undergraduate in the English Department of Oujda University in the east of Morocco in 2003-04. It was such an attractive word, and the way it was introduced to us, by Khalid Hajji, a professor who was himself a student of Kenneth White in Paris-Sorbonne in the late 1980s, was even more attractive. The lecturer managed to make geopoetics a lived fact through examples from local songs, Arabic poetry, as well as British and American poetry and intellectual history at large. As someone who was in communion with nature since childhood, I could not resist the lure of this intellectual movement. And being a compatriot of the geographer al-Idrissi (1100-1165 AD), and the world traveler Ibn Battuta (1304-1369), I was also fascinated by White’s world travels in search of what he called “fields of energy,” among world cultures and their geographies.
This intellectual curiosity led me to write my first MA thesis (2006-08) on his overall works, which was revised and published as a book a decade afterward – Intercultural Geopoetics in Kenneth White’s Open World, 2017. On receiving the book, White wrote to me a nice encouragement: “I now pay a salute to yourself, on the evidence of this book, as a mental navigator, and wish you many ocean miles ahead.” He informed me that they would put a presentation of it on the website of the International Institute of Geopoetics. White was also generous in voluntarily sending me some print copies of some of his books to Oujda, after I started exchanging with him via email since around 2005. Our last email exchange was in December 2021, when we talked about geopolitics and geotheology, a point I return to at the end of this tribute.
Kenneth White is Scottish by birth, and French by choice. He was born in Glasgow on April 11, 1936, where he did his early studies, and moved to the University of Paris in 1959 for Literature and Philosophy studies. Since then, he made of it his physical and intellectual space. In his essays, he used to say that the British intellectual context of the 1950s and 1960s was barren, and the French one was the most dynamic; that is why he chose it for residence, and from there he developed his intellectual project.
White participated in the 1968 May movement and protests, for which he was fired from his position as a Lecturer in Bordeaux University. He afterward lecturer at the University of Paris VII, before he was appointed as Chair of Twentieth Century Poetics at Paris-Sorbonne University from 1983 to his withdrawal in 1996; his weekly public seminars on world poetics attracted students and scholars from different disciplines. In 1989, he founded the International Institute of Geopoetics in Paris, now “archipelagized” in various countries around the world. He received various awards, like Prix Médicis (1983), the French Academy’s Grand Prix du Rayonnement (1985), honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the Open University, honorary membership to the Royal Scottish Academy, among others.
Geopoetics started first as a cry against the modern Western civilization, before it moved to speak of the globalized modern human civilization at large.
Geopoetics is first and foremost a new and different reading of the Western tradition that has been following one way, the “Western Motorway,” according to White, which pigeonholes the thinking of man, imprisons his inner energy, and causes his modern predicament and “lostness.” To analyze this modern predicament, he divides the “Motorway of Western Civilization” into seven stages: Platonic idealism and Aristotelian classification (the first stage), Christianity (the second stage), Renaissance humanism (the third stage), Cartesian rationalism (the fourth stage), Romantic sentimentality (the fifth stage), Hegelian historicism (the sixth stage), and the hollow and noisy Current Situation (the seventh stage). To put other words into his mouth, the Current Situation can also be called Entertainment Situation.
Because the modern Western civilization has been globalized both by coercion as well persuasion, the whole modern civilization then appears carried out by emptiness, according to White. In The Wanderer and His Charts (2004), he says, “Over the centuries, civilization has been carried by various powers: myth, religion, metaphysics,” and “although remnants of all these remain, usually in degraded forms, today civilization is carried by nothing – it just grows and spreads, like cancer.” For him, to cement this emptiness there is a need for re-grounding through the “intellectual nomadism” of geopoetics. Human senses need reformatting through original contact with the land, earth, the Earth.
To concretize this call of regrounding the senses, White takes the initiative and travels East and West, North and South to (re)explore fields of energy that could help him, and consequently any human being, to regain the primordial activity he should exercise to reinvigorate his senses, away from the abstract classifications of science, philosophy, poetry, and narrow-minded identities, histories, ideologies, socio-cultural, and religious narratives. Geopoetics tries to match physical geographies with intellectual maps of the mind and various human intellectual traditions – a process White calls “intellectual nomadism.”
White starts his travels from Europe in the company of his favorite intellectual figures, like Friedrich Holderlin, Vincent Van Gogh, Arthur Rimbaud, André Breton, Alexandor von Humboldt, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, among other figures from the rest of Europe. Nietzche and Heidegger are his most favorites of these; in his younger age, he was classified as “post-Nietzschean” by his colleagues. Heidegger’s search for an idea beyond the available in philosophy, the arts, and technology is also a point of departure for White. Then, he moves to the Americas, in the company of Amerindians, Eskimos, with whom he spends inspirational time during his travels, besides his other “companions of the road,” like Ralph W. Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry D. Thoreau, Herman Melville, Jack London, and Jack Kerouac. His The Blue Road (1983) synthesizes some of this intellectual nomadism of the Americas.
From the Americas, White pursues the waves of the ocean to the ancient and far Orient of the yoga, haiku, Taoism, and Buddhism, among other poetic and philosophic expressions, the Orient that he considers fundamental for the Occident to resuscitate its authentic contact with the earth and the cosmos. In Japan, China, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, among other places, White does not tire from citing Zhuangzi, Matsuo Bashŏ, Sesshū Tōyō, and their inspiring philosophic poetry towards a balanced mode of being and doing.
These trips are narrated in his The Face of the East Wind (1976). North Africa is also visited, physically and intellectually, Tunisia and Morocco in particular, besides the Persian space; reference to their Arabic poetic, mystic, geographic and intellectual heritage is stopped at, although briefly, like Ibn Khaldun’s. And he pays a credit to Arab navigation tradition in his later work La mer des lumières (The Sea of Lights, 2016). In Open World (2003), White succinctly describes the beginnings of his intellectual wanderings this way: “I started off/ by growing up/ like everybody else./ Then I took/ a bend to the south/ an inclination east/ a prolongation north/ and a sharp turn west.” White’s physical and intellectual travels were accompanied by interdisciplinary readings. Already in 1987, when he was moving to a new house, his library weighed around four tons.
White does not like to stamp his project of geopoetics by any sole label – literary, spiritual, religious, philosophic, or scientific. At the heart of it is “a relationship to the earth.” In the inaugural speech of the International Institute of Geopoetics in Paris (1989), he says “the geopoetic project is not one more contribution to the cultural show, nor is it a literary school, nor is it concerned with poetry considered as an art of intimacy. It is a major movement involving the very foundations of human life on earth.” Only a genuine renewal of contact with earth can renew current common approaches to poetry, the arts, philosophy, science, and “even social practice.” He clarifies his vision as follows: “We will not undoubtedly change the world (but who knows?). What we could achieve with geopoetics is giving density to our lives.” This statement is very rich, and based on which I close with four reflective notes on geopoetics and its relevance to current socio-political, intellectual, and global affairs: on (1) digitalization, (2) multiculturation, (3) geotheology, and (4) geopolitics.
Firstly, the current situation of the global community is that of entertainment and distraction. And there is destruction behind excessive distraction. The global community is now enchained by digitalization, which has multiple positive sides, undoubtedly, and it appears to be the future of humanity. However, critique has to accompany any novelty, the way it accompanies any oldness, or traditionality. At the scientific level, digitalization is beneficial at various levels, from saving time on a daily basis in carrying out personal and public tasks, in archiving, communicating with the world, monitoring climate change, helping the farmers in their agriculture, the misinformed through sensibilization, students through e-schooling, facilitating research of all types.
But what do we do when we save time through digitalization? Where do we spend it? How are we consequently tied to the digital world while-and-after working through it? How much do we lose through it? Who are the most affected by it? Who are the most beneficiaries from it? What is the difference between cultivating a land in the traditional way, and buying it online through digital coins, and cultivating it through some metaverse world, for example? What is the difference between traveling just to a nearby village or mountain on foot or by car with a group, and traveling to far lands, or to other Planets of the Universe digitally only? And how do multinational companies as well as national politics benefit from monitoring the daily life of millions of people who spend half or most of their time browsing online? How is their knowledge of national and international politics impacted? How are their personal choices of entertainment impacted by this constant life online? Will we still have autonomous Selves in the future, and thus free electoral voters, or will we have something else instead?
These are some of the current and future challenges that geopoetics can help in monitoring, so that the human original Self is not deformed by over-digitalization, and dehumanization. As an example from his real life, White chose to live in the midst of the Pyrenes, at Pau in the south of France (1967-1983), and in Trébeurden, on the northwest of Brittany (France), facing the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, from 1983 to the end of his life. He made of walking on the coast or in the forest a daily habit, and for long distances. These are examples of geopoetic exercises for intellectual and spiritual solitude, silence and being, away from the current world of shallow entertainment, distraction, and digital chains that dampen the brain.
Secondly, as a cultural movement rooted in concrete contact with the planet Earth, and thus with human beings that inhabit it, geopoetics could serve as a mediatory means of, say, pluralization, interculturation and multiculturation of human minds and societies, against the rise of phobias, and sometimes exclusive national identity politics, even in consolidated democratic societies. For instance, West European societies since the 1960s – not to forget the 1930s – have experienced an intense migration of peoples from outside Europe; this has created multicultural problems to the levels of radical refusal of apparent difference in society by the majority, and a radical refusal of integration by a tiny minority of newcomers. Indian democracy is not in good shape either for majority versus minority identity politics. In such contexts, multicultural policies as well as multicultural philosophic and sociological approaches could have made use of some aspects of geopoetics that bring human beings to their “naked” reality and beings on Earth, away from the constructed linguistic and cultural differences that grow amidst them. Geopoetics seeks to reach the original human self, and this could be a point of start for genuine exchange, dialogue, and coexistence in the same land and society. To be a geopoet in this context means to be able to accommodate world cultures, languages, ideas, and their diversity. It means recognizing that all are part of the Self, each Self and its traditions, and that without them all the Self is incomplete. To be a geopoet means to try to go to the deepest “original life” and “original self” one could arrive at, to reach the most far, empty, and silent spaces of the human self, and from there return to share the common life with a new spirit of openness and genuine humility, humility based on a profound experience and human scientific knowledge.
Thirdly, in my last exchange with White, to which he replied on 28 December 2021, I told him that geopoetics has to touch direct human socio-politics to have effect in society, and not to remain in circulation among the few enlightened and sage geopoets that exist in the world. I gave him the example of “geotheology,” a term Tareq Oubrou, a self-made theologian of Bordeaux invokes, to speak of how spiritualities – the Islamic one as an example here – is spacial, and contextual, and needs time and space to radiate, to touch the core of human spirit for better individual, communal, and global well-being. White seemed open to the idea of linking geopoetics to spiritualities, without this of course leading to shallow spiritualisms, or to forming polities that are theocratic. He always refused dogmas, be they spiritual, metaphysical, philosophical, or ideological. In his own words, he said: “My own strategy has always been to work intensely at the core-energy field, and let it radiate from there, however long it takes.”
He did not care about making of geopoetics a socio-political movement just to see a geopoetic entity or society, since that would mean a dogmatic society that turns the openness of an idea into a closed dogma. White aimed far; he wanted the movement of geopoetics to remain an open challenge, “however long it takes,” till human beings in mass realize that Earth requires transformed human beings, and that only transformed human beings can then care well about Earth and make of it a better place. Till that too far future comes true, if ever it does, geopoets of the world should do their job, each from their own geographic and intellectual tradition. Otherwise said, geopoetics are the balanced human beings of their times; they are prophets, guides of the human mind to its tranquil and profound Self and non-devastated Earth. Geopoetics is a form of genuine spirituality that safeguards the beautiful in human beings. This is its addition to the human intellectual tradition in this age of humanity.
Fourthly, geopoetics can soften geopolitics, although it is difficult to say it can end it. While geopolitics creates political and identity walls among the peoples of this common Earth and Universe, geopoetics creates affinities and underlines the common origins of human profound life. Through his physical and intellectual travels, and writings, White has built an intellectual alliance among different languages, cultures and philosophies of life. His geopoetics is a form of both Orientalism and Occidentalism, in their positive meanings, although he never used the terms. He was a product of the Occident, very critical of it, but also very admirer of its open minds, like the ones cited above. He was equally an admirer of the Orient, the near and far Orient; and he was critical of whatever could enchain human freedom, be it ideological, philosophic or metaphysical. For him, although he did not put it in this clear equation, the East and West not only meet; they are originally one; and they are destined to be one; the perils they face are broadly the same now, and they have the same ground (Earth) on which to face them together, geopoetically, geopolitically. This is how I see geopoetics – a doable path towards better geopolitics, “however long it takes,” to use his words.
As White used to end his letters to me, let me reciprocate his phrase posthumously, from distance, since I never managed to meet him in person: “With geopoetic salutations, Kenneth!”
Cover photo: Kenneth White’s portrait, 2014 (picture by Laurent Brunet, Wikimedia Commons.)
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