Augustin Berque: Poetics of the Earth (2014)
This book thoroughly knocked me of my feet. It goes to the heart of the matter in making our existence on Earth fathomable and it does so with such a grand sweep! The clarity and erudition of Berque’s argument are quite simply breathtaking. Although barely 200 pages, this tome has a very high specific weight. It feels like I traversed a really vast intellectual landscape.
Augustin Berque, born in 1942 and still amongst the living, is an interdisciplinary thinker, trained as a geographer and an orientalist. More specifically, Berque has developed an intimate relationship with the territory, culture and language of Japan. And this experience has deeply shaped his worldview and research programme. Poetics of the Earth very emphatically reflects this rootedness in Japanese soil.
Berque’s field is mesology, the study of what in French is called (in plural) milieux. The (singular) term milieu is also used in English, but it has a narrower scope as it points to a person’s socio-economic context. In French milieu corresponds rather to what Germans refer to as Umwelt. In English one might say ambient world. Umwelt stands to Umgebung as ambient world to environment. The word environment reveals an implicit dualism: there is an entity that can be neatly separated from its setting. But when we say ambient world we are hypothesising a meaningful relationship between the entity and its setting. It is a setting for and constituted by that particular entity. Neither entity nor setting are inert; they are reciprocally engaged in a process of co-constitution. So here the distinction between subject and object, between nature and culture collapses. This is the pivotal point for the whole of Berque’s work. In his own words: “mesology aims at understanding what in a concrete milieu unites in a single reality that which dualism separates into two poles.” Extrapolating this idea, Berque contrasts biosphere, the totality of objective environments, to the ecumene, the totality of specifically human milieus .
This core insight has a rich background for Augustin Berque:
- There is the intellectual impulse from the work of the Japanese philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji (1889–1960), who published a seminal book in 1935. The Japanese title is Fûdo which has been translated in in English as Climate. A Philosophical Investigation. However, Berque disagrees with this rendering. On the first page of his book Watsuji clearly posits human subjectivity as the founding condition for the distinction between fûdo and the natural environment as the object of science. Fûdo therefore has to be understood as human milieu, not climate in its contemporary sense. Around that same time Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944) developed similar ideas for living beings in general. He famously coined the term Umwelt and is considered the founder of biosemiotics, a research field that folds meaning into biological processes.
- In the 1960s Berque was trained in the French school of geography, which was founded by Paul Vidal de la Blache (1845–1918). Distinctive for this way of thinking about space and territory is its fundamentally possibilistic orientation. The basic assumption is not that nature determines culture, but that it simply offers possibilities that, depending on all sorts of historical contigencies, are taken advantage of by humans or not.
- And then there is the japanese language which reflects a very distinctive, non-individualistic worldview. In our western languages we naturally rely on the first-person pronoun I, which is monolithic and transcends its environment. I is the same wherever it speaks. In Japanese however, there is no proper first-person pronoun and the word that is used to convey the first person is always contingent, and embedded in the concrete scene of the enunciation. I found that Berque’s comparative linguistic observations in Poetics of the Earth really helped me to understand the basic nature of his project.
So to recap, and in the author’s own words:
“The milieu is singular, as it is specific to every single living species and human culture; in other terms, the way things are differs across species and cultures, even when the objects are physically the same. Mesology focuses on these differences and seeks to understand what reality is for any one species or culture. It takes into account the perspective of each of these collective subjects on the environment, which give rise to their own specific milieus.”
In that respect, mesology has the fundamental character of a hermeneutic phenomenology. Berque sees it as a transmodern (and I would add systemic) science based on a conception of reality that goes beyond the dualism between subject and object but is ternary: subject and object are actively and contingently linked by interpretation. So the nature of reality for living beings is fundamentally relational and contingent.
From this basic datum Berque develops a very rich theory of change, which is a fortiori a theory of systemic change. Key notion here is trajectivity . Things and beings that exist in a milieu are trajective in nature. That means that they are neither merely subject nor merely object, but are constituted by a dynamic to-and-fro (a circular feedback loop) that pulls these things and beings constantly beyond their identity [4, 5]. This structural coupling is called mediance (a translation of Watsuji’s notion of fûdosei).
This has two important implications. First, when we say milieu, we also say history. The two are inextricably bound. We have to see the world as the result of the intersecting of myriads of trajective chains of representation and substantialisation that are folded in the dynamic, meaning-making relationships in the being-milieu complex. And, second, mediance is also the condition for the evolution of species. Rather than a mechanistic process of natural selection on random mutations, evolution is the result of the meaning-infused relation to the Umwelt (the reality by and for the living as subject) rather than to the Umgebung (the reality of the living as an object).
In a nutshell, and in Augustin Berque’s on words:
“ … this means that, in living milieus, changes are not always a result of causality, i.e. of a mechanical sequence, but also of motivation, i.e. expectation and intention. Subjects expect their milieu to be what it is, while the milieu is so because of that expectation. In other words, we are dealing here with the co-awaiting and co-suscitation; this leads us in return to infer that such notions pertain to trajectivity and not just to objectivity and subjectivity. They are medial and mesological.”
I realise this all may sound terribly abstract but it perhaps difficult to do justice to this very rich thinking in the space of this short contribution. Here is a short on-line article in which Berque elaborates a few of his key ideas. Another short article can be found here. The latter gives a good flavour for the style of reasoning unfolded in Poetics of the Earth.
Reading this book was for me a milestone event in that it seems to offer a synthetic backdrop to, and ontological foundation for the trail of breadcrumbs that I have been following this past decade — with Ingold’s Making, Bateson’s Mind and Nature, Durham Peters’ Marvelous Clouds, Spuybroek’s Sympathy of Things, White’s Wanderer and his Charts, Hillman’s Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, Rajagopalan’s Immersive Systemic Knowing, Weber’s Enlivenment and Jullien’s Silent Transformations as some of the key reference points.
I’m convinced that Berque’s mesology is an essential source of inspiration for a systemic and ethically guided practice at the service of a just transformation of our planetary habitat, from the micro to the macro. For instance, I see Berque’s ideas refracted in the beautiful Tamkeen Approach that unfolds in Moroccan society. Its essence is captured by the motto “We are the garden and the gardener”, which might be understood as a metaphorical evocation of the mediance between being and milieu. When Tamkeen practitioners say that their approach merely reveals how “a humanizing society manifests and flourishes from metamorphic niches”, they are in fact pointing out that their contribution consists in exploring how we can collectively raise our awareness of the trajective chains we are part of, and how this awareness may orient our intentionality to greater flourishing.
The paradox is that this complicated conceptual apparatus is necessary to talk about something that comes very natural to us. We need this new language to wean ourselves from a deeply ingrained mechanistic worldview that sees competition and domination as the engine of change. Instead we need to train our muscles of co-awaiting and co-suscitation.
This seems to be the only of Berque’s works that is translated in English. I salute Anne Marie Feenberg-Dibon for her heart-warming diligence. This translation is quite obviously a labour of love. Amazingly, I couldn’t find any book by Berque in a German translation. It is a mystery why these profound and essential ideas have not gained wider circulation.
 Berque’s magnum opus Ecoumène. Introduction à l’étude des milieux humains. was published in 2016. An English translation is not yet available.
 There is, perhaps, an interesting parallellism here with the conceptual gap, on a temporal rather than a spatial axis, between the English foresight and the French prospective. The foundational notion of la prospective has no real counterpart in the English language as it inextricably meshes the notions of developing a cognitive insight into the future and the active intervention in that future to shape it according to our own insights and values. This non-deterministic understanding of the relationship between future and human action goes back to the seminal work of Gaston Berger (1896–1960) in the 1950s.
 Readers of Berque should be prepared to take on board a rather exotic array of terms, rich in neologisms. A pocket-sized glossary has been published in French.
 The term trajection comes from the Latin trans (beyond, through) and jacere (to throw). It is literally the idea of “throwing oneself” beyond identity, and especially to cross the limit between subject and object, the subject and his/her environment.
 Here I detect an interesting parallel with Lois Holzman’s non-knowing growing. See: Systems Library, Vol. 16.
More to read in the Systems Library:
Vol. 27: Hilary Bradbury: How to Do Action Research for Transformations (2022)
Vol. 21: Henk Oosterling: Resistance in Times of Ecopanic (2020)
Vol. 20: Ray Ison & Ed Straw: The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking (2020)
Vol. 19: Andreas Weber: Enlivenment (2019)
Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)
Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)
Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)