Romanticising Place

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Romanticising Place: Why we must follow nature By Benjamin J Major Abstract This is a paper all about humanity’s search for a home. It is about the search for an ideal, perfected world in which humanity and nature are at last reconciled and harmonized. Though this striving must surely fail, it is this perpetual striving, the promise of a Utopia, that must ultimately direct our wanderings. Initially reviewing contemporary research into place, relationality and nonhuman agency, this paper then
  Romanticising Place:Why we must follow natureByBenjamin J Major  2 Abstract Thisis apaperall about humanity’ssearch for a home. It is about thesearchfor anideal,perfectedworld in which humanity and nature areat lastreconciled and harmonized.Though this striving mustsurely fail, it is this perpetual striving, thepromiseof a Utopia , that mustultimately directourwanderings. Initially reviewing contemporary research into place, relationality and nonhumanagency, thispaperthenreassessesthe aesthetic and political theory and philosophies of the earlyGerman Romantics (the Frühromantik  ). It will be argued that the Romantics were not anti-modernists but were engaged in uniting freedom and rationality within a holistic framework.Furthermore, in their philosophy they were attempting to resolve the very same dualisms that humangeographers battle with today; those between self and world, nature and culture, agency anddeterminism. The innovative solution put forward by theRomantics consisted in seeingnature as anorganic whole and humanity asthe most complex expression of that whole. In this model, naturecomes to its self awareness through the humanbeing. However, nature canalso furnish a path back to the self. In this age in which humanity’s future on the Earth hangs in the balance this papersuggests that we would be wise to ‘follow nature’ andthatin place of thinking of how we can save nature , we must start thinking about how nature cansave us .This notion is illustrated in the casestudy ofStanton Moor, a ‘hospitable’place of particularly ‘quiet sublimity’in the Peak DistrictNational Park. This paper will show howit is thata place can teach us how to live ethicallyand howplace can not only be humanized, but humanizing . This paper maintains that place, far from bring thesite of a sedentary and bounded conservatism,is in fact the very site in which the ethical and thepolitical arises. “Alas! Alas!You have destroyed This lovely world! A demigod has smashed it, His fist has dashed it To pieces and hurled Them into the void!Ours is the dutyTo gather the fragments and mournThe lost beauty.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  3 Introduction: ‘A land of great absence’ In Alan Garner’s novel Thursbitch (Garner, 2004) the reader becomesacquainted with the life storyof the valleyof the same nameand the powerful affects it has on those who dwell in it or visit it. Thebook evocatively interweaves the storiesoftwo temporally distinct momentsin the valley’s past andvividly captures the way that the narrative of an individual life, or of an entire community, is notonly temporal but is also marked out in respect to particular places. One of the novel’stwo temporalstrands is set inlate 18thcentury rural England, and these parts of the narrative revolve around thelife of Jack Turner, a ‘jagger’,or packman, who brings back to his family and community the foods,gifts and ideas that he has encountered upon his travels. After arriving back from one of these many jags, Jackis informed by his fatherthat whilst he had been away themysterious ‘land man’hadmade an appearance. The land man, “one of the best of the worser kind of folk”,had been about withaneye for certain “improvements”,namely,the enclosureof the land, “walling right up Tors”, andusing the sacred high stones as field lines and gates. (ibid: 109) What is worse, the ‘land man’ has aneye for improving the valley of Thursbitch itself, the very centre of Jack’s world, and to “make it afarm and build a house there.” Jack’s response to this threat is a blend of grief, fear and anger, andwhat he says is telling;“He can’t, Father. Never. He can’t. If he does, it’ll be a land of great absence .”(ibid:109, my emphasis)This is a paper about thatfearof absence. It is about that fear of a bare and homogeneous land inwhich the spirits of the place have all but been forgotten. It is about the ‘quiet sublimity’andfragility that can characterise a place. Above all, it is about an impossible ideal,the search for ahome,for a secure dwelling place in which humanity and nature are at last reconciled andharmonized.After first examining contemporary research into place, relationality and nonhuman agencies inhuman geography and cognate disciplines, the paper will go on to examine Heideggerian andLevinasian ideas about place and dwelling.It will be concluded that whilst both outlooks have theirown merits, neither of these philosophers provide us with a fully satisfactory framework forunderstanding these concepts.On the one hand we have the anti-humanist ontology of Heideggerthat emphasizes rootedness and autoarchy, andon the other hand thehumanistic and nomadicethicsof Levinasthat holds up rootlessness ashumanity’s essential condition. This paper argues for an  4ethics and politics of place that is neither rooted in nationalistic or localist chauvinisms nor givesway to a rootless cosmopolitanism.This paper will then take the step ofbringing the aesthetic and political theory and philosophies of the Romanticswithin the horizons of contemporary geographical debate. Particularly,this paper willexplore the organic concept of nature that srcinated in theearly German Romantic period, the Frühromantik  , which flourished from 1797 to 1802and included such luminaries as Friedrich andWilhelm Schlegel and Friedrich Schelling.Indeed, these philosophies form apivotaltheoretical axisof the current paper. Why such a thought out of season? Why undertake this exercise when we arestill basking in the receding tides of Foucault and Derrida, Latour and Deleuze and a host of derivative theoretical products such as Actor Network Theory and the so-called More-Than-Human?It is easy to forget, and even easier not to have known in the first place,that many of the theoreticaldebates that have stimulatedgeographers in the last two decades or sowere confronted in a not-too-dissimilar form by those in the ‘Romantic circle’ in the closing decades of the 18thcentury. Cultureand nature, agency and determinism, self and world;these were the great dualisms that the Frühromantik  were striving to unite. Like place, that other motif which patterns this paper, theRomantics have often been linked to conservatism anda myopic nostalgia. 1 Still otheraccounts havetransformed the Romantics into ‘proto-postmodernists’, intent on destroying the essences andfoundations that underpinnedthe existing order. 2 This paper instead follows the middle road, assignposted by the historian Frederick Beiser (2003), who maintains that the Romantics were both more and less conservative and more and less radical then other commentators have dared tosuggest.Thereis a sense in which the term romantic is being reclaimed in this paper;away from thatusage incontemporary social theory which sees it as being, as Albert Borgmann puts it, “tantamount to arefutation,” and “hopeless and regressive if not reactionary.” (Borgmann, 2006: 241) Instead, theterm romantic is used here in the sense that the Romantics themselves conceived of it, whereto‘romanticise the world’is to  1 Some of the first scholars to regard the Frühromantik  as conservative and reactionary included Heinrich Heine,Arnold Ruge and Karl Marx. The tendency to regard Romanticism of all periods as reactionary has been apparent inMarxist scholarship ever since. Today, as Albert Borgmann notes, the term ‘Romantic’ isoften used to describe aparticular idea or belief as regressive or reactionary. 2 Such postmodern interpretations have come from Paul de Man, Manfred Frank and Isaiah Berlin, amongst others. Thehistorian Frederick Beiser admits learning much from these scholars but accuses this kind of interpretation of being ananachronism: “It understands that period essentially as an anticipation of postmodernism and imposes contemporaryconcerns upon it.” (Beiser, 2003: x)
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