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  • Writer's pictureDan Thompson

Purpose in Place: The Continuity of Care

Through the enlightenment and into the fourth industrial revolution, Anthropocene civilization has succeeded in establishing a practical use for nature, but has failed to locate its purpose or source. Becoming in the process, a kind of modern myth, making up a story for nature as an expedient to making up a story for itself, because the power of civilization is diminished if it cannot properly explain the world within which it exists.

Thus far, the power of human civilization has been in convincing its citizens that it is in full control, which includes nature, but what we have seen, both in civilizations of the past and the present, is that this story of control is a lie and as soon as the people figure this out, the civilization either collapses (as in the Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica) or experiences a dramatic shift in power (the Soviet Union).

Nature writing, or ecomimesis, as it has come to be known in postmodern philosophy, is also a kind of myth-making, partly for the armchair ecologist, and partly for the bourgeoise traveller “by setting up nature as an object ‘over there’—a pristine wilderness beyond all trace of human contact—it re-establishes the very separation it seeks to abolish[1]”. That is, as soon as we notice the environment, we become separated from it, and its voice is replaced by that of a human narrator trying to describe, without success, how amazing it all is. It’s this kind of writing that perpetuates the idea of nature as dependent on us for its sense, and therefore not capable of consciousness or communication, evocative only as a thing of beauty or wonder that it incites in the observer.

We assume this thing we call ‘wonder’ is just a product of our minds as it reaches out to impart meaning or order onto the object of our attention. But more likely it is the object of our attention reaching out to impart its meaning onto us. It is the noumena that speaks out from behind the phenomenological object, but all we can glean is wonder and amazement that gradually become the descriptive qualities of this product that the tourism industry is trying to sell us, along with the resulting experience, branded as, ‘The Grand Canyon’, “Angel Falls”, “The Cliffs of Moher”, “The Wadden Sea”. These places which exceed any concept of space or time on a human scale, are nevertheless promoted as places that you or I could conceivably visit and experience. But in order to get any sort of bearing on them, we would need a lengthy period of assimilation and acclimatization to gain access to the noumenal realm of which these places are both entryways and exits. They either invite us in, or block us out. Knowing how to tell which is which is the real test of our connection to place, which has as much to do with our attitude going into it, as the place itself. Ideally, we don’t want to have any attitude going into it at all, besides openness. All we will do with our feelings and attitudes is close down the communication to anything but our own anthropocentric ideas. We are encouraged to be in awe of nature, but this awe or wonder often results in a fear of the unknown, and more recently, a fear, or guilt, of it being destroyed.

Lately it seems we can’t talk about place or the environment without talking about climate and the fear surrounding it, so it’s like we are living in a climate of fear. A hypersensitivity of awareness that has us analyzing our environment and our experience of that environment to see if what we are seeing and feeling is normal or natural compared to last year, the last ten years or the last hundred thousand years. What we get is a quasi-environmentalism, indistinguishable from the anthropogenic processes that caused the crisis (and the fear) in the first place. This quasi-environmentalism puts everything in a human perspective, replacing nature with ‘nature-culture’. A kind of virtue signaling that lets people honour nature, while continuing to exploit it through a tithing or tribute of ‘care’.

Recycling, for example, is amoung these anthropocentric processes which have allowed large multinational corporations to continue to increase their use of disposable products for the sake of convenience and mass production at the expense of smaller, more sustainable local companies.

People feel guilty and obligated to care, not out of genuine concern, but out of fear that something will be taken away from them. Their job, their security, the comforts and conveniences that they have come to expect. Without which, life as they know it would cease to exist. So, it’s not as much a question of how one can help the planet as it is of how one can help themselves. Faced with such important considerations, sometimes one chooses not to choose at all and so the decision is ceded to those in power.

Thus far, the ecological issue has been handled in the same way that all other social issues have been handled; through politics and finance. The problem is however, that ecological issues such as climate change are incompatible with how other, non-ecological issues are dealt with.

For one, those other issues tend to be part of the human-altered world, whereas ecology takes place in the natural world. But now that we are firmly embedded in the Anthropocene, everything seems to be treated in terms of the human world, where the focus of environmental policy has been transferred from the preservation of the natural world to the preservation of our way of life. The results of said policies resembling neither our way of life nor the natural world.

The reaction people generally have to issues such as climate change, pollution or the extinction of species is a fatalistic dismissal, like what can I do? Which, when it comes to politics, may be correct, but in terms of real-world situations that affect us all, such as the environment, there is actually a lot people can do and it begins with a relationship to place. To overlook this, or take it for granted is to neglect a part of ourselves.

We already know about spending money locally and reducing waste. These forms of ‘tithing’ are what allow us to continue consuming as we’ve always done without immersing ourselves too much in the environment. They are more than talk, but less than living, or ‘walking the walk’. Thus far the walk of History has been picking up speed with the year-over-year increase in economic growth. A form of inauthentic time, which has had the same disastrous effects on us as it’s had on the environment, because they are real. We make them real, but we can just as easily do the reverse, by keeping the pace of nature. That is, by taking the Time of the Place, (authentic time) which makes us more capable of taking care of ourselves, preparing for unforeseen circumstances and becoming more disciplined in our actions. So rather than rushing to catch up to a problem, we eliminate the conditions for a problem to exist in the first place.

This authentic time of nature—the Time of the Place—as opposed to the inauthentic time of culture—is what gives people a sense of purpose; a much more lasting and resilient form of fulfillment than the transitory ‘happiness’, (from old Norse hap, meaning chance, or luck) that we get from our vices. There is no way to achieve meaning or purpose other than heading out in its direction, like going on a trip, and being surprised by how far one has come, and how little they have left to go.

Gradual, but sudden. Meaning, purpose and joy seem to appear effortlessly as part of the journey, but there is still a lot of work involved in finding meaning and living with purpose. As if we were trying to pull something toward us, or put pressure on a switch, that just as we are about to pass out from exertion, turns on a light, or shifts from one frequency to another. Releasing us from the bonds of the ‘natural order’ imposed by history to find nature as it really is, so that we may relax and assume a more comfortable position from which to observe it, and if we are lucky, to enjoy it.

This position, if we become consciously aware, often has a lot to do with place. A place set within or apart from another place. In the former analogy, it was the process of moving from the mythologized conception of nature-culture, to a more authentic one of Being in Time and Being in Place. But it can also be an area of familiarity and habituation such as a room—or a certain chair in a room (if we are in a building), or, if we are outside we may find a particular stretch of beach, a spot in a field, or a tree that gives us a feeling that we have found our spot as opposed to one maybe two or three feet away. A feeling as subjective as it is objective; subjective in that it is occupied by us, and no one else, and objective in that there is something physical about it that makes it appealing: its phenomenality, but we can’t explain why. The intellectual center is unable to provide an answer, yielding to the emotional; the feeling of ‘wonder’ reaching out (read: speaking) from behind and beyond the phenomenal thing. The thing or the place itself.

Place is what gives our bodies meaning, and vice versa. We never ‘discover’ a place, we merely bring it into being. Our awareness makes it what it is for us, but not what it is in itself and so our relationship and attitude toward it—the place and the things within it—are not what they actually are, but what they appear to be. Phenomenology is the study of these appearances in an effort to divine their source, purpose and practical use.

Now what is the difference between a place in a building—our favorite chair in our favorite room—and a place outside? Is it that we own or have the rights to one and not the other, or that we can only be in one place at a time?

If we cared as much about the environment as we did about the things we own, there would be no difference. We wouldn’t own either, because we are more than our possessions and less than the world. When we try to own things, we sell ourselves short, because we are in receipt of the whole world and there is much more that we can’t own than what we can. There is a correlation between owning things and the loss, or the speeding up, of time. The more things there are, the less time there is. In information theory this could be attributed to the energy that is required to attend and visit each thing to the point that they own us. But, when we own nothing, we are in receipt of everything, which gives us the feeling of always being home, or always having enough.

We can’t own the world in the same way that we can’t change the world, not because it is impossible, but because we can only be one person, in one place at a time. For Heidegger, one’s existence (self), depends on the continuity of care over time. Dasein (the act of Being in the world), is care and the structure of care is time. Care is necessary for the continuity of self (existence) and self-understanding. Therefore, it is this one place, and this one time that we should care about. While we’re there, we enjoy ourselves, and while we’re not (not enjoying ourselves), we think of that place… until we’re there again, the day that ‘enriches the year[2]’ even if we’re physically unable to go there or cannot go with the people we once did, it is still available, because the only constant is us. We don’t seem to experience an objective place, because we are always experiencing it subjectively. We go by ourselves (even if we go with others), and we are always there, even if it doesn’t exist anymore. As long as we are there, so is the place and so is the day as it was on that day, or any day we want it to be, or any place. We take our experience (of that place and that day) with us to a new place, on a new day, thereby making an old experience new. The reclamation of time, which is also a reclamation of place. We are always looking for the ideal place, but the only way to find it, is to be it. If you can find it in you, then anywhere you go is the ideal place to be, to live, to visit.

While we may prefer places that ‘belong’ to us, either through ownership, or discovery (a secret, or private place that ostensibly no one knows about), these places are always subject to change. The sacrifice we have to make therefore, is of our ownership in exchange for a shared experience within the agora, or polis. The most obvious example being a public park, reserve, monument or some other such designation which holds to our standard of timelessness and resistance to change.

These places, while common, remind us of who we are and what we still have when so much has been lost. We may lose people, places, even time, but what we find is now. This presence leads us to a genuine caring about the place we live in as much as our own property or home, since our home exists within the place and the place within the country and the country within the world and the world within the universe. So, the one reaches out to the other and is that other and together they are one.

[1] From Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Harvard University Press, 2007. p. 125.

[2] From Credences of Summer by Wallace Stevens. The Collected Poems. Alfred A. Knopf. 1954, p. 375.

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