Stephen K. Levine
Ph.D., D.S.Sc, REAT, Professor Emeritus, York University (Toronto, Canada), Founding Dean of the Doctoral Program in Expressive Arts at The European Graduate School (Switzerland)
In the age of the Anthropocene, ecological thinking needs to go beyond the opposition between humanity and nature and instead be based on poiesis, the human capacity to shape what has been given to us. Poiesis is traditionally thought of as referring solely to art-making, but it has the wider significance of shaping the world in response to our needs and, in so doing, shaping ourselves. The Western philosophical tradition, based on the search for eternal principles behind changing appearances, is unable to recognise the importance of poiesis, which validates the historical nature of sensory experience and the changing forms to which it gives rise. When poiesis is restored to its rightful role as the basic human mode of existence, we can formulate an ecopoietic approach to ecology, one in which the concept of aesthetic responsibility, the capacity to respond to the world in order to bring about beauty, is central. This perspective has important implications for ecological theory and practice.
Keywords: poiesis, ecopoiesis, poietic ecology, aesthetic responsibility
Introduction: Philosophy and ecology
Can a philosophy based on poiesis contribute to ecological thinking? Does it even make sense to talk of nature as being like a work of art? In order to begin thinking about these questions, we first have to deconstruct the concept of nature itself. Too often “nature” is understood as a transcendental signifier, something that in its pristine essence underlies all our making and doing. The goal of ecological practice is envisioned as a “return to nature,” a doing away with all the depredations which humans have wrought upon it. The concept of “wilderness” is a corollary to this way of thinking. Wilderness is pure and good, but civilization has ruined it.
In fact, “nature” is always a product of “culture.” The two concepts belong together. Moreover, human beings are poietic “by nature” – we are shaping animals. Our instincts are not pre-adapted to our environment, as they are with other creatures. Rather we must shape the world around us in accordance with our needs. Thus even “wilderness” is what we make by declaring an area to be territory off-limits to human use. It is “marked” as such and delimited; often it continues to be affected in accordance with our designs – trails are laid down, controlled burns are set, etc. “Nature” is something we make, not something we find. We cannot “get back” to nature, but we can shape it in a way that makes sense to us.
Often, however, our shaping does not “make sense,” i.e., it is not pleasing to the senses. If the need according to which we shape the surrounding world is one of maximizing profit, then we run the risk of making the world “senselessly.” Good illustrations of this form of shaping can be seen in the work of Edward Burtnysky, photography that vividly shows the ugliness of our designs (http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/).
As we shape the world, moreover, we also shape ourselves. We form our way of life by affecting the world around us. Thus we draw petroleum from the earth to fuel the cars that we use as transportation. We then become “drivers,” i.e., beings, who move by means of machines that have required fossil fuels to work. It is impossible to overestimate how deeply the automobile has affected our existence. Our whole way of life, our economy as well as our ecology, is based upon it. If we ever were to shift to other forms of transportation, we ourselves would become different beings.
What can poiesis contribute to ecological thinking? First of all, we must understand what we mean by this term. In Greek, the word poiesis means making in general. All forms of production are comprehended by it. At the same time, poiesis can also refer to the particular mode of making in which something is made so that it can appear as made. The poietic work, what we call “the work of art,” shows itself, and in showing itself it shines forth as what it is. This showing manifests itself to the senses. Thus the statue is meant to be seen, the music to be heard, etc. The work is sensible; it can only be apprehended by the senses. Beauty, then, can be understood to be the sensible manifestation of appearance.
The traditional philosophical antipathy to the arts is easy to comprehend from this perspective. If philosophy aims to go beyond appearance toward essence, not to the way a thing seems to be but to the way it is, then poiesis, which aims at appearances, can only be an inferior mode of existence. For Plato, the arts deal with the changing world of the senses, whereas philosophy seeks the unchanging object of the intellect. For him, the chaos of sensible appearance is a hindrance to true understanding, based on the unitary essence of unchanging truth. Poiesis, then, is the enemy of truth [10, 607e].
From this point onward, what Plato called “the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” is weighted on the side of philosophy [10, op.cit. 607b]. Even in Aristotle’s thinking, in which poiesis is understood as a kind of knowing, i.e., knowing by making, it is seen to be inferior to theoria, the kind of knowing that does not depend on the senses and which can grasp pure form by the intellect alone. The tradition of philosophy either denies poiesis any insight into truth or considers it to be subordinate to intellectual understanding.
It is not until Nietzsche that poiesis is restored to its central place as our fundamental mode of being and knowing. For Nietzsche, even philosophy is something made, and, as such, can be considered art, in spite of its own self-understanding. Nietzsche’s rehabilitation of poiesis implies a greater valuation of the sensible world as well. He even accuses the philosophers of a “hatred of the earth” in their attempts to reach a realm of existence beyond the world of the senses. Philosophy’s “Being,” for Nietzsche, is only another name for what religions call “God” – the eternal principle beyond the ever-changing world of sensible appearance .
It is possible to see Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology as a continuation of Nietzsche’s fundamental project of restoring poiesis to the center of human existence. Heidegger’s task is to think what is as it appears to us; the opposition between essence and appearance, intellect and sense, being and becoming, is overcome once we give up the idea of an eternal unchanging world behind the world of appearance. Rather, being shows itself; the task of philosophy is to grasp its mode of disclosure [3, p.263].
However, the temporal manifestation of truth means that it appears in different ways in different epochs of history. We are historical beings; we live in worlds that are illuminated in different ways at different times. The philosophical understanding of truth as unchanging essence is a mode of disclosure that reveals the world to us in a particular way, but this understanding itself is historical and subject to revision.
In Being and Time, Heidegger tries to think the way in which our own existence manifests itself within the perspective of time. At this point in his thinking, Hediegger sees our temporal mode of being revealing itself as what it is not in our everyday on-going life, in which one moment seems to follow another, but only when we are shaken out of our complacency by an experience of dread (Angst), an experience in which everyday concerns fade away and we suddenly realize that we will die. If we do not try to escape from this moment of insight but instead grasp our mortality resolutely, then we can choose to exist “authentically,” i.e., to grasp our possibilities in a way that is proper to our own existence as finite beings [3, p.311].
From the beginning, Heidegger’s thinking was oriented primarily toward Being; his analytic of existence (Dasein) was a way to grasp our own being as a pathway toward the understanding of Being itself. As his thinking developed, however, it underwent a “turning” (Kehre) in which he attempted to look directly at the way in which Being is disclosed. In his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art,”  Heidegger considered the primary manifestation of Being to take place in the work of art, i.e., through poiesis. For Heidegger, poiesis is understood to be a mode of disclosure proper to finite beings, who live their temporality within an historical horizon. Art does not reveal eternal essences, rather, a work is of its time; indeed it shapes its time by disclosing possibilities that were previously hidden.
Since art is itself a mode of showing, it is particularly suited to the disclosure of Being, a disclosure that is always historical. The work reveals the world in a new way; it shows the possibilities of our historical existence. At the same time, however, this setting-forth of the World is only accomplished by what Heidegger calls a setting-back into the Earth. There is something in the work that resists manifestation. The work itself is a struggle between World and Earth, between manifestation and hiddenness, a struggle that is put into place in the figure (Gestalt) [5, pp.63ff].
Heidegger’s concept of “Earth” is difficult to understand, primarily because “Earth” refers to that which resists understanding. In one sense, it refers to the “material” of the work, that out of which the work is made. However, Heidegger does not intend the opposition between World and Earth to be understood as one between “form” and “matter.” Thinking in terms of form and matter implies a violent imposition of a structure upon an inchoate material; this kind of thinking is still within the framework of the Will to Power, which, as Nietzsche saw, was the fundamental project of philosophy – to master the world by understanding it.
“Earth,” therefore, is not to be understood or mastered, it is that out of which knowing and willing emerge. There will always be something that is unknown in the art-work; this is what makes interpretation both possible and necessary. Nevertheless, an interpretation proper to the work does not seek to go beyond its appearance to an underlying essence; rather it tries to let what shows itself show itself from itself – i.e., to let the work manifest itself more fully. “Earth” is what prevents the work from being subject to a totalizing knowledge; it is also what enables us to go always further in our understanding of the meaning of the work.
Heidegger’s thinking of poiesis remains to some extent within the tradition of philosophy, even though he aims to deconstruct aesthetics as that tradition has configured it. The works to which Heidegger refers still possess the “aura” which, as Walter Benjamin tells us, is in decline; they are the “great works” of high culture that the discipline of aesthetics has always prioritized. For the most part, Heidegger is only interested in the works that can change the world, the founding works of an historical epoch that compel us to understand our existence in a fundamentally different way.
Poiesis and aesthetic responsibility
In the field of expressive arts, as it has been developed at The European Graduate School and elsewhere, the Heideggerean notion of poiesis has been extended to apply to other modes of change, both individual and communal. Expressive arts in all its forms (therapy, coaching, education, conflict-transformation and peace-building) relies on an essentially poietic mode of understanding: we shape ourselves by shaping the world. The arts have the special capacity to take us into an imaginal world that enables us to see new possibilities in our daily lives. The role of the change agent, then, is to help others shape this world of the imagination in a way that affects them, that touches, as we say, their “effective reality”, a notion analogous to H.-G. Gadamer’s notion of “effective historical reality,” the history which affects our understanding of our own existence [1, p.267]. The sign of this effectiveness lies in what we call the person’s “aesthetic response,” that sensory-emotional experience which is literally “breath-taking,” which makes us stop and compels our attention to what is happening in the moment. It is akin to what Aristotle tells us is the beginning of philosophy: the sense of wonder. It is also, we might say, an experience of beauty.
The responsibility of the change agent is to help the other person find their aesthetic response, that which feels “just right,” the “felt sense” of what is needed at the moment. “Aesthetic responsibility,” then, is an essential component in all actions that aim to bring about change [7, pp.136-145]. Change agents cannot “produce” or “make” change; what they can do is to help others find the possibilities for change and the resources that are needed to accomplish it. Art-making then becomes an analogue for everyday life; we shape our world as we shape our works – and our works are one way we shape our world.
This shaping, again, is not a willful imposition of form upon the materials of a life. Rather it is a letting-be analogous to the ways in which images appear in art-making. Heidegger calls this Gelassenheit, letting something show itself as what it is [4, pp.55ff]. How can the individual or community take what has been given and allow it to find the possibilities proper to it? We cannot escape the historical context in which we exist, but we can act in such a way that we can discover new possibilities for meaning and beauty to emerge.
Figure 1 Frame from the movie “Sin (Il Pecato)” (2018) by Andrey Konchalovsky
What would this perspective mean in ecological thought and practice? Can we speak of an “aesthetic responsibility” toward the earth? This would imply that it is our responsibility to shape the world a way that “makes sense,” i.e., that is pleasing to the senses, that, we can even say, is beautiful. We have to overcome the traditional opposition in aesthetics between “interest” and “beauty,” between what we need and what we value for its intrinsic form. “Beauty,” as Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness” [12, p.66]. Ecology thus takes place within what Marcuse called the “aesthetic dimension,” the world that is manifested to the senses [8, p.xxiiff]. It “makes no sense” to think of an “an-aesthetic ecology,” a world in which sensible appearance is secondary to instrumental goals. We suffer in such a world, and we make others suffer as well.
A poietic approach to ecology would not begin with an abstract blueprint; “planning” is too often the imposition of an idea upon an environment unsuited to it. Rather, we must ask, what does the earth need? What possibilities are contained within our surroundings that can be developed in a way that touches our effective reality? This approach presupposes that there is a fit between the human and the environment, an a priori between what used to be called “man” and “world.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, it rejects the notion that human being is essentially destructive and that the only way to “heal” the environment is to remove it from human concerns, to, in effect, de-humanize it.
Certainly much of what we have done to the planet has been destructive; we cannot ignore the depredations that we have wrought on the world around us and on the creatures within it, including ourselves. But can we not see this violence as a consequence of our unwillingness to accept our limited place within the world, an attempt to become “masters of the universe,” to go beyond our finitude and ascribe unlimited powers to ourselves? The earth then becomes, as Heidegger tells us in his writings on technology, a “standing-reserve” (Ge-stell) for human purposes [6, pp.331ff]. Nature becomes “natural resource,” i.e., something at our disposal without inherent existence of its own.
We need to deconstruct the opposition between the “natural” and the “human,” an opposition which leads to the alternatives of a dream of unlimited control over the earth on the one hand and the vision of a nature “pure” from human contact on the other. As finite historical beings, we are “thrown” into a world we have not ourselves made; yet it is within our power to choose those possibilities which exist within this world in order to develop it in a “suitable” way, a way that is fitting for the habitation of finite beings.
This would mean, however, that we would have to acknowledge our own poietic nature, our existence as creatures, who shape ourselves by shaping the world around us. It would also mean to acknowledge our aesthetic responsibility for the ways in which we shape this world. How can we affect the world in a way that makes sense, a way that is pleasing to the senses, a way, indeed, that brings forth beauty? A poietic ecology would have to take these questions seriously without falling into the trap of a romantic conception of the natural.
The romantic perspective implies a world without the human or, at best, with a humanity that lives in “harmony” with the world without disturbing it. The pastoral image of the shepherd is sometimes used to evoke this: the human who dwells in pastoral simplicity by “tending” what is given to him. The metaphor of “shepherding,” however, does not begin to grasp the human situation. We are not shepherds living harmoniously in pastoral simplicity, we are builders and shapers who form both urban and rural communities in which to dwell. We work the materials that are given to us; we do not simply receive them. But this does not mean that we can disregard them, that we can simply bend them to our purposes. We are not creator gods; rather, we take what is given and respond to it. In doing so, we give it a new form; i.e, we transform it in accordance with its own possibilities.
There is a truth to the romantic view, however, that we need to pay attention to. The image of nature “in itself,” not distorted by human needs to master it, points to the hidden character of “Earth” of which Heidegger speaks. Beyond all our projects, there is something that fundamentally resists our capacity for mastery. “Earth” is what remains beyond our power. At the same time, it reveals itself as capable of transformation in specific ways, depending on the historical period in which we live. This quality of “Earth” shows itself in all our projects; in whatever we do, we encounter the limits of our power. We have to take account of the consequences of our shaping activities; in this sense, there is no “free lunch” in a poietic ecology. No technology, no matter how “sustainable,” will be without consequences with which we have to deal - and then the process of shaping will begin again. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot choose between technologies, taking into account both their effectiveness and their destructive potential, but it does imply that there is no technological fix for our environmental concerns, nothing that will provide a “final solution” to our relation to the environment.
Principles of a poietic ecology
What, then, might be the principles of a poietic ecology? The following are some of the perspectives that it would embody:
1. The human being is a shaping animal. We exist by shaping the world around ourselves.
2. In this process, our shaping is a response to what has come before us. We always exist in a particular historical world, and we take the form appropriate to this world.
3. Nevertheless, we are not determined by the world in which we live, nor by the form in which we find it at any given time. Rather, we exist in the mode of possibility; we can choose to shape the world and ourselves in a way that is not yet actual but that is contained potentially in what is already given.
4. Human existence is finite. Not only do we come to an end, as all beings do, but we can grasp ourselves as finite. This implies that we can respect our limits and recognize that we are not the masters of the world around us, nor even of ourselves.
5. To shape the world in a way that is appropriate to human finitude would mean to develop an attitude of respect for otherness. “Earth” will always be beyond our power. In this sense, our proper attitude toward it is awe.
6. As finite beings, we are in the world in an embodied way. We live in a sensible world, and we experience the world primarily through our senses. This is a receptive capacity, but, at the same time, it has a shaping aspect to it. We see what we look at, and we look at what engages our attention. Sensing is not passive, but neither is it pure activity – it is a responding to what is there.
7. Sensing has a cognitive capacity; our senses “make sense” of the world. It is not the case, as Kant thought, that the senses are “blind” and that it requires the logical intellect to impose categories upon sense data for meaning to emerge. Rather, there is a “pre-formation” of meaning in sensible experience; this provides the material on which the intellect works by developing its potential significance. In English, as in the Romance languages, “sense” means both sensory capacity and significance; the two are not divorced.
8. If we are to live in a world that makes sense, then this world must be appropriate to our senses. It follows that we have a responsibility to shape the world “aesthetically.” Aisthesis, in its original sense, means pertaining to the senses. Aesthetics, then, refers to the way we sense the world; poiesis to the way we shape it according to our senses, i.e., aesthetically. This we can say that we have an aesthetic responsibility to the world.
9. Beauty is what pleases us aesthetically. It is what touches us through the senses and takes our breath away. The beautiful may not be harmonious and perfect in its form, as traditional aesthetics would have it. Rather beauty, within the framework of a poietic ecology, is seen to emerge from the awe with which we regard the world and the beings within it. A poietic conception of beauty has some of the quality traditionally ascribed to the sublime – that which surpasses our finite capacity to grasp it. Beauty could thus be said to be the apprehension of “Earth” in the world.
10. The arts have a special role to play in this framework. As modes of showing, they can reveal the ways in which we have made the world ugly; they can confront us with our un-aesthetic and destructive acts. At the same time, they can point towards what is possible. In their imaginative explorations, the arts show us what can be, not only what has been. The vision of beauty provided in art can serve as a guideline for all our shaping acts.
11. To speak of poietic ecology is to imply that nature can be considered as a work of art. This could be seen as a romantic attitude, were it not that within this framework, art itself is not understood to be the imposition of form upon matter, as it is in the traditional ontology that underlies Romanticism without its knowing it. If the work of art is itself a struggle between “World” and “Earth,” between revealing and concealing, and if “Earth” is essential to the work as its bearing ground, then to consider nature as a work of art is not to imply mastery over the environment. Rather, this perspective points to a different attitude toward the world around us, one in which we accept our responsibility for shaping the environment in a way that respects its otherness as well as our own capacity for affecting it.
Figure 2 Frame from the movie “Sin (Il Pecato)” (2018) by Andrey Konchalovsky
Conclusion: Poietic ecology and environmental practice
The implications of a poietic ecology for environmental practice remain to be worked out. Nevertheless we can point to many examples where this framework has implicitly been employed. Any time when we see, for example, the development of a landscape that takes into account its natural contours and the particular materials which make it up, we can see a poietic ecology at work. Similarly, when urban redevelopment is designed in terms of the culture of the people involved and their way of life, there is an element of poiesis involved.
I am particularly fond, in this context, of Rousseau’s image of the contrast between the French and the English garden. The French garden, as he describes it, is developed according to an abstract plan. It has a formal quality which is appropriate to the social position of those for whom it is designed. The English garden, on the other hand, looks wild, as if it has developed “naturally.” In fact, it has been carefully tended to, but its shaping has taken into account the “natural” capacities of the land and the plants that can grow there. In Rousseau’s eyes, this “natural” chaos is much more beautiful than any “artificial” order. “Nature” here, of course, means not that which is wild and untouched but that which has been shaped in a way that respects its otherness [11, Part IV, Letter XII]. Perhaps we should understand Rousseau’s concept of “natural man” in the same way: “natural” human beings are the ones who shape themselves in accordance with their own capacity for beauty – in the words of Hölderlin as quoted by Heidegger, they “dwell poetically upon the earth” [2, p.270].
Human existence is poietic by nature, and nature is what we shape through poiesis. If we can accept our responsibility as shaping beings, our aesthetic responsibility, while at the same time respecting the limits of our powers as finite beings, then perhaps it will make sense to see “nature” as the work of art that it always has been. And then, perhaps, we can honor the earth, for in our relation to it, to paraphrase Saint Paul, “…we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28].
Reference for citations
Levine S.K. (2020). Ecopoiesis: Towards a poietic ecology. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 1(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
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“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.
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