Augustin Berque: Milieu and human identity: Notes towards a surpassing of modernity

In an ongoing  discussion on a Linkedin group LANDSCAPE URBANISM  on the most 10 most important texts for a  Landscape Architect /Urban Planner, the usual suspects came up, an interestingly a discussion ensued on the Western orientation of the suggestions and the name of 2009 Fukuoka Prize laureate Austin Berque was proposed as an entry into Japanese thought  – not having heard of him before, I could find nothing in English other than this brief review. The resonance of finding a holistic  worldview to counter the prevailing enlightenment view that seems to be responsible for our alienation from the environment we depend on. This resonates with me and  in my opinion  of the views of Konjian Yu in his The Conscientizacao of the Landscape: An Interview with Kongjian Yu and the recent Prizer Prize Laureate Wang Shu Wang Shu Discusses Urbanization in China, that seem to be providing a way to value the environment of the present and the past without creating a”museum ” or “zoo” and on how we might find embodiment in our understanding of the landscape as a complex of the temporal natural and anthropocentric world. from SPACE AND CULTURE posted by Anne Galloway:

Reviewed by Andrea Mubi BrighentiDepartment of SociologyUniversity of Trento (IT)

After the catastrophic events that hit Japan, and particularly in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, a large scale debate about the sustainability of our energetic, economic and even civilizational model is badly needed. Such a huge task which is before us, and which calls for a general rethinking of our ecological approaches and aspirations, could perhaps start from some spatial and environmental insights that Japanese thought itself has transmitted to us.

The collection of short essays reviewed here provides an excellent introduction to the work of the French geographer and orientalist Augustin Berque (born in 1942), who has devoted most of his life to an exploration of Japanese thought and culture, with particular reference to its peculiar spatial and environmental attitudes. Not much of Berque’s oeuvre is available to English readers, yet his major theoretical works (Berque 2000a, 2000b) can be said to engage a dialogue with Japanese philosophical tradition in order to develop reflections that are more widely applicable to the contemporary world, rather than a merely philological reconstruction of certain sources – an intellectual project that somehow recalls what François Jullien has done with Chinese thought.

Traditional houses in Ogimachi by Guillaume Brialon

[CC image credit: Traditional houses in Ogimachi by Guillaume Brialon]

In a larger work that appeared nearly at the same time as the collection on milieu and human identity, Berque (2010) has explored the notion of the ‘ideal habitat’ and has questioned the contemporary transformation and sustainability of that ideal. In these shorter essays, written during the last ten years, the focus is rather on the notions of landscape, milieu, common heritage and identity. Starting from the acknowledgement that western modernity has produced a grave disequilibrium in the relation between the human species and the world – as landscape devastation, waste of natural resources and the many aberrations in the design of the urban built environment testify – the author advances a distinction between a western conception of landscape, pivoted around the subject, and an eastern conception, which instead focuses on the predicate–the latter logic being best represented by Nishida Kitarô’s basho no ronri, or logic of place, a text from 1966.

On the one hand, the author observes, an analysis of the Chinese Zong Bing’s (375-443) classic treaty on landscape painting (Shan Shui) shows a rising awareness of the spiritual dimensions of landscape many centuries before the western notion we employ was conceived during the Italian Renaissance period; on the other hand, in Japanese haiku poetry not only is the subject implicit, but there are verbal forms without a veritable subject. This latter fact should not be taken as a sign of abstraction of space from place; quite the contrary, Japanese sensibility remains extremely grounded in the ‘emplaced’ presences that ‘people a place’. For one of the most important Japanese philosophers of the twentieth century, Watsuji Tetsurô (who was born in 1889, the same year as Heidegger and Wittgenstein), the crucial notion of fûdo, or human milieu, can be found. To stress the fact that, contrary to a superficial impression, Watsuji’s notion does not entail a deterministic approach (i.e., the idea that the climate determines the mores and ethos of a people), Berque proposes to translate fûdo asmédiance, meaning something that simultaneously mediates and is in the middle of the relation between a society and its environment. To be true, Berque also rejects the notion of environment as too objectivist, and prefers to speak of milieu, a concept which inherently entails a point of view from within on such a relationship.

The major argument running through the various essays of the book is that it is all the more urgent today to retrieve our perception of the horizon that surrounds us in order to give meaning to the scale of our actions. From this perspective, Berque speaks of ecoumène to address the phenomenon of the birth of a plurality of life-worlds through progressive unfolding and development of milieus. Hence, if themédiance is an always local and ‘emplaced’ relation between humans and their milieu, a reciprocal ‘absorption’ between a place and its inhabitants, the ecoumène is the human relation to the geographic extension of the planet at large. The ecoumène can be contrasted to the ‘cyborg landscape’, which the author criticises as landscape based on a mechanistic view which determines a detachment (débrayage) of people from their household (foyer), their horizon, and ultimately from the earth. Some further important insights ‘for a surpassing of modernity’ might also come from a comparative examination of the notion of heritage (patrimoine) in the East and in the West: in this respect, the author reflects, the traditional Japanese approach might help us to escape from the false alternative between mummification versus demolition of landscape which has characterised the Western approach to common heritage.

Perhaps Berque’s approach remains in many senses stuck to certain overall dichotomies, which might ultimately undermine his arguments. However, as suggested at the outset, a serious discussion on the human ecological relationship to the environment is so necessary today that all contributions attempting to open new perspectives – for instance, as in this case, through cross-cultural analysis of spatial concepts – should be greeted as most welcome.

Berque, Augustin (2000a) Écoumène. Introduction à l’étude des milieux humains. Paris: Belin.
Berque, Augustin (2000b) Médiance. De milieux en paysages. Paris: Belin.
Berque, Augustin (2010) Histoire de l’habitat idéal. De l’Orient vers l’Occident. Paris: Félin.

More information about Augustin Berque
Augustin Berque, Directeur d’études, EHESS 
Augustin Berque – Wikipédia


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