2007 - 2021

Republic of Stories

645x300xsisfgraphic.jpg.pagespeed.ic.uQFVJ7inFxThis week saw the launch of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival 2015, ‘Stories Without Borders.’ As well as bringing together world cultures – with a specific focus this year on Scottish, European, Middle Eastern and North African storytelling – the festival explores global issues through storytelling. This year there is a focus on the environment and sustainability, with a nod towards the World Climate Summit in Paris in November. Storytellers across the world bring a creative dimension to our sense of the environment and to the living connection between natural ecology and sustainable culture. One of this year’s festival projects is the ‘Tree of Life’. Tomorrow, at the Botanic Gardens, is an afternoon event called ‘Storyelling for a Greener World’, echoing the title of a book of collected essays released last year.

Today I attended one of the festival lectures, ‘Another World is Possible: Traditional Stories, the Earth Charter and Fresh Thinking’ by Grian A. Cutanda, in association with the University of Granada. In his lecture, Cutanda emphasised the desperate need for an ontological shift in worldview: a shift from a Western classical worldview to a worldview informed by ecological systems thinking. His central argument was that the most powerful way to achieve such a paradigm shift is through the power of traditional stories and storytelling.

The Earth Charter was developed after a worldwide dialogue on common goals and values for social justice, peace and sustainability. It is an example of soft-law that has been endorsed by several organisations including UNESCO. The drafting of the text was done during a six-year worldwide consultation process (1994–2000), overseen by the independent Earth Charter Commission. It follows four broad principles: Respect & Care for the Community of Life; Ecological Integrity; Social & Economic Justice; Democracy, Non-violence & Peace.

“The Earth Charter is an ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It seeks to inspire in all people a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the whole human family, the greater community of life, and future generations. It is a vision of hope and a call to action.”

— The Earth Charter [1]

Using the Earth Charter as a basis to establish categories for analysis, Cutanda has shown that the content and values of many of the traditional stories from all over the world – what he calls ‘mythical-metaphorical narratives’ – resonate with the statements, values and principles that the charter reflects. Cutanda’s work and research aims to prove that these traditional stories from cultures in harmonic relationship with their natural environment can be considered as an educational resource within the context of education for sustainable development. [3] The story he shared to illustrate this was the famous Aboriginal creation myth, The Dreaming.

“These are peoples who never forgot the importance of relationships, interconnections and interdependence between the multiple elements of reality.”

— Cutunda & Murga-Menoyo, 2014

What was wonderful about today’s talk is that the audience could see out to the Storytelling garden, where the bust of Patrick Geddes sits on his beehive plinth. Geddes was very present in Cutanda’s lecture, even if he wasn’t mentioned explicitly. Geddes, of course, was an early systems thinker: his understanding of the relationship between culture and nature and his famous ‘Valley Section’ has informed and inspired generations of environmental thinking. This is an area of very close to my own heart. In 2012, I was lucky to win post-doc fellowship at IASH to research a project I called ‘Patrick Geddes (Re)Imagined: Storying the Culture Nature Relation.’ Here I explored the contemporary relevance of Geddes’ vision in the context of current ecological and systems thinking. I argued, following others, that humanity’s sense of disconnection from the world is a consequence of the Western theorised abstraction of ‘culture’ from ‘nature,’ exploring the embodied, multisensory and creative practice of live storytelling as a means to reconnect people with place. [2]

In emphasising this power of stories and storytelling , Cutanda quoted American psychologist Jerome Bruner’s ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’:

“Narrative “truth” is judged by its verisimilitude rather than its verifiability. There seems indeed to be some sense in which narrative, rather than referring to “reality,” may in fact create or constitute it, as when “fiction” creates a “world” of its own.”

— Jerome Bruner, 1991

This ‘world-making’ ability is something that truly fascinates me. My PhD thesis was called ‘Presencing Imagined Worlds,’ exploring the experience of the traditional ballad, drawing upon phenomenology, ecology, narratology, metaphor and theories of embodied cognition. According to an emergent, enactive, embodied account of human cognition,

“Mind, culture, body and action partake each of the other, co-constructing the only ‘realities’ available to human experience, through the creation of new narratives and imagined worlds”

— Wayne Bowman, 2004

Anthropologist of oral culture, John Niles, has argued that storytelling – or narrative imagining – is an ability that defines the human species, characterised as Homo Narrans. Only human beings possess this almost incredible ‘cosmoplastic’ power. [4]

Cutanda began his own lecture by telling a story. This was the story of the ‘Eye Galaxy,’ where there are two beautiful blue planets: the ‘One Eye Planet’ and the ‘Two Eye Planet.’ On one planet, the human inhabitants lived according to the classical Cartesian/Newtonian worldview; on the other, the human inhabitants lived according to a more ecological, complex systems view of being-in-the-world. The development of advanced civilisation on the One Eye Planet had led to desperate social, cultural and ecological problems, whereas the society on the Two Eye planet achieved social justice, multiculturalism and sustainability.

This metaphorical opposition was at the very heart of Cutanda’s lecture. The notion of an ‘ecological worldview’ arises from the identification of ecology as an ontological metaphor to contrast with the metaphor of mechanism (which informs much of modernist thought and the classical Western worldview). In an ecological paradigm, fixed states are replaced by processes and relations, hierarchies by networks. The basic tension is one between the parts and the whole: the emphasis on the parts is mechanistic, reductionist or atomistic; the emphasis on the whole is holistic, or ecological.

Cutanda’s metaphorical story reminded me of another useful metaphor, this time by writer Arlene Goldbard. Goldbard distinguishes between two paradigms, one which she calls ‘Datastan’; the other she calls the ‘Republic of Stories. In Datastan, collective priorities are shaped by a ‘mechanistic worldview that privileges whatever can be numbered, measured and weighed.’ Within that paradigm, m’acroeconomics, geopolitics and capital are valorized’ with social systems built on a linear, machinelike approach. In this world people are expected to make sacrifices for profit-margin, to go to war for oil, to accept environmental damage that threatens future generations, often for no palpable reward beyond ‘improved economic indicators.’ In The Republic of Stories, ‘nuance, particularity, imagination, and empathy are given their rightful places as capacities that enable essential knowledge about ourselves, the world, and our choices within it.’ In the new paradigm, ‘our prodigious powers of imagination open portals to the future through alternate scenarios that respond to social conditions,’ but are unconstrained by orthodoxies. There are multiple sides to every story, and many stories lead to something worth trying. This world is a ‘culture of possibility.’ [5]

While I do find these metaphors useful tools for conceptualising and expressing the need for a paradigm shift, setting up such stark contrasts between worldviews perhaps betrays an inherited habit of binary thinking in itself. The metaphors themselves highlight the extent to which we are so cultural conditioned to conceptualise the world in oppositional terms.

Ecological thinking moves beyond binaries towards thinking in terms of connectivity, of unity in diversity and the webs of relationships which underlie the complexities of contemporary life and culture. Instead of isolated phenomena, the potentially infinite network of their inter-relationship moves into focus, implicating the infinite in the particular. Going beyond dualisms opens up an entirely different intellectual landscape, one in which fixed states are replaced by processes and relations, hierarchies by networks. Ecological understanding is associated with the following commonalities: a focus interdependence, interconnectedness and relationships. These relations are explicitly understood to be nested in a larger web of relations, implicating the infinite in the particular.

Ecological thinking, by definition, places emphasis on the concept of sustainability. It allows you to think of the deep connection between people and their environment, between the local and the global and all levels in between. It also enables you to think temporally, or inter-generationally, of past, present and future. Ecological thinking is also ethical. Awareness of our interconnectedness engenders an awareness and care for each other and for the planet.

This said, there is often a tendency in scholarship of a certain nature to fall prey to and perpetuate a phenomenological idea of ‘a return to nature,’ a notion that has its origins in Western 18th and 19th century Romanticism. There is also a danger for such ideas to become appropriated by new age spiritual discourse and pseudo-scientific self-help discourse which arguably does more harm than good. This and can lead to ecological work being dismissed as wishy washy or not taken seriously as vigorous research in scientific circles. This is a real problem, and those working with this material must heed this responsibility.

The fact is that reconnecting with the environment is in no way a romantic hankering; it is an ecological imperative. Unless there is awareness and understanding of the ontological values and inherited assumptions underpinning our worldview, we cannot move towards the paradigmatic shift so desperately needed. To counter this tendency towards to Romantic, Timothy Morton has written extensively of the idea of ‘ecology without nature’, proposing that an ecological criticism must be divested of the Western bifurcation of nature and culture, and sets out a seeming paradox: to have a properly ecological view, we must relinquish the idea of ‘nature’ once and for all. Such thought also goes beyond the idea of the organic and non-organic, and understands technology as part of our ecological reality.

An ecological worldview must start from a new conception of the human being not as a composite entity ‘made up of separable but complementary parts, such as body, mind and culture,’ but rather as ‘a singular locus of creative growth within a continually unfolding field of relationships.’ This is the view of the ecological anthropologist Tim Ingold. In his book Being Alive (2011), Ingold argues that we live in a world of movement and becoming in which any ‘thing’ – caught at a particular place and moment – enfolds within its constitution the history of relations that have brought it there. Ingold argues that in such a world, we can understand the nature of things only by attending to their relations, or in other words, by telling their stories.

“For the things of this world are their stories, identified not by fixed attributes but by their paths of movement in an unfolding field of relations.”

— Tim Ingold, 2011

In a chapter entitled, ‘Stories Against Classification,’ Ingold argues that in a system of classification, every element is slotted into place on the basis of intrinsic characteristics that are given quite independently of the context in which it is encountered. In story, by contrast, it is by their context that every element is identified and positioned. Stories, then always – and inevitably – draw together what classifications split apart. Things do not ‘exist,’ they ‘occur.’ Where things meet, occurrences intertwine, as each becomes bound up in the other’s story. Every such binding is a place or topic. In storytelling, it is in the movement from place to place, or form topic to topic, that knowledge is integrated. Ingold, then, sees culture as creative and open-ended, an interweaving of stories. In Ingold’s view, ‘singing, storytelling and the narration of myth’ cannot be accommodated within the terms of a dichotomy ‘between the material and the mental, between ecological interactions in nature and cultural constructions of nature’ [6].

“Humans may be unique in their capacity to narrate such encounters, but no-one can construct a narrative who is not already situated in the world and thus already caught up in a nexus of relations with both human and non-human constituents of the environment.”

— Tim Ingold, 2000

One of the aims of ecological thinking is to discursively empower the manifold and diverse forms of culture that are overshadowed or even silenced by dominant grand narratives. The ecological world is a world of multiple subjectivities. Part of this worldview, of course, is an emphatic recognition of the diversity of life and the uniqueness of its individual manifestations, which are each seen to have intrinsic value. The questions is often asked, in a Scottish context, why prioritise minority languages? In my view, there are several reasons, but one vital reason is an ecological justification: like nature, these particular forms of cultural expression are unique on this planet, and we have a responsibility to nourish their growth. It is easy enough for us to understand the importance of supporting biological diversity – that a precious wild flower is under threat, or a rare breed of monkey is under threat – but it is much harder to convince people of the importance of cultural diversity: the precious and poetic ways of making sense of the world through imagination and creativity.

Cutanda also evoked a biological metaphor. He talked about the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, and proposed that we might start a global project – what he calls the ‘The Earth Stories Project’ – that might act as a global vault for culture. He argued that this might be a step toward the planetary mythology’ that Joseph Campbell sought – a wonderful step towards Goldbard’s ‘Republic of Stories’:

“The bridge between paradigms is being built by artists and others who have learned to deploy artists’ cognitive, imaginative, empathic, and narrative skills. The bridge is made of the stories that the old paradigm can’t hear, the lives that it doesn’t count, the imagined future it can’t encompass.”

— Arlene Goldbard

Our current ecological crisis demands of us a creative reconciliation of things that have become disconnected and positioned in opposition to each other: between humankind and nature, between the inner world of myth, and imagination and the outer world of science, politics, and empirical reality. We must work towards developing a respect for a collective sense of cultural values and appropriate actions engendering a sense of ecological responsibility, wherever we find ourselves. The importance of storytelling in this context is that it is both a conceptual and practical terrain that has the potential to generate and provoke genuine shifts in attitude and behaviour by engaging the emotions and senses as well as the intellect, the ability to disturb accepted attitudes and behaviours, to counteract economic and political forms of interpreting and instrumentalising human life, and perhaps above all, its ability to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Telling, receiving and shaping of stories has the power to disclose new ways of being. There is not a point at which the story ends and life begins.




[2] Cutanda, G. A. & M. Murga-Menoyo ‘Analysis of Mythical-Metaphorical Narratives as a Resource for Education in the Principles and Values of Sustainability’ Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability. Volume 16, Issue 2, Pages 18–3

[3] In the past twenty years or so of anthropological and philosophical writing, the very idea of the culture nature dichotomy has been critiqued, emerging as an established problem. The overall trend has been to ‘denaturalise’ nature as an academic concept and relativise or historicise it as a cultural category. However, the very fact that this opposition between culture and nature has persevered despite the long history of its critique suggests that the critique itself may be as much a part of its mode of reproductions as it is its destruction.

[4] Niles, J. (1999) Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literatur

[5] Goldbard, A. (2013) The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists & the Future

[6] Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays of Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill

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  1. Gordon Peters says:

    Kenneth White, the exiled Scots poet who became professor of poetry at the Sorbonne, and gave rise to the concept of geopoetics, and whose ideas and practice are carried on by the Scottish Centre of Geopoetics is worth checking out on the thematic of separation of culture and nature

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