Writing New History: the logic of psycho-geography (1–2)

(February 13)

Often, we tend to think of geography as the study of climate zones and soil types. There could not be a bigger understatement. Geography, if one was to go into the origins of the concept, or etymology, literally means ‘writing about the world’ – (geo=world;graphy=writing). Initially, and most directly, what we understand by ‘world’ is the very physical connotation, of the world as planet earth. But even if we were to stick to everyday understandings, the idea of world is much more nuanced than a mere synonym for the physical topography we inhabit. The idea of world has psychological connotations. Take the commonplace phrases: which world is he living in; or, are you living in your own world. In the complexity that is human language, the word world signifies both a physical and a mental idea, and that, in essence, is the intersection on which our existences must place themselves.

I use the plural, existences rather than existence, because that is the nuance that the complexity of the idea we are exploring points us towards. Naturally, one should ask the question, if the idea of a world is so rooted in individual perception, does that mean there are as many worlds as there are individuals who perceive it, or, that, or whatever it is that we gain access to through our senses and understand through our mental faculties. In a broad sense, yes. But if we think more closely, and more widely, perhaps not.

How do we make sense of our reality, around us, what we see, what we observe?

Observation, perception, is raw data, which is completely bio-chemical in nature, and, in a direct sense, we have no immediate way of accessing it. We can use instruments, of course. Any assortment of scans, images, computer models. But all our ways of knowing the functions of our bodies are, if we come to think of it, indirect and representational. We can only look at images of what our bodies might be doing, inside, very, very secretly. The only access we have have to the inner workings of our bodies is, again, indirectly, apart from the bias categories of pleasure and pain, and their higher order manifestations in emotion, is, ultimately, language.

Language is not the direct expression of bodily states. It is a reasoned communication of experience transformed into thought. We often wonder about whether animals think. The plain answer is no. Animals have experiences, which might be more intense, at times, than experiences of many human beings, but animals do not think. Only human beings think because thought can only be expressed in language. Human beings are the only animals on earth that have the capability or transforming thought into language. Other higher animals, like dolphins, whales and some primates, even some birds, might be able to make complex sounds, but none, apart from humans have language.

Humans share their experiences through language, and it is through generations of such sharing, that we create shared ideas of the worlds we inhabit. Human beings gathered in the same place might feel the same discomforts, cold, hunger, warmth, safety or desire. But it is only when we share these experiences that we create the idea of home or the wilderness. Human beings create their inhabited, co-habitated worlds through language and the sharing of languages, that is, conversation.

Through generations and generations, such sharing manifests itself into ethnicities, religions, tribes and even nations. But the root of all identifications of belonging among human beings is the experience in the mind of the individual of what is around him and where he fits in. Of course, families play an important part in socialising individuals into roles they are supposed to perform as brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, but, in the long run, no role can be imposed unless it is actually experienced. Families have their logic in love and care, tribes and nations in belonging.

But, ultimately, it is the experience expressing itself into reality.

Geography, as a discipline that has become more nuanced over the past century, needs to evolve into a study of these experiences. And, this, truly, is the direction in which geographers have been leading into since the last few decades of the 20th century. Geography is much more than the study of forests and soils and rainfall and vegetation. It is the study of how human being live where they live and how they share with each other the experiences of their location in space and time conjectures. Through the ages human beings tell stories about their homes, their travels and their hopes for better futures. We often divide each into narrow academic boundaries of literature, history and politics. But, in the study of geography, we have a single discipline that allows us to tie it all together into one human story. In more ways than one, geography is the one discipline that is truly interdisciplinary.

If we make such a nuanced understanding the basis of studying a total, long scale world history, we could do much to challenge the permanence of the narrow domestic walls into which we divide ourselves. The walls, alas, seem to high. But only, perhaps, because we refuse to build the equipment to break our mental sieges. A transdisciplinary method of understanding history is, therefore, of the ultimate human importance.

Now, the problem is, how should we write such a history, to pass it on to our future generations. Before I speak of a method, let me discuss a problem. We are the products of our circumstances. The world is old, and we are new. If we go by the strictest definitions of human history, that is, history which had been recorded as readable text, as opposed to history based on artefacts, that are pre-lingual, in the realm of archaeology, our history is about 6,000 years old. A mere blip in terms of existence.

If all the history of life on this planet was to be reduced to the scale of a Christian year, human beings would not appear till the last minute of the last day. Literally the last minute. Dinosaurs would evolve and go extinct in December.

However, the problem at hand is that we are old, despite the fact that in other scales we are young, we are not concerned with evolutionary biology, geology, astrophysics – at the moment. In the essay that frames our conversation, I also referred to language as the basic building block of our reality. Language, in a sense, is also information. But, it is very complex information. We should understand that one unit of language expresses multiple units of any basic form of information.

For example, take the simple word – “sorry”. What if one was asked to express the idea behind this word in simple computer language, that is, the language of 1 and 0, or, yes and no. It would take forever to express the nuance of sorry in such a simple language. The basic language of all communications systems is not much different from the binary language of computers, though it might be expressed, for example, in our case, in more complex human conceits of pleasure and pain. The so called “selfish gene” evolves through a simple logic of what favours or opposes survival. This extended, and multidimensionally developed, creates human beings as complex as mammals.

Then, it is the upwards trajectory of sharing, from information into experience, that we are concerned with, at the moment. Let us compress evolution into an instance, and be, in a way, little gods. Now, the question is, how can we then study human history which is almost an infinite amalgamation of more and more complex information loops and networks. The only possible way is through a development of a method for understanding shared experiences through the ages, or human generations.

This must take certain facts for granted. The first of this is regarding the perennial non-problem of human nature. Why do I call this so? Well, because of many reasons, but the most important being that, biologically speaking, human nature has been more or less consistent for a very long time. Nature has a strict, though very undefinable, connotation, but human nature, as it is, has been consistent since Homo sapiens evolved as a distinct species. The first Homo sapiens would have been as adept in our modern life styles as we are, if they were born into it.

But, of course, we have evolved the lifestyles of today only after 60 to 100 thousand years of generational change. This is, in essence, the scope of a meta human history. But in such a time scale, facts are very hard to place along the scales of time and place. As we said before, this is the realm of an artefacts based history. Real history, that is, history as a story, begins with the first texts of humanity, and they, as also we mentioned, are about 6,000 years old, beginning with the Mesopotamian civilisation.

At this point, the question is why we make this crucial distinction. As any student of history will know, archaeological finds, artefacts, etc, can change our understanding of even the recent past. In truth, even the boundary between pre-history, ie. the realm of archaeology, and history, ie. textual history, overlaps as much as that between archaeology and anthropology – pre-human remains just like those of early humans have to be excavated from the soil, after all. The main reason for this distinction, even then, is that in texts, we have direct and understand expressions of human thought, in human language, that is. I have gone into the details of this importance before.

So, human history has to be a history of human texts. In most cases, such texts are expressing thoughts through languages, dead or alive. The definition of what constitutes a text can be very broad, however, and even very contextual. Anything that ties together multiple strands of thought, in a warm is a text – text, the word, coming from textile, which is produced by the weaving together of fabrics.

Human history is a meta-textual enterprises, the weaving together of multiple texts. The more we have, the richer our fabric is.

We come to the core issue – can a truly human history be written without knowing all languages and all texts? Can a human being write such a history? The short answer is no, and no. We must wait for the next stage in human evolution – it’s not going to be AI but an amalgamation of human and artificial intelligence. We must wait until we are cyborgs.

But what we can produce are psychological geohistories. Histories which evoke a sense of space and place – the longue duree of human settlement of various lands. The land and the people – that is the primordial, elemental stage of history.

Now, of course, we have to develop methods to write such histories (I have!). But that is an exploration for another time.

Focus : History, Philosophy, Storytelling