Augustin Berque

From "Mediance" to Places

The geographer and orientalist Augustin Berque revisits the polysemic dimension of the term “milieu,” and explains the distinction made by mesology—“the area of biology that deals with the relationships between the environments and organisms”—between “environment” and “milieu.” The reality of things differs depending on the environment of each species or culture, the object doesn’t exist in itself but according to its relationship with the subject. In this way, mesology goes much further than the subject/object dualism of modern science. Ontologically “trajective,” the environment is neither objective nor subjective, but firmly between the two theoretical subject/object centers. Berque takes the term “mediance,” meaning the dynamic coupling of the individual and their surroundings, from the Japanese “fūdo,” to which he adds “trajection,” a process that results in the “mediance” of human existence in its concrete surroundings. Taken as a whole, all human environments, distinct from the biosphere through their eco-techno-symbolic dimension, form the ecumene. For architecture, this implies a respect for history and the environment, without mimicking ancient forms, creating from the “mediance” of each place.

Mesology: A questioning of the dualism between subject and object that grounds modern science

Among the many concepts you have developed, your use of the word “milieu” differs from the traditional understanding of the term. Can you explain this approach of milieus and how it diverges from Cartesian dualism?

“Milieu” is a polysemic and even paradoxical term which can stand for “center” or, on the contrary, for “surroundings.” In the same way as we speak of the environment today, mesology was initially defined as the “branch of biology that deals with the relationships between organisms and their milieu.”[Translator’s note] Compare this definition, translated from the first edition of the French dictionary Petit Larousse, published in 1906, with that of the 2011 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, which states that mesology is the “branch of science that deals with the relationships between organisms and their environment.”

Jakob von UexküllJakob von Uexküll (1864–1944)., and subsequently Watsuji TetsuroWatsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960)., made a crucial distinction between the “milieu” (Umwelt, fūdo) and the “environment” (Umgebung, kankyō) however. This is a distinction that also holds in mesology as I profess it. The environment is universal: it is the same for all beings, a collection of ecosystems viewed from the abstract standpoint of modern science, and more specifically that of ecology. On the contrary, the milieu is singular, as it is specific to every single living species and human culture; in other terms, the way things are differs across species and cultures, even when the objects are physically the same.

Mesology focuses on these differences and seeks to understand what reality is for any one species or culture. It takes into account the perspective of each of these collective subjects on the environment, which give rise to their own specific milieus. In that respect, mesology is akin to phenomenology.

Incidentally, Watsuji defined it as a hermeneutic phenomenology, although milieus also have a physiological and physical reality. The human eye doesn’t perceive the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum for instance, while snakes perceive infrareds and many insects can perceive ultraviolet light. These are realities that are specific to a given species at a biological, and therefore ecological, level. Taking these differences into account is tantamount to saying that objects do not exist by themselves, that they necessarily depend on the subject, and that this relation to the subject makes them concrete things.

What this means is that mesology overcomes the dualism that founded modern science in the seventeenth century, both ontologically and logically. It isn’t a modern science anymore, a science that is both ontologically founded on the dualism between subject and object and logically based on the principle of the excluded middle (according to which a given thing cannot simultaneously be something else, which excludes symbolicity), or, in other terms, on the abstract binary logic of “either A (the subject) or not-A (the object)”; it is a transmodern science for which reality is founded on the concrete ternarity between the subject, the interpretation, and the object. It thus breaks with mechanistic determinism because this ternarity necessarily introduces historical and milieu contingency in the subject-object relationship.

In that respect, mesology also stems from possibilism, which the historian Lucien Febvre had identified in Paul Vidal de la Blache’s French school of human geography 1845–1918.. Disputing determinism, it posited that in a given natural environment, different societies could have different ways of life.

Ontologically, this implies that the milieu is neither really objective nor really subjective but in fact “trajective”, that is, concretely, in-between the two theoretical poles of the subject and the object to which modern dualism abstractly keeps.

Drawing new ways of conceiving our relationship to the milieu from Eastern thought

Mesology, a new science based on the Japanese fūdo, emerges from the porosity between geography and society. How does the notion of the ecumene differ from that of the landscape in that context?

I indeed discovered mesology in Watsuji’s Fūdo, which was published in 1935. This book proved so important for me that I ended up translating it; I gave it the title Fūdo, le milieu humainFūdo, le milieu humain (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2011). [literally, Fūdo, the Human Milieu]. Geography as I had learnt it was possibilistic, but it had failed to give me either the ontology or the logic of what reality concretely is in a human milieu.

Fūdo, however, aptly opens with an ontological concept, fūdosei, which I translated as “mediance.” Watsuji defines this concept as the “structural moment of human existence.” This means that our existence is like the dynamic coupling, or moment, of two “halves”—the individual and their milieu—and that the concrete reality of a human being is the product of this coupling.

Yet, given that our milieu is thus ontologically the “half” of who we are, it cannot be a pure object; it is trajective. This I why I added a concept to Watsuji’s fūdosei (mediance), that of trajection, the process from which the mediance of human existence in its concrete milieu originates.

The same goes for the other living species in the various milieus of the biosphere, except that they are simply environments, while human milieus are eco-techno-symbolical. The human milieus form the ecumene, which is therefore different from the biosphere. Involving technology and symbols, the reality of the milieus of the ecumene cannot be reduced to the ecosystems alone.

This is the case of the landscape, which is more than simply the material form of the environment and in fact a trajective, eco-techno-symbolical, and historical reality that appeared in the historical contingency of a concrete milieu, that of southern China in the fourth century, and then to the Renaissance in Europe. The landscape has since become the manner in which our milieu appears to us.

 

You devoted yourself to understanding the relationship between Japanese society and nature. Considering that the ecumene is eco-techno-symbolical, is mediance the “sensory experience of place”? How does it influence the relationship the Japanese have with their environment and how is it reflected in their language, architecture, and aesthetic approach?

From the point of view of mesology, the “sensory experience of place” is none other than reality. Reality is made of things within a ternarity, and not of objects in the binarity of subject-object dualism. This is true for any human reality or any reality from the living world, including in the field of physics, at least at the quantum level, as Heisenberg has observed. Even then, we only have empirical access to what Bernard d’Espagnat called “veiled reality.” The reality-per-se of objects is necessarily “veiled” and hidden from us by the reality that must be established so that the object can take on a concrete existence for us.

In this respect, the Western metaphysical tradition, from Parmenides, Plato, all the way until the culmination of Cartesian dualism, has focused on the being-per-se—which, in the seventeenth century became, by a process of abstraction, on the one hand the modern subject, and on the other, the modern object—rather than on the relationship that concretely brings things into existence depending on our own existence. The so-called Eastern tradition focused on this relationship instead, particularly so in Buddhist thought. The Japanese understanding and practice of reality and life, which does not clearly set apart what is human from what is non-human, developed historically in this tradition.

There was a recent paradigm shift in primatology for instance as this science has be drawn closer to anthropology under the influence of the work of the Japanese naturalist Imanishi Kinji. I translated his book, La Liberté dans l’évolutionLa Liberté dans l’évolution (Marseille: Wildproject, 2016). [Shutaisei no Shinkaron, which could be translated as Subjecthood in the Evolution of Species], in which he recognizes species as subjects, an idea that isn’t accepted in Western thought since the medieval debate on universals.

The poetry anthology Man'yōshū expresses the idea of “letting things express one’s feelings”Mono ni yosete omoi wo nobu. as early as the eighth century, which implies that things aren’t neutral objects, abstracted from ourselves and “out there” in the environment, but that they are rather concretely imbued with our being, in the mediance of our milieu. Later, there was talk of mono no aware, which I translate as “the power of things to move us” [in French, l’émouvance des choses]. This is a true concept, the polar opposite of the dualistic dichotomy between the subject and the object. Things in our milieu can concretely symbolize our own emotion and may themselves seem moved by emotions precisely because they are not neutral objects. They constitute the trajective reality of our milieu.

Unlike the Cartesian cogito faced with the res extensa—the “extended thing”, the corporeal objet—we do not transcend this trajective reality; it is immanent to us given that we take part in the trajection that gives it a concrete existence for us. And, conversely, our existence is immanent to the reality of things in our milieu. That is what mediance is all about, and it is not surprising that a Japanese philosopher, Watsuji, should be the one to first conceptualize it.

Just as in Europe the pictorial perspective, which placed the observer’s eye outside the image, had preceded Cartesian dualism, which places the subject outside of objective reality, by two centuries, in Japan, art expressed this mediance long before Watsuji conceptualized it. It is the case, for example, in architecture, with the engawa, the timber platform that defines the trajective connection between the truly interior spaces, those of the tatami rooms, and the garden outside. There is no dichotomic opposition between the outside and the inside but a transition, a trajection.

The same tendency exists at the linguistic level, for instance in the way what we call pronouns operate. [In English], the “I” that expresses the self-identity of the Cartesian subject is as transcendent as the cogito itself and is invariable whatever the position or the circumstances, the gender, the age of the speaker or his relationship with the addressee. The “I” remains as such; in other words, the “I” transcends the environment. In Japanese however, there is no proper first-person pronoun and the word that is used to convey the first person is always circumstantial, contingent, and immanent to the concrete scene of the enunciation.



What do Japanese gardens and bonsaization tell us about the “special” relationship between humankind and the living world? Isn’t it a way of imposing a procedure on the botanical world and of satisfying a form of dominance?

Talking about mediance and trajection does not mean that the polarity between nature and culture doesn’t exist in Japan. The concrete polarity of mediance is not a hybridity where nature and culture are amalgamated either. Concretely, there is always some degree of interpretation of the environmental given by a given culture in a human milieu, an interpretation that is historically structured in what Buddhism called sesetsu, that is, a certain arrangement, what Michel Foucault would later call a “dispositive.”

In mediance, the pole of “nature” only manifests itself through the norms of this arrangement, something called a kata in Japanese. Each one of the traditional Japanese arts has developed its own kata, for instance the gardening arts and bonsai, which both exalt nature, shizen, but express it according to the kata of a certain human milieu, that of Japan.

The forms of this arrangement are, by definition, irreducible to the true nature of the ecosystems by themselves. A Japanese garden is not nature per se any more than the ecumene is the biosphere: art is added to it and art is techno-symbolic and always imposes its own arrangement on “nature.”

What can “modernity” signify in a Japanese thought that insists on the indivisibility of the relationship between humankind and nature? How can the ecological damage that has nonetheless been occurring in Japan since the beginning of the twentieth century be explained?

Modernity, kindai, is viewed as a historic import from the West. It is in this sense that the so-called philosophical school of Kyoto spoke of “overcoming modernity,” kindai no chōkoku, which is about overcoming the West and more specifically Western dualism.

But Japan imported this modernity on its own terms during the Meiji era and it was not imposed on the country, which is precisely why it managed to modernize so rapidly. Hence the ambivalences and internal contradictions that have transpired in its recent history, particularly during the “era of high growth,” which lasted from 1955 to 1973, when modern capitalism—in the so-called seizaikan collusion between big business, politicians, and the public administration—cornered and devastated the archipelago, in a glaring contradiction with the traditional love and respect for nature. Yet, it is precisely because Japanese mediance did not separate nature from culture that society took so much time to become aware of this devastation and its purely human causes.

Apart from a few forerunners, this only really happened with the “residents’ movement” (jūmin undo) in the second half of the 1960s, through the ecological issues coming from the West. This led to the “Big Four” pollution cases in the 1970s, in which the plaintiffs won cases against the collusion of the seizaikan, thus putting the brakes on the methods of the era of high growth.

 

In this time of ecological urgency, what forms of mediance could be imagined to reinvent Western urbanism in its own distinctive sociability and culture? 

Mediance is a universal existential structure, but the concrete forms it takes have always been specific to one milieu or another. There is therefore no catch-all recipe in the arrangement of concrete milieus but in fact only solutions that can be defined on a case-by-case basis.

The absurdity of modern dualism denied mediance and imposed on all milieus the abstraction that Mies van der Rohe referred to as a “universal space.” This abstract geometry is embodied in what Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson called in the 1930s the International Style: the same parallelepipeds are spread all over the world. The so-called reaction of post-modernism was nothing more than a peroration of the same principle, substituting the modernist imperative of “The same thing everywhere!” with the new motto of “Anything, anywhere!” The result is what Rem Koolhaas calls the “junkspace,” while cynically milking it for his personal gain. Architects become transcendent beings that project their ego by means of individual architectural statements that disregard urban composition when architecture should in fact proceed from history and the milieu.

We want to feel the connection with the things around us. Architectural recipes won’t be enough to lift us out of this junkspace. We need a revolution that is both ontological and logical to overcome dualism and the principle of the excluded middle.

Simply rejecting dualism is impossible given modern individualism, which also originates from the Cartesian cogito, that is, from the same denial of our mediance; but for the same reason, overcoming dualism by recognizing that reality is always trajective shall also, ipso facto, overcome modern individualism.

This is what the mesological paradigm proposes. In the fields of architecture and urbanism, this means respecting history and the milieu, not by slavishly mimicking past forms but by creating new ones from the mediance of each place, by pursuing its history rather than ignoring it or “deep-freezing” it.

This attitude is the exact opposite of modern architecture and urbanism, which have brutally brought together in a binary logic both the tabula rasa and the “mummy,” that is, the embalming of ancient forms.

What used to be called urban composition had nothing to do with these kinds of juxtapositions, which have only given rise to the a-cosmism of the junkspace. To overcome this situation and to restore meaning both to our cities and our countryside, we must radically eradicate the abstraction of dualism and return to concrete milieus. This calls for the recognition of the structural ternarity of reality, which is none other than the eco-techno-symbolic trajection of our own existence: our mediance.

 

Brief bibliography:
Augustin BERQUE, Écoumène. Introduction à l’étude des milieux humains [untranslated in English as of yet, literally Ecumene—Introduction to the Study of Human Milieus], Paris, Belin, 2000 (paperback edition in 2008);
(with Maurice Sauzet) Le sens de l’espace au Japon. Vivre, penser, bâtir, Paris, Arguments, 2004 [untranslated in English as of yet, literally The Sense of Space in Japan—To Live, to Think, to Build];
Histoire de l’habitat idéal, de l’Orient vers l’Occident [untranslated in English as of yet, literally The History of the Ideal Habitat/Housing, from East to West], Paris, Le Félin, 2010 (paperback edition in 2016);
La mésologie, pourquoi et pour quoi faire ?, [untranslated in English as of yet, literally Mesology, Why and for What Purpose?], Nanterre La Défense, Presses universitaires de Paris Ouest, 2014.

This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.

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