Language creates space for conviviality

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About a year or so ago, my good friend Bryan Mathers kindly gifted me the audiobook of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: a journey on foot. It’s an extraordinary work that I enjoyed greatly. As a result, I was delighted when I discovered a pristine paperback copy of his follow-up book, Landmarks, in a secondhand bookshop recently.

I’m less than fifty pages in, but wanted to share these quotations as I think what Macfarlane has to say is more widely applicable:

Children are now (and valuably) adept ecologists of the technoscape, with numerous terms for file types but few for different trees and creatures. For blackberry read BlackBerry. A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages. A common language – a language of the commons – is getting rarer. And what is lost along with this literacy is something precious: a kind of word magic, the power that certain terms possess to enchant our relations with nature and place. (p.3-4)

I don’t think this is peculiar to my children’s generation, it’s actually true of people like me who grew up in semi-rural Northumberland. I agree that it’s more than a ‘shame’, it’s actually pretty dangerous in a world where people are happy to concrete over sacred areas.

It is my hope (but not my presumption) that the errors grouped here might in small measure re-wild or contemporary language for landscape. I do not, of course, believe that these words week magically summon us into a realm of pure harmony and communion with nature. Rather that they might offer a vocabulary which is ‘convivial’ as the philosopher Ivan Illich intended the word meaning enriching of life, stimulating to the imagination and ‘encouraging creative relations between people, and people and nature.’ (p.9)

Last month, I finally got around to reading Illich’s Tools For Conviviality*, and it was an eye-opener for me. It struck a chord with me in terms of how people and systems change — you don’t fight the status quo on its own terms, but create an alternative that’s so compelling that people want want to switch. What’s true of apps is also true of ways of being. I hadn’t really consciously thought of how important language is to demarcating that ‘new’ territory until reading Macfarlane’s words.

The nuances observed by specialized vocabularies are evaporating from common usage, burnt off by capital, apathy, and urbanization. The terrain beyond the city fringe has become progressively more understood in terms of large generic units (‘field’, ‘hill’, ‘valley’, ‘wood’). It has become a blandscape. (p.23)

I’ve included this quotation as I adore the pejorative term ‘blandscape’, which I assume is an original Macfarlane-ism. In the technological world I inhabit there are plenty of blandscapes — the candy kingdom of iOS being a case in point.

We need more words to slice and dice the digital realm takes up increasing amounts of our time. For example, it’s currently extremely difficult to explain to someone who currently doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, about Open Source software and why privacy is so important. We’re currently using analogue language to describe digital things.

I’d highly recommend reading this book, along with the other book I’ve mentioned by Macfarlane. His use of language, as you’d expect from the Director of English Studies at Cambridge University, is amazing, and his stories of his trips out into the wilds of the (still!) United Kingdom are enthralling.

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* The book itself seems to be expensive, despite coming out in 1973, but PDF versions are freely available to download, discoverable via your favourite search engine.