In the 21st century, technological advancements influence how we live every day. Twenty years ago, it would be inconceivable that we would hold devices in the palm of our hands capable of exploring the entire history of humanity. And even if we mainly use that device for scrolling through Facebook, technology has changed our social lives, our working lives, and our artistic lives. With this ongoing and quickening change, we need art and language to match up with our experiences.
Poetry, and the language forming it, not only help us to understand our experiences, but also construct how we perceive and think about them. As American linguist, Edward Sapir says “language does not exist apart from culture”.
Dr David Cooper, Senior Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University, has organised an event for Humanities in Public’s upcoming World strand exploring the ever-changing relationship between nature, technology and poetry. Dr Cooper’s inspiration for the event came as a response to Robert Macfarlane’s latest book Landmarks.
Robert Macfarlane argues that we are losing the language of nature, using the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s recent omissions as an example. The dictionary has removed the word ‘bluebell’ amongst others, and included ‘broadband’ in its place. In an article for The Guardian, Macfarlane writes: “I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry”. Macfarlane’s argument is that because of such omissions throughout language due to “the simulated screen life many of us live”, we are losing an increased appreciation for nature and our experiences within it.
This was Dr Cooper’s basis for the event. He says: “When thinking about the event, I’ve had – in the back of mind – various comments that Robert Macfarlane makes in his most recent book on landscape, Landmarks. As with all of Macfarlane’s writing, I think that there’s much to admire in this publication; but I was left wondering about his assertions that digital technologies are responsible (at least in part) for disconnecting us from the natural world and, as a result, we need to encourage our children to think about blackberries rather than Blackberries”.
Dr Cooper’s project aims to combine the digital with the outdoors by moulding modern experiences and, indeed, modern technologies to equip us with new ways of perceiving, experiencing and enchanting nature. Dr Cooper wants to remind us that there is poetry within nature, and technology can help us engage with this.
He says: “I am not unsympathetic to the point that Macfarlane is making; but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel that it’s Romantically idealistic to think that people will throw out their mobile devices. Instead, therefore, I’m interested in how digital technologies can provide nodes of connection between individual subjects and the material environment”.
Part of Cooper’s project will encourage people to take photographs of the landscape, and Tweet with one word under the hashtag #EnchantThePeak to show that technology can enhance our experiences with and in nature. He says: “I’m particularly interested in how some creative writers are self-consciously and unapologetically turning towards such technologies in their own practices”.
The event, in Derbyshire, will feature an informal symposium, in which creative project co-ordinators, poets and writers will share their experiences of using technology to explore the relationship between literature and landscape, including Brian Lewis from Longbarrow Press.
Many artists have already combined use of technology with sense of place, for example Sarah Cole, who is pioneering the app Poetic Places with the British Library, and Mark Goodwin, who uses digital recording in conjunction with his poetry. Sarah Cole will be speaking at the symposium and Mark Goodwin will be giving a collaborative poetry performance with Matthew Clegg in an evening event. Sunday of the event will involve a guided artistic walk through Derbyshire’s countryside.
Modern technology, smart phones and social media mean this is not a world where language is depleting, but a world in which anyone can use such language to become an artist. Anyone has the ability to photograph nature and share his or her experiences at the click of a button. Technology and social media sites, particularly Twitter, allow a “democratising of literary production” and the ability to “take writing back out into the landscape”, which is what Dr Cooper strives for.
These technologies then, provoke a new engagement with nature, encouraging us to think differently about both nature and the artist holding the smartphone. Instead of placing landscape, literature and technology at odds, we must “harness the potential of these technologies” to create an artistic zone with nature at the forefront, even if that means seeing it through the screens of our smartphones.
You can read and listen to Mark Goodwin’s poetry here: https://markgoodwinsteps.wordpress.com/
Digital Re-Enchantment: Place, Writing and Technology will take place on 11th and 12th June. For more details, see the Humanities in Public website: http://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hip/
This article was also featured in Humanity Hallows‘ print magazine, 3rd edition.
Image: ‘Kinder Downfall’ by Paul Evans (from the ongoing ‘Seven Wonders’ series)