'Multicultural' Colouring in the Emotional Language of Place

Martin Haigh (Anthropology and Geography, Oxford Brookes University)

U21181 “The Ethical Geographer” is an advanced, honours level module in both the Geography and Physical Geography Fields that enrolls >70 students. It is constructed on 4 pillars: ethics, empathy, environment (sustainable development) and employment (i.e. helping students prepare for employment). The module is advertised as ‘an exploration of the student’s self, its potential and responsibilities’.

The 'Emotional Language of Place' exercise emerged from the educational challenge of creating a 2-week exercise to explore empathy in a' Geographical context. A problem was that while most Geography students had been exposed to the ideas of cultural geography, most physical geographers had not. However, any exercise would have to involve all, equally, in a creative consideration of the relationship between place, environment, cultural meaning and their emotional impacts. The approach had to be new to those from cultural geography and accessible to those who were not. So, what was needed was a pedagogy that was simple, relevant, but outside the box of British cultural geography. Since, undergraduate cultural geography is hugely dominated by Western thought, the solution was to import something from a different cultural tradition, albeit one familiar to a significant minority of Britain’s population.

In India, influential scriptures, including the Srimad Bhagavad-Gita, and major philosophical systems, especially Samkhya and Classical Yoga, hold that material nature is composed of three strands called ‘Gunas’. Sattva guna, colour white - engages purity and serenity, Rajas guna, colour red, inspires passion, movement and creativity, Tamas guna, colour black, veils with negativity, ignorance and dullness.

The West tends to conceive the material world in physical terms but these traditions assert a spiritual reality, where the fundamental substance is consciousness, not matter, and the world is conceived as an image drawn on a mental screen. Everything in this image is constructed from different combinations of the gunas, just as everything in a colour photograph is constructed from pixels of just three primary colours. The argument continues that nature is an active field composed of these 3 Gunas in different combinations. Further, while an individual may think that it is in control, in reality, it is driven by these Gunas.

In class, the Gunas are demonstrated by reference to the motivations for charitable gift giving (Sattva – sacrifice, Rajas – profit, Tamas – disposal) and in terms of foodstuffs. Sattvic food is fresh, juicy, nourishing; Rajasic is spicy, bitter,  salty; and Tamasic is dry, tasteless and unhealthy. Later, the class is challenged to classify three musical extracts in terms of the gunas. Finally, they are assembled into teams and sent out to recognise and assess local landscapes.

Their exercise: “The Speaking Stones” is constructed from a foundation of 1970s thinking about ‘Psychogeography’, which was applied to the emotional impact of different urban settings. Empathy, being able to identify and adjust emotions and feelings, especially of fellow people, is represented as a key skill. Here, the task was to engage with the emotional impact of a place, to recognise the ways it interacts with the emotions of its inhabitants and by exploring the way the material environment communicates to them, to consider its cues of non-verbal and symbolic communication. The argument was that if one can understand how these subconscious communications affect you and will affect those around you, this gives you some idea about how to design or alter environments in order to affect the mind-set of those who live and work within them.

The target areas for the study included sections of the Oxford Brookes University: Campus and parts of Oxford, such as Jericho, Old Headington, New Marston etc. Findings were reported as a poster that evaluated the area examined and detailed some recommendations for improvement. In addition, each individual was tasked to prepare a personal reflective statement on designing better habitats for either enhancing reflection and tranquillity or creativity and passion. The posters have demonstrated many qualities, including an increased sensitivity to the everyday spectacle of campus and city. However, some of the most striking depict the transformation of parts of campus from energising environments by day to threatening ones by night.

Today, multiculturalism is touted as a goal for education and society. However, there is a tendency for cultural differences to be swept under the carpet of our emergent, globalised ‘hamburger’ society. This exercise explores an approach to the world which builds from different foundations to those of the West and, in this, helps validate and demonstrate a non-Western cultural tradition. Student evaluations indicate that many found this exercise both challenging and stimulating and that it helped them reflect upon cultural differences in a new way.