"For every human heart has gates of brass & bars of adamant,
Which few dare unbar because dread Og & Anak guard the gates
Terrific! and each mortal brain is walld and moated round
William Blake, Milton – a poem in two books, c1804-1811
There's a conscious focus on thoughtlessness at this year's Uncivilisation – the fourth and final festival organised by the network of artists, writers and thinkers who gather together under the aegis of the Dark Mountain Project. It's not the only thing going on though. Over the course of two days at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire's beautiful Meon Valley, there's song and dancing and strange midnight rituals and much discussion around all manner of topics. Fergal Drennan holds a practical session on lacto-fermenting, for example. And baker, farmer and archaeobotanist John Letts gives a fascinating talk on the origins of agriculture, the nefarious practices of modern agri-business multinationals and the reason that the Henry Doubleday Research Association has never been closed down for the distribution of seeds that aren't on DEFRA's certified list (answer: Prince Charles is the patron). A little while later, I'm undergoing a mini-rite of passage by screaming into a hole in the earth in the middle of a wood. Nearby, a startled deer bolts further into thicker forest.
Despite the diversity of the weekend, it's this issue of thoughtlessness that I've been thinking about most since returning to London, my pockets filled with apples, a plastic branch, and a long, long story about a snail. In a sense this is hardly surprising. Dark Mountain's central tenet is that, triggered by the exhaustion of the earth's natural resources, Western civilisation is finally faced with the imminent collapse of all that it holds dear. Their belief is that the stories that underpinned the last few hundred years of civilisation – materialist science, reason, faith in progress, growth, liberal democracy etc – have led us stray and must now, however painfully, be discarded. The task today is to tell the new stories, and build small-scale community resilience for the post-collapse pains to come.
Writing is about engaging with the unconscious part of your mind, or at least it should be.
As the Editorial to the recently published Dark Mountain Book 4 argues: “One of the characteristics of 'progressive', post-Enlightenment societies is a strong belief that humanity controls, or should control or will soon control, its own destiny, and often that of every other creature too.” Underpinning this faith in progress and control is a faith in reason – a faith, of course, that denies itself as such. And look where this faith in reason has got us. Yes, we have vast cities and flushing toilets and space travel and drugs and cars and the human genome project. But at what cost, to us and to the world around us? If you follow this line of thought, it is arguably reason itself that 'originally' instituted the severance from nature that is cause for so much current lamentation. That, as far as I can tell, is the Dark Mountain line: hence all the interest in that which is not conscious or rational.
At the festival, co-founder Paul Kingsnorth sets the tone. Sitting in Ben Law's Woodland Classroom, Kingsnorth introduces us to his forthcoming début novel, The Wake. A “post-apocalyptic novel set 1,000 years in the past”, The Wake tells of a guerilla resistance movement against the invading forces of William the Conqueror. Kingsnorth explains how current land ownership laws in the UK (in which the Queen owns all the land and subjects 'own' estates through tenure) originated with William's very first law. He argues that our current state of affairs, in which 70% of the land is 'owned' by 1% of the population is, at least in part, a result of this period in history. The novel, he says, is “picking at the collective unconsciousness of the English people” and he declares that writing is about “engaging with the unconscious part of your mind, or at least it should be”.
Likewise, science writer Caspar Henderson, speaking about his Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, quotes Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Specifically, he cites the moment when the central character begins to feel a strong connection with the natural world, including the hitherto revolting eels: “And I blessed them unaware,” he confesses. Meanwhile, musician Marmaduke Dando kicks off a discussion of primitivism by reading a passage from eco-anarchist Kevin Tucker. Tucker espouses “the natural anti-state” in which there is “no mediation between life and the means of living”. Later, Dando cites theoretical physicist David Bohm when he says “thought removes us from what is”. Midnight rituals, strange games, spiritual sessions, and even a pair of fooling workshop with Viv Goodings and Charles Davies seem designed to take us beyond ourselves. And then there's economist Martin Boyle who lived without money for nearly three years: “Nature,” he says, “it just does what it does.”
Now, as much as I admire the Dark Mountain ethos of attempting to relinquish our obsession with control, I also think there are some problems here. What seems to be occurring – and the very name Uncivilisation is a clue here – is the setting up of an overly simplistic opposition between the conscious (Western civilisation, human control and domination, science, reason etc) and the unconscious (Uncivilisation, the unthinking behaviour of animals, instinct etc). Whilst the speakers at the festival may mark themselves apart through their privileging of the latter over the former, they are nonetheless restating the same old oppositions – body/mind, man/nature etc. There can never be a new thinking around identity whilst these oppositions are still so rigidly repeated. Hence the failure of the Romantic poets' transcendental desire for purity and Coleridge's “one Life within us and abroad”.
More specifically, and problematically, by aligning nature with the unthinking, they risk repeating the same catastrophic error identified in post-Cartesian mechanistic science – that of treating animals, and nature more generally, as little more than unthinking automata. To repeat Boyle: “nature just does what it does”. Really? Perhaps it might be more helpful to think of non-human animals not as unthinking machines (and contentedly so), but as more or less conscious beings, capable of making their own decisions and experiencing the world in a way that is not necessarily rational as such, but is at least conscious. Studies of how apes plan for the future or how dolphins may have a sense of self-identity suggest not only that the non-human animal is far from the unthinking automaton of mechanistic science but also that science, for all its hubris, may not be the enemy.
Behind this individual mask is an 'I' that is always a 'we'. Because I am a collection of relations...
Having said that, perhaps such apparent simplification is an issue less of ideology than of format. Panel discussions, workshops and question-and-answer sessions are always limited in terms of precision, nuance and the kind of depth into which the written word can delve. Shortly before Uncivilisation, Dark Mountain Book 4 was published. I've only read parts of it so far, but already John Rember's The Unconscious and the Dead stands out: “Any time you talk about the unconscious you can't know what you're talking about. That's why it's called the unconscious.” Evidently, ideas around consciousness, control and reason have been whirring away in the group's minds for some time, and the book is able to look at these issues with much more precision than a fire-side chat (however inspiring) could ever hope to manage. Perhaps that's another reason why the decision was made to wrap up the festival and focus instead on the books.
Of particular interest in the book is co-founder Dougald Hine's conversation with Gustavo Esteva. “What struck me,” writes Hine about Esteva, “was his willingness to trust his own uncertainty.” Hine argues that the present day understanding of the self as atomised individual ought to be understood less as an intrinsic property of self-identity but as a historically constructed consequence of various systems of thought – especially economics. A few pages later, Esteva cites Catholic priest Raimon Panikkar's assertion that we are “knots in nets of relations”: “behind this individual mask...what I find is an 'I' that is always a 'we'. Because I am a collection of relations...”
This is interesting. The Romantics fell down by opposing the individual with a vast, transcendental, all-destroying sublime, thereby actually exacerbating this opposition between self (as individual, atomised, unique) and other (vast, strange, unknowable). By contrast, the Dark Mountain Project seems to be moving beyond individualism and towards a new model based around a small cluster of knotted relationships (among the flora of the gut and the animals of the forest as much as friends and children and lovers). As such, there are parallels in the consciousness work of Dean Radin, Brian Josephson, Rupert Sheldrake and others. Finally, perhaps, the dread gods Og and Anak (societal constructions, the pair of them) will have met their match. The moat is filled in and overgrown, and though the gates to the heart remain, they've long since fallen into disrepair, and now only hang, hardly to a hinge and whining softly in the wind.
Image credits: Bridget McKenzie
Hi Tom -
Thank you for an extremely interesting and thoughtful review. I was glad you made the point about the limitations of format in the closing paragraphs. I'm sure there are circumstances in which Dark Mountain could come across as an irrationalist project, but this is certainly not my understanding of it.
From Sajay Samuel and Andrew Taggart to Paul O'Connor and David Abram, many of the contributors to our books are working with (and often within) philosophical traditions, applying reason to critique (among other things) the kind of faith in reason that has often characterised modern industrial societies.
The danger of slipping into simplistic oppositions is real. It's made more treacherous because the way to avoid it is rarely through the search for a reasonable middle ground. The problem with swinging to the opposite extreme is not that the position you end up in is too radical, but that it's not radical enough: the framing remains unchallenged.
In this case, the challenge is not to reject reason, but to recognise the severance of thinking from feeling and mind from body that has formed the background to the dominant ways of seeing of recent centuries. From here, we might ask, how could we find a humbler understanding of the role of reason? How could we bring our reasoning selves back into conversation with the other parts of our selves, rather than accepting that severance?
Another aspect of the difficulty here - and this relates to the fallacy of the reasonable middle ground - is that a case along the lines of the one I've just suggested and a thoroughly irrationalist case may seem indistinguishable, right now, in terms of the direction in which they lead. (Moreover, when people come alive to the depths of the mess we're in, they often start by finding a strong compass bearing: the process of redrawing the maps comes later and takes longer, but it doesn't mean the compass bearing was misleading.)
All of which is really to say, thank you for making me think about this. You've encouraged me to write more about these questions than would be reasonable in a comment on a blog post. The result will hopefully surface in a future issue of Dark Mountain.
For now, though, I have one other small comment on your reflections, which is that I don't think 'thoughtlessness' was quite the word for the point you were making. You're right that one of the themes of last weekend was an exploration of the wild underside of our thinking selves; but in my experience, the people who come to Dark Mountain events are as thoughtful a crowd as you could hope to meet.
interesting and thought-provoking but it didn't correspond to my personal experiences of the Uncivilisation festivals that I've attended.
I wrote a response to your piece on my blog: http://preciousbeautiful.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/bones-in-trees-some-tho…