Control, and other illusions
This is the editorial for Dark Mountain issue two, the second collection of Uncivilised Writing from the Dark Mountain Project. We’re raising the funds to print the book by offering the chance to pre-order it now. If this has caught your attention, you can find out more about it at: www.dark-mountain.net/blog
What if there was more than one story?
What if there was more than one story about you: about your life, about who you are and what you do and where you came from? What if you told one story to your parents, say, and one to your boyfriend and another to your children? What if you told one story to your employer and one to your secret lover and one to your neighbour and one to the doctor and another to the postman? What if there was a story you told at parties and another you told at job interviews?
And what if all of these stories were true, but all were partial – all were designed to display a certain, favoured aspect of your self to a certain audience? And what if this selective communication was not conscious, not planned, not manipulative or cunning, but was what just seemed to happen when you opened your mouth?
And what if everyone was doing it?
This is what we all do, every minute of every day, whether we know it or not. And what is true of our selves is also true of the culture we come from and have been raised within. Which story do you tell about civilisation? Do you tell the one about humankind’s long, slow, steady evolution from idiocy to enlightenment, or the one about the collapse of indigenous knowledge in the face of the onslaught of modernity? Do you tell the one about the wonders of modern dentistry or the one about soaring rates of clinical depression? Do you tell the one about the Clean Air Act or the one about climate change? Do you tell the one about the death of the peasantry and the theft of common land or the one about the unbeatable yields of genetically modified crops?
What do you like talking about? Poverty or poverty relief? Overconsumption or consumer choice? Literacy or language loss? Earth Day or ecocide? Democracy or corporate power? Twitter revolutions or children enslaved by Facebook? Do you tell different stories to different people? Do you tell different stories to yourself?
What if all these stories are true – all of them, all at once? What then?
Civilisation is a story. It is a story about where we have come from and where we are going. There are many ways to tell that story, but one version has been very much the dominant one in the West for the past couple of centuries. We know this story: it’s the one about modern, urban industrial culture’s ineffable superiority over all others; the one about human evolution leading inevitably to this point. It’s the one about winning the war against nature, being the only species which thinks and loves and dreams; it’s the one about machines and circuitry and ingenuity and progress. And it’s true, in some ways, at least as far as it goes. But it may not be going much further.
We are clearly, now, living in a time of transition. Our stories are crumbling before our eyes, but we don’t have new ones which we are yet prepared to believe in, and the old counter-narratives seem musty, old-fashioned, drawn from a different age. We can see what the industrial economy is doing to the Earth but not many of us think it can be replaced by peaceful agrarianism or a return to hunter-gathering. We can see the path our machine-addiction is leading us down, but we can also see the time and effort our machines save us. We can see how divisive and disastrous capitalism is, but we can also see the goodies it gives us, here in the bubble, and we are not likely to fight for workers’ control of the means of production again any time soon. We can see humanity’s utter degradation of the rest of nature, but we don’t know how to stop doing it – or, rather, we know exactly how to stop doing it but we are not prepared to even contemplate making the changes necessary, because they would break our stories open and leave them exposed to the wind.
Times like this are hard to live through. People may respond in a panic by trying to write instant, comprehensive new stories, but often they don’t have purchase because they have no depth and no connection to peoples’ reality; they have not had the time to bed in. Or they cling resolutely to old stories – to both the dominant narrative and to counter-narratives that made sense once but don’t seem to now, however hard they try to fit them around a rapidly-unfolding reality. They – we – do this because everyone needs a story, and an old, worn-out story seems better than no story at all.
In this issue of Dark Mountain we touch on many of these contradictions and difficulties. John Rember takes a look at our civilisation’s meta-narratives, with the help of R. D. Laing, while David Abram examines the human relationship with the rest of nature, and the problems of language itself. Matt Szabo, Catherine Lupton and Rob Lewis all focus on the use and misuse of words, while Vinay Gupta and Glyn Hughes both come to similar conclusions about the need to face the reality of death, openly and honestly, with stoicism and even grace. Luanne Armstrong and Melanie Challenger engage directly with place and nature in an attempt to understand loss, change and disconnection – the unholy trinity of the modern experience.
All of this is in the cause of what we called, in our manifesto of the same name, Uncivilisation. We chose this word carefully and used it deliberately, well aware that it would be misconstrued. Uncivilisation is not a place or a goal, an ideal or a political position – it is a process. The process of uncivilising is the process of unlearning the assumptions, the founding narratives of our civilisation. Once we do this we can begin to walk away from stories that are failing and look for new ones. This process is perhaps something like Vinay Gupta’s account in this issue of the journey to enlightenment in Hindu meditation schools. It’s a lot of practice, discipline and attention, leading up to a realisation, which is quickly followed by another – that emptying the mind of assumptions and distractions was just the start, and maybe even the easy bit.
To uncivilise our minds, then, and our words: here is the challenge. To shrug off the failing stories, with no guarantee of easy new ones to take their place – no promise of a soft landing. To give up control and the illusion of control, in exchange for seeing your culture as it really is – or at least as you have never seen it before.
Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, editors, Ulverston and Brussels April 2011*
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.