More information here.
Base Camp at Embercombe near Dartmoor, UK
by Doug Fogelson
CS: I’m thrilled to share this piece from Chicago artist, Doug Fogelson
When you believe in the dystopian future of climate change and ecocide, even if you support and appreciate the efforts of green movements, it can be hard to find places to discuss such a dark subject. This is when you need to discover Dark Mountain. Their work began almost a decade ago with one of the better manifestos written on the topic and a miscellany of efforts in literary and other creative modes. Now they are still a niche group but have become more widely appreciated with books, a blog, various events, and retreat style gatherings under their belts. And the co-creators Paul Kingsnorth and Dougie Strang have become celebrated authors and thought leaders along the way.
I came to know of Dark Mountain close to its inception, at a time when I was entranced by the written work of Derrick Jensen, particularly Endgame. Jensen is an American radical writer/thinker who brings a well-researched and (to my mind) balanced view on society in the midst of ecocide.When I first found the virtual mountain of darkness I just read online and kept tabs on their work. It was simply good to know they were there. Eventually, however, I subscribed. And when an e-mail popped up inviting subscribers to join a group of 150 Dark Mountaineers at the amazing permaculture site called Embercombe in the southwestern hills of England, I felt called to go find out more. At this point my own work had reached a deeply invested place with regard to sharing stories about the Anthropocene, climate change, and the Sixth Mass Extinction, so it made sense to seek out others with similar troubled, yet kindred souls. With plenty of carbon attached, I found my way to the Exeter St Davids train station and then into a cab that wound its way through the hills and narrow roads leading nicely away from Exeter. Those treacherous country roads, edged with tall hedges and steep banks, ribbon through a landscape like something out of a fairy tale. It wasn’t easy finding the place, which seemed part of the point.
Embercombe is an amazingly well-maintained permaculture farm and center, sited on a large parcel of rolling moorland that contains forest, lake, yurts, biodynamic farming, green woodworking/forge/art making space, meeting areas, fire gathering places, and so forth. It is managed with obvious love and an ethos focused on the generations which will follow “in our footprints,” whatever the global conditions may be. This makes it a perfect setting for a gaggle of calamity heads with hearts heavy from the discourse of a collapsing world. A place and time to process conditions we know to be real in the midst of false narratives that contemporary life and culture are jamming into our brains.
The gathering slowly built up Friday evening as people came rolling in, setting up tents and checking into yurts. We had a group orientation and dinner— everything was very prompt on the timing. There were two simultaneous program events kicking off that evening which made for a hard decision, but I opted to begin my scheduled experiences with a folk duo, Crow Puppets, and storytelling, Tatterdemalion, on a stage built into the side of a vintage 1966 caravan complete with art, puppetry, a gypsy vibe and fashion to match. This proved to be a good choice as the stars came out amid harmonies and tales of a rugged future that shared more with the medieval past than anything in our plastic present.
Saturday we had a large group exercise in listening and getting to know each other at the Centre Fire, an indoor meeting area, followed by a gripping story by Martin Shaw called The Crow King and the Red-Bead Woman. I later heard Paul Kingsnorth speak about his new novel Beast (which is situated in a moor landscape as well), and was captivated by the songs and writings of Catrina Davies, during her session titled Living with Less: Notes and Songs from the Shed. I began to notice something of a trend around regional myth and historical fact, at times focused on themes such as Normans vs. Anglo Saxons, the Green Man, fairies, and such.
After another farm-fueled vegan meal I joined the crowd for the Thylacine Tribute Cabaret from the silly Feral Theatre, followed by more folk music from a duo called Fly Yeti Fly, and finally the music of a bluegrass/country/Celtic variety from the good ole’ boys of the Kestor String Band (featuring a guy from Chicago originally). At this point all manner of dancing started—some with obvious connections to traditions like Irish and other folk dancing. However just as this was getting going properly, adherence to schedule dictated that it be cut short—too short! And the low point of the weekend followed with a heavy-handed performative push to the “procession.” This meant we were sternly herded out only to have to re-enter in strict silence and endure a long performance of chanting and more storytelling followed by the complicated dispersal of odd tasting mead (we were all tightly packed after a full, wet day of much storytelling/folk music/sitting). The party vibe continued to be held at bay at the fire circle afterward with the listening of, yes, another folkish guitar singer and a long story to follow. Many were delighted at the fire that night. However I enjoyed wandering off, looking at the Milky Way above, so clear and mixing with the clouds over the hills near the Atlantic, and even saw a few shooting stars later on.
Sunday’s activities included Walking the Territory featuring Monique Besten (my new buddy) and Nick Hunt, an artist and writer who walk great distances to experience time, history, culture, and the elements. After this session I chose to skip a “Re-wilding the Mind” workshop in favor of just taking my own long walk in the deeper woods on the grounds. I found quite a few more campsites in there, cozy fire circles, some primitive shelters, and a sweet caravan that was parked (perhaps forever) with a harmonious natural homestead built around it. I kept hearing children’s voices and thought it was the wind pushing their sound from the larger tent village, but I later discovered some kids had been exploring a long overgrown gully that ran the length of the woods. It was quite a sight to see these fresh-faced boys emerge from the thick growth, so confident and curious!
Many people were impressed with a session by David Abram in the main hall, but I was already beginning to detach from the program at that point, which raises the question, “if you are no longer interested in the stories Dark Mountain is telling us, and also the stories civilization tells us, then what ARE the stories that might bring meaning and joy to the future?” Of course this is meant rhetorically, as I did really enjoy my time there. It was just great to be present and have the chance to lie on a bed of moor grass, alive and in the moment. I met some very cool people, had more than casual conversations, shared my energy, and received their various gifts in return. I will cherish the memory of skipping an afternoon presentation in favor of chatting with some excellent souls while the rain sprayed just beyond our mugs of warm tea. I highly recommend a visit to www.dark-mountain.net, and perhaps one day I will be lucky to see some of my fellow dystopians in person again.
All Photos by Doug Fogelson.
“As our full day at Wonder Lake continued, we enjoyed sunny skies over the tundra/taiga transition in which the campground was situated. We had spent the morning and early afternoon on a solid four-and-a-half hour hike to the McKinley River, and now, as we rested, the Alaska Range flooded the southeastern horizon with the Alaska of one’s imagination.”
See more wonderful photos and inspiring journal entries at As They Are: Exploring the National Parks.
This particular photo and text here.
16 – 25 September 2016
This autumn, expect an unusual celebration of the autumn equinox, a sleepover with the RSPB and dazzling pyrotechnics at nightfall, as Inside Out Dorset, the biennial festival of outdoor art and performance returns.
All events are FREE and suitable for all. We look forward to seeing you.
Read more here.
Inside Out Dorset 2016, produced by Activate. Photos Nick Read, images And Now:
William James’s posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism is neither well known nor well understood for various reasons. The collection is not particularly coherent, the essays are uncharacteristically abstract, and the work is generally hard to understand outside of the context of James’s substantial corpus. However, a concept of radically inclusive, multi-dimensional fields, gleaned from James’s work in various disciplines, might be helpful in grasping, interpreting, and indeed applying James’s theoretical position in Essays. The ecological imagination can also help us envision such a field or fields. A three-dimensional, experiential field is categorically distinct from a two-dimensional “screen” field. One is akin to the experience of walking out of doors; the other is like watching television. Ecological imagination, in this sense, might be cultivated by spending more time in nature, moving through space, and without any particular goal or focus of attention.
A primary argument of James’s Essays is that the concept of pure experience ought to replace the given categories of subject and object. James asserts that these terms denote positions that are both relative and arbitrary. He also makes clear that any thing can be a subject—not only human beings or sentient creatures. And conversely anything can be an object[i]. This implies a kind of leveling of subjects/objects compatible with some trends in contemporary continental philosophy, at the same time that it anachronistically challenges both late twentieth-century critical theory and some millennial speculative realism and new materialisms.[ii] However I’d like to proceed, here, on a more common sense or pragmatic level.
An obvious challenge to including the subject in a field of experience, not related to contemporary philosophy, is the problem of the implied third person. In conceiving a universe with neither subjects nor objects we may initially place ourselves in a new subject position regarding the “new world” as an object. How can we escape this dichotomy, given our inherited sense of biological coherence and ontological autonomy? How can we “back out” of the subject position, even if we realize that we are also objects?
There may be various approaches, but perhaps none is an absolute solution in the sense of evacuating our sense of self. This should not be a dead end however. James was not fond of absolutes; indeed, eschewing absolutes may be a necessary condition for moving beyond given subject/object dichotomies. As a critic of absolutes, both philosophical and scientific, James prompts us to explore gray areas and liminal spaces. The irreducibility of organism and environment, for example, is a strong challenge to the “black hole” of subjectivity. As surely as we can never escape our subject positions, we can never escape the influence of the environment. To argue that the result of such interactions (which result?) is ultimately all subject, all environment, all continuity, or all discontinuity, is merely to fall back into late Modern and early poststructuralist political camps. (Thus I continue on my politically naïve and institutionally undisciplined trajectory . . . )
Perception and judgment always occur in a complex field, or fields, characterized by interference patterns. Conventional ethics, critical literacy, and current-traditional “Eastern” philosophy, however, still focus on subject/object dichotomies. Ethical systems are generally based on perceiving the human other as an image of the self; race and gender equity and critiques of capitalism are still conceptually based on binary oppositions; and Western yogic, meditation, and mindfulness techniques seem to begin and end with objectifying subjective states. Though we move or oscillate along this line between the subject/object nodes, and often try to negotiate much more complex dynamics, this linear subject/object model, even when complicated, is an insufficient response to our most pressing contemporary problems.
Dualism, with which James struggled throughout his career, may be a result of this habitual oscillation. Perhaps when we truly attend to an object we cannot be fully aware of our selves, and when we are fully aware of ourselves we cannot be truly attentive to the object. (Certainly one or the other must be foregrounded.) This oscillation may create the impression that the object is both out there and in our heads. However, this may also be an effect of ignoring the space in between. I don’t mean to imply a monist “everything is connected” perspective, here, but rather a pluralist “everything (merely) is” perspective, including the unseen media through which we co-experience. Also, by “field” I don’t mean merely what appears in our field of vision, though visual context is certainly relevant, but a far more basic and far more complex ecological field.
James psychological works and his philosophical works both point to the idea of fields rather than linear trajectories of experience.[iii] Neurological pathways, for example, are parts of complex fields of mental associations and/as physical networks. Perception is a complex operation in which previous experience including unconscious memories modulate every moment. Social institutions and communal values, too, are complex structures or networks, situated within even broader and more complex structure and networks.
Within this context one cannot properly say that any autonomous subject perceives any autonomous object. There is no separate experience of a subject apprehending an object, but an inconceivably complex network of co-experiences. The very act of perception implies a plural, unstable field. Universes reflect on themselves, in a sense. Experiences experience themselves through each moment, and thus experience is radically plural.
This is not a mystical thesis, however. It doesn’t require mystical inspiration or insights. Because I would like this argument to be common sense and pragmatic, the category of the mystical is, in some sense, irrelevant. Practices defined as mystical, religious, philosophical, or contemplative might help us to cultivate our ability to experience “real” fields, but typically posit alternative/spiritual realities, and this “gesture” results in another unproductive dichotomy. I don’t mean that we should exclude mystical experience (James would not approve). Rather, we should strive to frame our perceptions and judgments within broader contexts for “merely” ethical and pragmatic purposes.
Pushing beyond a subject position requires us virtually to shift our perspectives. We cannot simply stand back from ourselves, because standing back enlarges the frame without changing our role as spectators. Rather we could adopt multiple positions at once, in quick succession, or in our imaginations (virtually), to discover that neither subject, nor object (nor context) is stable.[iv] Perhaps thus we can become productively disoriented, and (on various levels) realize a three-dimensional moving field. James often refers to the chaos and flux of the universe, though chaos is not really a goal or threat of such experimentation, as sheer habit guarantees a degree of stability and discrimination.
Walking in nature, once a common practice, has long been identified with cultivating the imagination. Both scientists and artists immerse themselves in nature, in order to understand the world. Such understanding may be a kind of dynamic hypostatization of both subject and object, by which the distinction begins to break down. On the most obvious level, walking illustrates that our perspective is always changing. (As a subject we are always changing, moment-to-moment, whether or not we are in motion.) It reveals various aspects of various objects, and usually leads to some form of (dare I say) “altered” state, in which we enter a flow of experience. While we might have a sense of connection or well being, this should not lapse into an illusion of mastery. The wilder the context, the more aware we should be of “interference patterns”: obstacles, unexpected twists and turns, and the presence of various creatures walking their own, seen and unseen paths. Walking in nature also allows our attention to wander, undirected toward a particular goal. Such aimless attention is healthful and creative, and, I propose, a quality of “pure experience.”[v]
Perhaps such dynamic, pluralistic experiences must remain “alternative” for urban and suburban dwellers, and in this sense my desire to ground “pure experience” in the quotidian may be futile. However, I would like to suggest that such an experience is available to everyone through the simple practice (if not “practice”) of walking in a natural setting. I am not naïve in assuming this opportunity is available to everyone on a regular basis, though I suspect many of us willingly if not consciously trade this “luxury” for various commodities, every day.
[i] See “A World of Pure Experience” and the summary of “The Notion of Consciousness” in the Essays.
[ii] Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects describes such a level playing field, but academic philosophy, in general, may still be invested in assuming mastery. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/the-democracy-of-objects/
[iii] I am moving between the singular “field” and the plural “fields” here partly because this is a sincere essay (exploration). I do want to assert the abstract concept of a “field” as opposed to a “line” of experience, at the same time that I would prefer to eschew the idea of a unified, transcendent field as a proxy for anything.
[iv] The idea of virtually occupying multiple positions at once may resonate with notions of probability waves and parallel universes, though I hesitate to invoke popular physics for obvious reasons.
[v] For a discussion of the “restorative” value of being in nature as a rest from directed attention See Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. In “The ‘Restorative Environment’” section of Chapter 8, “Nature-Deficit Disorder and the Restorative Environment,” Louv cites the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, not coincidentally inspired by William James.
by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)
Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is currently interested in the applications and implications of developments in political theory sometimes termed the new materialisms – particularly insofar as they relate to theories of nature and politics and to our contemporary era of environmental devastation.
As we navigate the unfolding ecological catastrophe in which we reside, we need increasingly to elaborate and occupy a cosmopolitical stance toward the world. We can find resources for articulating such a cosmopolitics in many places. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) provide us with exactly such a resource. Let’s see why.
The term “cosmopolitics” stems from the Greek word κοσμοπολίτης, itself from κόσμος (meaning “the world conceived as an ordered whole”) and πολίτης (meaning “citizen,” or “one who belongs to a political community”). As such, κοσμοπολίτης refers to a citizen of the cosmos, to a citizen of some bigger, broader collective or order rather than to a mere citizen of some specific state – or state-of-affairs – in the here-and-now. We can follow easily the association of κοσμοπολίτης, then, with the discourses of cosmopolitanism that emerge in the modern period with Kant and onward.
However, the term comes well into its own in the work of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. Stengers explicitly distances herself from the Kantian sensibility of cosmopolitanism, preferring instead to examine and valorize the numerous relations between ecologies of practices and those “new immanent modes of existence” that arise therein.[i] Likewise, the early Latour proposes a flat ontology in which he foregrounds the symmetrical relationship between human actants and inhuman actants that takes shape in ANT (Actor-Network-Theory), and which he folds into his recent modes of existence project.[ii]
Crucial, then, is the expanded sensibility of the political that attends the cosmopolitics articulated by Stengers and Latour. If politics is about collective action and collective imagination, as I think it is, the collective in question opens up to include a much wider range of agencies. This greater inclusiveness does not occur simply for the sake of inclusiveness, nor to effect a mere expansion of our ethical sensibilities. Rather, in it, what qualifies as political becomes, itself, a matter of political claim and contestation – that is to say, a politics about the makeup of the cosmos. As Kyle McGee puts it, “The politics of the cosmos describes the practical problem of living together, or better, the challenge of building a world in which we, humans and nonhumans, can live together in durable association.”[iii] For Stengers and Latour, then, cosmopolitics exceeds the merely or only human. Institutions, practices, and subjectivities must also engage and overlap with the inhuman. We must think conjunctively: animals and atmospheres, technics and territories, flesh and firmament.
Principally, such a cosmopolitics indicates the degree to which conventionally political categories and practices are themselves both products of, and constituents within, the ecological materiality that throngs around us and makes us possible.
In the Southern Reach novels, Jeff VanderMeer takes even further the cosmopolitical vision that he shares with Stengers and Latour, and taking it further allows him to make contact with the ecological more directly than can either Stengers or Latour. The novels elaborate upon the cosmopolitical stance by unfolding a dramatic, uncanny narrative of affective transformation and material negotiation between landscape and subject. Indeed, I argue that the relationship between landscape and subject dominates the Southern Reach novels, and they articulate this relationship by enacting a weird psychogeography. Psychogeography, Guy Debord writes, refers to the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”[iv] The psychogeography of the Southern Reach is weird precisely because it simultaneously undercuts and produces new subjectivities. It is in this psychogeographical frame that the narrative unfolds.
The primary setting of the novels is Area X, a tract of land found along the Florida coast, seemingly isolated by “an ill-defined Event” and, now, “a pristine wilderness devoid of any human life,” at least superficially (Annihilation, 94; Authority, 9). Area X “lay beyond a border that still, after more than thirty years, no one seemed to understand” (ibid.). The first two novels revolve around two characters: a biologist who goes on an expedition into Area X, and Control, the newly minted director of the Southern Reach organization, “a backward, backwater agency” established in order to contain and study Area X.
Policing the boundary between Area X and everything else is Control’s responsibility, although it is soon revealed to be an impossible task, as the landscape behind the boundary inexorably, albeit slowly, expands, resisting all attempts at comprehension. However, this expansion does not exactly threaten destruction, as whatever exists within Area X finds itself transfigured, rather than destroyed. Nor does Area X embody a classical depiction of vengeful nature, bearing down violently upon the human race in reprisal for poor environmental management or general lack of character.
To the contrary, Area X is precisely a space of unmitigated natural being, self-expressive beyond the conceptual bondage of theorized natural law or function – it is the active, motile embodiment of what the late Merleau-Ponty calls “être sauvage.”[v] Merleau-Ponty articulates the savage being of the world in terms of what he calls its flesh. The flesh is his term for the entirety of the immanent distribution of the sensible, which is to say, the body of existence as such. It encompasses both “my flesh,” as in the body in its lived experience, and “the flesh of the world,” as in the continuum that preserves and produces entitative singularity precisely by virtue of its seamless contiguity. He writes of the flesh that it means “that my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world” (248). This allows us to start fleshing out what exactly Area X does
Area X embodies the truth of landscape as such. It is not a nostalgic depiction of a natural world untrammeled by the human. Nor is it the romanticized wild at issue in the so-called “wilderness debate.”[vi] Rather, the seething being-singular-plural of Area X, which always somehow just avoids our conscious apprehension, captures what it means to be a landscape altogether – that is, to be the ecotonal space composited by distributed agencies and interleavings.
Consider the recurrent imagery VanderMeer employs regarding samples taken from Area X by researchers at the Southern Reach, writing:
Not a single sample had ever shown any irregularities: normal cell structures, bacteria, radiation levels, whatever applied. But [Control] had also seen a few strange comments in the reports from the handful of guest scientists who had passed the security check and come here to examine the samples, even as they had been kept in the dark about the context. The gist of these comments was that when they looked away from the microscope, the samples changed; and when they stared again, what they looked at had reconstituted itself to appear normal. (Authority, 125)
What emerges from this passage is the uncanny sense that there is always a pretense performed by the natural, a pretense that comprises part of what it means to be natural in the first place. One need only imagine the eeriness of feeling that a terraced garden is only pretending to conform to our desires and techniques of control – that catching it by surprise might reveal a green inferno of writhing, clamorous, and underlying wildness (as opposed to wilderness).
As the biologist notes of Area X: “I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage” (Annihilation, 98). And VanderMeer emphasizes that those who visit Area X come back changed and transformed – both “utterly human and inhuman” (139). You could say that they have been re-inscribed as a part of the living landscape. It is fitting, then, that it is the biologist who attunes with Area X, embracing its weirdness and becoming transformed by it into such an uncanny creature herself, whereas Control endeavors to combat its effects and even its very existence (“[h]e liked the word enemy – it crystallized and focused his attention more than ‘Area X.’ Area X was just a phenomenon visited upon humanity, like a weather event, but an enemy created intent and focus” [Acceptance, 80]).
There lurks here, in VanderMeer’s novels, a cosmopolitical vision other than that suggested by Stengers and Latour. It is a much weirder vision, I think – but, as Eileen Joy notes, the weird can be seen as “an ethical act, one invested in maximizing the sensual and other richness of the world’s expressivity.”[vii] This, I claim, is precisely how the ecological apprehension of the world’s flesh that VanderMeer makes possible gives us a cosmopolitical landscape worth preserving – what we might call an Area X to be conserved.
Image source: The Southern Reach, Jeff Vandermeer
[i] Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I and Cosmopolitics II, trans. Roberto Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010/2011).
[iii] Kyle McGee, Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 77.
[iv]Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Wandering,” Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.
[v] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).
[vi] J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson (eds.), Wilderness Debate Rages On: Continuing the Great New Wilderness Debate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008): http://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/wilderness_debate
[vii] Eileen Joy, “Weird Reading,” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV (2013), p. 30.