This line from the Dark Mountain Manifesto stopped me in my tracks when I first read it and, in a sense, I’ve been hovering, listening, and looking for how to respond ever since.
In fact, you might say, I’ve not gone any farther. Perhaps, I’ve even backed-up. The question that really holds me is one Dark Mountain leaves unexamined: Why can’t we stop pretending?
The rush, both within what has been called a Dark Mountain Movement and by its critics, to build visions, apocalyptic or attempting to carry some narrow form of hope upon this provocation, basically, “Now what?” Has left me and my preoccupations behind. There’s a rush to find answers, even where there was an, in my view appropriate, distrust of answers. It has seemed to become a seeking after building imaginative constructions out of the bits and pieces of the wreckage surrounding us without much interest being given to the concerns that have brought my own motion to a halt.
From early-on in my involvement with Dark Mountain, certainly by the time Dark Mountain 2 was released with a fragment of my fiction in it. – The only bit of my fiction so far to find print. – I’d already begun to feel the need to put on the brakes. To me, Dark Mountain was a moment. Not a movement. Or at least I hoped that’s what it was, would be. Something akin to the Moment of Cubism, John Berger’s take on what was happening in Paris between 1905 and 1910 or so when Picasso, Braque, and Gris were discovering the canvas as a field in a poetic rhyming with the way Physics was breaking open the Cartesian Model of the world with explorations of fields, leading to the discovery of the Quantum Field soon after. This was a moment, and an emergence of a new way of seeing and of interacting with the world. It never got to survive. Cubism did go on to become another movement with our descent into the Great War. Its effects; ranging from the personal trials of these artists on up to the destruction of the basis for all of the assumptions that brought it about, including the assumptions behind concepts like movements; fatally shattered the greater promise of the moment it buried. We are still living in the sharp, broken wreckage this destruction left behind.
This difference of opinion, my questioning of whether movements still have a place, whether they still exist or just remain in mind out of force of habit – as a kind of phantom limb phenomena – has led to a distancing between my concerns and Dark Mountain‘s progress as a movement against Progress™. I have felt us growing farther and farther apart.
The question in the title of this essay has opened something vital. This is a very different world in 2019 from the one we inhabited in 2009-10 when it was first posed. Back then, the notion that this is not just an early-warning stage of pre-collapse, but that we are already plunging, was certainly a minority view. Claiming that the plunge dates back to 1914, or 1066, or 4,000 BCE was to be in a minority of that minority. Tying the problematic of our day to a wrong turn somewhere towards the end of the Neolithic was unthinkable. Yet, there it was, implicit in the concept of Uncivilization.
Here again, after the rush of fresh air this unleashed, my doubts began to gather. How can using a negation as a compass actually help us? There is always a certain clarity to be gained by recognizing what to reject, but seeing too many skid-tracks leading towards a tree standing alone in an empty field had me concerned about the dangers of not looking beyond, around, what we would like to avoid.
There are many roads to hubris and ascetic rejection doesn’t immunize us from this tendency. It only leads to its own forms. All the while insisting that it is a resistance to some greater evil.
For me these flights all seemed to result from a built-in momentum, a force of habit, a tunnel-vision that has successfully swallowed and co-opted every attempt to break free of the Juggernaut that brought us to this Enormity. My own familiarity with the Double-bind primed me to suspend any inclination to rush-off into any kind of momentum-building project, whether theirs or anyone else’s. I felt, and continue to feel, the need to let-go of striving at least until I could find some expectation that, “This time it would be different!“
Of course, no unexamined rush will ever bring us anywhere other than back to where we started. This is sadly where I see all of the momentum visible around us heading, whether from the old, business-as-usual crowd or any of the so-called forms of resistance. This rush, in my view, is as much a symptom of our predicament as it is a desire to leave it behind.
I grew-up in the water. At least for the warm months. I then learned to sail. The sea and sailing have been central preoccupations all my life. These pursuits have introduced me to two fundamental lessons, well, more than two, but for now let’s look at these:
These are really the same lesson, just looked at from opposing ends of the telescope. Refusing to accept that we are cast about by the sea without a place to stand we drown when we seek to bodily remove ourselves from the situation by somehow climbing out of the water through an act of Will. It doesn’t work. Attempting to rise above the level at which we are buoyant: for most people when our ears are uncomfortably flooded and our face is just above awash; we lose buoyancy and gravity builds up a momentum of its own, taking us down below where we can find a next breath. In our panic we repeat the process and keep on, ever-more desperately trying to get out of this fatal predicament while only sealing our Fate.
The non-sailor, looking at some hoped-for destination lying in the eye of the wind, has no patience for sidling off at 45º to it and healing and squinting and pulling on lines and tillers, “Why can’t we just get there?”
Before our civilizational momentum brought us engines and motors there was no choice. We could say there never is any other choice. If we follow the trail of unintended consequences from that acceptance of the offer to buy our way out of the way things are by falling for short-sighted illusions providing us with a semblance of beating the odds….
Both of these lessons, this single, over-riding lesson, holds us to distrust every form this delusion can take. To realize that there is never any way to ride on the momentum of Will and not leave…, let’s call it The Tangible behind.
My critique of both Dark Mountain and its critics alike, along with almost everything I can see going on around us, comes back to this point. We cannot Will our way out of our conditions or our situation or our Predicament, this Enormity of ours. No castles-in-the-air can take us anywhere but back to where we started. Only poorer, more ravaged, trapped in narrower circumstances and with fewer options.
We’re not careening out of control into an empty field with a single tree in the center of it. Our situation is not that simple. We find a tangle of obstacles coming at us from every side. Our obstacles are not still; not rooted. They move unpredictably and their movement is both obscured and just too complex to follow. They bounce off each other, changing courses and dividing into fragments, or congealing into larger masses. This horror-show cannot be defeated by simply looking for where the tree ain’t!
If we can’t change our givens; if we can barely make out the parameters and positions of what is out there; and, if there’s not much consolation in the realization that none of this is personal, “We’re just caught in an enormous re-structuring. We’re just so much Collateral Damage.” We need to work on the only part of the equation we have any… sway over.
I reach for the word sway. We would normally say, control. Of course, there is nothing we actually do control, once we get past the first blush of looking through the mechanisms of self-delusion we see that control is a fool’s bet. But we are not powerless. Just as we are not All-Powerful, as every flight-of-fantasy would have us believe – and this includes every Jeremiad, with its call to set aside all the false idols and follow the One True God! We do have points of inflection where the right action can sway the results. We also have our own subjectivity….
We tend to see subjectivity from the poles of a particular dichotomy: Either subjectivity is a delusion or it is a bastion to be defended, “I know what I like!”
Both views are locked in a sense of their own inevitability. They attempt to force us to disregard any other possible way of looking at the question. Each is a ball of iron held by a length of chain to its opposite hurling through the air towards us. Another of the countless threats coming at us upon our field of action….
If we loosen the grip of this absolutism it is not too hard to see that subjective views have taken many forms throughout life’s existence. Even today, in the few cracks and crevices free of the Hegemony of our Age, people have a variety of expectations and capacities to accept different conceptions of what is, not only acceptable, but what is necessary.
We are in the grip of two kinds of Enormity. Our Predicament can be seen to include both our own inputs into making things worse and the external dynamics we have perturbed and that will, whether we even acknowledge the fact or not, re-assert a balance – not a balance across some beam-scale like our conceptions of Justice or whatever polar opposites we can imagine; but a dynamic balance of movement and change, an evolution of change as each moment arises from its implications to become tacit and then dissolve into the next moment.
We can call the effects on us of the first, the effects of our own making, suffering. The effects of the other are our misery. This is a significant distinction. Suffering is the pain we feel as a result of the shape of our subjectivity. It is the pain we feel and the pain we spread about us as we refuse to accept where we are and insist that we can Will ourselves elsewhere. Misery is being cold and wet and hungry. It only destroys us… psychologically, or let’s be brave and call it spiritually, when we confuse this kind of pain and discomfort with suffering and see it as again, something controlled by a Will. A Will that might be deposed and replaced with our own.
And this is the mechanism that has driven every movement, isn’t it? Conflate misery with suffering, “It’s all so damn uncomfortable!” And then, claim that whoever is causing this suffering/misery will pay and, “A new day will come!”
And, in this way, movement begets counter-movement which begets a resistance which begets a repression and around and around we go.
This brings us back to our question. Not, “What do we do when we stop pretending?” But, “Why can’t we stop pretending?”
We swim in a social sea where most of the people seem to be bobbing around on the edge of a panic repeating, “It’s fine. It’s fine!” While here and there amid those who silently slip beneath the surface exhausted and defeated, dying without leaving a trace, are individuals and small bands crying out, “It’s not fine. It’s not!”
They don’t stop there. They look around and find that some people seem to be floating higher, riding on the backs of others, pressed down by this theft of their natural buoyancy, and these people say, “It’s their fault! Destroy them!”
And, if they succeed in this and get others to follow them they do their bit to add to the general suffering, “All for a good cause!”
And, if they manage to gain enough support – and what does that entail? Isn’t it always the result of efforts to find others willing to let them climb on their backs that defines support? What do they do, but replace those they fought to dethrone, “The King is Dead! Long Live the King!”
What does it feel like to swim in these waters? To take the time to find our natural buoyancy and divert our energies from compounding suffering in the mistaken assumption that this will eliminate all of our misery?
This is what it means to work on Navigating the Tangible. It is radical, in the sense of returning to the root, but not in the sense of overthrowing one movement by attempting to establish another; offering a new dichotomy to replace the old one while doing no more than relabeling a pole of the same old struggle and taking that to be some great point of advantage.
Peeling an onion, looking for some solid core, leaves you crying before a pile of slimy layers removed from their context and susceptible to corruption. We can’t go far enough back to find some magic point from which to, “Make a clean break!”
We are here. We are here now. These are tangible sensations that help us remain at the only point of traction and with the only attitude that gives us any opportunity to sway our circumstances.
This is not another manifesto. There is no Idea here. Only a suggestion towards arriving at a certain different attitude. There is no content to this suggestion. Every manifesto always ends up with a Bill of Ten Commandments nailed to some door or carved in flaming letters by the Giver of Truths residing in a burning bush….
This attitude is even quite light as attitudes go. There’s no posturing required. No standing before a mirror with a photo of Il Duce as a role model, practicing the swagger and the pout. All that it asks is that we look to discover where our buoyancy resides. How we tend to defeat it at our own peril. How we tend to compound misery and add suffering upon it all about us when we succumb to the lures of self-justification and rationalization.
Even these are not tenets of some faith or ideology to be believed to gain entrance to some New Kingdom. These are demonstrable points that can only continue to aid us as we are able to keep them fresh in our awareness. As soon as we fall into creating a new dogma we have falsified our position and fallen back into the same ways that got us here.
This may seem, most likely it does seem, a dizzying prospect! “How do we jump out of our skins and adopt such an attitude?”
To begin, let’s look at that reaction. It presupposes all of the old assumptions are true. It takes what was suggested as a new option and turns it back into the same-old.
We don’t jump. At least not in that way. We might find ourselves making short leaps, and taking heart from doing so and finding contact with Joy as it happens; but mostly we look at where we are now as we can best surmise that to be a reasonable approximation to our actual position and we take a step.
We take a simple step. A short, but emphatic step, and then, we look to see where this has placed us, “Are we finding clear air?” As the sailor would put it.
All around us are cries of urgency and demands for action. Unless we can see clearly that a desire, even a need, even an existential requirement unmet does not through any amount of urgency take us to some point where we can abandon the limits of our capacities to effect change and just jump into willing that change.
This again, is not a belief. It is demonstrable…. All, that this implies as stated above holds true in this case also.
We either float, or go to windward, because we have accepted our conditions and taken non-futile steps towards harnessing the forces that buoy us and can move us. Or we die in the effort.
If we cannot accept this fact we need to further examine what we might be insisting is our natural due. I suggest that this insistence; this refusal to see the shadow of our own deaths and therefore our meeting death in the form of Nemesis or Fate; is an aspect of our subjectivity that is open to our sway. We can come to other realizations. Find other ways of confronting our mortality more creatively than remaining locked in a fervent denial.
To hold this constellation of points of reference in mind may seem daunting to us in this Age of the GPS. To a Polynesian Navigator this would seem quite normal and fitting. It is not beyond human capacity. It is only beyond the limits of our decayed imaginations. We can work with the plasticity inherent in every living creature to adapt and evolve the modes of our engagement with the world we co-create with everything else that exists. We can grow a new Imagination.
This brings us back to what I took from the moment Dark Mountain provided for me when I first read about it and then met with and engaged with its core. This was at the time a fresh call for, a declaration that, our imaginations, while precariously diminished, were open to being re-grown somehow. It’s just that this requires a slowing down, an abandonment, not of the forms of our civilization per se, but an abandonment of the suite of assumptions we’ve inherited and a deliberate – in the sense of proceeding with due caution and taking every effort not to be re-deluded – undertaking of discovery, finding of a new path…. It’s hard not to use a term here that cannot be misconstrued to mean a predetermined Highway. Sailors might wave off in the general direction of a possible port of call or haven and lightly say, “We’re headed that way.” While muttering to themselves, “If the wind holds or until we can’t or until we find something better to do….”
What I’ve taken from Dark Mountain has been a small quantity and at the same time a great quality of engagement with a very few people along with these points of departure and caution. I would not be who I am now had I not been influenced by this conjunction with a few souls from across the sea.
This essay has taken traction from the salients of a pregnant call to possibility – and an equally salient object-lesson in how not to proceed that I’ve been given by my contact with what’s known as Dark Mountain. With this traction, both across this decade and within this text, I’ve come to be able to arrive at certain distinctions and develop a certain body of Practice that leads to what appears to be an attitude, an approach, that I’ve not seen before or elsewhere. This site and the work placed here is my tiny contribution to some possibility of developing a wider set of relations. It would not exist without the moment Dark Mountain provided. It also is true that my work is not a part of anything that might be taken as a Dark Mountain Movement.
Within Faiths and Ideologies any declaration of separation from the Orthodoxy must also be a break with everyone perceived to be on the “other side.” As this is not that kind of declaration I feel the need to say that I welcome engagement from anyone no matter what movement they may find themselves in. All I ask is that they accept that I’m not playing that kind of game. I’m neither looking for converts nor open to conversion.
We can float!
We can work to windward.
These are the only points I hold onto and they only exist so long as we don’t fossilize our insights into dogma.
Beyond this…, everything is open for inquiry. An inquiry carried out in a spirit of Compassionate Curiosity….