Civilization and the Stories we tell Ourselves.
I’ve been reading recently over at the Dark mountain project. For a number of reasons. Weariness with the same old inanities churned out by politicians — sustainable business, sustainable agriculture, the “management” of climate change — at best, fiddling while Rome burns, more often cynicism of the worst sort. I think a lot lately about the relation between the body, nature, ecology, and the way such a discourse might dovetail with a critique of capitalism and the opportunist embrace of environmentalism by liberal political parties, capitalist entrepreneurs, and marketing strategists out to create and exploit niche markets. Not to mention the buying and selling of carbon quotas by western governments, intent on business as usual despite impending catastrophe. Same old story and one structured on an unquestioned anthropocentric discourse that looks to me increasingly bankrupt.
The story, and there is a lot of emphasis at the Dark Mountain on stories, is complicated. The plot has thickened since Kepler, Galileo and Newton displaced Man as the centre of the universe. Indeed, the term Man is indicative of exactly what was knocked off its pedestal. To push the metaphor, what was left of Man seems now shattered beyond repair. We could say that Darwin and Marx finished off the job, in western terms at least. Lets not forget that Man, the chief protagonist in the story of Progress was a westerner whose mission was the civilization of the assorted rabble — African, Indian, South America, Arab, Asian etc. — everyone in fact except the population of a small corner of Europe and white America. (One of the reasons we should question the unthinking use of the term “we”)
Darwin, or rather the philosophers who cited him and extrapolated from his findings, concluded that there was no unchanging kernel to Man, only a complex of biological factors evolving over time and conditioned on the environment. When Mendel weighed in with his theory of genetic inheritance no one in their right mind regarded the designation Man as anything other than a provisional place-holder. Marx and Freud finished the job by introducing the concept of historical law and the unconscious, both of which put pay to the belief in an autonomous subject exercising free will. The corpse , though, continued to function much in the same way as a chicken without a head will continue to squawk and run around in circles. The corpse perpetrated many a genocide (north Africa, South America, South east Asia) before running out of steam. By the time Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard, showed how language structured our discourses and proposed the relativization of norms and systems of knowledge, Man was as dead as the God who had created him. And the story of Progress died with him, somewhere around the early seventies, as the idealistic belief/hope of the counter-culture that progress could be made met with intransigent vested interest, the might of the state and the strength of the consumerist mirage conjured up by a growing advertising and media conglomerate. This is, of course, a gross simplification, but you get my point.
It seems strange, therefore, that the Dark Mountain Manifesto emphasizes the central importance of the Story of progress, as if anyone these days still believes in it. If anything the story we have told ourselves for a long time is of The World as an out of control disaster, a sort of exterior projection of our collective actions perceived as an unstoppable force acting against our own interests and despite our best intentions. The most common reaction to the increasingly desperate state of the planet and its inhabitants is surely a depressed shrug of the shoulders indicative of a hopeless washing of the hands? The idea/feeling/intuition that we are not masters of our destiny and that we probably never were has so permeated the contemporary mind that it seems to anyone under forty an absurdity that we ever did swallow that one.
For me, contrary to the Dark Mountain Project, it is the story of our helplessness in the face of an alien force overcoming our best intentions as individuals, which is the problem, or rather a symptom of the problem.
The System of Commodities and the Spectacle
Consider the structures on which that bubble has been built. Its foundations are geological: coal, oil, gas — millions upon millions of years of ancient sunlight, dragged from the depths of the planet and burned with abandon. On this base, the structure stands. Move upwards, and you pass through a jumble of supporting horrors: battery chicken sheds; industrial abattoirs; burning forests; beam-trawled ocean floors; dynamited reefs; hollowed-out mountains; wasted soil. Finally, on top of all these unseen layers, you reach the well-tended surface where you and I stand: unaware, or uninterested, in what goes on beneath us; demanding that the authorities keep us in the manner to which we have been accustomed; occasionally feeling twinges of guilt that lead us to buy organic chickens or locally-produced lettuces; yet for the most part glutted, but not sated, on the fruits of the horrors on which our lifestyles depend….Hine and Kingsnorth : The Dark mountain Manifesto
A true description of our condition but it leaves out, I think, an essential point. Something new happened to capitalism in the post industrial age of computers, globalized economy, digital media, online networks, the advertising and publicity blitz, and unbridled consumerism. (although the analysis of the industrial carbon based economy stills holds good )
In “The Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord presents an analysis of this new mode of capitalist society, describing the process whereby the spectacle emerged in the last half of the 20th century as the predominant mode of the market system, built on the foundation of the carbon/industrial complex, completing what the Dark Mountain manifesto calls “the well-tended surface where you and I stand”.
We imagine that with modernism and the discourse of reason, scientific enquiry, secularism and representational democracy, we have abolished the rule of kings and priests , ending the transfer of human power to godly regions and all that entailed. At its root, however, the commodity system reinforces the religious illusion. Capitalism shifts the deference of human power, seating it not in some transcendental realm but in the here and now of the object as commodity. Debord names the totality of the social relations of capitalism in the stage of the domination of the computational/media/advertising/consumption conglomerate as the “society of the spectacle”, where the totality of the power of the commodity object appears to appropriate the humanand re-present it in the image of the desirable other which we are driven to become. Debord quotes a prophetic statement by Feuerbach.
But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. Feuerbach, Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity.
The spectacle is the mode of globalized commodity production in which the systems own illusion of itself as the optimum of human well-being becomes the primary product of its activity. Like an earlier stage of capitalist production, in which it was necessary to produce the worker as a unit in the process of producing commodities, the present mode must produce the human as consumer to ensure a market for the commodities produced. It achieves this by inventing through media, advertising, television, film, music, entertainment, the living image of the consummate object — the celebrity, music idol, film star, media persona, fashion model, media icon — who embodies and mediates the human as consumer of commodities and as, in itself, the consummate object/other capable of being acquired and lived (you too can be this ). This living replica of the spectacle’s banal vision of its own potential offers the worker/drone possible roles and the illusion of escape. This escape, though, is only an identification with the absolute product of the system of production — the living media icon as commodity — and thus only another act of consumption.
The spectacle subjects living human beings to its will to the extent that the economy has brought them under its sway. For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.[...]Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world, not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality. In all its specific manifestations news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life. It is the omnipresent celebration of a choice already made in the sphere of production, and the consummate result of that choice. In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself. Guy Depord. The Society of the Spectacle, 16
The commodified human is a living replica of its own fetishized self-image, while functioning at the same time as a producer/drone (to be that you must do this) in the overall system of production. The spectacle as mode of production, appears as a self replicating, auto organizing social machine for the unending re-production of itself.
Far from liberating us from the absolute other, the mode of capitalist production has transferred the illusion of otherness from god (the projection into an imaginary metaphysical space of human power) to the commodity (the projection of human power into the object of production and consumption.) In this transfer the individual’s autonomy becomes a matter of choosing between roles in the systems self replicating activity; the compulsion of work becomes a lifestyle choice, freedom a choice between political icons (parties, stances, styles, individuals) packaged, managed and re-presented in the form of the televised circus of media politics. True power continues to reside in the sphere of production, where possibility has already been circumvented by the constraints of the existing mode of social relation.
The destruction of the environment, the extinction of species, the oppressive structures, the waste, the violence, the unending round of production exchange and consumption, are the effects of a process conditioned on the social relations of production. It is within this alienated process that we abstract the material out of which we concoct the various stories of mastery and helplessness. At a fundamental level we are mistaken about what we are collectively doing when we go to work.
We work to provide for our needs, but the social relations within which we exercise our labour —the relations of production— distort the outcome, producing periodic economic crisis. Work, consequent on the division of labour ,becomes a fragmented process for the most part lacking creativity or real purpose. We are alienated from the means and the result. Collectively we create a world of commodities which seem to stand over us as an alien force over which we have no control. The commodity form and the process of exchange obscure the nature of these social relations, which turns ordinary use value, in which the relation between the object and human need is clear, into exchange value, where the connection is obscured and is experienced as external law. (of economy) Money becomes the measure of all things, including the relative value of one form of work with another. The usefulness of an object no longer determines its value. Work, the natural impulse to transform the given of nature into sustenance–physical, emotional, mental , spiritual– becomes a necessity imposed on us by apparently arbitrary powers, inflicting on us a regime of sublimation in which our creative and playful impulses are transformed into the actions of an automated drone. Fulfilment, always postponed, ever recedes. We act and the sum of our actions becomes, by means of the convoluted process of social relation, the action of an apparent exterior force. We find ourselves on the industrial and post industrial treadmill suffering a life we think has been imposed on us by that mysterious thing we call “the world.”
Consolation and Revolt
The dark mountain, although it makes no attempt, at least in the manifesto, to produce a detailed critique of present conditions, does advocate a radical reassessment of environmental and ecological thought and practice. In somewhat poetical language, it calls for a tactical retreat,:
If we are right, it will be necessary to go literally beyond the Pale. Outside the stockades we have built — the city walls, the original marker in stone or wood that first separated ‘man’ from ‘nature’. Beyond the gates, out into the wilderness, is where we are headed. And there we shall make for the higher ground for, as Jeffers wrote, ‘when the cities lie at the monster’s feet / There are left the mountains. We shall make the pilgrimage to the poet’s Dark Mountain, to the great, immovable, inhuman heights which were here before us and will be here after, and from their slopes we shall look back upon the pinprick lights of the distant cities and gain perspective on who we are and what we have become…Hine and Kingsnorth: The Dark Mountain Manifesto
Such a tactical retreat is needed. We need to ask questions, though, about the salvic potential of proximity to nature. If we talk, as Dark mountain does, of the bubble of civilization we should place such a representation of nature within the civilized camp as one of its most ubiquitous stories. Much of the discourse on the body, nature, and ecology is couched in pseudo spiritual language inspired by neo shamanist or new age practices and discourses, anti modernist discourses decrying the excess of science and technology, and by a raft of discourses, stances, attitudes and practices originating in American and European nature writing and environmentalism. It is very tempting to beguile ourselves like someone lost in a forest who believes he has found the way home but continues to circle about the one invisible axis. Simply put there is nowhere to retreat to, either within the body or within nature, no depths we can mine for sustenance, no inner sanctum to which we can flee, no holy grail buried in the heart of the dark wood, no God, pagan or otherwise, waiting for us on the mountain top, no unsullied corner which has escaped the reach of the commodity form and the money relation.
It might perhaps be just as useful to explain what Uncivilised writing is not. It is not environmental writing, for there is much of that about already, and most of it fails to jump the barrier which marks the limit of our collective human ego; much of it, indeed, ends up shoring-up that ego, and helping us to persist in our civilisational delusions. It is not nature writing, for there is no such thing as nature as distinct from people, and to suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the attitude which has brought us here. And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.
Here again, we presume that the artist is in some way closer to an untapped inner resource, or more attuned to a deeper level of being, This story of the artist, which is the romantic corollary of the idea of the Master of science and technology and his discourse of unending progress, arose as the alluring consolatory fable best suited to disguise exactly what the ruthless capitalist machine was unleashing on the body and nature, a fable told via the novel, poetry and painting created for the ruling élite who were the beneficiaries of that very machine.
We have reached an impasse in which both the story of progress and story of consolation in nature are a bifurcated pair equally implicated in our undoing. For the most part both stories have been abandoned by the mass of people and replaced by a helpless acceptance of the banality of the spectacles imposition of the drive to consume and exchange as the optimum of human fulfilment–the Story of Man and his Progress through History has resolved itself into the “happy ever after” of the spectacles banal last chapter- the society of fucking and shopping.
And yet, of course, a redemptive story haunts our minds in which we do reconcile with nature. And there is an undeniable truth in the experience of our alienation. It touches as much on the way we distance ourselves from our own living bodies as from from external nature. Descartes pushes the cleavage to the limit with his “I think therefore I am”. We are a ghost in the machine, an alien presence on a hostile planet whose inhabitants must be subdued and enslaved for their own good. This division, between ourselves and all else.– that other of the absolute outside — includes our own body. Like invaders from Mars we gaze down from on high on the uncivilized natives, among whose numbers we include our own bodies, which we then subjugate. What an utterly surreal story Philosophy have concocted for us and how remorselessly we live out its implications.
Separation, alienation, powerlessness, loss, denial–these are the symptoms of our malaise which we will not solve only in the realm of ideas. The exile and separation we experience at the level of embodiment is as absolute as the reign of the commodity. At the level of thought the commodity still reigns, via a philosophical and ideological harassment of the human that tries to impose an identity between thought and the real, as if life could be imprisoned within the thought of the lived; and nature within the thought of nature .The absurdity of such a project does not prevent the unending iteration of philosophical versions of the real. Philosophies supersede each other as alluring objects of acquisition and consumption, in much the same way as the latest commodity is replaced by its successor, despite the obviously repetitious nature of the process. The real, however, continues to be indifferent to the stories we tell ourselves.
There are bodies and there are thoughts/images/discourses of the body; there is the unnamed and unnameable real and the ghost of the real which haunts thought as thought. The real will seem to intrude on the mind’s auto commentary. From this perspective ecological catastrophic is no less unnatural than a hearth attack in the case of an obese man — both are consequent on a mode of life. Just as the fetishized image of the body as object of acquisition must succumb to the real of the lived body, so too nature as resource must succumb to the real of nature naturing. We dramatize this intrusion, and comfort ourselves with stories of healing and reconciliation. But such stories belie the force of our collective action which transforms our individual somnambulist act of going to work each day into a apparent force of the economy acting against us and against nature.
If we suffer, as most do, from an inertia that prevents action, a depression that paradoxically allows somnambulist action but disallows any action that would contribute to wakefulness, perhaps it is the visceral experience of the weight of the oppressing force applied to us as lived bodies. Such an experience of pervasive alienation from the world we create cannot be resolved in the realm of ideas, critical or otherwise.
But why have we come to this — a body twice removed from itself — once by the alienating force of thought, twice by the inescapable force of the commodity relation?
The materialistic stance of the capitalist subject – both wage labourer and the capitalist who owns it – is marked by an “anorexic” treatment of the physical. The modernist idea of the “material” is indeed what makes the capitalist subject happy. However, immersing into the material without control, allowing it to devour you through pleasure and pain renders the material meaningless, “mere matter.” Matter matters only when fetishized as money, as a sculpted instead of mere body, as sex which is not organs and fluids but representation, as a home which is not (just) a home but a procedure of stylization of one’s life. If the material does not satisfy the fantasized fetishistic expectations, its immediate, unruly, “primitive” needs are treated as defect and their urgencies are (expected to be) subjected to control by the subject of self-mastery.’ Katerina Kolozova. Towards a non-Marxist radicalism of nature.
This reign of the defective body is the underbelly of the reign of the spectacle, of the fetishized media icon packaged for consumption and replication and fed to us via the conveyor belt of manufactured wants as the object of our artificially induced desire. Beyond this fantasy world of unending wants and the dream of an absolute fulfilment that never quite arrives, the real world, pushed to the margins of awareness, lies in ruins. Waste, discharge, excess, debris, putrefaction are the bodily processes — the body of nature and the lived body of flesh and blood — hidden behind the commodified facade. We would rather not look, and yet our fascination with the real, in a vicious twist, becomes an element of the spectacle, inducing an obsessed fixation with images of excess — an entertainment of the grotesque, the forbidden, the taboo, the pornographic — the corollary of the Roman arena and it choreographies of sex and death. In the world we have created there is no possibility of redemption just because no realm has been left untouched by the corrupt contagion of the commodity form.
Our contemporary climate, both in the physical and intellectual sense, is determined by a single force: the neoliberal capitalist ideology that demands everything reduce its value to the quantitative measure of money so that it can produce more of this measure. Nature, though, appears to be purposely deviating from what is accepted as good, proper, or reasonable in capitalist society. Nature itself appears to be refusing to go away, to separate itself off from “culture” and the human person, and insists on inhering to every part of culture and within every human person, and it resists bowing before capitalism’s demand, to be measured as something relative rather than the radical condition for any relative measurement: Anthony Paul Smith Non-Philosophical Theories of Nature, quoted in Kolozova: Towards a non-Marxist radicalization of Nature.
Where to turn in a world where the body of flesh and blood is rendered over as an object of consumption and exchange and where nature has been de-natured and re-presented as the other to which we can flee for solace and relief? Where in such a world, is the site of revolt and what are its means?
Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth : The Dark Mountain Manifesto
Kolozova Karerina: Towards a non-Marxist radicalization of Nature.
Debord, Guy, The Society of the Spectacle