If thou shouldst plant these things in thy firm understanding and contemplate them with good will and unclouded attention, they will stand by thee for ever every one, and thou shalt gain many other things from them; . . . for know that all things have wisdom and a portion of thought.
The first instalment of this two-part blog speculated that an alternative understanding, and worldly engagement, could be inspired by projects such as Stafford Beer’s experimentation in harnessing pond brains, a form of intelligence inherent to natural systems. This, it held, could counter in some way the human chauvinistic projects of modern thought, which culminate in quixotic transhumanism, aspiring towards fulfilling our supposedly god-like potential and creating Humanity 2.0™. I concluded with the intuition that “the world is not a closed jar, but an open ecosystem of intelligence” and this second instalment tries to unfurl and expand that statement a bit, moving from critique to a more positive project.
Use of the term ‘pond brain’ across the two titles is, of course, intentionally provocative and metaphorical, but I stand by it in something of a stronger sense, for reasons hopefully made clear below. While the use of the term brain automatically implies something akin to that much-vaunted pinnacle of evolution – the human cerebral cortex – these ecosystems certainly do process complex information, and thus bring up a sticky question: what exactly it is that is unique about the computer which is said to be housed within the human skull?
The traditional answer of course, is, everything. The human mind is commonly referred to as the most complex instrument in the universe, with E.O. Wilson recently putting forward that ‘Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world’.
As humans, the question of uniqueness is impossible to answer impartially, of course, and it’s perhaps no surprise that psychology, the traditional ‘objective’ science of cognition, is in the throes of a pretty tumultuous crisis of identity. Recent writings by a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oslo, Jan Smedslund, for one, have highlighted a fundamental mismatch ‘between current research methods and the nature of psychological phenomena.’ Rather than being ruled by stable laws of cognition, as a classically ‘scientific’ approach would prefer, Smedslund posits that psychologists ‘avoid thinking about [the] problem’ that many, perhaps even most, psychological findings are not even nearly replicable. Inconveniently for psychology in general, not everyone is avoiding the problem, and the media recently picked up widely on the finding that over half of psychological studies appear to fail basic tests of replication.
Rather than being a unique supercomputer running according to set algorithms, Smedslund pictures the human psyche in a much less mechanistic way, more ‘like whirls in a stream which are stable only as long as the total flow of water does not vary and the stones on the bottom maintain their positions.’ This is powerful imagery, which we shall return to.
The shortcomings of dominant conceptions of human mind were also echoed recently in a remarkable paper in Biological Theory which highlighted the troubling questions raised by certain sufferers of hydrocephaly. These individuals lead normal lives and boast generally average IQs despite their skulls being found to be filled with liquid, containing only about 5% of the volume of normal brain tissue (see image). This situation, though not without its own heated debates and controversies, raises some profound questions, leading the author to speculate that perhaps:
Information relating to long-term memory is held within the brain in some extremely minute, subatomic, form, as yet unknown to biochemists and physiologists. Those who have witnessed in recent decades the vast increase in the power of computers to store large quantities of information in progressively smaller spaces should not be surprised if evidence for this alternative eventually emerges.
This idea of some subatomic nature of mind is speculative, of course, yet hints towards one powerful answer to the question posed by environmental philosopher Freya Matthews (author of The Ecological Self), ‘How can we sing back to life a world that has been so brutally silenced?’
Panpsychism is the consideration put forward by both Matthews and Professor David Skrbina at the University of Michigan (and contributor to Dark Mountain: Issue 8 [Techne]), an ancient concept in which mind, rather than being something exclusive to the brains of humans and higher animals, something emergent from dead matter, becomes instead distributed throughout the world, as a fundamental aspect of matter. This is not to say that any part of the world has mind, but rather that the universe is, at least in some rudimentary way, mind.
In the traditional language of panpsychism, mind has still been framed as a sort of hierarchy, with the consciousness of humans and great apes at the top, the sentience of other animals slightly below that, and so on until we have a kind of proto-mind in the basic constituents of matter. Keeping an unfortunate anthropocentrism, however, it would be more consistent to perhaps say that the aspects of mind are not superior or inferior, above or below, in any hierarchical sense, but merely different, and forever evolving.
As Skrbina has clarified:
Compare mind and another fundamental entity: gravity. Gravity is “everywhere,” and it has always existed (at least, under most interpretations). Yet new gravitational fields emerge every time there is a new configuration of matter. The gravitational field of the Earth is a function of the planet’s total mass and its distribution. Clearly a cubic Earth would produce a different gravitational field than a spherical one. Furthermore, technically speaking, even the present actual field of the Earth is continuously changing as the molten core circulates, continental plates shift, and human activity moves matter around. Thus, one could reasonably claim that the Earth’s field, even now, is continuously emerging, continuously becoming in a sense new, while staying within certain rough bounds.
Despite eerie implications that there may be some aspect of mind in the wooden table on which I write this, or the glass out of which I drink, this is perhaps not as absurd as it sounds. Instead, it posits one elegant solution to many of the intractable problems set up in Enlightenment thought, and especially by Cartesian dualisms, with regard to how matter and mind ‘interact’. Further reorienting panpsychism’s seeming marginality, Alexander Wendt, a leading German scholar, has recently turned his attention to the issue in a book called Quantum Mind and Social Science, in which he puts forward the possibility that mind – or proto-subjectivity in the form of cognition, experience and will – is inherent in each proton and electron.
Wendt posits a quantum basis for human thought, arguing that consciousness (much of which is embodied and therefore cannot simply be reduced to the ‘brain’ as is often taken for granted in neuroscientific approaches) may be a quantum process. No longer is mind conceived of as some mechanistic binary computer, as it traditionally has been, but instead shows up as something closer to a quantum computer.
So let’s return to Smedslund’s whirlpool metaphor. The idea of consciousness as temporary whirlpools of mind in the flux of life maps beautifully onto work which sees humans and other organisms as similar temporary constructions in a universe mostly characterised by disorder and entropy. As Tim Requarth recently put it in Aeon, life is really just just an ‘oasis of order’ in a restless flux, and perhaps, so too is consciousness:
After the Big Bang, the Universe could have, in principle, expanded into an even distribution of matter and energy. If that were the case, nothing could have ever happened, and nothing – including life – could have ever formed. But instead, something happened. Quantum fluctuations in the structure of space, perhaps, disrupted the balanced distribution of matter and energy, and set into motion a cosmic accumulation of structure and organisation.
Requarth uses the example of a whirlpool in a bathtub to demonstrate this, noting that ‘driven by gravity, the water molecules spontaneously swirl into a pattern that is more ordered than their previous haphazard collection…When energy can continuously flow through a system, interesting things begin to happen.’
So could mind be a whirlpool in a greater panpsychic whole? And where does such far out speculation on a mind-pervaded universe get us? Perhaps, in its abstractness, it takes us further away from humble groundedness in, and awareness of, an immersive present (a topic grappled with in the forthcoming Dark Mountain: Issue 9). Or, as my gut senses, it may set us down the road of, as Mathews puts it, ‘singing life back into the world’, considering our place in a more modest way than the theoteknotic peddlers of humanity 2.0 and humans-as-gods, of everlasting life and transcendence of the flesh, would like us to.
Philosopher Charles Bennett put this well when he wrote, ‘put me in a world where all is in some sense (however obscure) spirit, and you embarrass me strangely. Now I no longer feel free to treat any part of the material world merely as means. The coal for the furnace, the stone that goes into our houses, the steel that goes into our machines—these are now, after some mysterious fashion, my own kith and kin. I must treat them differently now. But how?’
‘How?’ is indeed the vital question. Maybe, with this, we reflect on ourselves a little differently, as the world thinking itself; as an interesting, creative, but mostly unimportant, part of a minded infinite. Whirlpools of matter-mind in a larger pond brain, gravitating and falling apart, assembling and disassembling; surely this is a more continuous, more satisfying starting point than man-as-god, or homo sapiens as an angelic and distinctly divine being. Just maybe, we can begin the process of sensing the world a little differently.
I started thinking about writing this piece earlier in the day, while I was at work. It’s night now and my workday is done. I work from home, sitting in front of a computer most of the time, 40 hours a week. My job involves creating websites that show a user how to perform maintenance on complex machines. Usually this is a video or an animation that demonstrates a procedure that is equally well documented in a user manual, with text and line drawings. But these days, people would rather watch a video than read a manual: It’s just what they’ve come to expect.
Working on a not particularly demanding task this morning, I decided to listen to a weekly podcast I enjoy, The C-Realm Podcast. It helps to numb the dull throb of cognitive dissonance that plagues my workday, especially when I get to thinking about what I really ought to be doing with my time. It’s a sunny late December morning outside on my farm and finally the torrential rains that seem to have lasted for weeks are gone. There’s plenty to do outside when it’s not raining. But I’m in here for now.
The discussion on this week’s episode of C-Realm focuses on how advanced computer technologies are displacing more and more workers from traditional salaried jobs and forcing them to seek the only other employment available, as independent contractors in the new gig economy. I’m curious about this, as I upload content — the content is now produced by an independent contractor — that I used to produce myself to one of my sites. For now, I’m lucky enough to have one of those salaried jobs, even if the work is sometimes tedious and repetitive.
Patricia Paul, one of the two podcast interviewees, is talking about the automation now taking place of so-called emotional work, giving the example of robot pets being used in nursing homes. Human bias, she remarks, conditions us to expect the changes wrought by automation to occur in familiar ways, for the automated replacement to look just like us, when in fact unexpected innovations like ‘an adorable purring robotic cat and a Fitbit’ can replace a staff of nurses. I’ve read about the benefits of animal therapy in medicine, but I have to wonder if people do really favour robot animals over the real thing in such cases.
I Google ‘old age homes, robot pet,’ and the first result I get is for the PARO Therapeutic Robot, a doll-sized robot that looks like a harp seal pup. According to the web page:
PARO can learn to behave in a way that the user prefers, and to respond to its new name. For example, if you stroke it every time you touch it, PARO will remember your previous action and try to repeat that action to be stroked. If you hit it, PARO remembers its previous action and tries not to do that action.
OK, fair enough — maybe we don’t want dementia patients abusing live animals. But what I read on the second site my search returns — a blog posting from medicalanimal.com, ‘Pet Robots the Future of Pet Ownership’ — is even stranger.
Facebook may have changed the way we interact with our friends, but new technology could change the way we perceive man’s best friend […].A new alternative to animal pets is slowly being introduced to the market; robot pets. In a detailed report, Dr. Jean-Loup Rault, An Australian animal researcher, has predicted that within the next decade electronic pets will replace animal pets […] as the population continues to expand and become more urban, ownership of pets will be reserved for a rich social elite […] Instead, electronic pets will offer owners a constant companion, able to bestow unconditional love at a realistic and affordable rate. Dr. Rault claims that there are plenty of patents circulating the internet which show the industry’s readiness for this new trend.
As I write, my dog is panting in the hallway outside and one of my two cats is sitting on a box set at desk level next to me. I put the box there so he can sit with me while I work. It’s hard for me to imagine that robotic pets are part of the world we’re entering.
Sometimes, however, the automated replacement does look like us, sort of. During the interview, Paul mentioned the Baxter model of automation: how ‘highly skilled workers still have a place, but fewer highly skilled workers, because a group of their tasks have been automated, and a lot of the stuff in the middle has been automated.’ Apparently, there are already robots that can learn to do tasks from watching YouTube videos. I make a note of this.
On the Baxter website I’m greeted by a robot with two friendly looking emoticon-ish eyes on its LED monitor, which forms the head. On either side of the head, in perfect bilateral symmetry, are two burly robotic arms: ‘Meet Baxter – the safe, flexible, affordable alternative to outsourced labor and fixed automation’ the web page reads. ‘This smart, collaborative robot is ready to get to work for your company – doing the monotonous tasks that free up your skilled human labor to be exactly that.’
I have to wonder about the sincerity of this statement as I reflect on the podcast’s discussion of AI algorithms that are now, experimentally at least, tasked with document discovery in legal proceedings and supplanting the role of highly-trained specialists in medicine; for example, the radiologist who interprets your MRI image.
Later in the morning, I receive an automated weekly email roundup I signed up for a few years ago. At the time, I was interested in the then-niche field of data visualisation. People, unlike computers and robots — though maybe not the robots that can learn from watching YouTube — are predominantly visual in understanding and interpreting data. Hence the need for all kinds of maps, charts, and graphs to make sense of the ever-increasing streams of data that inundate our consciousness daily.
This week, one link attracts my attention, so I click it and descend down a rabbit hole of linked pages until I’m at the project page for a new 3D imaging program. I’m curious because my department at work was tasked with creating a ‘virtual’ booth for the upcoming season of industry conventions and meetings.
A few months ago, when we discussed the project, I had to wonder why people would want to go to virtual booths in a virtual convention in the first place. Isn’t the point of going to one of these meetings to travel to a distant city—perhaps one with a nicer climate in February, than say, Chicago—to physically interact with the newest product lines and technologies, to attend talks and presentations, to get one’s hands on the latest equipment, and to maybe go out partying with colleagues at the end of the day?
The virtual booth and the virtual convention are the logical extension of a social media society, a sort of video game world where people accustomed to interacting through Facebook and LinkedIn and following Twitter trails on their smartphones can feel right at home. They can participate in symposia and Q & A sessions in real time, receive as much marketing material as they can possibly handle, friend and follow to their heart’s content. They can navigate through a simulacrum of a convention, as though piloting a drone or playing a video game, all without leaving the home or office. And as much as I’d like to say I don’t understand the appeal of this any more than that of a robotic dog, I think I do.
As Tom Smith has pointed out in his recent Dark Mountain essay ‘Flesh Weaving Flesh’ [See Dark Mountain: Issue 8 (Technê)], current generations have been conditioned to believe that ‘real life isn’t supposed to be difficult or challenging. The ‘device paradigm’, our age of technological mediation…famously puts convenience on a pedestal, assuming the equation of easy attainment with happiness.’
This is certainly one motivation behind the robotic cat that only purrs and never growls, the easy and non-committal empathy of the Facebook friendship, the comfortable distance of interacting among the anonymous community of the so-called global village — this, decidedly, more global and less village. Of course, a trivial, watered-down, corners-rounded-off version of life mitigated through technology doesn’t make us happier, it just makes us less capable, less human, less connected in the human ways that matter, and more like the technologies that increasingly dominate our lives.
I’m at the project page for that 3D imaging program, which touts itself as ‘Building blocks for the virtual reality web.’ I decide to check out some examples and of course the first thing I notice is… nothing. After installing more software, still nothing. But this time, the little box at the bottom of the screen informs me that ‘Your browser supports WebVR. To enter VR, connect a headset, or use a mobile phone.’ I don’t have either so I try to imagine what I could possibly be missing out on.
From there, I go to an example page, expecting some clue. What I’m looking at happens to be a VR data visualisation of sorts, showing development projects completed under Mayor Joe Riley, in Charleston, South Carolina, and published by the Charleston newspaper The Post and Courier. What I see is a 360-degree architectural model of Charleston, with the buildings of the city stretching out to the horizon from about 500 feet up, in gray and white. Real estate projects completed during the administration of Mayor Riley are highlighted in blue.
It’s impressive in its way, but from what I’ve seen, it’s not a far cry from the technology of 20 years ago when the Radiohead song that is the title of this essay was current. This is not to disparage the hard work, intelligence, design savvy and technique that went into producing this visualisation site. I know enough about the technology involved to know I couldn’t have built it myself. But the project site for this technology I’ve been researching — A-Frame, it’s called — aims to simplify things: ‘Use markup to create VR experiences that work across desktop, iPhones, and the Oculus Rift. Android support coming soon,’ the site reads.
I don’t know what the Oculus Rift is, so I search the internet for this too. The first page I come to shows a device that looks like a combination of horse blinders and a blacked-out scuba mask. As one tech news site breathlessly proclaims, ‘Virtual reality is no longer a work of science fiction. With the commercial release of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR just around the corner, the world is about to experience a new era of entertainment and interaction.’ I’m not optimistic about this.
What’s a bit more unsettling about the Post and Courier VR page — that example link I followed — is the navigational control which, at least on my dumb desktop, is reminiscent of the barrel of a gun in a first-person shooter video game. To navigate to a neighbourhood or move through 360 degrees of Charleston, you have to move the circle with your mouse, as if aiming the sighting mechanism of a gun.
Not on this map is the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, located in historic downtown Charleston, where 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine people earlier this year. In his mugshot, Roof seems remarkably similar in many ways to Adam Lanza, the Newtown, Connecticut shooter who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Both possess a distant, psychotic stare and sport absurd haircuts. Both reputedly suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, though Adam Lanza is believed to have suffered from a whole host of other emotional and psychological disorders beside, including undiagnosed schizophrenia and Asperger’s Syndrome.
But what Roof and Lanza have in common beyond the obvious psychiatric disorders is what they have in common with many of the perpetrators of the mass shootings that are now becoming almost routine events here in the US: They are angry young men, alienated and isolated from a world that they relate to mainly through digital media and violent video games.
Anders Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing fanatic and European outlier in this mostly American phenomenon, killed 77 people in Norway in 2011, training for the event by playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. According to a Guardian article, ‘The 33-year-old said he practised his shot using a “holographic aiming device” on the war simulation game, which he said is used by armies around the world for training…’ But Breivik also enjoyed the weird ‘community’ of multiplayer online games, taking ‘what he called a “sabbatical” for a year between the summers of 2006 and 2007, which he devoted to playing another game, World of Warcraft (WoW), “hardcore” full time. He admitted he spent up to 16 hours every day that year playing from his bedroom in his mother’s Oslo flat.’
Apparently, robotics designers deliberately engineer robots that occasionally make mistakes and that seem non-threatening, even lovable. Making them seem more human helps their human co-workers to accept them in the workplace. Patricia Paul mentions the design imperative to make robotics systems cute. I think of Spike Jonze’s Her, a movie in which a man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his operating system, whose ‘voice’ is played by Scarlet Johansson.
The podcast discussion shifts to the consequences for those unlucky enough to have been displaced by automation technologies, and why there is a stigma, especially in Silicon Valley, that hinders any frank discussion of the phenomenon of technological unemployment. Another topic includes the pros and cons of a sort of welfare state where the unemployed receive a stipend, in order to keep the consumer economy humming and for their tacit complicity in allowing their jobs to be outsourced to technological solutions.
What I take away from all this though, is not that machines are replacing human beings at doing work — this has been happening for a long time now — but rather that machines are replacing human beings at doing ‘human’ work, and maybe just replacing human beings entirely.
Even as machines are becoming more human, humans are becoming more scarily machine-like, in insidious ways. Were I to write this piece by hand today, I doubt that I or anyone else could read my handwriting, though, like riding a bike, I would at least remember how to form letters. But I wonder how long before children are no longer taught to write by hand in school.
Similarly, we can no longer remember phone numbers, conduct research at a physical library, or use a paper map, because it’s no longer required of us by our technologies. We are literally unable to find our way in the world any longer. A whole generation is reaching maturity for whom life without digital technologies would be unimaginable, because it’s the only one they’ve ever known.
As our consciousness is increasingly colonised by our technologies, our humanity — our human ways of being in the world and relating to other humans and animals alike — is one of the first things to suffer. As David Graeber has noted, the biggest medical breakthroughs of recent times are not cures for deadly threats like cancer, but rather anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications that make the increasingly inhuman demands of our technological society bearable to us.
It occurs to me that technology has its own logic, independent of our intentions or the directions we would like to take it in. I think of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, in which he takes a gene’s-eye view of the world, characterising our bodies as survival machines for the genetic material that comprises them. Our genes, in his view, largely determine our behaviour in the world.
In the book, he writes of a word he invented to describe the concept of ideological self-reproduction, the meme. ‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.’
Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, but I don’t think I’d heard the word meme much until a few years ago, in relation to mostly trivial and unexplainable trends on the internet. But technology is the mother of all memes, the ur-meme, and it doesn’t care what happens to us humans any more than a flu virus does. In fact, it doesn’t care at all, because to care is human, though maybe technology is using us to help it evolve in the same way that our genes do.
The podcast ends and KMO shares a joke submitted by a listener: ‘The Internet of Things is when the toaster mines Bitcoin to pay off its gambling debts to the fridge.’ I chuckle.
It’s warming up outside and chickens and turkeys are moving back and forth outside my window. Tasha is out there as well, working on our farmstead that we moved onto about a year-and-a-half ago, which is where I also spend most of my free time. I’d rather be out there myself right now, doing work that will provide us sustenance and meaning when my job too has been made redundant by a robot or a programmed algorithm, or after the whole thing comes crashing down and life for most — if we’re lucky — is returned to the simpler, more honest, and more human work of growing food and making shelter.
The world that we’ve created, especially since the end of World War II, is a scary place. We’ve allowed our technologies to dictate and determine the nature of our reality, to erode our footing in the physical world of limits and animal needs. We’ve allowed our humanity to become so intertwined with our technologies that the line between the two is becoming indistinguishable. While species daily go extinct and the world we live in sinks into the ocean, we’re only too happy to blot it out with VR goggles and pipe dreams of leaving the world we evolved on for a shiny new one somewhere else, the ultimate conceit of a world lost to consumerism. Shadow epidemics, mass shootings, refugee crises — these are only news, which is to say, entertainment, and nothing to compete with the banal idiocy of the Kardashians, or the facile Facebook fix.
This distraction of the masses by trivia in the face of societal disruption is nothing really new. It has been going on at least since the time of bread and circuses during the decline of the Roman Empire. But Neil Postman, Nicholas Carr, and Robert McChesney among many others, have written about the unique dangers posed by modern mass communications technologies.
I think again of movies, but this time of a darker one than Her or even 2001 — I think of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Videodrome’s main character, Max Renn played by James Woods, is a television executive whose brain and body have literally been hijacked by a homicidal television programme. Most of the film revolves around various parties competing for control of Renn’s consciousness and to thus define the role of TV in the consciousness of the larger cultural milieu.
The film ends with the haunting scene of Renn in front of a TV on the deck of a boat where he is induced by the televised image of Deborah Harry, whose character Nicki Brand mysteriously disappeared earlier in the movie, to ‘leave the old flesh’. He witnesses his own image commit suicide on the television set, which explodes. Max imitates what he has just seen on TV, intoning as he shoots himself, ‘Long live the new flesh!’
The world of the old flesh, the one that our technologies are beckoning us to abandon, is the only real one, as far as humanity is concerned. The world of the new flesh is a Faustian bargain. While it may bring to our lives instant gratification, endless entertainment, and ever-greater convenience in the short term, this comes at the price of our humanity and the awareness of the physical world we live in, and perhaps our sanity as well.
I’m not unaware of the irony of all of this as I type these sentences on my word processor and do my research on the internet through Google. But the world of my day job is a world that I only provisionally accept, and one for which I have no binding allegiance. At the end of the day, I’ll gladly turn it off and step outside to breathe in the cold air, to smell the damp straw and the musky scent of goats across the yard in their pen. As night settles in, I can walk up the hill to the top of our hollow where the sky meets the rim of the horizon. When the stars come out, I can look up and know that I’m in exactly the right place. This is real.
Poetry doesn’t exist to make the reader feel comfortable. It exists to make the reader come alive; to challenge; to bear witness; to invite conversation and contemplation; to unsettle, and to try to make sense of the world. In 2016, it feels to me as though poetry has a big job to do, but often finds itself out of work.
It’s not that poetry has a specific role to play in changing society or in fixing anything, but that it has an uncivilisedway of speaking to the human bodymind, using language thattends to be scoffed at,or more often than not ignored by Westernsociety. It’s no surprise that Auden’s time–worn lines about poetry making nothing happen are so readily hung out to dry by 21st century rationalists, who ‘don’t get poetry’. It’s no surprise that in a world of false gods – of money, progress, ‘success’ – we obsess about what poetry does or doesn’t do. Poetry is not utilitarian. It does not need to be functional or useful or to make money (and thank god for that). It exists and communicates on levels many of us are barely even aware of; it is indeed, ‘a way of happening, a mouth.’
Inspired as it is byan equality of logos andmythos,poetrychallenges the kind of empirical knowledge valuedbypost-industrialcapitalism. Poetryis expressive language. It confidently asserts that intuitive knowing, metaphorical and non-critical language, havethe power to subvert, amongst other things, the hegemony of rationalism. Poetry, at least the kind I imagine making up a Dark Mountain poetics, has a deep resistance to any reductive system.
And yet poetry is also part of post-industrial capitalism, whether it likes it or not. It has to find a voice to communicate in spite of being sidelined and (willfully) misunderstood by a culture fixated on individualism and shopping. It needs to continue to stick its neck out and be heard, something which Dark Mountain hasbeen committed tosupporting since its first publication in 2010.
It’s been fascinating reading submissions and thinking about the kind of contemporary poetry Dark Mountain has published these past six years. There has been a good sprinkling of ecological and mythopoetic work, as well as one or two more overtly political pieces, and we’ve also published work by deceased poets, notably Robinson Jeffers. Much of the poetry has been submitted from English-speaking countries in the West, where physical hardship from social and economic collapse has only been deeply felt by some, not (yet) by all of us. In the UK, for example, the number of homeless people in our cities continues to rise, whilethe majority of us are still able to put a meal on the table and keep a roof over our heads. Few submissions have come from poets who have first-hand experienceof life in the wake of collapse, or from those like MouridBarghouti from Palestine, who deeply feels the hardship of inequality and oppression:
I have no problem
I look at myself: I have no problem. I look all right and, to some girls, my grey hair might even be attractive; my eyeglasses are well made, my body temperature is precisely thirty seven, my shirt is ironed and my shoes do not hurt. I have no problem. My hands are not cuffed, my tongue has not been silenced yet, I have not, so far, been sentenced and I have not been fired from my work; I am allowed to visit my relatives in jail, I’m allowed to visit some of their graves in some countries. I have no problem. I am not shocked that my friend has grown a horn on his head. I like his cleverness in hiding the obvious tail under his clothes, I like his calm paws. He might kill me, but I shall forgive him for he is my friend; he can hurt me every now and then. I have no problem. The smile of the TV anchor does not make me ill any more and I’ve got used to the Khaki stopping my colours night and day. That is why I keep my identification papers on me, even at the swimming pool. I have no problem. Yesterday, my dreams took the night train and I did not know how to say goodbye to them. I heard the train had crashed in a barren valley (only the driver survived). I thanked God, and took it easy for I have small nightmares that I hope will develop into great dreams. I have no problem. I look at myself, from the day I was born till now. In my despair I remember that there is life after death; there is life after death and I have no problem. But I ask:
Oh my God, is there life before death?
Translated by RadwaAshour
It’s interesting that notions of collapse – social, political, economic, ecological – are so much more discussed in mainstream media these days, but that a great many Western poets have shied away from responding. It reminds me of something American poet, Jorie Graham, once said in relation to poetry and cultural awareness: we may profess to knowing about a particularcrisis, but we, in the Western world at least, are not feeling it.
This blogpost is an invitation to feel it, to respond in particular, to the myriad ways in which the 21st century consumer capitalist world is unraveling and being forced to change; an invitation to respond to the myths of progress and human supremacy; to what on earth it means to be human in a world where refugee children are washed up on beaches while others queue up for the latest smartphone. What does poetry have to say about these inequalities and fallacies? What role does poetry play in aworldthat is scrabbling blindly to hold on to business as usual, while all around the chaos of political and religious wars, resource depletion and climate change hold sway?
Dark Mountain: Issue 10 will be our first book themed entirely around poetry, and will include poems, essays on poetry, and poetry-related art, all of which will in some way speak to a Dark Mountain poetics. This book will be our second foray into themed publications (our first one was Dark Mountain: Issue 8 (Technê)) and we are very much looking forward to seeing it take shape. In addition to the book, we’re commissioning a CD of spoken word/performance poetry/soundings, to honour the importance of the oral tradition not only as the origin of contemporary written poetry, but also as vessel for the embodiment of language, human and nonhuman. What happens to poetry when it moves away from the printed page?
The idea to build a paipo, a Hawai’ian word for a wooden, finless bodyboard, cut like a shark fin through my stilled mental fog. It was an idea that appealed to me, that offered a means of immersion in my surroundings. Never mind that those surrounding waters are the North Atlantic, renowned neither for their placidness or warmth. Never mind that accessing these waters would happen via the hardened shores of Newfoundland, where granite cliffs descend sharply to rocky beaches. The idea appealed despite the fact that I had been bodyboarding a grand total of three times in my life. I was transfixed. There was purpose in my days, that became weeks, and now months.
The vague outlines of the paipo taking shape from scrap plywood. A sense of focused giddiness about the work, as when I was a child getting away with something I shouldn’t.
Clouds of wood dust that enveloped the entire shed in a layer of wood and glue fibres. The edges of the paipo gradually rounded down. Catching myself out, already dreaming of being in the water, feeling the surging power of a wave propelling me forward towards the rocky shoreline. The gritty feel of sandpaper beneath my fingers. The quiet whisper of the handplane drawing out the rough patches. A textured smoothness as I run my fingers along the edge, across the board proper.
I asked at the paint shop for a marine paint, something for a paipo. I showed them pictures. There was a quietness in their response which suggested they weren’t sure what to do with this information. Paipo? In Newfoundland? You know the waters are cold, right? They masked these unasked questions by speaking gruffly to the qualities of marine paints, pointing out the rainbow of colour choices. I chose dory yellow. It spoke to me, suggested something about the history of this place. A history now repurposed.
All of this work, the hours spent in the shed as the days got shorter, the nights longer, culminating in three paipo. And as they neared completion, a feeling of gnawing apprehension overtook the giddiness.
Why was I building paipo? In Newfoundland?
What was the point?
Answer One: A Chance Encounter
Turning off the ribbon of asphalt cutting through the barrens, a fog bank looming with wispy tendrils of cool, I slowed the car to a crawl along the rutted dirt road. Raspberry thickets and the seasons first blueberries, a mottled purple-red shone through the late August greenery going quickly to seed. Here and there stands of alder and birch, a lone tamarack slung low and wide against the prevailing winds, stood as waypoints, marking our progress. Dragonflies flitted about by the dozens, and I should have wondered at their numbers.
Finally, we descended a hill and the road went no further. A dozen RVs sat in the parking lot, spruce poles erected close by to create improvised antennae stands. Men and women in various states of undress, drinks in hand sat around listening to country music and talking loudly, generators offering a dull roaring background. Children ran about, masters of their own universe.
We stepped out and began a short, steep walk up the path into the woods. And so entered a different world.
Here, at a place called Chance Cove the snags of boreal forest gave way to a long crescent of rocky beach. Surf pounded in, the hissing approach of waves, the rasp and knock of rocks meeting rocks, and the foaming break background music to our stay. Behind the seafront marshy ponds rounded back up a low valley. The trees grew tall below the grasping maw of the winds. The air smelt richly of the forest, of spruce sap and fir needles, of berries and August grasses. Over it all the smell of the ocean, clean and tanged by wet rocks. Bees and butterflies rose and fell in such numbers that they were best described as a chorus.
The road we had driven down, even the RV parking lot were forgotten here. The noise of country twang and generators was muffled away and lost. Here was a place beyond the pall of human meddling and progressing.
We stopped for a coffee, soaking in the scene while our girls ran off to play in the woods. While the campstove heated the percolator I found a patch of ripe raspberries, and picked my fill. Mosquitoes fell upon me, and horseflies too. I sent small prayers of thanks towards the flitting dragonflies, urged them on to greater feats of gluttony. Nevertheless, I was soon festooned in bloody smears and hot, swollen patches rose on my legs and arms.
Later, we walked down a narrow path where wild roses grew and perfumed the air. Gnarled grey driftwood poked up from the beach rocks. We made our way to the pondfront, a sudden smear of sand that welcomed our feet after the rolling rocks that separated pond from ocean. The pond was no deeper than mid-thigh so that we could walk far out into the water. Minnows sculled about careless until our shadows came too close.
I plunged in, enjoying the ‘frog’s eye view’ of the swim, to borrow from Roger Deakin. The hours passed easily.
My wife and friends took the children to the stream that emptied the ponds into the ocean for a swim. I walked down after them, looking out into the rush of surf, the sound suffusing everything beyond the forest, and found myself looking at a seal. It watched me with rapt curiosity and I called out to it, whistled. It hung about for a time, then fell back without a splash only to rise again, closer. But more nervous, and it fell away again, gone.
My youngest daughter and I picked blueberries as the sky was splashed in the colours of an August dusk, yellows and reds bright against the clouds flung high in the pale blue summer sky. We had brought no tent and the mosquitoes, always present, came out unseen but felt hordes. It was time to go.
A friend warned us they’d seen a moose on the road the night before.
We came back down the path to the car, the sound of the crashing surf quieting, and then lost to the droning peel of a crooners lament, drunken voices rising to the song out of tune and rhythm.
But the world had been restored for me. My wife’s last comment before we began rounding up the kids and sorting kit, as we stood arm in arm surveying the sweep of beach, the swirl of fog at the mouth of the cove, was, ‘This would be a great place to go surfing.’
Answer Two: A Balm Against Exploitation
Newfoundland’s history since the Europeans began arriving is one of exploitation and fishing. The British history here was often one of indifference beyond what its shores and shoals could provide in tonnage of saltcod.
There were so many codfish it was said you need only lower a basket to catch your holds full. But as fishing technology progressed from handlining to codtraps to longlining to trawlers, as sonar gave away the great pulsing masses of biomass (as fish is often reduced to, a word that separates the fish from any felt connection to the wider world) the great cod population of the North Atlantic fell away.
Since 1992 there has been no viable large scale codfishery in Newfoundland.
With its collapse went a way of life. Those who had risen every morning long before the sun to send small boats out in every kind of weather found themselves shorebound, useless. The wharves and stores, painted in vibrant reds, whites and yellows, that thronged outport harbours became dilapidated for want of use, washed away in autumn storms and were never rebuilt. Dories and trap skiffs were hauled up on land, slowly greying and rotting away from the sea. People left without even bothering to pack up their possessions. Just closed the door behind them.
Gone too was a knowledge of place, an understanding and appreciation by fishermen of nature and their own place in it. There was no need to pass this information on, of shoals and rocky crags where boats might get scuttled upon, where the best fishing places were.
The story of this loss is still keenly felt in Newfoundland, muffled though it now is in a state of oil exploration and profit. There’s the promise of a better tomorrow, economically. Politicians puff and posture about climate change, deride and mock it or promise to address it.
The lessons of the collapsing codfishery, of exploiting a finite resource until it disappears, haven’t been learned.
Answer Three: A Means of Immersion
I grew up along the Bay of Fundy in Saint John, New Brunswick. The sweep of the tides, the smell of the ocean were always with me. Our home was littered with beach rocks and seashells gathered on rambles.
As I got older I took to seakayaking. There was no gentle learning curve. A friend and I mistook rowing experience on the Kennebecasis River as an understanding of water, and we signed up for an adventure race. After running through a weave of trails and wrenching our bicycles through mud we got into the kayak, and paddled confidently out of the calm bay. Once out along the coast the wind roared up. Whitecaps sent us slaloming through the short, steep whitecaps and sloughing to beam in the troughs. It was hard work, and we were soon soaked through. Worse, my sciatic nerve was cut off by the posture the sport demanded and my legs fell asleep, useless. As I was steering the boat by the touch of my toes this put us in a dangerous situation.
We did not, as prudence should have called for, make for shore. Instead we grunted, sweated, cursed and cried our way to the finish line. Nevertheless, the taste of salt on my burned lips was intoxicating, the feel of the water beneath the hull magical.
As the years went by I gained something approaching confidence in a kayak. I took to paddling out on my own along the shoreline, in good weather and bad, mesmerised by the magical hum a kayak makes when it came up to speed. I felt connected to the world, elemental.
My youngest brother and I paddled out one grey Sunday in the lee of the breakwater to Partridge Island at the harbour entrance to Saint John. It was half tide, and the water was slack, listless. The sky fell heavily upon the waterline and Nova Scotia, only eighty kilometres across the bay, was shrouded in cloud. The island looked closer than it was and it took some time for us to arrive. Once there we paddled out to where seals scurried from the shoreline rocks for the safety of the water. We then paddled back along the lee of the breakwater, taking our time.
I turned to say something to my brother and found myself looking at a seal just over his shoulder, head high above the water. The seals skin was the exact colour of the day. His eyes were ochre black, and his nose opened and closed wetly. We all of us took each other in, a smile playing on my face. After a time the seal fell away. My brother and I began talking about how great that had been when another seal rose between us and the shoreline. Then another.
At one time nearly a dozen seals took us in at one time, their heads rising and falling in the slow undulation of the bay, noses smacking wetly. I felt a bit like we were a topic of conversation down below.
In this light I can appreciate C.A.Bowers’ contention that the commons is the meeting place between the human and natural communities, in all its constituent parts. This is why we need to celebrate and protect the commons.
Yet to appreciate nature and the commons you need a means of access.
All night long the rush and trampling of water
And hoarse withdrawals, the endless ocean throwing his skirmish lines
Come to my ears and stop there. I have heard them so long
That I don’t hear them- or have to listen before I hear them — How long?
But that fierce music has gone on for a thousand
Millions of years.
— Robinson Jeffers, ‘Untitled’
Reading Jeffers lines, poignant, felt, I was brought back to the beach. The background noise of pounding surf rumbled alive in my head, and I could smell the clean air, the forest and wet rock. I remembered the sandpipers that ghosted along the grey shoreline until I startled them into flight before descending, unseen, back to feed
once more further down the coast. I was transported.
Newfoundland is an island. It has a long tradition of fishing and seafaring. Stories of adventures and tragedies both cling as tenaciously as barnacles to the rocky shores. Yet, by and large the way that I have come to appreciate this place have been done on land, through hiking, mountain biking and gardening.
To know an island one must be attuned to the ocean. Not just in knowing academically its moods and contemplations, but by immersing oneself in its vagaries and rages. Therein lies true knowledge. This was why that day at Chance Cove had haunted.
The sea had been calling.
I took to building the paipo because it felt like an appropriate response. It will offer my family a means of access and immersion to this place. It will help us better appreciate it. I wanted to say understand it, but can’t. That would suggest a degree of control over weather, wind and current that even at the best of times, eludes us.
These are not the best of times.
A paipo will not solve climate change or ocean acidification. It will not stymie overfishing or bring back bleached corals.
It solves no crisis.
But it allows for a relationship to be born anew, between myself, my family and the sea. It allows us to re-engage in what the cosmologist and historian Thomas Berry described called the Great Conversation. We can once again find meaning and solace in the sea, in the held gaze of a seal, in the rise and fall of bees and butterflies, in the blazing glory of a sunset caught and illuminated by the evening fog.
I was sitting on an island with a well-known Greek poet who harrumphed dismissively into his moustache between glasses of Peloponnesian red.
I told him what I thought it was about.
‘Impossible.’ He meant absurd, but was too gracious to say so. ‘It’s like trying to live in a fifth dimension. You can describe it mathematically, but you can’t give any account of what it would be like to live in it.’
‘No’, I said, ‘it’s not like that. Or if it is, then it makes me doubt whether I have any real human relationships. I’m in the same three spatial dimensions as a fox, and the fourth dimension, time, flows just as mysteriously and erratically for other humans as it does for foxes. True, foxes might get several years’ worth of information in a momentary sniff – so telescoping time. But that’s not unimaginably different in kind from me flicking quickly through a family photo album.’
The poet raised his eyebrows and looked pityingly sophisticated.
I went on, but I didn’t know why: ‘You’ve got a nose. It’s so much more fastidious than the average – and certainly than mine – that you’ve brought your own bottle of wine with you to this perfectly nice taverna. Yet I can have some idea of what you mean by “wine”, and even by “good wine”, and even by some of the adjectives you’d use to describe good wine. And even if I can’t now, I could learn. I could awaken my nose.’
‘But’, said he, ‘I can’t have the first idea what it’s like to live in the world of a Southern Baptist from Alabama. You can’t re-educate your psyche to know anything at all about that.’
I agreed with him. That is indeed the world of the fifth or sixth or seventh dimension. But the comparison gave me hope. ‘Quite right’, I said.‘I share much more with a fox than with a fundamentalist. I’ve lived and I live with the fox in an embodied, sensual world of wood and earth and bone and semen and cold. We met and we meet in a real place, and there I’ve started to use the words “I and thou”. The “I” has grown in the encounters, I can tell you. If the “I” has grown, why not the “thou”? If we grow in the same soil, and in the light beaming from the other, isn’t that a sort of knowledge of the other?’
He rolled his eyes, took another swig of the unapproachably, incomprehensibly good wine and moved on to the accents of Cretans and Thracians.
The taverna looked out on to an olive grove where, in happier, wiser times, cloven-footed Pan had serenaded and impregnated the maidens of Kýthira. Like any decent or indecent maenad I drank the wine made from the grapes just down the road, and eventually the premise of the book didn’t seem so ludicrous. I thought it was fair, if not encouraging, to judge it by its fruits.
I grew up on the edge. On the edge of a community (we never really belonged anywhere) and on the seam of a city and the wilderness. At night I’d walk up a few polite streets, and then the neon would give up and I’d be looking down at the city: one foot on the heather, another on the tarmac; one foot in the light, another in the dark.
Those night walks defined me. I was made by the edges. Take them away, and I’d dissolve. I couldn’t survive on either the heather or the tarmac.
I wondered if other people were the same. I still wonder. Selfishly I hope so. I’d like to meet them.
I grew up, therefore, both suspicious of frontiers and totally dependent on them. Then, after a bit of wandering and reading, I wondered if humans could cross the frontiers that separate them from other species. Those frontiers seemed pretty artificial – defined by the taxonomical conventions of the day. And by all accounts they had been routinely violated (as the Judaeo-Christian tradition, with its love of separation, would put it) or rapturously and enrichingly penetrated (as shaggy people who played the pipes and seemed to have more fun would put it) in most cultures other than our own.
I could have gone down the stern, merry, green path of the shaman. But I was too scared. Instead I took up birdwatching and philosophical abstraction.
So far as the abstraction goes, I’m interested in three questions. Although it might not have been obvious, I’ve been exploring them in Being a Beast.
The first flows directly from heather, tarmac and shamanism: are there any limits to our ability to choose?
The fact that we have at least some autonomy is awesome and intimidating. We’re used to thinking that autonomy is most critically on trial in dramatic, occasional situations – such as when we’re considering the right to assisted suicide. But surely it’s the day-to-day choices that are the most terrifying and repercussive. Listen: You can choose whether to get up early, run round a field, have a cold bath and then read Middlemarch. Or stay in bed and watch shopping TV. That’s astonishing. I can never get over it. That’s a choice between Life and Death. Therefore choose Life.
We’re used to saying, at least to ourselves, ‘There’s nothing I can’t do or be if I put my mind to it.’But is it true?
There’s a good test for this. If I can become a badger, then there are good reasons to be confident more generally about our autonomy.
The second question is to do with identity and authenticity.
I’ve often worried that there’s nothing to me. Or at least that, if there is something to me, it’s highly labile. I would like to be reassured that there’s an indestructible core of Charles Fosterishness.
One way of testing this is by becoming a fox and seeing if the fox still smells distinctively of me.
The third question relates to otherness.
I worry that I’m entirely alone in the world: that otherness is wholly inaccessible. That when I think I’m in a relationship, I’m not. That all conversations are ultimately at cross purposes. That I neither understand nor am understood by any other.
There’s an exercise that might be able to help. If I can establish a real relationship with a non-human animal, there are grounds for optimism in relation to relationships with humans. If I can bond with a swift, I may well be able to bond with my children. True, I won’t be able to prove in a Euclidean sort of way that I’m really relating to the swift. But the human-animal relationship will be simpler than the human-human one and won’t be obscured by so much tangled emotion. That means it might be easier to be reassured that a human-animal relationship is real. If it is, and it tastes like the same sort of thing as a human-human relationship, I’ll be able to love my children less doubtfully.
These are what I was working on in the mountains, moors, rivers, seas and skies.
I made, I think, a bit of progress.
Our anatomy and physiology impose some limits on us. And if (as seems highly unlikely) we’re mortal, so does our mortality. I can’t fly. Nor is there time to learn all the words necessary to compensate poetically for my absence of wings.
But our capacity for vicariousness is infinite. Empathise enough with a swift and you’ll either become one or (which may be the same thing) you’ll be able to rejoice so much with the screeching race round the church tower that you’ll not mind not being one yourself.
For better or for worse, Charles Foster continued to smell of himself when he crawled, slashed and dived. Indeed, he smelt more of himself. That wasn’t, I think, because the whole exercise of transformation was a failure, but rather an illustration of the general principle that the more you give away, the more you get back. In any event, it was reassuring. There’s something in me that’s distinctive and worth working on.
I’ve seen and known some animal others. The woods are full of slinking ‘thous’! I’ve been held in a yard in the East End of London by the commanding vertical pupil of an insolent fox. I’ve had enough beckoning and threatening looks across crowded bars to know reciprocity and its absence when I see them.
This is immensely exciting. There’s a chance that I can know and be known!
There was a fourth, less abstract question. Do my animals live in the same world as I do? Do they swim in the same water, forage in the same dustbins, dig in the same earth, look across the same misty Channel to Wales and smell the same rising tide of decay from the Gulf of Guinea?
I’ve left it until last because my thoughts about it change about every half an hour, and I hoped for a while that they would start to crystallise.
They haven’t, and I’m so glad.
I can’t always be in the wild. Sometimes I have to be in places that smell of fear, fumes and ambition. When I’m there, it helps very much to know that badgers are asleep inside a Welsh hill, that an otter is turning over stones in one of the Rockford pools, that a fox is blinking in the same sun that makes me sweat in my tweed coat, that a red stag is cudding among ghost trees by a stone circle near Hoar Oak, and that there’s a swift, hatched above my Oxford study, hunting, almost beyond human sight, in the high, hot blue over the Congo River.
That these things should be a comfort is strange. They should taunt, not comfort. They should say: ‘You’re not there. Ha, ha, ha.’
Why does that not happen?
Well, I note that I get a similar sense of comfort only from being assured of the continued existence of things – and notably people – that (whatever love is) I love.
It gets worse. Because the sort of love I’m talking about (whatever it is) is necessarily reciprocal. I can’t really love X unless X loves me.