The Dark Mountain Blog

Ted Kaczynski and why he matters

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The Unabomber Affair

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the ‘Unabomber’, is a US terrorist known for his 17-year bombing campaign as the terror group ‘FC’, which targeted individuals involved in technical fields like computing and genetics.

In early 1995, the New York Times received a communique from FC in the mail:

This is a message from FC…we are getting tired of making bombs. It’s no fun having to spend all your evenings and weekends preparing dangerous mixtures, filing trigger mechanisms out of scraps of metal or searching the sierras for a place isolated enough to test a bomb. So we offer a bargain.

The ‘bargain’ offered by the group was simple: publish its manifesto, and it will stop sending bombs.

The manifesto, entitled Industrial Society and Its Future, was a 35,000 word polemic detailing the threats that industrial society posed to freedom and wild Nature. At the crux of the document’s analysis was a concept called ‘the power process’, or an innate human need to engage in autonomous goal setting and achievement. Despite this psychological necessity, ‘in modern industrial society, only minimal effort is necessary to satisfy one’s physical needs.’ As a result of the mismatch between human need and industrial conditions, modern life is rife with depression, helplessness, and despair, and although some people can offset these side-effects with ‘surrogate activities’, the manifesto says that these are often undignifying, menial tasks. Interestingly, these concepts have numerous parallels in contemporary psychology, the most notable similar idea being Martin Seligman’s concept of ‘learned helplessness’.

Ultimately, the manifesto extols the autonomy of individuals and small groups from the control of technology and large organisations, and it offers the hunter-gatherer way of life as a vision of what that kind of autonomy might look like. Still, the end of the manifesto only argues for the practical possibility of revolution against industry (rather than a complete return to hunter-gatherer life), and it outlines some steps to form a movement capable of carrying out that revolution.

Up until FC tried to force the publication of the manifesto, the FBI had referred to the group as the work of a single terrorist. But the proposal put the agency in a difficult situation: it had a policy of not negotiating with terrorists, but was in no position to reject this one’s offer. By that time, the FBI had been searching for the Unabomber for 17 years and had little to nothing to show for it. Much of what they did have to work with, such as the profile that pinned him as a blue collar airline worker, turned out to be complete nonsense. Even the famous FBI sketch looked nothing like the man they later captured.











Worse for the FBI, the Unabomber was determined to strike until they agreed to the offer. Shortly after sending their proposal, FC sent a bomb to a timber industry lobbyist, who became the third death in the bombing campaign. Later, two Nobel Prize winners received letters warning them that ‘it would be beneficial to [their] health to stop [their] research in genetics.’ Finally, to make the offer even more convincing, FC sent a hoax bomb threat that delayed two flights and shut down California’s airmail system for almost the entire day.

Hoping that it would allow someone to identify the perpetrator, the FBI encouraged the New York Times and Washington Post to publish FC’s manifesto. The two newspapers took the advice, and the manifesto was soon published as an eight-page insert to the Washington Post, with publication costs partly funded by the Times. From that point on, the agency officially classified the Unabomber as ‘serial killer rather than a terrorist with a political agenda, as was originally hypothesized.’

The FBI was right about the manifesto: it did help someone identify the author. Shortly after the work’s publication, David Kaczynski contacted a lawyer to share his suspicion that the Unabomber was his brother, Ted. After examining the submitted evidence, the FBI raided the man’s home, finding everything they needed to put him on trial for the crimes of the Unabomber.

When Kaczynski was apprehended, he looked dirty and dishevelled, with an unwashed body and torn clothing and hair that reached in every direction. It was a typical look for Montana men in the winter, but it nevertheless solidified the media image of the man as a lone wingnut. In reality, Kaczynski was very likely a genius. He was accepted into Harvard at the age of 16, later went to the University of Michigan for his Masters degree, and then taught at Berkeley as an assistant professor. His doctoral thesis solved several difficult problems relating to ‘boundary functions’, which even Kaczynski’s maths professor, George Piranian, could not figure out. ‘It’s not enough to say he was smart’, Piranian said.

But Kaczynski decided that university life was not for him, and he soon left Berkeley to build his own cabin in a remote area of Montana, where he lived without running water and electricity. One FBI investigator said to the man upon his arrest, ‘I really envy your way of life up here.’

After a circus of a trial, Kaczynski ended up pleading guilty to the Unabomber crimes, and in turn he was given a life sentence and sent off to the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Today, he diligently responds to letters he receives, and he is working on publishing an upcoming book, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How.

The Response to Kaczynski

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 1

Although it is easy to dismiss Kaczynski as crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration, support for his ideas is not hard to come by. Critiques of technology similar to those outlined in the manifesto have long been available underneath the names of famous thinkers. In 1863, for example, British essayist Samuel Butler wrote in ‘Darwin Among Machines‘:

Day by day, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them…the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants…Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species.

Consider how eerily close Butler’s statement is to the recent warnings about artificial intelligence made by Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, and Elon Musk (all of whom nonetheless continue to advocate for technical progress).

The response to the manifesto, while certainly not without a fair share of criticism, included many positive comments from well-adapted and successful members of society. One of these people, Bill Joy, was the inventor of the Java programming language and the founder of Sun Microsystems. In other words, he could easily have received a bomb from FC. Yet in 2000 Joy wrote his now-famous essay ‘Why the future doesn’t need us‘, in which he describes his troubled surprise when he read an incisive passage on the threat new technologies pose — only to discover that the passage was pulled from the Unabomber Manifesto. ‘He is clearly a Luddite,’ Joy writes, ‘but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in [his] reasoning…’

Other reactions have been similar. Journalist and science writer Robert Wright famously stated, ‘There’s a little bit of the Unabomber in most of us.’

 And political scientist and UCLA professor James Q. Wilson, the man behind the famous ‘broken windows theory’,  wrote in the New York Times that the manifesto was ‘a carefully reasoned, artfully written paper… If it is the work of a madman, then the writings of many political philosophers — Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, Karl Marx — are scarcely more sane.’

billy Perhaps most striking, however, was how much the general public expressed adoration and fascination with the Unabomber. ‘I’ve never seen the likes of this,’ said one criminologist, ‘Millions of people … seem to identify in some way with him.’ Kaczynski was arrested and on trial during the early age of the internet, and fan websites quickly popped up all over, including the famous Usenet group, Stickers appeared that said ‘Ted Kaczynski has a posse’; t-shirts appeared that had the famous Unabomber sketch and the word ‘dad’ printed on it; and many organisations contributed to a nationwide ‘Unabomber for President’ campaign. ‘Don’t blame me,’ one campaign ad said, ‘I voted for the Unabomber.’

Even now Kaczynski has his open advocates. For example, David Skrbina, a philosophy of technology professor at the University of Michigan, corresponded with Kaczynski for years, edited a book by him, and has written several essays supporting genuine engagement with Kaczynski’s works. One of the essays is provocatively entitled ‘A Revolutionary for Our Times‘.

Despite all this, Kaczynski’s ideas are some of the least-talked-about aspects of the Unabomber affair. Instead, people tend to focus on the man’s family drama, his early life, or various conspiracy theories, such as the idea that Kaczynski was the Zodiac Killer. When his ideas finally do appear for consideration, they are oftentimes dismissed with inane comments on the ‘academic style’ of the manifesto or the unoriginality of its critiques of technology. Even more often, the ideas are dismissed with a statement on Kaczynski’s mental state: ‘He’s crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration’. And then, of course, there are the moral arguments, some asserting that the violence was unjustified for the stated or assumed goals, and some asserting that violence is never OK.

All of these arguments are terrible ones. Not only do they fail to address the central points that Kaczynski raises, most of the time they are unfounded or flat out wrong, and at least some of the time the arguments’ logical conclusions would be uncomfortable or appalling to the very people who argue them. Let’s take a closer look.

Was Kaczynski insane?

The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.

 — Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 2

Most of the evidence used to show that Kaczynski is insane comes from his chaotic and pitiful trial. But this idea is has been thoroughly debunked. For one thing, every person I know of has confirmed that Kaczynski is not obviously insane, and most have suggested the opposite, including the journalist William Finnegan, many of his college professors, many individuals who encountered him in Montana, professor David Skrbina, and even the judge during Kaczynski’s trial.

On 7 January 1998, Judge Burrell said:

I find him to be lucid, calm. He presents himself in an intelligent manner. In my opinion, he has a keen understanding of the issues. He has already seemed focused on the issues in his contact with me. His mannerisms and his eye contact have been appropriate. I know there’s a conflict in the medical evidence as to whether his conduct, at least in the past, has been controlled by any or some mental ailment, but I’ve seen nothing during my contact with him that appears to be a manifestation of any such ailment. If anything is present, I cannot detect it.

Indeed, all throughout the Unabomber trial, Kaczynski’s mental health was a recurring point of tension between him and his lawyers. Kaczynski absolutely did not want to be portrayed as insane, even anticipating in his pre-arrest journals that the media would attempt to paint him as ‘a sickie’ if he was ever captured. In true Orwellian fashion, this fear was used as one of the main pieces of evidence that Kaczynski was insane, and the only other primary piece of evidence was his political views and writings. For example, in her psychological report Dr Sally Johnson cites Kaczynski’s ‘clearly organized belief system that he was being harassed and harmed by modern technology’.

Several factors compelled almost all involved parties to declare Kaczynski insane, most of all an ethical one. Kaczynski’s defence team was bound by personal or, at the least, professional ethics that compelled them to avoid the death penalty at all costs. The only sure-fire way to do this, they believed, was to present Kaczynski’s mental health as a mitigating factor. William Finnegan wrote in The New Yorker, ‘There was never any real doubt that Kaczynski was legally sane. But his lawyers believed that the degree of his culpability for his crimes could be made to depend on his psychiatric classification — the more serious the diagnosis, the less his culpability.’

Because of Kaczynski’s aversion to the strategy and his defence team’s repeated dishonesty, Kaczynski requested to be represented by the civil rights lawyer Tony Serra, but Judge Burrell denied his request. When the man then requested to represent himself, Burrell ordered a psychological evaluation to see if he was fit to stand trial. The result was an evaluation conducted by Dr Sally Johnson, who, as was mentioned, cited Kaczynski’s belief system, rejection of being mentally ill, and family troubles all as evidence that the man had a psychological disorder. Johnson concluded with a ‘provisional diagnosis’ of paranoid schizophrenia that was ‘in remission’ at the time, and she declared Kaczynski fit to stand trial. Still, stricken with a sudden case of amnesia regarding the man’s sanity, Burrell denied Kaczynski’s request.

The only other party to assert that Kaczynski was insane was his family, specifically his brother, who turned him in, and his brother’s wife. But they, like the legal defence team, expressed a deep desire to keep Kaczynski from receiving the death penalty. Furthermore, given that the Kaczynski family had rather strained relationships, their testimony is at worst unreliable and at the least insufficient for declaring Kaczynski insane.

Closely related to the idea that Kaczynski was insane is the idea that Kaczynski is a sadist. But the man showed explicit compassion for at least some of the people who were harmed or could have been harmed from the FC bombs. In one letter to the New York Times, FC wrote:

…we will say that we are not insensitive to the pain caused by our bombings.

A bomb package that we mailed to computer scientist Patrick Fischer injured his secretary when she opened it. We certainly regret that. And when we were young and comparatively reckless we were much more careless in selecting targets than we are now. For instance, in one case we attempted unsuccessfully to blow up an airliner. The idea was to kill a lot of business people who we assumed would constitute the majority of the passengers. But of course some of the passengers likely would have been innocent people — maybe kids, or some working stiff going to see his sick grandmother. We’re glad now that that attempt failed.

Similarly, in his journals, one can observe Kaczynski struggling with his feelings toward John Hauser, who opened a bomb left in UC Berkeley’s computer science building. He wrote that he was ‘worried about [the] possibility that some young kid, undergrad, not even computer science major, might get it.’ He also wrote ‘I must admit I feel badly about having crippled this man’s arm. It has been bothering me a good deal.’ Still, he goes on to argue that the bombing was justified, as Hauser was a pilot and aspiring to be an astronaut, ‘a typical member of the technician class’. Later in his journals he mentioned Hauser again to say, ‘I am no longer bothered by this guy partly because I just “got over it” with time, partly because his aspiration was so ignoble.’

In other words, in Kaczynski’s eyes his ideology legitimated his killings, not his personal psychological satisfaction. Thus, in order to understand and face the real implications of the UNABOM case, we need to come to an understanding of the worldview presented or hinted at in Kaczynski’s writings, including the infamous Manifesto.

Was Kaczynski’s ideology opportunistic?

If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 3

Two arguments challenge the idea that Kaczynski justified (and continues to justify) his actions in light of his ideology. One, an implicit argument that functions as backup to the ‘Kaczynski was crazy’ thesis, claims that the entire ideology was a ruse, just a way to fulfil the man’s own emotional angst. The other, explicitly argued for most prominently by the journalist Alston Chase, argues that the ideology had two parts: a libertarian one and an environmentalist one. The latter, Chase suggests, was used to draw support for the real source of Kaczynski’s political motivation, a love of freedom.

The first is actually a reasonable argument, given the limited journal excerpts and information the public was given about Kaczynski. The man often made statements in his journals that, standing alone, suggested that his own emotional satisfaction was all that motivated his killings. These statements were a huge part of the case against him.

For example, about Hauser, the aspiring astronaut, Kaczynski wrote, ‘But do not get the idea that I regret what I did. Relief of frustrated anger outweighs uncomfortable conscience. I would do it all over again.’ Pulled from the context of the entire passage, some of it mentioned above, it certainly sounds as if Kaczynski was only interested in emotional relief. But if the context already given was not enough, consider what Kaczynski wrote immediately after:

So many failures with feeble ineffective bombs was driving me desperate with frustration. Have to get revenge for all the wild country being fucked up by the system….Recently I camped in a paradise like glacial cirque. At evening, beautiful singing of birds was ruined by the obscene roar of jet planes. Then I laughed at the idea of having any compunction about crippling an airplane pilot.

Once again, ideology plays a fundamental role in Kaczynski’s justification. This passage should inspire some empathy from anyone who has seen a wild place they loved become torn apart for development, a part of the man’s motivation that is rarely ever talked about. We hear about his bombs and his dirty clothes, but we have not been shown the forests that he loved or the rivers that he drank from. In at least two interviews, both of which have received suspiciously little attention, Kaczynski gives us a glimpse into the kind of life he lead in Montana. One passage in particular stands out:

“This is kind of personal,” he begins by saying, and I ask if he wants me to turn off the tape. He says “no, I can tell you about it. While I was living in the woods I sort of invented some gods for myself” and he laughs. “Not that I believed in these things intellectually, but they were ideas that sort of corresponded with some of the feelings I had. I think the first one I invented was Grandfather Rabbit. You know the snowshoe rabbits were my main source of meat during the winters. I had spent a lot of time learning what they do and following their tracks all around before I could get close enough to shoot them. Sometimes you would track a rabbit around and around and then the tracks disappear. You can’t figure out where that rabbit went and lose the trail. I invented a myth for myself, that this was the Grandfather Rabbit, the grandfather who was responsible for the existence of all other rabbits. He was able to disappear, that is why you couldn’t catch him and why you would never see him… Every time I shot a snowshoe rabbit, I would always say ‘thank you Grandfather Rabbit.'”

In another story, he explains how one of his favourite spots in the Montana forests was developed, leaving him heartbroken — the event that finally pushed him over the edge. The story sounds very similar to the ones that conservationists and environmentalists tell to explain why they fight. Indeed, Kaczynski is really only different from these wilderness-loving men and women because he killed in response to the devastation he saw. This makes all the difference for some people, but, as we will see, this is probably missing the point.



Nonetheless, Kaczynski does often speak of his actions in terms of ‘revenge’, which is, after all, an emotional justification. But again, most of these entries are still accompanied by ideological justification.

For example, in 1972, six years before the first Unabomber package, Kaczynski wrote ‘About a year and a half ago I planned to murder a scientist — as a means of revenge against organized society in general and the technological establishment in particular…’

Later, after he had sabotaged some motorcycles and logging equipment around where he lived, he wrote that his acts were

particularly satisfying because it was an immediate and precisely directed response to the provocation. Contrast it with the revenge I attempted for the jet noise. I long felt frustrated anger against the planes. After complicated preparation I succeeded in injuring the President of United Air Lines, but he was only one of a vast army of people who directly and indirectly were responsible for the jets. So the revenge was long delayed, vaguely directed and inadequate to the provocation. Thus it felt good to be able, for a change, to strike back immediately and directly.

It seems that a better explanation for Kaczynski’s framework for ‘revenge’ has more to do with hopelessness than anything else. For years before he began his bombings, the man and his brother spoke to each other about the topics in the manifesto. This was, after all, the reason he was captured. Kaczynski also wrote about technological society, freedom, and wild Nature around that time and earlier. When he quit his position at Berkeley, he told his boss, ‘I’m tired of teaching engineers math that is going to be used for destroying the environment.’ And in 1970 he even wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, in which he criticises one man’s suggestion that environmental problems are caused by excessive individual freedoms and could be remedied with collectivism. ‘Actually,’ Kaczynski writes, ‘most of the problems are direct or indirect results of the activities of large organizations — corporations and governments.’

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that Kaczynski did not hold dear at least a significant portion of his ideology, and ‘getting revenge’ was the least he believed he could do in response to the intense devastation that industry was (and is) causing. That he had to justify his actions in emotional terms was not a sign of his emotional instability, but of his perceived isolation, the sense that by himself he could not do much to truly make the difference that was required. This was perhaps the primary reason Kaczynski engaged in isolated acts of sabotage and terrorism — all the more reason to reiterate that Kaczynski is not alone, and neither are those wilderness-loving men and women who feel hopeless now.

If anyone doubts that this was the case, let him read the very last entry in Kaczynski’s journal before he was caught: ‘My opposition to the technological society now is less a matter of a bitter and sullen revenge than formerly’, he wrote. ‘I now have more of a sense of mission.’

Chase suggests that Kaczynski was indeed passionate about a portion of his ideology — but the environmentalist part, he says, was just pure opportunism. However, among other things, this assertion fails to take into account Kaczynski’s professed love for Nature in his early life and journals, all more than enough to show that Chase was far off the mark. Nonetheless, one quote from his journals stands out as particularly damning:

…I don’t even believe in the cult of nature-worshippers or wilderness-worshippers (I am perfectly ready to litter in parts of the woods that are of no use to me—I often throw cans in logged-over areas or in places much frequented by people; I don’t find wilderness particularly healthy physically; I don’t hesitate to poach).

However, in order to understand this entry, one has to understand the particular strand of environmentalism that Kaczynski was influenced by, which was best embodied by a towering figure in the environmentalist movement, Edward Abbey, and the characters in Abbey’s most famous work, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a novel about a group of rambunctious, beer-loving rednecks who, frustrated with the industrial development of the American West, began committing acts of sabotage, such as cutting down billboards, pulling up survey stakes, and pouring sugar into the tanks of heavy equipment vehicles. The book inspired several groups, including (probably) the Bolt Weevils, who sabotaged power-line development in Minnesota during the 1970s, and Earth First!, a movement started in the 1980s and known for tactics like those described in Abbey’s novel.

Abbey, who consistently lived up to the ‘rednecks for wilderness’ image, once made a statement very similar to Kaczynski’s: ‘Of course I litter the public highway,’ the man said. ‘Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.’

The goal of the Ed Abbey kind of environmentalism (if you can call it that) is intimately linked to the notions of wildness and freedom. Further regulations are not the solution, but part of the problem. That industry and complex society require so much restriction on the freedom of individuals and small groups is a good reason to love wilderness and throw out the stuff destroying it.

The sentiment isn’t all that uncommon. In one stand-up routine George Carlin talked (or ranted, as he does) about Earth Day, environmentalism, and ‘saving the planet’:

I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is that there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet, they don’t care about the planet… You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that someday in the future they might be personally inconvenienced… Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet… The planet is fine. The people are fucked. Difference. Difference… The planet is doing fine, been here four and half billion years. Ever think about the arithmetic? Planet has been here four and a half billion years. We’ve been here, what, 100,000, maybe 200,000, and we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and a half billion. And we have the conceit to think somehow we’re a threat?… The planet isn’t going anywhere — we are. We’re going away. Pack your shit folks.

Another comedian, Louis C. K., expresses a similar sentiment:

One day I threw a candy wrapper on the street. I didn’t do it [maliciously], like ‘Take that shit, street.’ I did it cuz I was like, you know, shaking, I wanted the candy. Anyway I was with a friend who said to me, ‘You just littered on the street. Don’t you care about the environment?’ And I thought about it and, you know what, I was like, ‘This isn’t the environment. This is New York City. This is not the environment. This is where people live. New York City is not the environment, New York City is a giant piece of litter. It’s like the giantest — next to Mexico City, the shittiest piece of litter… So if you have a piece of litter, what’re you supposed to do with it? You throw it in the pile of litter! Cuz if you don’t, if you put it in a receptacle, then it gets collected, and it gets taken to a dump, and a landfill, and then it goes on a boat, and it goes out and gets dumped in the ocean and some dolphin wears it as a hat on its face — for ten years.

 In other words, Kaczynski’s ideology isn’t the urban environmentalism pushed by liberals and activists. It’s a love of Nature that’s inseparable from a love of freedom, very much the kind of love that non-activist nature-lovers profess already. But this is an uncomfortable fact to recognise, of course, because it makes Kaczynski’s ideology dangerous.

What about the deaths?

We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system. This revolution may or may not make use of violence; it may be sudden or it may be a relatively gradual process spanning a few decades. We can’t predict any of that. But we do outline in a very general way the measures that those who hate the industrial system should take in order to prepare the way for a revolution against that form of society. This is not to be a POLITICAL revolution. Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.

— Industrial Society and Its Future, paragraph 4

One argument I have avoided addressing until now is that Kaczynski’s actions were wrong because killing is wrong. This is, most importantly, because the moral status of Kaczynski’s terrorism does not discount his ideas, which can stand or fall on their own. Indeed, many have argued that point exactly, including Bill Joy and Skrbina. Another reason, though, is that anyone who truly believes the argument can’t be persuaded otherwise. If killing is always wrong, of course Kaczynski’s actions are wrong.

But I don’t think many people actually believe that killing is always wrong. In an unpublished text, Kaczynski mentions that only three kinds of people make this argument: conformists, cowards, and saints. ‘The first two,’ he writes, ‘are beneath contempt and we need not say anything more about them.’ But the saints, he says, could be useful to ‘keep alive the ideal of kindness and compassion’, especially since a revolution would likely be a pretty ugly affair. And he’s right. While some certainly do oppose all violence on principle, the majority of people pushing for nonviolence fall into one of the first two categories, and there’s no real way to respond to any of them.

In other words, most people recognise that it is sometimes okay to kill. Self-defence is the most obvious example, but there are arguable justifications for all kinds of wars, assassinations, and other violence. It seems that the problem many people have with Kaczynski isn’t necessarily that he killed, but that his killings were unjustified in some way. And, whether reasonable or not, because Kaczynski’s violence and its legitimacy is one of the most important considerations for people assessing the Unabomber affair, dismissing it as ‘not relevant to the legitimacy of the ideas’ is insufficient. So I will investigate Kaczynski’s violence and various possible justifications for it.

Bear in mind, however, that discussions about the legitimacy of violence depend heavily on inarguable moral principles, so past a certain point, much of the discussion around political violence is beyond consideration to some readers. It is up to them, then, to decide what kind of violence is morally legitimate. Here I only examine whether Kaczynski’s actions were justifiable assuming his arguments are valid.

Finally, note that this discussion is bogged down by an important consideration: the goal of Kaczynski’s terrorism. He states in one FC communique, ‘Don’t think that we are sadists or thrill-seekers or that we have adopted terrorism lightly. Though we are young we are not hot-heads. We have become terrorists only after the most earnest consideration.’ Indeed, anyone who has interacted with Kaczynski knows that the man, meticulous to the utmost degree, was probably well aware of what he was doing. Still, we are left with only two ends. First, of course, is the implicit end of revolution. And second is the explicit statement in several places that FC was interested in ‘propagating anti-industrial ideas’ and getting its message before the public. So we might ask the question: was Kaczynski justified in killing to propagate anti-industrial ideas for the long-term goal of revolution?

Perhaps the FC bombings were unjustified because Kaczynski had other means available: democracy, free speech, the mass media, etc. Anyone who makes this argument, however, should also be prepared to argue that political violence is acceptable if all of the justifiable avenues of political expression are closed. I’m fairly confident that when this fact is brought up, many people would default to the ‘nonviolence’ position described above. But assuming that a person is prepared to accept the implication of his argument, he ought to consider a few facts.

For one thing, Kaczynski was well-aware of these avenues of political expression. The 1971 essay used as evidence against him actually concluded with a programme for legal action. It suggested that people form an organisation that would lobby for the government to defund scientific and technical research, which was the only ‘halfway plausible’ solution Kaczynski could think of at the time. Yet by the end of the essay it is clear that the solution is very plainly implausible, which would no doubt leave anyone concerned with the cited issues feeling rather hopeless. Furthermore, if one accepts the arguments given in the manifesto (especially paragraphs 99-132), revolution, even if extremely improbable, is still the only solution likely to solve the problems in a satisfying manner. According to those arguments, other political avenues are closed. This does not necessarily mean that Kaczynski’s bombings were justified, but it does mean that, assuming he was right, they should be considered justified only insofar as they promote revolution.

And, as uncomfortable as this might make some, the man’s terrorism was profoundly successful at getting his ideas in front of an enormous population. Not only was the manifesto published, in full, by the New York Times and Washington Post, it was also published in numerous smaller publications; it was placed all over the internet, including one of the first internet portals, Time Warner’s Pathfinder; it was stored in government and legal databases and archives that would ensure his ideas lived on indefinitely; and it elicited the insight and commentary of countless intellectuals and public figures, among other things. In all, the manifesto reached an astoundingly large audience, which mostly consisted of everyday Americans, and which ensured that even if no individual or group took the ideas seriously immediately after publication, it would remain stored in countless places, waiting for potential future actors to be inspired. As of yet, no one has suggested a plausible alternative that Kaczynski could have taken to publish his text with the same amount of influence, response, and immortality that he achieved through his terrorism. As Skrbina puts it, ‘In the end, we are appalled by Kaczynski — because he won.’

Still, some say, no revolution has happened yet, so his actions can’t have been that effective. Yet the manifesto was published and Kaczynski caught only 20 years ago. Considering that 69 years separated the publication of The Communist Manifesto and the beginning of the Russian Revolution, it is unreasonable to demand that Kaczynski’s Manifesto already have made as large an impact in a third of the time. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that revolution is in the air. In particular, some of Kaczynski’s political partners in Spain have been fairly active. And although Kaczynski has broken contact with anarcho-primitivists because of ideological disagreements, he’s had a demonstrable impact on many in the anarcho-primitivist and green anarchist movements, who were largely to blame for the 1999 Seattle Riots. He’s also had a demonstrable impact on Derrick Jensen, a co-founder of Deep Green Resistance, and Earth First!, a radical environmentalist organisation known for direct action tactics and ‘monkeywrenching’ (the one based on Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang). Again, Kaczynski and his political associates have strong ideological disagreements with all of these groups, but that he remains so influential within them is a testament to how powerful of a force his ideas are.

Others might argue that even if Kaczynski’s terrorism was successful, it is not necessarily justified. And this is true. But the manifesto argues that if there is no revolution, the consequences of technological development will be absolutely disastrous. If Kaczynski is correct, and if his terrorism was successful at furthering his revolution, then the consequences of his violence might very well have been miniscule compared to the threat. We see this kind of logic at work all the time. The military drops bombs on houses with civilians inside because it’s more important to kill the terrorists in there with them. Grandfather Smith shoots a potentially dangerous dog in the head because it’s more important for his grandchildren to be safe. And so on. Given that Kaczynski believed that what is at stake is our freedom and our wild Earth, it’s not hard to see why he saw his violence as justifiable.

Finally, some people argue that Kaczynski’s specific targets were unjustified. They argue that he was indiscriminate and his targets innocent, and that this was what made his violence illegitimate. But Kaczynski was far from indiscriminate. In fact, he has stated repeatedly that he deplores indiscriminate violence.

More to the point, almost all of his targets were, as he puts it ‘typical member[s] of the technician class’, who include ‘scientists, engineers, corporation executives, politicians, and so forth who consciously and intentionally promote technological progress and economic growth.’ These people are ‘criminals of the worst kind’, and Kaczynski predicts that a revolutionary movement is likely to demand that they be punished.

Again, the idea itself can be challenged, but on his own terms was Kaczynski justified? He was, mostly, except for three instances, and the FC communiques express explicit regret for two of them — see the quote above concerning Patrick Fischer’s secretary and the airliner. The third instance was the bomb placed in the University of Utah’s computer science building. If it would have succeeded at going off, the bomb would have lit an entire hallway on fire and trapped students in their classrooms — certainly the level of indiscriminate violence that Kaczynski deplored. Put shortly, not even Kaczynski could have offered justification for this. He did, however, mention it in passing in one FC communique:

We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers, especially in critical fields like computers and genetics. As for the bomb planted in the Business School at the U. of Utah, that was a botched operation. We won’t say how or why it was botched because we don’t want to give the FBI any clues. No one was hurt by that bomb.

Other than those three instances, Kaczynski’s targets are not surprising in light of his ideology, how responsible he perceived the technician class as being for ongoing technological problems, and his ideas on retribution. Dr Charles Epstein, for example, was a world famous geneticist, Percy Wood the president of United Airlines, and Diogenes Angelakos an important researcher in the field of micro- and electromagnetic waves. And although nowadays, in the age of smartphones, people may not understand why Kaczynski targeted computer store owners (twice), he did so about four years before the birth of the internet, at a time when personal computers were still the territory of big businesses, universities, and nerds. Computer stores at the time were mostly renting out whole sets of personal computers for businessmen and universities, making them an infrastructural target in line with Kaczynski’s other actions.

There’s also the question of why Kaczynski targeted universities and university professors rather than individuals who had more obvious and tangible impacts on technical development. Part of this, as FC explained in a communique, was strategic. Universities had weaker security and professors less of a reason to be wary of a suspicious package than large businesses and businessmen. But universities are no less responsible for technical development than big businesses, and in many ways they are more so. University research laboratories and university funding are the backbone of much of the research being done in the fields of genetics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. As one paper put it, ‘Since the 1970s, research universities have been widely recognized as the core of this nation’s science and technology system.’ Furthermore, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, every university targeted by the Unabomber is classified as as having ‘very high research activity’, the highest classification for a research university. This clearly makes the universities rational targets for the Unabomber.

Final thoughts

All this is not to say that Kaczynski was correct about revolution. As Skrbina says of the manifesto, ‘The logic is sound. However, we are free to challenge any of the premises.’ But a discussion about revolution would require actually engaging with Kaczynski’s ideas, not dismissing them, as has been the dominant response so far. Such engagement ultimately brings us to the final argument: that Kaczynski’s bombings were unjustified because his ideas were wrong.

This argument is the strongest one that can be made against Kaczynski, as it cuts off the strength of his analysis. Those who really want to challenge the ideas presented in the manifesto will have to provide real evidence against his premises, such as the idea that the good of technology cannot be separated from the bad; and they will have to provide an alternative value set that challenges the idea that freedom and wild Nature are primary.

I say ‘have to’ because it truly is no longer optional for anyone who disagrees with Kaczynski. The idea that Kaczynski is crazy simply doesn’t hold, and the ideology presented in the manifesto makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. Furthermore, the issues cited in the manifesto are real and pressing. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, climate change, antibiotic resistance, mass surveillance, the sixth mass extinction — all are rapidly taking centre stage in world politics, and with them the scientists and engineers, whom the general public is coming to realise have an inordinate amount of control over the circumstances of modern life. It’s very likely that some form of anti-technology populism is going to replace what was once an anti-government populism; whereas the main objects of disdain were once politicians, the new objects of disdain will be scientists and engineers, as well as technology itself.

Already we can see this sentiment in action. In the past few years we’ve seen TV shows about wilderness and outdoor-living, often with a tinge of anti-technological sentiment, skyrocket in popularity: Mountain Men, Naked and Afraid, and Duck Dynasty are just a few of the more popular examples. Books, too, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, push a similar message of freedom, a search for purpose and meaning, and spiritual renewal in a decadent, materialistic world.

On the other end, complaints about ubiquitous technology are becoming popular as well. TV shows like Black Mirror convey a fundamental scepticism toward the idea of technical progress, and books like A Short History of Progress, Our Final Hour, and so on are all questioning, to various degrees, the technologies that dominate the modern world.

Most notably, it’s pushing into the political arena. Environmentalist sentiments are extremely popular today, and young people feel the need to address problems like climate change and the sixth mass extinction. Furthermore, because of the way the problems are being ignored, sometimes by economic necessity, radicalisation occurs easily among environmentalists. In fact, the FBI lists environmental terrorism, not Islamic terrorism, as the top domestic terrorism threat in the US.

If that isn’t enough, all this is taking place on a stage that is largely being determined and shaped by the environmental problems that take centre stage in Kaczynski’s thought. Much of the instability that is occurring and will occur in the coming years is and will be magnified tenfold by climate change. One headline in the New York Times states ‘Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change’. A headline in the Guardian reads ‘Global warming could create 150 million ‘climate refugees’ by 2050.’ And the WHO has issued increasingly urgent warnings concerning antimicrobial resistance, which could, combined with modern transportation systems and densely populated city living, cause a global pandemic, or at least a very formidable one.

Clearly, Kaczynski was right about a lot, and unless someone offers a good challenge and alternative to his core ideas, the notion of ‘freedom in wild Nature’ is only going to continue attracting adherents. Dismissing the man as crazy, a wingnut, beneath consideration — well, that’s not going to work for much longer.

Incidentally, I agree with Kaczynski. Wild Nature matters, industry is destroying it, and the only real way out is the collapse of industry. For sure, various aspects of the manifesto deserve criticism, especially the parts regarding strategy, but on those three points Kaczynski is on solid ground.

In regards to the man’s actions, I find myself in a tough spot. I absolutely do not condone indiscriminate violence like the kind practised by radical Islamists, and I tend to agree with Lenin that even highly targeted acts of individual violence are a terrible tactic for a revolutionary movement. A primary role of revolutionaries is to spread social values, and terroristic acts of violence are usually a sign of weakness on this front. Furthermore, while those supporting growth and progress are indeed ‘criminals of the worst kind’, I have a hunch that Kaczynski overestimated how responsible some individuals are for our current predicament.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to overstate how successful Kaczynski was, and the man has a tendency to be right about things, mostly because he is (almost overly) meticulous about every detail. No doubt he applied the same attention to detail to his 17-year campaign. So as incompatible as it is with my views generally, it’s hard to say that Kaczynski could have done something else and achieved his goals as successfully. Still, even he is quick to tell those writing him letters that he does not think another Unabomber would be helpful for a revolutionary effort. The primary work to be done now, he says, is building cores of committed individuals who can sustain a revolutionary movement. And as I said already, I agree. In any case, I ultimately still defend my initial statement about Kaczynski’s violence: the ideas stand and fall on their own, and right now they’re still standing.

I am not arguing that everyone will come to the same conclusions. Indeed, those who simply don’t care about wild Nature and the freedom found in it won’t be very moved by the manifesto; neither will those who are convinced that technical development can be controlled by humans. But the piece is worth the read, and with complete conviction I can say that it is not only the best way to engage with the Unabomber affair, but that it is one of the most important ways to engage with the problems of our modern world.

John Jacobi is a second-year student at the UNC – Chapel Hill and the founder of The Wildist Institute. 

Cabin and mailbox photographs from

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Hole Earth

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Our last extract from Issue 9 is from Robert Leaver, whose project Hole Earth is a brilliant, discomforting exploration of the guiding theme of this book: what it means to be humble on (or in) this earth.


In the fall of 2013 I crawled up Broadway in New York on my hands and knees in a vintage pinstripe suit that once belonged to my father. Crawling Home began at the bottom of the island near Wall Street and ended at my apartment in Washington Heights near the top of the island. Roughly ten miles. The journey took approximately six months and was documented over the course of twenty crawls.

In the fall of 2014 I began the project I call Hole Earth. Wearing my same suit I dug a hole and got down inside, in the foetal position. I did this in Montana, NYC, Tuscany, Germany, Ireland, England, The Catskill Mountains and The Bronx. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had an audience.


I am reminded that I like to dig. I’ve had jobs that required digging, but not for a long time. I used to work landscaping around New York City, planting trees on the sidewalks or on roof gardens and in backyards. I could always shovel for a long time.  I liked the smell of what was unearthed and the sound of the shovelling.  When I worked as a stonemason’s assistant my job was mixing up batches of concrete with a shovel and that was painful work.

Here in the field the going is slow but steady and I start to sweat.  My 20-pound five-foot-long iron spike is doing the needed damage, breaking away things that the shovel can’t handle. It is 55 degrees and sunny and the leaves are still turning colours.  I take a break every five minutes or so and feel my heart beat and muscles start to sing and protest. My back is waking up and wondering what the deal is.  As with the crawling there are phases of warming up, phases of the body asking questions and demanding answers and then finally submitting to the task at hand.

Digging with the knowledge that the hole is literally for me to get into gives the task another dimension. I am not burying treasure, or searching for something once buried in the ground. I am not digging a bunker or a trench or a grave or a place to plant a tree.  I suppose I am planting me, but only for a little while. I will not be covered up and left to hopefully grow. I am not just some man seed in a suit.

The hole is almost ready for me. I imagine this can change me. I imagine that if I listen closely when I am in the hole I might be able to hear all the burials and all the births all at once. Is that what I want? Why am I so excited about getting into this hole?

After about 45 minutes I stand over a round hole that looks to be nearly deep enough. I step down in, sit inside, roll over onto my side and curl up into a foetal ball. My ten-year-old son informs me that my shoulder is sticking out above ground level.  He gets up on a stepladder and takes a picture. I struggle to undo myself and get out of the hole. I dig some more, making the hole wider and deeper and then I get in again. My heart is pounding inside my chest inside the ground. The earth circle is holding me in position. I’m jammed in tight and when I close my eyes all I can hear is my heartbeat and my breathing and the wind blowing across the field.


After one good hole and some pictures we hike up to a high dune ridge to reconnoitre.  In the distance, towards the ocean, we can barely make out dune shack rooftops, but visibility is fast decreasing as a snowstorm blows in.  I spot a deep snowdrift nearby and I go there and attack it with my shovel. I need to find out more about geomancy. Why do some spots just call out and say: Here! Dig here!

This is a deep hole, dug all the way down to the dune grass. Down inside I am out of the wind. It is completely still. The snow around me says nothing. It smells like sky, maybe, but I don’t know. It contains no stories, not like earth does. Not stories that I can comprehend. It just falls and gathers and waits and melts and flows away. The sound of my voice in the hole is different too, as the acoustics of snow are a distant ethereal cousin to rock and dirt. The winter wind is howling across the dunescape and my friend is out there in it waiting for me to come out of my hole. I will come back here in the summer and dig again in the sand.

I leave this fine snow hole open and empty, like a white eye unblinking, waiting for more snow to fill it from above. We head back across the dunes and I feel primitive, like a half-lost hunter, or some exiled shaman, banished from his tribe, still bent on conjuring something with a hole. My friend drags the stepladder and we leave our mysterious tracks on the white face of the Earth.

robert leaver

A voice in my head pesters me as I walk in my suit with shovel and spike alongside the Washington Heights graveyard.  He’s interrogating me: Holes? Really? Wasn’t crawling enough?  Have you no shame? No pride? What does this mean? Why does it matter?  Who do you think you are?

I know this voice. He is the coward who calls me a fool.  I want to hit him on the head with my shovel.  I should try to love him, listen to him, put him at ease.  I remind him that I am the CAPTAIN of this ship and HOLE EARTH is happening.  This voice, this fearful me, doesn’t really want to mutiny, he doesn’t really want to be in charge. He just wants to undermine me. I start to whistle and he goes silent.  But he will be back.

My first urban NYC hole. This is a real spring morning, maybe the first so far after the long grinding winter. 60 degrees. Sparrows frantic.  Even the helicopters sound happy. It feels good to carry my shovel and spike down Broadway. I’ve got my old ratty daypack on my back with kneepads and gloves inside. The same ones I crawled in. I don’t wish I were on my way to crawl.  Now I am burning to dig.

I’m a little concerned about my lower spine. Digging in the dunes a month ago tweaked it somehow. I went to an acupuncturist woman who says my back would be better supported if I had an ass.


Time to dig. The sky is low and Eastern Bloc grey. It might rain. People have gathered around, maybe twenty or thirty folks.  A couple of children, some press with cameras and notebooks, some young women, some middle-aged couples, a stray weirdo. As I dig I keep my eyes mostly down. I hear cameras click and flash. Birds in the trees overhead sing. I whistle back at them, trying to match their calls as I dig. A back and forth takes place between me and the birds. My audience of humans laughs nervously and talks amongst themselves. They are speaking German. I wonder if anyone will heckle me. I would like to tangle lovingly with a heckler.

This place was bombed relentlessly in World War Two. In fact on this very day 72 years ago, 23rd May 1943, the city was devastated by a bombing raid.  Bombs destroy and make fire and piles of rubble and holes in the ground.  I think a bomb fell on this very spot where I am digging.

The ground is more or less cooperative.  I work up a sweat and whistle ‘Amazing Grace’ for a while. These people also speak English, so I could make jokes, but I stay quiet. I struggle with an urge to entertain the audience. I could start up a conversation. I could take questions, I could rant and rave. But I force myself to stay quiet.  My silence gives the dig a little bit of tension. I don’t want to be a clown right now.

I find new digging positions and I grunt and mutter to myself. ‘Almost there,’ I think I hear myself say, but that’s about it.

As I dig I wonder what, if anything, makes this hole German?  I realise I have flown over a giant hole filled with salt water to be here at another spot on planet Earth. People named this place Germany. People named The Bronx. And Cape Cod. Everywhere on Earth, every town, every street, every object, has been given a name.  A sea of names and language. Tools, like my shovel and my pick.



I count to one hundred, then I count again, and again, down in the hole, hibernating, eyes shut, body letting go. The sun is setting over Tuscany. I hear the soft voices and laughter of people close by. This is a Renaissance garden, the Horti Leoni, in the picturesque little village of San Quirico, Italy. I am leaving this place, flying down into the planet, a spinning foetal ball bound for the core and beyond, to the other side! A child’s voice brings me back. I hear the voice ask if I am dead and another says they can see me breathing.

I am haunted by the holes. Yesterday back home from Europe, I am building a stone wall and wearing threadbare canvas slippers. I accidentally drop a 50-pound stone on my big toe. What a mess. Now I am limping around here in the Catskills with my son in the final weeks of August. It is just the two of us. I sense myself drifting off the road into an existential dog day ditch. The pond is low and blooming green with algae. The hard tomatoes in our ragged little garden are blemished with black spots. The lettuce is tough and bitter.

I keep hearing a sound, a pulsating hum in the distance, but I can’t find the source. I’ve looked in the basement and I’ve stood outside in the field and listened for it. And I hear it! I drove down the road and turned off the truck and listened for it. There it is again!  I ask my son if he can hear it and he tries, but he says I am imagining it. I laugh it off. No need to spook him.  Am I hearing the inside of my head?  This could be a problem.

I lay in bed at dawn listening for songbirds again. Where are they? Dawn should not be silent.  There are many theories about why the songbirds have been declining so drastically. I’ve recently had run-ins with friends about the state of the Earth.  Climate change. We don’t agree on the facts.  Since I began Hole Earth I am especially emotional when it comes to this subject.  And not very articulate.  Why do intelligent people resist and dilute the facts?  When did the truth become subjective?  What is this rash of denial? Is it because the reality of what we’ve created is so overwhelming?

The emotion I feel around the state of the Earth ties directly in to the impulse that brought me to Crawling Home and Hole Earth. This is my protest?  This is my recycling?  I’m not doing enough. Where are the birds? What is that hum?

Here in the mountains my son keeps asking me if I’m OK. I tell him I’m fine. Do I not seem OK?  He keeps telling me he loves me. His voice is so kind.  He looks up from his book as I walk by.  ‘Love you, Dad.’

I step carefully from stone to stone watching him float face down. He is snorkeling down a slow moving, waist-deep river. He explores around boulders, pops up, looks for me, and shows me with his hands the size of the trout he just saw. He’ll be starting sixth grade in a couple weeks. He doesn’t really need me to take him to school this year. I’ve been with him every step of the way. Now it is time to step aside, at least a little bit.  I don’t want to let go. I am watching him grow up, up and away. He is drifting downstream with the current, in another world, and I am here on the riverbank standing guard.

Maybe the only way to cure myself of all this, the only way to shed this melancholy dog day navel-gazing baggage, is to go and dig again. No camera, no audience, no talk. I need an anonymous place in the wilderness where I can dig myself into oblivion, a place where I am the only witness.  Maybe this wants to be a secret communion. Maybe that is all it was ever meant to be. There is another level of stillness waiting.

In the end this is just between the Earth and me.

Robert O. Leaver is a writer, musician and performance artist who splits his time between New York City and a piece of wild land on a dead end road in the Catskill Mountains. He wants to hear from you. All his endeavours and contact info can be found at

The film was recorded in Hackney Marshes, London, by Caroline Mary Williams

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book. 

Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues

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Parable del Payaso

 Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over these past couple of weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today’s extract from Issue 9 is a short story of clowns, copper mines and the ecstatic loss of self by Nadia Lucia Peralta, with an image by Andrew Phillips. 

'Blood of the Earth' by Andrew Phillips

Andrew Phillips – Blood of the Earth

It is a foggy morning and there are oranges in the street. Calloused hands pick them up, one by one, to take them home. Abundance. It is September. It will rain between midday and evening. There were birds singing at dawn this morning. The clown, el payaso, sleeps on a pile of garbage from the festivities the night before. All who pass can smell the rank garbage that has piled to a level as high as the waist: avocado pits and skins, orange peels, cornhusks and soda cans, candy wrappers and bones. El payaso has made herself comfortable in the excrement. El payaso has made himself comfortable in the excrement. The flies are neighbourly, the smell does not gag his throat, and his back muscles, if you could see them, are completely relaxed into the mound of rubbish; her mouth is slightly parted, his tongue just barely resting beyond her painted lips. His breathing is steady and calm, palms up towards the sky that is brightening now.

The night before was chaotic, and the owl who sits in the church arches stared down the petty crime. The general, who last night was bleeding from the nose, now sleeps alone, dreaming of jaguars and low-hanging suns. Two fathers are in the local jail, two mothers’ arms are wrapped around their daughters and sons who are dreaming of a soft blue mist. Just a few nights before, around a table with their lamps of stained glass ship scenes, there were stories being told in the kitchen of the couples’ homes: old stories, grandmothers’ tales of water that remembers and has eyes that look back, of eagles that fly all the way to the edge of the sun and return to kill their prey and lick the blood from their talons. The fathers, inspired by the stories, woke up yesterday morning feeling something different than they had felt the day before. The mothers had seamless dreams of gold. The children, now asleep, laughed merrily throughout the day while crafting at the children’s day activities – cornhusk dolls and balloon animals, or just waiting in line for corn with cheese and mayonnaise on top. They are under the stars when the stars appear, they are under the stars in the light of day.

Around midnight the fireworks go off and the dogs howl and cry. Sometime when the mist of morning still hung around the cobbled streets, there came word on the radio that the United States had officially begun another war east of the Mediterranean Sea. Things are looking not-so-serious here in this ancient, volcanic crevice of a town; drink more aguardiente, chicha or Coca-Cola, turn up the boom box, invite your neighbours inside to enjoy a drink. When the sun is directly above the town, the residents of Muápulo borrow a vecino’s worn, pale, yellow truck and load the back with oranges. The fathers sit in the truck bed, and a mother drives around the neighbourhood playing the chicha music loudly while fathers throw the oranges into the street. Abundance. El payaso was on the southern corner of the town’s church when the truck went by, already dressed and listening for the birds’ evening tune. The birds did not notice the payaso as he passed under their melodies – we would have known, because their song would have changed if they had, as it does when a person without sufficient lucidity walks past.

After dark the parties begin. The children go home and the people from the lower parts of the city climb the ancient Andes crater into Muápulo looking for the festivities. It is September; it rained in the afternoon but now the streets are mostly dry and filled with oranges, and the birds have sung the day’s evening tune as the sun sinks westerly. Abundance. The generals arrive to the festivities to calm the crowds down after midnight. Upon their arrival, el payaso found herself back on the south side of the church square not far from where the general’s speech was given at dusk, for fatherland and country. She spanks a young woman’s backside who is walking backwards and laughing with friends. The mother turns, startled, and el payaso laughs into the near-full moon. The woman glares, upset at first, and then lets go the need to respond – it is el payaso after all – and so she lets out a soft giggle and releases the tension that had built up in her legs.

Stories are being told around the kitchen lamp at home. Grandmothers’ stories, stories about the stars and how they have become nestled in the sky. The crowd is drunk and rowdy; after all, it’s time for festival, and whether known or just felt, not far from here, thirty-three indigenous mothers and fathers have been murdered trying to barricade the copper mine that is destroying the water they and their children drink. The festivities de las Marías are well underway. Everyone has gotten off work and this is the last weekend of the week-long carnaval.

Outside, in the crepuscular minutes, the generals try in vain to pacify the mob of students, artists, actors, workers – beautiful mutants all of them. El payaso arrives to the scene of a rowdy crowd dancing to music in the church square, the time is unknown, but autumn’s constellations are well-set into the eastern horizon. The fathers are in the thick of it, their musk mixes in with the musk-scent of the geraniums growing from the pots around the square. The generals are sneering, and now the tanks have been brought out and the tear gas might be fired. El payaso growls but no-one can hear her. She grabs some mud that has been decomposing the cornhusks on the side of the street, and under the orange light of streetlamps throws the husks and the mud, with startling precision, into one of the general’s faces. Splat. For a moment we wonder if time has stopped; space collapses, and eternity presents itself for a second. Nothing dissolves: the silence simply swallows what once was loud. This is only an instant. Time then revokes its peace, and the general is angry but the crowd has erupted in laughter. In the commotion that follows there is pushing and shoving and yelling and the tension has reached critical capacity and erupts into song. Chaotic song. Even the general is now laughing. The fathers, inspired by the eagle who carried the bull to the sun, take it further and lunge out of the crowd, fists raised, and begin to lead the mass toward the tanks. No a la mineria!and para nuestros hijos!, they shout. The moment of song becomes a moment of fear and the generals, in a panic, fire the tear gas. Screaming ensues and the fireworks crescendo. The figure of the Virgin is burning in the pyre in the centre of the square. Death’s hand is sewing a needle through the garbage heaps at the edges of the streets. The fathers, identifiable and bold, are rounded up and taken to jail. The people, with chemicals in their eyes so that they are made to cry, disperse in search of water. El payaso, lucky to have escaped the gas without damage, is whistling low and walking towards the pyre. A garbage pile that smells of piss and rotten oranges has built up on the southern end of the square. Later, she will sleep there, dreaming of stories, grandmothers’ stories, stories of eagles and the blood that drips from their talons.

Nadia Lucia Peralta is a poet, writer, songstress and lover of plants, territories and peoples. She was born on a foggy morning on the coast of Ajachamen territory, Southern California. From a very young age, her dad taught her to observe the ocean and to be humble before entering the water. When she could swim well, he took her and her younger brother out into the big waves where they learned to not panic, dive deep, and relax if they got out too far. Nadia lives in Awaswas-Ohlone territory (Santa Cruz), California, where she is re/membering, re-membering, remembering.

Image: Blood of the Earth (Ink and pastel on paper) by Andrew Phillips. The Earth contains the rich mysteries of both the creation of life, from the unmanifest to the tangible, and subsequent processes of decay and rejuvenation. The soil becomes the record of everything which has failed to live forever, a physical embodiment of deep history. The extraction of raw materials is not only damaging to the Earth, but also a disturbance to the psyche. Bringing unprocessed ‘prima materia’ to the surface disrupts the natural processes of transformation by exposing these dark substances to the light.

Andrew Phillips is a visual artist, musician and art psychotherapist, residing in Edinburgh. It was whilst living in Wales that Andrew first became aware of the Earth’s innate propensity for healing, apparent in many of the spoil heaps which were slowly being reclaimed by grass and animals as part of the landscape. This began an exploration of the inter-subjective experience of landscape through visual art. Presently Andrew is developing a form of group work termed Creen-Craft, combining communal sharing and discussion with image making. Creen is a Scots word meaning to cultivate a lament, and this work is about exploring experiences of both grief and wonder in the context of rapidly changing social and ecological circumstances.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues

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Learning Carefully from the Sea

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over these few weeks, we’ll be sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today’s extract from the book is artist, writer and organiser Brett Bloom’s insightful essay on the practice of Deep Listening on the islands of the Baltic Sea.

Screenshot 2016-04-21 at 12.19.21
In July 2014 I led a two-day workshop on two different islands in the Baltic Sea with a group of ten people (1). The workshop was about de-industrialising one’s understanding of self and place and cultivating a fully embodied sense of the world. It came out of an urgency I feel in my work to build the kinds of relationships that will help us survive whatever chaos and destruction might come our way with global climate change and increasing income inequality.

In these workshops in Finland we explored various kinds of exercises together and then discussed them. The exercises were about realising the wide range of human capacities for both experiencing the world and opening up to unfamiliar and uncommon interpretations of encounters such as bird sounds, wind blowing through trees and the silences of vast landscapes.

The exploration that I want to share here was inspired by combining instructions from people who have done pioneering work around sound and listening, and thinking about how we can be more fully present in the world. The composer Pauline Oliveros and her ideas of Deep Listening have had a big impact on the shape of these exercises. Deep Listening uses our full range of capacities and not just our ears: paying attention to all the sounds we hear at once, how they interrelate, how they hit our bodies and are registered in unexpected ways. Specific to this exercise was the work by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, author of One Square Inch of Silence, to preserve natural silence and combat noise pollution in national and state parks in the United States. Hempton has spent decades listening to and making recordings of landscapes. He has some powerful things to say about how to refine and pay attention to our incredible sense of hearing to do things like absorbing entire landscapes at one time.

Our task, on the island a few kilometres from the centre of Helsinki, was to listen to the Baltic Sea, to the 3050 square kilometres that were in front of us, as we sat on a stormy, rock-lined coast. Not only were we going to listen to this enormous space, we were going to listen to its silences instead of its noises, those necessary temporal spatial beings that give sound its shape, location, setting, emotional potential, and unleash billions of relationships with where we are and how we locate ourselves in ways that have sprawling meanings.

We went to a spot on the shoreline of the island. I gave instructions to everyone to look at the vast distances we could see from our vantage point. The group were asked to think about all the silences that were there to make it possible for one to understand what it was we were seeing, hearing, and experiencing. There was a lighthouse on a small island we could see a few kilometres off the shore. I asked everyone to think about a firework being set off next to the lighthouse. We would quickly hear the sound, locating it without effort. We would instantly understand the distance, the silence that the lighthouse had been enveloped in just moments before, and all the silences around that remained in order for us to locate this one sound. The sound would occur for us both in the moment but also in the context of its very recent past and future silences. We always hear the silences when we hear sounds; we just don’t realise this and pay attention accordingly. And our perceptions of time are extremely elastic, too. Many of the workshop participants talked about stepping out of time, or at least time as they usually conceptualise and experience it.

We listened to the silences in the land and seascape during the day’s strong wind and sporadic spats of rain. The wind had an immense presence, like a throng of people pushing onto a crowded subway car. This was even more of a confrontation: we had only just completed an exercise that sensitised us to how we gather sounds, how they hit our bodies in many more places than just our ears, and the enormous range and layers of things we are able to perceive when we take the time to listen deeply. We were cautious of the intensity of the wind insinuating itself into our awareness; the strength of the wind turned our ears into an active part of the soundscape.

The wind alone is completely silent. Only when it crashes into and careens around things can one discern an audible trail. This was certainly the case as the wind grabbed the sea and threw it repeatedly at the rocky seashore.

We were on the shoreline of the island of Suomenlinna, an old military base and UNESCO World Heritage site that is part geological formation and part massive landfill. It is an odd place, filled with stables, barracks, cannons from multiple military epochs, museums, churches and harbours. Bunkers lined the shore facing the open Baltic Sea.

Screenshot 2016-04-21 at 12.18.41
We stumbled down one of those staircases often found in large outdoor parks where the angle of descent is awkward and the spaces between steps are not scaled for an adult human. The harsh sea weather had also had an undue influence on the staircase, turning it green in places, causing plant life to settle in others. The stairs descended from an old fortification wall down to the place where we would do our listening, to learn something from the sea.

Everyone was eager to do another listening session, to test their new found awareness at a different location, as the first one provided such strong and varied responses. We had all heard the same things, or so we thought, but the narratives of what we each had heard, what we thought it was, the emotional impact it had, prompted significantly different understandings. There were some agreements amongst the listeners about what they had heard or how the impact of a sound the loud voices of two drunk men shouting at each other, for example had registered on their senses, but what to make out of it afterwards and in conjunction with the entire experience was very different for each person. The same thing happened during this exercise.

We sat on rocky outcroppings close to the wall of sound that was by now pummelling all of us. The sun was teasing us, appearing and disappearing, the warming and cooling of our bodies adding impact to our listening exercise almost warming the very act of hearing for some, making others more receptive to what it was they were going through. We found our places on the rocks, some closer to the crashing waves than others, sitting, working ourselves into an intimate connection between our bodies and the hard surface, getting ready to listen.

We breathed deeply, filling our lungs fully and then emptying them utterly, relaxing our bodies until we felt all muscles release their tension and settle into the task. We were ready to pay careful attention. Because of the intensity of the wind and water, it took very little time to get lost in the phenomenal encounter. It was already difficult to talk as I gave instructions on getting into a relaxed state and the task of reflecting on the silences of the seascape. Upon closing my eyes, the vast spaces that had been there moments before rushed onto my body, ears, hands and my unprepared consciousness.

Several of the participants said afterwards that they had to turn away because of the intensity of the wind and sound. When we talked after listening for about thirty minutes, many of us had very similar understandings of what we had encountered.

We had all heard a very powerful story from the sea. This was very important to understand. Things tell us stories, not in the sense that a rock starts speaking English or Finnish or any other human language, but we construct narratives instantaneously out of what it is we observe and understand. No matter how romantic, detached, analytical, mystical or skeptical you might be, you have to construct a story of your experience. You translate the sounds of the wind and water hitting the rocks, which are impossible to fully capture in any spoken language. Water hitting rocks smoothed by thousands of years of pounding by the sea sounds different than any other thing you will ever experience. We register this and attempt to communicate it to others.

The sea has a story to tell. It is a story that it has been telling for thousands of years. It can tell it in many different ways. The same spot on a shoreline can tell this story in an infinite number of variations given what the wind is like, the direction it is blowing in, the air temperature, whether it is raining or not and so on. What we heard was the sound of many waves crashing against the smoothed rocks. We know from encountering rocks before that it is no easy task to shape and smooth them as the waves have done. It would be nearly impossible for us to recreate the same process just with our bodies and no tools, even if we did it for decades on end. We understand what a rock is in a physical way as much as we do in a conceptual manner, though we are taught to privilege the latter understanding over the former.

We had heard a powerful thing during this short listening session. The sea was talking to us. Part of the story it had to tell was that it had been telling this story for a time that we are not really used to registering, deep time, time that extends beyond many generations of human lifespans. The sea was telling us that its story has been uninterrupted for this long period. What you hear at first are the waves crashing on the rocks, and this is familiar to anyone who has been to the sea. When you pay attention closely, you start to hear the diversity of tones, patterns, flows of energy that overlap, sometimes complementing one another, sometimes not. They all combine to tell the story of the relationships of the sea to the rocks, making the sounds intimate and more available to us. The crashes of the waves on the rocks, the pulling back of the sea, that wonderful crackling noise it makes, were happening all around us in multiple variations.

Because we had been sensitised by listening carefully, we could hold them all in our heads and understand them together. We heard the multiple patterns that synchronise and at times produce pleasing or jarring dissonance. Many of us felt that we were sitting on the edge of a crushing abyss. The way in which we were listening pulled the soundscape right on top of us. It comes incredibly close and when you open your eyes you are shocked by the visual distance of the sound’s source. The sound is always mediated and situated by seeing. Taking sight out of the experience allows us to pull the sound as near as it always is and to give it our close attention.

Sara Hannula, one of the participants in this exercise, had this to say about her experience:

If I think of specific moments that have stayed with me, a few things come to the fore. One of them is the Deep Listening exercise we did by the sea, and the responses that it evoked in our group. I was very impressed by the fact that so many of us were overwhelmed by the sea and the wind when exposed to them without any protection. I wonder whether it has to do with the fact that we are hardly ever asked to surrender and open ourselves to the raw elements, or things that are beyond our understanding and control. It is quite possible to go through life without having to do it by necessity, if one happens to live in the Western world. However, I think this process of exposing oneself to the immense forces that reshape our world is key now that the situation is getting more and more out of control and the conditions are increasingly unpredictable. We can no longer resist change or pretend to manage it with the tools that we have access to. We are no longer sheltered.

I was moved by how intensely the sea and the rocks seemed to be insisting on the story of their relationship. We have all heard waves hitting rocks many times before, but have not been given the training to sit down and focus in this way under these kinds of conditions. It is not a regular thing that we are encouraged to do: to try and receive all that a soundscape has to offer. Yet there is much to learn from behaving in this way. We have to be willing to slow down and give our care, openness and attentiveness. We can get a glimpse of other, geologic time scales, translated to our own short fragile ones.

There is no need to escape to an idealised ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ setting to understand the ways in which our petroleum-driven industrialised civilisation drastically limits who we are, what we experience and the vast unknowns that lurk in our embodied absorption of the world around us. These kinds of gatherings and collective work however enable us to immerse ourselves in a Deep Map of relationships within a place a layering of narratives and understandings that demonstrate our abilities to hold multiple, often contradictory perspectives. These expansive capacities can be used anywhere, in cities and remote rural locations. They can reveal the lost worlds of ‘Deep Grandmothers’ (ancestral time) and the storytelling that is encoded in our DNA. Once activated, they can help us shift away from cultures of violent extraction and abstraction and instead build up cultures of care in the face of climate breakdown and the ensuing chaos it might bring in the coming time.

Screenshot 2016-04-21 at 12.24.31

(1) The workshop was coordinated with the exhibition Dissolving Frontiers, one of many exhibitions, incubators, projects and gatherings that are part of ‘Frontiers in Retreat’, an ambitious five-year initiative that partners seven artist residency spaces ‘on the frontiers of Europe’ with over 20 artists working at the intersections of art, ecology and climate change.

Brett Bloom is an artist, writer and organiser from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a member of the art group Temporary Services. Ecological and social justice issues feature in much of Bloom’s work, including his recent book Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self (Breakdown Break Down Press 2015). Bloom has organised intensive workshops and camps where people come together to practice and inhabit post-oil subjectivities in preparation for climate breakdown and collapse.

A version of this essay appeared in the book Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing our Sense of Self (2015) available here for free download

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues

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We Are All In This Together

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today, we present four poems from Kim Goldberg and Jane Lovell.

Kate Williamson - Soft Rain

Kate Williamson – Soft Rain

Kim Goldberg has been contributing magical, otherworldly writing to Dark Mountain for some time now, and her work never fails to surprise and beguile. Here are two of Kim’s haibun interwoven with two of Jane Lovell‘s powerful poems about dislocation and extinction. Issue 9 is the first Dark Mountain book to feature Jane’s work, and we very much hope to read more of her poetry in the future.

Fugitive in the Date Palm

Jane Lovell

It is hard to ignore the red-billed toucan.
Solomon says his bill is chipped like an old teacup
but we see the translucence of the deglet noor,

its caramelised sunlight.

After the stripping of thorn and billowing
of pollen across the plantation,
he blew in on a salt wind through the canyons,

beak bright as paintpots,

took shelter in the branches,
peeped at us with his blue eye from the canopy
while donkeys grazed determinedly below

oblivious to his dipping and tilting.

Solomon says he’s an escapee from a sultan’s
menagerie; we feed him pomegranate, mango,
leaving them in quiet acts of worship

at the foot of his favourite palm.

We know he is lonely, thousands of miles
of desert and ocean from home.
We call to him while we hang on ladders

wrapping the khlal in muslin.

Evenings, he hops about chuntering
at shadows, then curls into a feathered ball
secured by his great beak,

to sleep.

We think he dreams deep jungle:
Costa Rican mists, the whirring of moths
and pop of frogs, another red-billed toucan

hidden, waiting, in the forest gloom.

Solomon says one day, maybe he’ll set off
like a beacon, winging over Egypt, Libya,
Nigeria, the South Atlantic.

He prays for the fruits to ripen,

sweet rutab to delay his leaving,
checks on him each morning, peering
up into the leaves, his crippled toes sinking

in the warm sand.

* * *

Opening Act

Kim Goldberg

We are sitting in a darkened theatre waiting for the play to begin. It is a full house. The entire run is sold out. The squeak of a pulley tells us the curtain has opened. But we do not see this because there are no stage lights, just blackness. Is the lighting operator asleep? Drunk? Murdered? Run off with the cashier? We hear movement, actors pacing, props being shoved around. Something falls, breaks. A vase maybe? A skull? No words are spoken, just the occasional grunt. We assume it is human but cannot be sure. This must all be part of the script, this darkness, this enigma, some avant-garde theatre experiment. We are game. We roll with it. To flee to the well-lit lobby for safety would be an act of cultural illiteracy. Patrons begin to murmur to their partners. I reach out to touch your arm but there is only sand. A gull cries. I smell brine.

sometimes a whisper
is just the sea destroying

itself on the beach

* * *


Jane Lovell

They keep coming.
He wields his stick.
There is the great sea, the blue air,
this endless tide of tweedling curiosities
hovering to land.
He is king, his whip of scalesia dislocating
vertebrae, unhinging the graceful heads.
Like angels they fall, hit the rocks, unfold

into stillness.

Around this child, this god, stretch the hulks
of wolves, black-eyed leopards sent by witches
through the vast pitch skies of Zanzibar,
a mound of seals, fur stiff as parchment
cracking in the heat, a floating mink that nobody
has registered, a fleet of sightless sea cows
filmed with salt, the final pair of twisted auks,

their fledgling curling in its oils.

Earth exhales and turns upon her shoulder
casting languid shadows through her forests,
her swelling oceans.
Under a Vertical sun, boy becomes bone,
the bones of doves and finches, sand.
Stuffed skins in glass cabinets line halls
that echo with our footsteps.
We are all in this together.

No one is watching.

* * *

Basket Weaver

Kim Goldberg

When ten per cent of the population could no longer walk, the old woman wove a large basket from willow branches that were still alive and growing. The basket was covered with narrow green leaves from the living branches. The leaves danced and shimmied in the wind. They flashed in the sun like a bright ball of herring spawning their puny brains out in the tossing surf. The leaves were swooning and copulating like only chlorophyll can – beyond the strictures of blood and bone and moist openings. The basket was the old woman’s gift to the town. She told the stricken people to enter one by one, crawling to it on their elbows and bellies since their legs no longer worked. No matter how many people entered, the basket never got full. This went on for quite some while until all the belly-crawlers were inside and the basket had been closed up tight. The people who entered were never seen again, but each night fireflies would sift out through the slits between the willow branches and light up the town.

to give birth to
new shapes, we must break

some covalent bonds

* * *

Kim Goldberg is a poet, birdwatcher and speculative fiction writer, living on Vancouver Island in Canada. She has published six books of poetry and nonfiction including Red Zone (poems of homelessness) and Ride Backwards on Dragon (martial arts and Taoist alchemy). In August 2015, Kim and four other women organised what may be North America’s first Uncivilisation Gathering, Sharing the Fire, held on an organic farm on Vancouver Island.

Jane Lovell is the Poetry Society Stanza Rep for Warwickshire. She has had work published in a variety of journals including Mslexia, Poetry Wales, Envoi, the North and New Welsh Review and is a regular contributor to Ink, Sweat and Tears and Agenda. Her work is steeped in natural history, science, folklore, the ‘black’ and the bizarre but is, essentially, poetry that reflects man’s relationship with nature. Jane has recently won the Flambard Prize.


Image: Soft Rain (acrylic on canvas) by Kate Williamson. Soft Rain was inspired by the more gentle power of nature, painted intuitively to capture the energy and fleeting spontaneity of the sky and reflective pools. I live next to a large tidal bay and at each low tide the shape and size of the pools left behind are constantly changing. This painting is part of my ‘Emotional Landscapes’ series which aims to express an internal dialogue that speaks to the viewer through intuitively layered paint, and to capture human reaction past the ocular experience.

Kate Williamson is a contemporary New Zealand artist who lives on the Otago Peninsula. Renowned for her large and striking artworks, Kate uses paint to express her concerns about the enormity of climate change, and the concern she has for this gift of paradise we are part of. Her work is described as spontaneous action painting and is collected nationally and internationally.

You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.

Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues

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A Distant Tower

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today, we present a short story by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick.

Prophet of the Ditch. photograph by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick

Photograph by Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick

The following is related by Dr. Falke, co-founder of the Truppe Fledermaus: ‘Some years ago I was travelling with Herr Orlofsky to Dartmoor on one of our innumerable tours of the provinces – on this occasion we had selected the rocky tors of the region as a backdrop to rehearse with the ghost bat costume. I had recently completed this outfit with help from my assistant and was quite proud of the result. I was looking out of the train window at the sun setting over the water meadows, listening to Orlofsky monologue on the possible use of impossible architecture as a stage set, when suddenly he became quite animated and started pointing out of the window: ‘Look my good man, that’s exactly what I mean!’ Rousing myself from my stupor, I followed his gaze and saw a distant tower rising from the dreary landscape, silhouetted against the still brightened sky. It appeared to be possibly covered in vines and had odd asymmetric protrusions on one side. I ventured that it might be the chimney stack of an old wheelhouse while Orlofsky was of the opinion that it was of military origin, probably built during the last war. Orlofsky, falling prey to one of his wild enthusiasms, insisted we leave the train to investigate further. Although my curiosity was admittedly piqued, I had little desire to pass the night in the tent with Orlofsky without even the smallest snifter of champagne to leaven the experience. Fortunately the region seemed thoroughly unpopulated, rendering it unlikely that a station would appear. I agreed that we would go in search of the tower should the train make a stop. To my profound irritation, no sooner had the words left my mouth than the train began to slow down.

The station (if I might dignify it so) was no more than a raised promontory of roughly cobbled wood. There was not so much as a shack associated with it, nor in fact any sign of human habitation in any direction. We picked up our duffels, loaded down as we were with props and recording equipment, and started off in the general direction of the tower. Before long, the country lane we were following devolved into a rough track and then a muddy path. The landscape was entirely flat, a maze of flooded fields, primitive canals and ditches, and impenetrable willow boundaries – here and there, crude leats and wooden spill doors had been constructed in an attempt to control the ever-present flooding, but with no apparent success. I could smell the sea very faintly, and surmised that this region was probably below sea level. Try as we might, we found it impossible to make any headway towards the tower, our way being continually blocked by impenetrable thickets and water of uncertain depth. Orlofsky was of the opinion that we should just wade directly towards it, but I vetoed this idea – the risk of becoming stuck in the bog in the fading light seemed to me a foolhardy venture at best. The tower itself continually changed its appearance as we circumnavigated it. From some angles it appeared little more than an oppressive block, while from others the aforementioned protrusions gave it a jaunty, almost sinister air. For the life of me I could not imagine what the purpose of such a structure could possibly be. We were on the verge on abandoning the whole venture when we heard a motor in the distance.

Orlofsky was attempting to carry out a conversation with a local man on a tractor, but was struggling with the dialect. For my own part, I found the entirety incomprehensible, and the man himself a bit frightening. He was continually raising and waving his stick in a manner that suggested we were trespassing. Eventually he drove off and Orlofsky walked back over to me declaring that the farmer had disclosed to him the location of a bridge by which we might access the tower, which, apparently, was on an island. I must have looked dubious, because Orlofsky strode away in irritation back towards one of the canals blocking us from the tower. I hastily followed on, concerned that my companion’s stubborn nature might lead us into a rash, ill-advised situation. I caught up with him on the bank of the canal and tried to forcefully suggest that we head back to the station, a move I knew to be a tactical error as soon as the words left my mouth. Before I could stop him, Orlofsky had scrambled down the bank and was wading into the canal, mumbling that it ‘didn’t look that deep’. Almost instantly he lost his footing on the slippery bottom and upset the bag of props that he was carrying into the water. To his credit, he managed to quickly grab the bag before the canal bore it away, but not before the ghost bat costume had spilled out into the current. An involuntary moan passed my lips. While Orlofsky struggled to climb out with the sopping bag, I ran after the ghost bat all the while looking around for a stick to fish it out with. To my horror, I realised that the canal ended in a thicket where it flowed into an underground culvert – for fear of being sucked in myself, all I could do was watch as the costume, now fully puffed up by the current, its wings unfurled, described a graceful arc to the mouth of the tunnel. Orlofsky had caught up with me now; astutely reaching into my equipment bag, he photographed the bat just before it disappeared. ‘Don’t worry old chap, we’ll retrieve it on the other side,’ he said, attempting to cheer me up. And with that the bat suit was gone.

Of course it didn’t appear on the other side, if one even existed. An entirely fruitless hour was spent in the half-light attempting to ascertain where the canal emerged from the culvert; rather, the ground beyond the thicket was quite dry and eventually gave way to raised causeway amid familiar tangle of drowned meadows crisscrossed with yet more leats and ditches. This we eventually followed back to the station. The tower was now nowhere to be seen, but in any case, I had ceased to care. Orlofsky, as is typical of him, screamed abuse at me when I dared to express my frustration that his ill-considered actions had led us to an entirely preventable fiasco. This then gave way to terse apologies peppered with feeble excuses, and finally to unbridled glee at what he deemed to be the ‘beautiful absurdity of the whole performance, far better than any we might have achieved at Dartmoor.’ Entirely exhausted by his peregrinations, I left him to his reveries, and nibbled on some soggy chocolate retrieved from the bottom of the prop bag as I lay on the platform waiting for the train. Above me, dark shapes swooped through the night air, undoubtedly the local fledermausen conducting their nocturnal feast of marsh insects, little knowing that their poor white queen lies lost forever in the underworld.

Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick are a collaborative artist team who work primarily in the fields of photography and installation art, specialising in fictitious histories set in the past or future. Kahn & Selesnick have participated in exhibitions worldwide and have work in over 20 collections, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution. In addition, they have published three books with Aperture Press, Scotlandfuturebog, City of Salt and Apollo Prophecies.

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Dark Mountain: Issue 9

Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or for less if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Today we get you started with the editorial…

PLATES B 2 RebeccaClark_FamilyTree

The Humbling

Humbleness is the most unfashionable of virtues. We are continually exhorted by late-capitalist civilisation to ‘be proud’, to ‘stand tall’, to ‘believe in ourselves’. It is held as axiomatic that the self is the centre of our being; that the human is the zenith of evolution; that the increase of human agency and dominion, and the search for meaning and purpose in our own individual selves, are the central tasks of existence.

Little wonder, then, that the idea that we might not have the starring role in the show of life fills most contemporary minds with fear, horror or disgust. To suggest that our power and control over the world and its other inhabitants might be subject to reversal, or that our dreams of industrial ascendency over the living biosphere might prove to be nothing more than a narcissistic fantasy, is to invite the kind of allegations of doomerism, Luddism and misanthropy to which those involved in the Dark Mountain Project have become accustomed over the past seven years.

Outside the small spotlight of Western industrial society, these ideas do not necessarily hold. Nor, indeed, was it always this way in the West: the Greeks thought that an excess of hybris would attract the wrath of the gods, and that the inevitable fall would follow; mediaeval Christianity placed great weight on the cultivation of humility and the avoidance of pride – for most of European history, the idea that a good citizen would make the promotion of their own achievements and interests their highest goal would have been unthinkable.

The co-founder of Dark Mountain, Paul Kingsnorth – whose story, ‘Ice’, explores one man’s attempt to escape the tyranny of selfhood amidst the melting glaciers of Greenland – wrote in the call for submissions for this book: ‘Humanity is going to be humbled one way or the other, so we may as well begin the process ourselves.’ An honest consideration of the accelerating effects of climate change, mass extinction and societal dysfunction makes it difficult to disagree with this.

Even (perhaps especially) for those who have awoken to the urgency of these problems, humbleness can be an elusive trait. It is too easy to think of ourselves as warriors in the great battle against Empire, or sybils wringing our hands in despair – and to end broken and bitter, having changed very little in the world; having ignored the smaller things worthy of our care in preference for the Grand Narrative of Human Struggle.

Humbleness comes from the Latin humus, meaning ‘earth’; so to be humble means to lay oneself low, but also to be grounded, to return to the solid and material. The surrender, voluntarily or otherwise, of our empires of self can also be seen as a re-connection with reality, a re-communion with the Earth.

In their own ways, the art works, poems, stories and essays in this volume demonstrate the value of humbleness. Pieces like Brendan Byrne’s story ‘A Stone and a Cloud’ or Robert Leaver’s performance art ‘Hole Earth’ reveal the ache of desire that underlies our alienation from nature, while poems like ‘Eroding’ or ‘The Heart’ explore the melancholy consolations of losing yourself in the breadth of time and world.

Humbleness also allows us to be receptive to other voices. It might be as subtle as realising that we can pass over the global news bulletins to bear witness to more immediate worlds, as Em Strang recounts in ‘Over Yonder Horror’; as mysterious as the early radio engineer described in Samantha Clark’s essay ‘Ether’, who heard the sound of the Earth’s magnetosphere in the silences between spoken words; or as simple as the listening practice described in ‘Learning Carefully from the Sea, its Vast Silences and Ancient Stories’.

While the works in this volume look unflinchingly at the dark truths of our time, together they form ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’; a hearteningly disparate miscellaneum of objects found at the shoreline, each shining with its own unique patterning. In the intricate hand-cut architecture of Rogan Brown’s paperwork ‘time fossils’, or the artfully structured sound-play of Bridget Khursheed’s ‘Mustelid Research’, we see humbleness put to work in crafting quiet works of organic wonder.

At a time when so many are displaced from their familiar surroundings, this may take the form of a journey: a quest for healing in the forests of Dumfries and Galloway, or walking to the Climate Conference in Paris in a muddy suit, making a flotilla of paper boats out of discarded materials along the way. For others, it may result in the rediscovery of community and a sense of belonging, as long-time contributor Akshay Ahuja’s story ‘The Cleanliness Committee’ shows with wry humour, or as Jane Lovell realises in ‘Galapagos’: ‘We are all in this together’.

Whether recognising that we are not clearly distinguishable from our bacterial symbionts, identifying the ubiquity of the myth of human supremacy, or simply admitting that we have been outsmarted by crows, this humbling – the realisation that the human self is not the inviolable sovereign we have been taught to take it for – can be a disorienting process. But it can also be a liberating one. A strange thing happens when we finally submit ourselves to this unfashionable state. With humbling comes a simplicity, a singleness of vision and a return to a more honest appraisal of what it means to be human. As the grand narratives of recrimination and despair dissolve, the universe appears afresh as a collection of wonders – bewildering objects, transforming passions and moments of transcendent awe.

Like the word ‘humble’, ‘human’ also comes from the root ‘humus’to be human is to be an earthling, literally. It may yet be that, despite our inflated sense of our place in time and space, despite our trail of arrogant destruction, there is still a thread of humbleness that runs at the core of what it means to belong to this strange specieswhich is, as Anne Tagonist reminds us, ‘the only species we have the option of being’.

Cover image: ‘A Family Tree’ by Rebecca Clark. ‘I make drawings of the natural world, transient moments of grace and beauty in an age of disappear­ance. Inspired by plant and animal studies of the Northern Renaissance, Netherlandish devotional panel paintings, and nature mysticism as expressed through various forms of art, music, poetry and prose, my art acknowledges interconnectedness in nature and our loss of connection with the sacred. I often use circular forms, such as dandelions, spider webs and bird nests, as symbols of cosmic mandalas echoing cycles of life. In Family Tree, the rings suggest a nimbus rendering sacred all life of the wood. The wild animals in silhouette across the outer ring of bark are ‘all our relations,’ or mitakuye oyasin, to borrow from the Lakota prayer for oneness and harmony with all living creatures.

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Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues

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Where is Pyotr Zhukov?


The urkas are the strongest men in the camp. If they want your ration they take it. If you protest, they answer with violence. They do as they please.

Today a guard asks, ‘Where is Pyotr Zhukov?’

There is no answer.

The guard asks again, ‘Where is Pyotr Zhukov?’

But we all know Zhukov is dead. He died of cold in the night.

‘Where is Pyotr Zhukov?’

‘I am Pyotr Zhukov’, says the urka known as Vanya.

No-one dares look. Zhukov is dead. He died of cold in the night. Everyone knows.

‘I am Pyotr Zhukov,’ says the urka known as Vanya.

To lie to the guards is death, even for an urka. Vanya knows this.

‘Born when?’ says the guard.

‘1889. In Vologda.’ Vanya says.

It is a guess, he does not know when Zhukov was born. But he knows too that the guard does not know. The guard has no records, only crimes and terms and numbers. It was a cheap test and the guard has no way of knowing that Vanya has failed.

‘Report to hut three immediately,’ says the guard.

Vanya goes with a smile on his face and there he is processed. And this is what follows.

Pyotr Zhukov’s term was eighteen months. The murderer’s is the full quarter. An eighteen on a dead man is a waste, Vanya thinks. The dead man can take my quarter, he thinks. Zhukov’s term is finished, so Vanya walks free. Vanya, who now is Zhukov.

‘You are Pyotr Zhukov?’

‘I am.’

‘Your term was eighteen months?’

‘It was.’

‘They say you are a fine musician.’

‘I am Pyotr Zhukov.’

And so he is Zhukov, a fine musician. At least for a while. Because in such a system inconsistencies arrive. Before long he discovers who it was to declare him a fine musician: Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili. Joseph Stalin, no less. Stalin, who heard from some-knows-where that Zhukov was the finest west of the Urals. And so Vanya, who now is Zhukov, is released to serve the Soviet in song. To serve Russia, and to play before the leader himself.

He is transported from Solovki to Moscow to resume his career as a violinist. Requisitioned by the leadership. Vanya, the liar. Vanya the murderer. Vanya, who doesn’t play a note.

On opening night, Vanya dresses in elegant black and goes to the stage and waits in the wing. Comrades! Welcome the dear leader’s most favoured violinist – the finest west of the Urals – Pyotr Zhukov! Vanya enters and, standing on stage, is commanded to play. Caught and dressed in a black tie. Standing on stage and commanded to play. And does not know a note. Zhukov had eighteen months. Vanya the full quarter. Now he would trade each of those twenty-five years back again. But Stalin is here and Vanya knows: on Stalin’s stage, there can be no trade.

And so.


The bow.

Vanya, who now is Zhukov, begins to play.

At first he is quiet – it is the first violin he has ever touched. He pulls a delicate bow to make nothing more than silence. He whispers nothing to the bow, and it whispers nothing back. The crowd lean forward in their seats, trying to make out a soundless note. Minutes pass.

But in Vanya the urka, silence cannot last long. He is a man of hate and others’ pain, not of silence. He is a man of murder and screams, and soon the loathing of the camp is upon him. He will show these Soviet fools, he says. He will show them what their system has become, he says. He will show them their camps, their gulags, their lagerya. He will show them Solovki.

And so, he begins to slice and stab with the bow. He cuts at the violin as if it were a weak inmate protecting a ration. He scratches and rips until the violin screams into the stalls. He tortures the violin not into notes but into shrieks and fury. Minutes pass, but in the horror he keeps playing. The murderer urka. Standing on stage. Dressed in black. Because he answered to a name.

By now his face is purple as if he tortures not the violin but himself. All laws of endurance say that he must reach some end. But he keeps on. In the horror. Scratches and rips and screams, he tears the violin with a dying bow. The violin that is now a weak inmate of the camps with a ration. A ration for an urka to steal. The urka Vanya, who never played a note.

On, he plays. On. And on. Until, at last, he is lost in the violin’s screams; lost in the hate and cold; lost in the gulag and the cold horror. Lost in the hate and the horror and the murders of Solovki. But, somehow, somewhere in the lost horror and the murder, the screams become a terrible music. The notes tear at the air and the ears. The violin screams and strains and cries out with all the filth and murder and rape of Solovki. A sound more terrible than the darkest thought. And in that moment Vanya believes he is Pyotr Zhukov. And the music is his tortured hell.

But even on Solovki, horror cannot last longer than the body it tortures. And eventually, when the violin screams its highest suffering, Vanya, who now is Zhukov, reaches some end. He drops the tortured violin. He drops the broken bow. He stands and sweats and grimaces into the crowd. He is coming for their ration next, his eyes say.

Faced with the horror, what can the audience do? After all, they were told this man was favoured by Stalin. And Stalin is here in attendance. And Stalin is never wrong. So what can the audience do? No applause for Zhukov is no applause for Stalin.

And so they applaud. They weep and stand and applaud. And the murderer hears the applause as though it were for a true Pyotr Zhukov. And no one in the audience dares stop. Vanya the urka stands and endures the applause. It is hours they clap and weep. It is days. Out into the salons, out into the journals, out onto the front pages of the newspapers: a triumph of beauty is declared and the triumph is Stalin’s who recognised Zhukov as the finest west of the Urals. A new Soviet music is born and all are blessed that hear it.

The murderer is declared a master of the new music and is unleashed with all his horror upon Russia. Everywhere he goes he is received as a genius. And when audiences hear his horror they respond with hysteria. He rips and he screams and he tears with the bow. He plays the horror that is a bow torn on a violin by a murderer of the camps. The murderer who answered only a name.

Yet all report that they hear beauty. And still in the salons, and still in the journals, and still on the pages of the newspapers, a triumph of beauty is declared. And before long, all hear beauty. But it is horror. Until even beauty is consumed by the lie. Like a snowflake on a wet palm: to hold it is to undo it. In the end they take nothing and their hands return wet.

But in the camp, our forgotten hands are frozen. 30,000 snowflakes: we can hold them. That is the beauty you left us, Pyotr Zhukov. The fall of a snowflake, onto a broken, frozen hand. Humanity’s pain at the horror. You are a broken hand to keep us true, Pyotr Zhukov. Here. A final beauty.

Image by Gunnar Ofeigsson

Robin Jones has been published in a number of journals and news outlets, including The Huffington Post, Jacobin and The Edinburgh Review. He lives in Paris, where he works as an English teacher.

Gunnar Ofeigsson is a designer based in Glasgow.

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Of Pond Brains and Humanity 2.0 Part II: Whirlpools

Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He has co-edited that last two Dark Mountain books, and is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House).

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Paranoid Android


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, ‘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.


Matt Miles is a poet, writer, permaculturist, maker, rock climber and ambivalent web developer. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he and Tasha Greer run the reLuxe Ranch, a whole systems farmstead. They sometimes blog about it and other things at

Photographs by Timothy Miles

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