Landscapes of Loss

A Conversation Between Alastair Bonnett and Tom Smith

What do yearning and nostalgia mean in an age of ecological crisis? To bring you a taste of the newly published Dark Mountain: Issue 13, today we bring you a conversation between editor Tom Smith and geographer Alastair Bonnett, accompanied by artwork from Darrell Koerner.

 

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 is an editor for Dark Mountain books.

‘Nostalgia stalks modernity as an unwelcome double’
– Peter Fritzsche 

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Grief, loss, yearning and nostalgia: these are not fashionable topics. Rather, they are uncomfortable and personal themes, characterised by bewilderment, darkness and emotion. While quickening ecological devastation and endemic social pathologies increasingly necessitate the space to reflect on them, civilised culture begs to differ. Derived from the Greek nostos (home) and algos (pain), one contemporary novelist has written that nostalgia is ‘a useless, futile thing because it is a longing for something that is permanently lost.’ Nothing shall be yearned for in the imagination of the moderns; indeed, through our inimitable ingenuity, nothing of importance will be lost. Perhaps immortality awaits us, through cryogenics, or a life of silicon-based omniscience when the Singularity finally occurs. Perhaps we will bring extinct species back through cloning, and release them into places with names like ‘Pleistocene Park’. Either way, yearning for what has been lost is seen as an aberration, a deviation, or even, in the early days of modernity, as a medical illness.

Alastair Bonnett, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, thinks that the denial of these themes is a mistake, particularly in an age of ecocide. He has written at length about nostalgia’s geo-psychological roots in the ‘disorientation and bewilderment that can be brought on by loss of home, community and landscape.’ ‘Acknowledging nostalgia’, he writes in the introduction to his most recent book on the topic, ‘pushes us into choppier and less comfortable waters. Ironically, in coming to grips with this seemingly backward-facing topic, old-fashioned political maps have to be abandoned, or at least redrawn.’

Dark Mountain has also, in the past, provided space for the redrawing of maps, and to reflect on loss and yearning – from personal written reflections on place and change, for example, to the building of a Life Cairn at the 2013 Uncivilisation festival, creating a lasting memorial to the growing hordes of beings lost from the web of life. I therefore wanted to speak with Alastair about his work, to gain more understanding of a topic with apparently renewed relevance, not just amidst ecological collapse at various scales, but also given recent political developments across the globe.

TS: The themes of loss and yearning in the context of ecocide and environmental crisis; I have a feeling this is as much personal as intellectual for you, so perhaps you could tell me a little about how an interest in these themes arose?

AB: Well, as a young man growing up in the outskirts of London in the late seventies and eighties, I was very drawn to the anarchist movement and, in particular, to the Situationists1. I found the Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord a revelation; this idea that we’re living in a society controlled and mediated by images in which nothing was real or authentic had an immediate appeal to me, and seemed to touch a nerve in a lot of young activists at the time.

However, it was already apparent to me that there was a quality to anarchist and Situationist thought that was rarely acknowledged, and that was its sense of loss and yearning. Rarely acknowledged, and yet it’s so obvious when you read Guy Debord and so many other radical thinkers that their ideas are rooted in a sense of disgust with human alienation and riddled with nostalgia. A sense of loss is a powerful theme in such work, but no-one in the ultra-left scene in London wanted to talk about it. In fact, loss and yearning were taboo. Radicalism was all about being forward-looking, of regarding anything backward-looking as conservative and associated with the old, who we wanted little to do with. So there’s a paradox here. Crucial threads of radicalism were clearly inspired by loss and yearning, but they were being buried and denied. So it made me wonder, what would it be like if we acknowledged these things?

I sat on those ideas for a long time because I couldn’t find a way into writing about them, or even talking about them. But this is an issue that just won’t go away. Modernity introduces all these incredible ruptures with the past, and it’s inevitable that modern people have a sense of grief and loss and, hence, are fascinated with the idea of alienation. This yearning can go in lots of different directions – it can produce Nazism, it can produce fascism, it can produce all sorts of things; it’s hydra-headed and politically mutable.

TS: Well, it seems you did end up finding a way to acknowledge it, and talk about it. Where did that lead?

AB: So, the first thing I did, some two decades after I’d begun thinking about it, was write a book called Left In The Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, which is a history of the power of nostalgia in socialist and anti-colonial movements. I was interested in going back to the early socialists, such as William Morris, Thomas Spence and others, and looking at how their relationship to place and nature and their sense of loss at the coming of capitalism motivated their activism. And then I tried to take this analysis forward to later radicals. However, one thing I didn’t engage with is environmentalism, because the questions around that were just too big for the book. That came later.

TS: Before returning to green thought and green politics, let’s go back for a minute to those early socialists. I don’t want us to get lost down the warren of leftist sectarianism, but there’s obviously a large gap between your reading of Marx and the views put forward by what we might call ‘orthodox Marxists’. Putting it mildly, the latter are famed for their forward-looking, technologically ‘Promethean’ views. From what I’ve gathered, you’re not just drawing from William Morris and those other early socialists who valorised human-scale production, but also saying that this theme of yearning and loss runs to the very heart of Marx’s work, whether he acknowledged it or not?  

AB: I think it’s really interesting, that tension between Marx and his romantic followers, of which there were many in Europe, not just in England. Certainly, William Morris – who didn’t really understand or read a lot of Marx but was attracted to his revolutionary message – thought of class struggle as a process in which the working class would reclaim their craft traditions and humanity. Marx himself imagined that he was escaping from this kind of romanticism. Yet he too was a kind of nostalgic because he set up pre-capitalist, ‘primitive communism’ – societies without money – as societies without alienation. He had a clear sense of authenticity and human wholeness as something that capitalism cut us away from. Marxism, then, as I read it, is taking us into the past through revolution. I don’t think this is a problem; it’s what radicals have done time and again. The problem comes when we don’t acknowledge our debt to the past; when we construct ourselves as purely ‘future-facing’ and pit ourselves against the past, trying to refuse and deny the taint of nostalgia.

TS: So, let’s segue into looking at the importance of these themes – of the past, of loss, of nostalgia and yearning – in the context of what we might call ‘green thought’…

AB: Let me just briefly turn back to my childhood. I was born in 1964 on the outskirts of London, in Essex, at the end of the Central Line, and every day, every week, I would see the natural landscape being destroyed around me; with new motorways poured across the fields. It was very obvious, and upsetting, to see what little nature that was left being so disregarded. When I used to mention this experience at academic conferences, I’d get a sort of rebuke: ‘You’re dealing with myths and fictions: pure nature never existed. Nothing real has actually changed.’ There is also an undertow that suggests that such issues only matter to the white middle class. These are common reactions but I find them incredible: the refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming, world-changing reality of environmental loss amazes me; it’s more than an intellectual avoidance strategy, it’s a kind of blinkered narcissism.

It’s the experience of environmental loss which I’m particularly interested in, more so than the statistics gathered by scientists. There seems to be a refusal, a kind of mass denial, of what people see out of their windows. You don’t have to be very old to have experienced environmental loss and it’s not just in one particular part of the world: you can talk to people anywhere – in Latin America, in Europe, in Asia – and they will tell you. People have different stories about it, but it is disconcerting how many intellectuals – especially radical intellectuals – have managed to avoid the evidence of their own eyes and, at best, frame the environment as just another ‘issue’, at worst, as a romantic myth.

TS: And this is what really grabbed my attention when I was reading your book, The Geographies of Nostalgia: Global and Local Perspectives on Modernity and Loss. You seemed to be treading a really unusual line in contemporary green thought, between extremes of holding ‘nature’ up as something solid outside of us, and which we can calculate and know and control, on the one hand, and thinking that everything is in flux all the time anyway, that nature never existed, and therefore any notions of loss are based on some sort of childish illusion or misunderstanding.

AB: The argument that there is no such thing as nature, that it is a myth or mere social construct, is a coping strategy. It is one of the perverse intellectual side-effects of ecocide. It is, though, an incredibly popular line to take in the social sciences and a lot of so-called ‘critical’ environmentalism. It is now pretty much the hegemonic wisdom in certain quarters. Introductory books given to students on environmental thought will commence by claiming that nature is a ‘social construct’. So even though environmentalism is, in many ways, growing in the outside world, it is being hollowed out in the universities, the very places where it should be being elaborated and enriched.

TS: These narratives matter.

AB: They do matter, because those self-styled ‘critical’ intellectuals are failing to lead on the environmental debate; indeed, they are undermining it. My argument here is not, I hope, a naïve one – it’s not actually saying ‘there is this objective nature out there and I know what it is’ – but it is pointing to the reality and importance of our experience of nature; that visceral, vulnerable and, in many ways, humbling experience. The attempts to set up ‘nature as a human artefact’ are the very opposite – they are the anthropocentric conceits of a species which sees itself as the lord and master of the universe. This notion that nature is our creation is wilfully arrogant and it has consequences: it means that getting rid of nature, destroying it, doesn’t really matter. It also means that we’re learning less and less from those non-Western cultures which have had a more holistic sense of the interplay of human and non-human life. As all this implies, far from being ‘radical’ or ‘critical’, I see these kinds of argument as the spin and propaganda of industrial modernity.

TS: Let’s explore this notion of holism and the past a little more. In your book, you take the example of recent work by George Monbiot on rewilding, and see it as somewhat parallel to your own arguments about the need to own up to ecological loss. Given that Dark Mountain partly came to public attention early on in a series of public debates with George, it would be interesting to hear more about the elements of his thought you find provocative.

AB: I was particularly drawn to George Monbiot’s book Feral, as you say, and his work around rewilding. That book engaged a lot of people, but I knew it would be ignored in academic circles because it just sends up so many red flags. ‘Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding’! All these terms smack of loss and yearning and nostalgia; all ideas that remain intellectually indigestible to a lot of people. But, actually, Feral is an important engagement with the problem of loss. Monbiot understands the plausibility and the allure of the notion that nature is a construct but wants to push beyond it. He gets that green nostalgia is a site of dilemma, provocation and creativity, and that we all live with this terrible, difficult paradox: of wanting change, of wanting progress, but also having a real, dramatic and anguished sense of loss and yearning in relationship to the natural world.

TS: Another figure you draw from in the same passage of the book, and which also surprised me a little, is William Cronon. He’s most famous for his essay ‘The Trouble With Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature’, often seen as the quintessential text to argue that nature – or wilderness specifically in this case – is a mere construction or artefact of language. But that’s an unfair reflection on him?

AB: Yes, that’s right. I was interested in Cronon because he’s very much seen as someone who talks about the myth of wilderness and the trouble with the idea of wilderness, and he’s placed alongside the constructionists. But actually, when you hear him talking about his experience of the landscape – such as in his essay ‘The Riddle of the Apostle Islands’, which appeared in the environmentalist journal Orion – when he gets personal, then his tone changes. He becomes more open to that sense of concern and worry and vulnerability. That made him more approachable to me. We are, I hope, moving into such a post-constructionist phase in green thinking and writing. A new mood is abroad and it is allowing a richer, more felt, vocabulary that has a more complex relationship to themes of loss.

TS: Which is surely a factor in the relevance of the ideas surrounding Dark Mountain over the past decade. Though, it must be said, there is something of a paradox here, isn’t there? We live in a culture simultaneously more saturated than ever before with knowledge about environmental calamity, perhaps reeling more from its reality, yet just as people appear to tire of being modern, things are accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The net grows tighter. You spoke of ‘strategies of evasion’ earlier, which could play a role. How widely embedded are these, do you think?

AB: A lot of people feel they have no control over their world; they hear all these messages about environmental catastrophe, and it’s overwhelming and very disempowering. They can do all sorts of things in response: they can pretend nature isn’t real; they can kill themselves; they can drink a lot… But one response, that the Australian environmental writer Wendy Shaw and I have identified and been writing about, is that people bunker down into a form of grief-laden consumerism. You could call it ‘shopping therapy’, I suppose, but it’s more serious than that. We have argued that it is a form of grief, and that it is a traumatic condition in which people are trying to literally buy their way out of the remorse and the sense of powerlessness that environmental loss and crisis creates.

TS: In terms of reshaping our understandings of how we move past such coping mechanisms, then, and how we deal with environmental change, do you feel that acknowledging the personal experience you spoke of earlier, that romanticism – used in a positive, rather than pejorative way! – can be the root of new, powerful and less classically humanistic stories? Rather than being something so ‘regressive’ that it removes from our potential to change things, or something that stops us seeing what is going on ‘objectively’, as processes based on numbers and figures and statistics do. Or even that there may be a symbiosis in those two ways of viewing environmental change, the romantic and the modern.

AB: Yes, I like the way you’re framing it there. There is such a thing as a creative, forward-looking sense of loss. And a forward-looking, creative path for romanticism. In terms of the way you’re framing it, that’s precisely how I think we can see a path from the past into the future, so we’ve got something to look forward to.

TS: I find that to be a refreshing antidote to all we’ve been hearing about the past in the tempestuous politics of the last couple of years or, going even further back, to the supposed equivalence – just as often made by those on the so-called ‘Left’ as the ‘Right’ – between place-based green thought and proto-Nazi ‘Blood and Soil’ slogans or beliefs. With the happenings of Brexit, Trump, and the often-remarked nascent rise of a contemporary fascism, all harkening back to a golden era, is it perhaps more necessary than ever to keep that creative aspect of romanticism and nostalgia in mind? Nostalgic yearning can result in all sorts of different outcomes, as you mentioned earlier.

AB: Well, green activists are often being finger-wagged by more orthodox leftists about ‘green fascism’ and ‘conservatism’. Those sorts of charges are, in a way, what I’m trying to respond to. I turn these accusations around and show that themes of loss and yearning are shared across the political spectrum. Such dilemmas are just as important in Marxism, anarcho-communism, Situationism. The difference is they have failed to generate an openness to paradox and dilemma, to a vulnerable sense of life. Instead they indulge a macho, very modernist sensibility. One of the great things about green politics – or, should I say, green culture? – is that it is possible to talk differently, to act differently, to admit that we aren’t the lords of the universe; that we are very limited and dependant creatures. Of course, nostalgia, loss and yearning are very apparent at the extreme ends of politics. Islamic State offers a nostalgic utopia, taking society back to what it imagines are the purified origins of Islam. Trump is constantly using nostalgic rhetoric – Make America Great Again. Brexit is another reflection of nostalgic politics. The fact that these conservative movements turn to the past leads to the assumption that they are the only types of politics where themes of loss and yearning are operating. But this is a profound mistake and means that people end up defining themselves in oppositional terms, as anti-Trump for example, rather than in terms of what our values are and what we want. To me, that’s about creating – and that means, of course, ‘re-creating’, or returning to – a greener, richly ecologically diverse planet.

TS: Before we part, then, perhaps you can tell me whether – or, indeed, in what way – your interest in the exploration of the unknown, the forgotten and the feral, ties into positively nurturing what you call ‘topophilia’, the love of place? After all, you’ve engaged with a wider audience on these issues in works of popular geography, like Off The Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World (titled Unruly Places in the USA).

AB: I’ve recently been writing about some of the world’s oddest and most forgotten spots. That book you mention has a sequel called Beyond the Map. It has been great to escape the world of academia and engage with a bigger audience. People are fascinated by the idea that, in a world that appears fully mapped by Google Earth, there are still places left to discover, surprises to be had. And there is a profound need out there for a more enchanting relationship to the earth. Stacking up the air miles no longer suffices; long-distance travel is losing its charm. As conversational material, telling people about your latest trip to see the tribes in Thailand is one notch below telling them about your dreams (actually, I love to hear about people’s dreams!). Travel and exploration need to be re-invented for a post-air miles generation and, in part, that has to happen by re-imagining the places we live in as sites of discovery and adventure. The Urban Exploration movement has been doing that for years of course. The Spanish version of Off the Map, which came out in 2017, had a big sticker on the front, which said, ‘This is not a travel book’. I loved that. Even though I travel all the time, and so am a hypocrite, I yearn to stop travelling: to stop confusing being with going.

  1. The Situationists, or Situationist International, were a group of radical thinkers, writers and artists who played a prominent role in laying the groundwork for the May 1968 uprisings in France. Their analysis of 20th-century capitalism was most famously developed in the work of Guy Debord. 

Image:
Darrell Koerner
Trees
North Carolina, USA
From a series of photographs taken during an annual Thanksgiving week pilgrimage to visit family in Virgina and North Carolina. These images are from the countryside east of Raleigh, and are part of a larger project to honour the sacredness of the natural world, chronicling online at The Holy Earth Tantra of Gaian Natural Beauty

Alastair Bonnett is an author and academic geographer. His most recent books include an atlas of 50 world maps called New Views (Aurum, 2017) and Beyond the Map (Aurum, 2017), a book of journeys to overlooked places. His works on the relationship between radical politics and memory include Left in the Past (Continuum, 2010) and a number of academic articles on situationist nostalgia. He lives in Newcastle upon Tyne and works in the Geography Department, Newcastle University.

Darrell Koerner is a wondering Taoist living in Boulder, Colorado, and has been with Chelsea Green Publishing since 2007. Previous non-accomplishments include studying Rinzai and Soto Zen at the Bodhi Manda and San Francisco Zen Centers. Recent photos and writings at The Holy Earth Tantra of Gaian Natural Beauty kozandaishi.wordpress.com.

There’s more where this came from in our latest book. 

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